Letters to the editor

The Decline of the IRA

While Matthew Teague’s “Double Blind” (April Atlantic) was indeed a fascinating read, I was hardly convinced that Kevin Fulton’s role was as significant as the dramatic cover photo and caption might suggest. Indeed, it is worth asking if the Irish Republican Army did in fact “topple,” or whether it simply came to the realization that terrorism was no longer a viable tool. Terrorism in our modern era depends less on the effectiveness of the act itself and more on the effectiveness of the communication of that act to the global public. The day the media opts not to cover terrorist activities will be the day that terrorists start looking for other means to accomplish their goals. It cannot be a coincidence that while there has been a rise in terrorist activities in the Middle East over the last decade or so, there has been a corresponding decrease in terrorist activities in Northern Ireland. American/Western interests dictated that the happenings in the Middle East would be the first priority for mass media organizations, and the IRA realized that it would be hard pressed to compete for global media attention. Thus, terrorism in Northern Ireland became an ineffective use of time, money, and human life.

Adam Hill
Kandern, Germany

Matthew Teague replies:

It’s true, as I noted in the story, that the IRA fell into military ruin due to a confluence of several circumstances: an environment inhospitable to terrorism, political gains by its partner Sinn Féin, and of course British agents within its ranks.

I think it’s not true, however, that the IRA stopped operating due to a lack of global media attention. Quite the opposite. If the IRA were to restart its bombing campaign, in London or elsewhere, the media coverage—in the current climate of fear and awareness—would be total, including within the United States. And since America is one of the Republican movement’s largest financial bases, such attention would actually be devastating to the organization.

The NSA Can Hear You

James Bamford (“Big Brother Is Listening,” April Atlantic) presents the late Senator Frank Church and, by implication, the senators opposing present National Security Agency activities as heroes. But it should be remembered that the practical result of Senator Church’s efforts was to destroy the operational side of the CIA for almost three decades, and to end the careers of an entire generation of intelligence people whose skills would likely have been useful in the present age of terrorism. Perhaps 9/11 or the attacks on the USS Cole or our African embassies could have been prevented had those skills been passed on.

Mr. Bamford does not consider that almost everything in life is a trade between competing values. In an age of fanatics and weapons of mass destruction, it seems prudent to know why anyone in the United States is talking with suspected terrorists overseas.

Len Winner
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

James Bamford reports that the USS Jimmy Carter uses “complex” technology to attach bugs to undersea fiber-optic cables in order to intercept transoceanic telephone calls. I do not know where Mr. Bamford got his information, but there is no way, based on the laws of physics, to covertly tap fiber-optic cables. There is no detectable signal of any kind—optical, thermal, or electrical—outside the fiber from the passage of the modulated light beam within. To tap a fiber, one must sever it, polish both severed ends, feed the fiber into a mirror device that divides the light beam, reattach the other end of the fiber, and then connect the diverted signal to a transducer, allowing the eavesdropper to decode the light beam’s contents. The interruption in service is lengthy, as it takes several minutes for a trained technician to sever, polish, and reconnect a single fiber in air. It would take hours to do this to dozens or hundreds of fibers underwater at oceanic-basin depths. The cable operator would know that service has been interrupted, and would later realize, due to loss of light intensity at the receiving transducer, that the signal has been split. Any other method of tapping an optic fiber is not science; it is science fiction.

David P. Vernon
Tucson, Ariz.

James Bamford replies:

Mr. Winner’s charge—that the “practical result” of the joint intelligence committee under Senator Frank Church “was to destroy the operational side of the CIA for almost three decades”—is an old canard. The only real restriction on the CIA’s Directorate of Operations to come out of the investigation was a prohibition on assassinations. As for his comment that “it seems prudent to know why anyone in the United States is talking with suspected terrorists overseas,” I agree. So do federal judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court: out of about 19,000 warrant applications, they have turned down only four. What is new is the Bush administration’s decision to illegally bypass the court and place the decision-making authority, according to the former director of the NSA, in the hands of NSA “shift supervisors.” I have always supported an energetic NSA, but when it turns to spying on American citizens there needs to be a responsible third party—the FISA Court—deciding who should be targeted.

Mr. Vernon’s letter reminds me of the German high command’s belief during World War II that the ciphers generated by their Enigma machine, an extremely complex encryption devise, were absolutely unbreakable. A quarter of a century later, it was finally revealed that British and American codebreakers at Bletchley Park, outside London, had successfully broken the ciphers, perhaps the greatest secret of the war. In my book Body of Secrets, I quote from a classified address by an NSA deputy director to the agency’s technical staff: “We’re much further ahead now in terms of being able to access and collect network data, fiber-optics, cellular data, all the different modalities of communications that we are targeting.” Also, intelligence officials have been quoted a number of times as saying that the USS Jimmy Carter was designed especially for such a mission.

The New Science of Love

Having done my share of online dating, I enjoyed Lori Gottlieb’s recent article on the “science” of attraction and compability, “How Do I Love Thee?” (March Atlantic). As I was reading along, pondering the lengths of my ring and index fingers and reflecting on the insights into my personality this information is believed to provide, I was suddenly caught off guard. In order to make a point, Ms. Gottlieb chose an excerpt from an online profile. My profile. My words. To add to the weirdness, it was the bit about my reading habits, which mentions my preference for magazines. Like The Atlantic.

While my friends encouraged me to label my profile “As Seen in The Atlantic,” the coincidence almost burned me: a woman who had recently contacted me on Match.com subsequently read the article and assumed that I was a plagiarist!

Ironically, Gottlieb’s point was that she and I were probably not a match, because of my choice of reading material. Ah, that hurt a bit, but I was still flattered to see my words in one of my favorite publications and amused to be described as a guy with “a literary bent.” As inaccurate as that characterization may be, it made me sound intriguing. Then again, now that my finely crafted prose has appeared in The Atlantic not once but twice, perhaps Ms. Gottlieb might reconsider our compatibility.

Tommy Donovan
aka dedalusinseattle
Seattle, Wash.

The Health-Care Debate

Clive Crook dismisses the Canadian health-care system (“Poison Pill,” April Atlantic) as some kind of a joke. Apparently he has been listening to the propaganda trumpeted by for-profit health-care providers who would make fortunes if they were allowed to expand their operations in Canada.

True, the Canadian system is plagued by unacceptably long waiting lists for some procedures, notably hip and knee replacements. But even with these unfortunate anomalies, the Canadian system withstands scrutiny better than almost any other country’s system, and especially when contrasted with the United States.

Since cost seems to be Crook’s main interest, how does he justify the fact that health-care costs per capita in the United States are twice those in Canada? Or that they consume roughly 14 percent of America’s gross domestic product, compared with 7 percent in Canada? If the U.S. system generated twice the benefit of the Canadian system, perhaps it would be worth the doubled cost. But does it do so? Start with the 45 million Americans who have no health-care protection whatsoever, and add the other 20 million Americans who have completely inadequate coverage. It is no wonder that unexpected health-care costs are the largest single cause of personal bankruptcies in the United States.

Let’s look at some other outcomes. Life expectancy in the United States is the lowest among nine comparable coun- tries; Canada is tied for third place, behind Japan and Sweden. The average American between twenty-five and sixty-five has a 40 percent greater chance of dying than the average Canadian of the same age. And what about purely medical outcomes? Crook is right that his proposed user-pay “solution” would discourage people from making so many visits to the doctor. But countless public-health studies have shown that total medical costs are actually saved by early intervention—that is, by catching and treating a disease in its early stages before it becomes catastrophic. Crook’s plan to reduce the number of visits to doctors would result in more serious illness, and a higher cost both in dollars and in lives.

Bruce Partridge
Victoria, British Columbia

Nigeria’s Peril

Jeffrey Tayler’s depiction of Nigeria (“Worse Than Iraq?” April Atlantic) is an update on an old story, but I was glad to get the update nonetheless. As a resident of Lagos for the past three years, I know full well the precarious state of the country’s so-called democracy and have followed the small successes and large failings of the Obasanjo presidency.

But while I appreciate the coverage, I can’t quite accept the Iraq analogy. Tayler claims that the U.S. government’s naming of African oil as a “strategic national interest” means “that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to protect it,” and that Nigeria’s troubles would, “like those of the Persian Gulf, cost us dearly in blood and money.” This is a bold extrapolation, the plausibility of which I doubt (barring a northern Nigerian collusion with al-Qaeda). In Iraq there was at least the semblance of a direct threat to national security; any military action in Nigeria would be transparently economic. And it would be an outrage if, after passing on intervention so recently in Sudan, allowing genocide to continue there, the United States intervened in Nigeria to stop the destruction of American oil.

Craig Eldon Curry
Lagos, Nigeria

Jeffrey Tayler replies:

The Bush administration’s designation of African oil as a “strategic national interest” implies the possibility of using American military force to protect it—a matter of definition, not extrapolation. Defending a strategic national interest—oil, in Nigeria’s case—is no trifling matter, given how much the United States depends on imports of cheap energy.

It might be outrageous to imagine the United States intervening in Nigeria solely to protect oil, but then how are we to react to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, when the grounds for war advanced publicly by the Bush administration have proved overwhelmingly false? As worldwide competition for energy supplies intensifies, actions previously unthinkable drift within the realm of the possible, and weighty pretexts evolve to justify them.

Iraq and the Insurgency

Kenneth M. Pollack’s suggestions for “saving” Iraq (“The Right Way: Seven Steps Toward a Last Chance in Iraq,” March Atlantic) are warmed-over versions of the United States’ attempt to pacify South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. This attempt failed then and it will fail again.

As with South Vietnam, Iraq has a largely homegrown resistance movement, corrupt central and local governments intent on preserving their power rather than “freeing” their country from the insurgents, and a social structure whose loyalties rest more on family and religion than on some vague concept of national identity. When the United States withdrew from South Vietnam in 1975, both the South Vietnamese army and government tottered on for a short while before collapsing. There is no reason to expect that the current Iraqi army and government would be any different.

Similarly, Andrew Krepinevich’s theory of a “spreading oil stain” is as unworkable in Iraq as it was when the United States attempted it in South Vietnam’s countryside. By day, a strong presence of American troops in Vietnamese villages gave the illusion of control. After dark, cadres of the Vietcong ruled the countryside. In the same manner, American control of Iraqi towns lasts only as long as troops are present. When they pull out, the towns revert to the control of whatever insurgent presence exists.

Also, with the notable exceptions of General Douglas MacArthur in postwar Japan and John Paul Vann during the Vietnam War, the “unified command structure” that Pollack advocates almost never works. The army is seldom willing to risk the lives of its troops on orders from a civilian authority. Similarly, military commanders make poor civil administrators because their training is primarily limited to tactical battlefield exercises rather than civilian affairs.

The corrupt central government in Baghdad will last only so long as it is propped up by American military might. In spite of Pollack’s suggestions, the only way to “save” Iraq is to return it to the Iraqis and withdraw the Coalition armies.

Holmes Brannon
Woodland Park, Colo.

Kenneth M. Pollack, like so many supporters and critics of the war, fails to provide any provision for the Iraqi people to express their will regarding the occupation of their country. As a first step, the United States should offer to fund a referendum asking when the occupation of Iraq should end and when the Iraqi government should assume full responsibility for the security and stability of its country.

Tony Green
Gualala, Calif.

Kenneth Pollack replies:

While I am the first to say that Iraq is not Vietnam, it is equally unfortunate that we have allowed popular misconceptions about the nature of our defeat in Southeast Asia to further confuse the debate over Iraq. Once General Creighton Abrams took over as commander of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, and Robert Komer was brought in to head the civilian side of the effort, the United States pursued an extraordinarily successful counterinsurgency campaign, presided over by precisely the sort of unified command structure that is needed in Iraq. Far from being a failure, as conventional wisdom would have it, the Komer-headed Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program virtually eradicated the Vietcong as a force in South Vietnam by about 1970. At that point, Hanoi was forced to begin mounting conventional invasions. The first was smashed by U.S. airpower in 1972, in the Linebacker II campaign, while the second, in 1975, ultimately succeeded because of the absence of U.S. airpower.

Turning to Iraq, the working group I headed advocated the strategic and tactical approach often described as a “spreading oil stain” because it has been proven repeatedly to work. When American formations have employed versions of this approach—as the 1st Cavalry Division did in north Baghdad, the 101st Airborne did in Kirkuk, and most recently the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment did in Tal Afar—the results have been unqualified successes. Indeed, American military commanders are increasingly pushing to adopt precisely the sort of changes we recommended, and often doing so on their own initiative.

As far as Iraqi self-expression, the Iraqis are constantly being asked what they want—by pollsters, by journalists, and by people like myself who interact with them on a regular basis. The great shame is that more Americans don’t bother to listen to them. The Iraqis’ greatest desire is not to see the American presence ended but to see it actually start to provide them with the safety, jobs, clean water, sanitation, gasoline, and other necessities they need to live normal lives. In fact, the most recent polling data available shows that a healthy majority of all Iraqis (and the vast majority of Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis) do not believe that U.S. forces should leave Iraq for at least two years, although the same poll showed that most were very unhappy with the inability of the United States to provide basic services and public safety.

The Nuclear Imbalance

Benjamin Schwarz’s piece on nuclear weapons (“The Perils of Primacy,” January/February Atlantic) suggests that the United States should seek to re-establish a nuclear stalemate with Russia and China, and that until this is done, the U.S. will remain the primary threat to the stability of deterrence. But it is exceedingly difficult to agree on an acceptable measure of what constitutes a “nuclear stalemate” or a “nuclear balance.” Witness the years of strategic arms control negotiations and the convoluted, byzantine treaties that resulted. Schwarz leaves out the fact that Russia has a significant advantage in “non-strategic” nuclear weapons. He also fails to mention that both Russia and China are currently developing new ICBMs and SLBMs. The United States, on the other hand, has destroyed almost all of its non-strategic nuclear weapons, is not producing new ICBMs or SLBMs, and lacks the capability to produce new weapons.

Brad Walker
Alexandria, Va.

Benjamin Schwarz replies:

Mr. Walker asserts, correctly, that Russia has more (but not better) “non-strategic” nuclear weapons (designed to be used on the battlefield), but these tactical weapons are by definition irrelevant to the strategic (intercontinental) nuclear balance, which is what my piece was concerned with. It’s also true that Moscow and Beijing are “developing” some new intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic- missile systems, but these are in the (for the most part incipient) planning stages, and in most cases it would take decades before they’re operational, if they ever are. Owing to staggering financial problems, Russia’s nuclear arsenal has, as I detailed, deteriorated hugely; Moscow is in no position to develop and deploy new systems. And Beijing would have some trouble with those submarine-launched ballistic missiles it’s “developing,” since it has no operational ballistic-missile submarines on which to deploy them. Mr. Walker writes that the United States isn’t producing new ICBMs and SLBMs, but as I explained in my article, the United States has vastly improved its nuclear capabilities since the end of the Cold War by upgrading its existing systems.

It’s true that the nuclear balance was difficult to measure during the Cold War. But the United States isn’t simply pulling ahead of Russia on some meaningless yardstick devised to measure nuclear arsenals; the change is much more profound. The United States will soon have the capability to initiate and win a nuclear war against Russia by destroying all of Moscow’s long-range nuclear forces in a first strike. This is nothing less than nuclear primacy.

Israel and Palestine

Ted Conover’s article (“The Checkpoint,” March Atlantic) zeroes in on one specific aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spends time with both Jews and Arabs under the guise of objectivity, and then seems to blame Israel for most of the difficulties. Even when Israeli soldiers are describing their point of view, Conover’s sympathies are clear: a powerful Israeli military is intimidating innocent civilians.

But it is a distortion of the truth to describe only Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers, and to present that as an entire picture. For every Palestinian hurt by the Israeli occupation, there are Jews who have lost children, brothers, and parents as a result of a terrorist attack. Probably every one of the soldiers he interviewed has either a friend or a family member who has been injured in such an attack. Where are these innocent civilians in Conover’s article?

Jon Zimmerman
Chicago, Ill.

Ted Conover replies:

As we are seeing in Iraq, long-term occupation is a very difficult thing, corrosive to the well-being of both those who enforce it and those on whom it is imposed. Soldiers (in this case, Israeli) who trained to fight a military enemy are presented instead with civilians, among whom a few enemies lurk. It is hard to do one’s duty without harming innocent people; the meaning of heroism, in such a context, remains obscure. That’s why I felt considerable empathy for the soldiers I got to know, and whose work was patently the focus of my piece: the dangers they faced and the frustrations they felt reminded me, in exaggerated form, of my own work as a prison guard.

Are the Israeli victims of Palestinian violence part of this story? Of course: it goes without saying that they, and the fear and anger their deaths have spawned, are the occupation’s raison d’être. But my main focus was on the soldiers, and it seemed impossible to understand their role without speaking also to Palestinian noncombatants. I try hard to see both sides. It is difficult to have a dialogue with a reader who does not.

Pushing Drugs

Carl Elliott’s article (“The Drug Pushers,” April Atlantic) contains little if any new or useful information. I am the “pharmaceutical liaison” for my clinic and privy to the conversations of the “reps” who detail from my small office space—the only space available to reps within my clinic. Most of their conversations concern the frustration they have in achieving a “face-to-face” with prescribers, not the gala events they have just sponsored or the expenses they run up. While I do accept fruit or vegetable trays and pens and sticky notes from them on behalf of my clinic’s staff, most of these gifts are passed on to the local nursing home, to the adjacent hospital’s nursing staff, and, on occasion, to the local animal shelter. Our patients are probably better supplied with pens than we are in the clinic. We also gladly accept the medication samples, because our uninsured and underinsured patients appreciate them; it is not at all unusual, in my acute-care setting, to be able to supply a “needy” patient with an entire course of short-term treatment for an illness using only the samples.

Mr. Elliott’s article paints with a broad brush to suggest a picture of widespread collusion. But the article’s “revelations” apply equally to every successful profession—and I know that my patients derive significant benefit from my willingness to accept the fact that “business is business.”

Edwin A. Novak
Akeley, Minn.

Carl Elliott replies:

It is sad that a physician can read about a drug rep buying a doctor a swimming pool in exchange for writing prescriptions, or a medical-school professor giving lectures to students with slides provided by Eli Lilly, and find no surprises. “Business is business”? Yes, that is exactly right. A business is what American medicine has become.

What’s Left of the Left?

It is curious that Christopher Hitchens retains such admiration for Perry Anderson’s intellectual prowess (“What’s Left?” March Atlantic). Marxist thinking has always been a dullard’s pursuit, and those still consumed by it are far from the intellectual vanguard. Hitchens lauds Anderson for facing developments “as they actually were”—for instance, by admitting that radical ideas are/were coming from the Right, not the Left. Had Anderson predicted such circumstances in, say, the 1970s, his vision would have been impressive. Had the prediction come a decade or two earlier than that, it would have been an intellectual achievement of the first order. However, coming as it did, in an editorial in New Left Review in 2000, it was simply braying the obvious. There is no basis for the label “the most profound essayist wielding a pen,” if the essayist in question is merely crafting an epitaph.

Steve Stringer
Los Alamos, N.M.

Advice and Consent

Benjamin Schwarz, in his review of Peter Richmond’s new biography of Peggy Lee (“Editor’s Choice,” April Atlantic), suggests that great white female jazz singers other than Lee are practically nonexistent. But, to anyone familiar with jazz singers of the 1940s and 1950s, several names should spring to mind: Anita O’Day, June Christy, and Chris Connor, for example, and one could add the immensely versatile JoStafford.

Jody Williams
Austin, Texas

Benjamin Schwarz replies:

My review hardly suggests that other white women jazz singers are nonexistent. And for what it’s worth, but for lack of space I had planned to make clear that O’Day is my fave (her recording of “Alreet,” with Gene Krupa, seems to be the second-most-played song now on my iPod), though she lacked Lee’s cool detachment.

What might have been an interesting piece on the proliferation of home-decorating magazines (“Home Alone,” March Atlantic) instead became a forum for Terry Castle to show off—Cliffs Notes–style—her great big brain. The author’s obscure allusions (Vita Sackville-West, John Pawson, Miss Plaster Caster) and ten-dollar words (ensorcelled, parlous, ructions) were so distracting I could barely sustain interest.

I know Zurbaran; I even know Boethius. The best illustration of Et in Arcadia ego is in a Poussin painting, and it also described the first half of the novel Brideshead Revisited. But “the female Fauntleroy”? Does it even make sense?

Here are two fifty-cent words for Ms. Castle’s handiwork: pretentious and boring.

Clare Malloy
Chicago, Ill.