Lettering the Editors

Nearly six years ago, the New Yorker published a Comment article, by David Remnick and Hendrik Hertzberg, justifying the Bush Administration’s clearly-emerging plans to invade Iraq. I wrote them a letter of protest.

[What I wrote]

In their effort to explain our “war on terrorism” plight, David Remnick and Hendrik Hertzberg fall into precisely the trap which I hoped they might warn others against. They write, in the seventh paragraph, of the need to behave rationally in our pursuit of justice for the 9/11 perpetrators. Then they begin the eighth paragraph with a discussion of the potential war with Iraq.

You see, that is exactly the problem. How does one get — logically, politically, morally — from 9/11 to an attack on Iraq? It will not do simply to dance across the chasm on paper. In the real world, we need a bridge. A real one. And even on paper, one wishes for a transition. A cross-fade, a segue. But what we are given is a jump-cut. Or in the metaphor of geography, a jump-chasm. Period, indent, capital letter. And the thing is done. We have moved effortlessly from carnage in New York to carnage in Baghdad.

Out in the real world of fire and explosions, however, the world of body parts and blood, something more substantial is needed. Call it an explanation, call it a bridge, call it evidence. Whatever the name, I did not find it in the essay, so I assume the writers did not find it. I have not found it in the daily press, so I assume the President has not found it, or has not yet shared his finding with the press or the public. And until it is shown, revealed and not manufactured johnny-on-the-spot, I will not be able to make it across that chasm.

Without it, the troops and tanks which cross that chasm will, in the eyes of history and most of the contemporary world, be aggressors. They will be starting a war. They will be killing soldiers, of course, and they will also be killing peddlers and doctors and children, willy-nilly.

Period, indent, capital letter. It’s not enough to support a war.

To my surprise, they wanted to print it. Edited, of course, to meet their requirements. At the time I was too proud

of having a letter in the New Yorker to challenge their revisions. (A mistake I have since avoided with a couple other publications.) Here is the edit they proposed, and to which I agreed.

[As they proposed to print it]

Remnick and Hertzberg write, in the seventh paragraph of their Comment, of the need to behave rationally in our pursuit of justice for the 9/11 perpetrators. They then begin the eighth paragraph with a discussion of a possible war with Iraq.

Therein lies the problem. How does one get — logically, politically, morally — from September 11th to an attack on Iraq? On paper, one can, perhaps, dance across the divide. But one wishes for a transition, a cross-fade, a segue. So far in this debate, all the public has been given is a jump-cut. We have moved effortlessly from carnage in New York to bombing Baghdad.

Out in the real world, however, a solid bridge is needed, with evidence and an explanation. If the President has found one, he has not yet shared it with the press or the public.

And, without it, the troops and tanks that cross that divide will, in the eyes of much of the world, be the aggressors.

I wasn’t completely happy with that; still, the core of my objections remained. Or so I thought at the time. Then a couple months ago I had occasion to re-read Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” the gist of which is our inability to acknowledge the violence and brutality of war as if affects our enemy. How close, I wondered, had I come to capturing that point?

I dug into the files to compare my original with their proposed revision, and was startled at how much the NYer editors had changed my prose — much more, and more critically, than I had remembered. They eliminated any suggestion of fault on their own part, while minimizing US culpability. Notice for example how “carnage in New York to carnage in Baghdad” became “carnage in New York to bombing Baghdad.” Body parts in Manhattan, but mere rubble in the Middle East.

On the other hand, perhaps I had been unfair to R&H in my own prose. With that in mind, I went to library to track down the original article, and my letter as it finally appeared in print. I discovered two things.

  1. I had not been unfair to their original article; if anything, I had been too tolerant of their shilly-shallying.
  2. They had not, in fact, published my letter as edited and approved. They had edited it still further.

Here is the final version which appeared in the October 7, 2002 issue.

[What they actually published]

Remnick and Hertzberg write of the need to behave rationally in our pursuit of justice for the 9/11 perpetrators. They then begin the eighth paragraph with a discussion of a possible war with Iraq. Therein lies the problem. How does one get — logically, politically, morally — from September 11th to an attack on Iraq? One wishes for a transition, or a cross-fade, but, so far in, all the public has been given is a jump-cut from New York to Baghdad. In the real world, we need a solid bridge, with evidence and an explanation. If the President has found one, he has not shared it; without it, the troops and tanks that cross that divide, in the eyes of much of the world, will be the aggressors.

What is there to say? Even the bombs falling on Baghdad have been excised. Perhaps, some day, Remnick or Hertzberg (I had thought both men experienced journalists, but perhaps I was wrong, or perhaps their present elevated status requires that they leave some items behind) will take a moment to look at this version of Twain’s “War Prayer.” Not for the faint of heart, but honest.

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