Месечни архиви: ноември 2016

The End of Fidel

Havana, Cuba, 2012
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum PhotosHavana, Cuba, 2012

From a distance he was monumental. The heroic profile and horizon-sweeping gaze were as inescapable as the memory of his triumph against a venal regime that was, with its brothels and casinos, whites-only golf clubs and beachfront hotels, utterly at the service of a Miami-based US mafia and the worst sort of ugly Americans. There was also the delightful tingle that a very real defiance and ceaseless rebel rhetoric always produced in the poor and the young around the world. In Washington, politicians used to seeing themselves as a lighthouse in a childish, shiftless, or outright murderous Rest of the World might see him as a clowning madman, but the hard fact remained that on an island ninety miles from Key West, a confounding regime refused to cry Uncle, or allow the United States any influence over its affairs. For half a century this fact alone guaranteed him the envy and the respect of every Latin American leader and a good many others further away.  

Then there were the real achievements that endured even in the worst years of desperate hunger and privation for the island: the much-touted education and health systems; an end to de facto apartheid; the priority given to infants and children, who grew up as healthy as their counterparts in the wealthiest nations; an early interest in environment-conscious urban development; and adventurous research in the field of medicine. The standards he set raised the bar for the hemisphere’s primitive and rapacious ruling classes and showed the poor what they could aspire to.  

Close up, the picture darkened: squalid, crammed prisons that were the result of fifty years of clumsy effort at mind control; an economy that might have worked better were it managed by monkeys; families torn apart by an official intransigence that became part of the national mindset; children who lost their mothers and mothers who lost their children to the sea in their attempt to flee their suffocating homeland; the reckless waving about of nuclear warheads during two terrifying weeks that threatened the world with annihilation. There was, too, the unspeakable boredom of the later decades; the claustrophobic misery of living in a country that its ruler had tried to subordinate to his fantasies.

And now Fidel Castro is dead. Cubans have been asked to trudge through an unprecedented nine days of mourning, although many of its 11 million citizens are utterly indifferent to the pomp and symbolism with which the state tries to imbue the passing of a man whose time had long gone. Living to a great old age was never part of the plan, he told a hushed audience at the Seventh Communist Party Congress in Havana last April, and indeed, those who remembered him the embodiment of virile glory in his olive-green prime winced at the sight of the quavering, doddering old man swathed in Adidas leisurewear.

He was ninety. He ruled forever. He was sick for a decade and then some. As has been endlessly said, he could have died at the peak of his revolution’s great social triumphs—in 1967, say—and been revered in Latin America and beyond as the new Bolivar, a new Martí. As it is, there is no way of knowing how he will seen even ten years down the line. In part this is because of the many economic, moral, and social disasters he has left in his wake, and in part because the values he held on to—absolute loyalty, unwavering beliefs, the pursuit of utopia, unbending physical and moral valor—all seem hopelessly out of date now. 

How Cuba will survive without Fidel is not really a question; it has survived without him ever since illness forced him to hand over power temporarily and then permanently to his brother, Raúl Castro. That was ten years ago. Necessary and momentous changes have taken place since then, without Fidel, but the revolutionary model he created still creaks on, threatening to collapse every day, like the crumbling buildings along Havana’s oceanfront Malecon. There is a booming tourism industry, some exports, increasing interest in the island’s cancer research and other medical innovations, a tiny but growing small-business sector, freedom to travel back and forth from Cuba, relaxed controls on dissent, vanguard achievements for the LGBT communities, and increasingly open access to the Internet.

There are also political prisoners, who may number only a handful, but whose existence is proof that dissent is still a criminal activity in Cuba. An economic crisis looms, with the inevitable demise of Cuba’s economic lifeline, the Chavista regime in Venezuela. In life Hugo Chávez bartered shipments of oil with Cuba in exchange for cheap doctors and sports trainers; those shipments will no doubt end the moment Chávez’s inept successor, Nicolás Maduro, is overthrown or abdicates. And ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idealistic egalitarianism that characterized the revolution in its early years has given way to a society ravenous for the first small crumbs of late consumer capitalism, but already aware of its side effects—rapid social stratification and inequality.

The most significant change of all took place at the beginning of this year, when Barack Obama traveled to Havana to mark the renewal of full diplomatic relations between the two countries. The visit was, at long last, a recognition by the US that fifty-seven years of passive-aggressive assault had failed to bring down the fidelista regime. A moment for Cuba, but it came with a cloaked knife: in shaking hands with Obama, Raúl Castro brought to an end an era in which the United States had no say in Cuban affairs. This was just ten months before the election of Donald Trump.

And now Fidel Castro is gone from the scene at the moment when he could have been useful. Outwardly a highly cultured man with exquisite manners, he had the inner constitution of a bully. In defeat he always hit back harder, because it was simply not in him to back down. When, during the 1962 missile crisis, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev reached an agreement to remove Soviet nuclear warheads from Cuban territory, Fidel fell into a frothing rage and led a march against his Soviet sponsor. A memorable slogan from that day was Nikita, mariquita, lo que se da no se quita. (“Nikita, you little faggot, you can´t take back what you’ve given.”) Fidel was better equipped to deal on equal terms with a jumbo-size bully like the US president-elect than his more reasonable brother, Raúl.

In the tweets that followed the announcement of Fidel Castro´s death one could sense the imminent president already probing for soft points and weaknesses. Now that a sensible modus vivendi had been reached with Cuba by the Obama administration, Trump was suggesting, in the way a shark might make a suggestion to a grouper, that the Cuban government might want to discuss a better “deal.”

It’s not hard to imagine the kind of deal Trump might favor. Having clarified to his own satisfaction that the Constitution does not forbid a president to run a business on the side, and then tweeted that the presidency might require his full attention after all, Trump, one imagines, is keeping a keen eye on the future: now or in a four-year term or so, for himself or for his offspring, there couldn’t be a more appealing investment for the kind of mogul he is than Cuba. The beachfront hotels, the golf clubs, the casinos! It could be just like old times.

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What Trump Should Do in Syria

All wars are frightening for those stuck in the middle, but the five-and-a-half-year conflict in Syria has proven to be especially horrific. What kind of policy might President-elect Donald Trump adopt toward it? How different would his approach be from Barack Obama’s? Despite his early rhetoric about joining with the Russian and Syrian governments to fight the self-declared Islamic State, or ISIS, Trump is likely to encounter a far more complicated terrain than he seems to understand, which will require a much tougher approach toward Moscow than he so far envisions.

What makes the Syrian war so dangerous is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s determination to fight not simply by attacking opposing combatants, as the laws of war allow, but by targeting and indiscriminately firing upon civilians and civilian infrastructure in opposition-held areas, blatantly flouting those laws. Hospitals, markets, schools, and apartment buildings—the institutions of modern urban life—have all been targeted with unrelenting cruelty. For the past year, Assad’s attacks have been supplemented and intensified by the Russian air force under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s command without a discernible change in targeting strategy.

President Obama has made sporadic and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to stop this slaughter of civilians; his main preoccupation has been fighting ISIS. Trump seems inclined toward a similar focus, and has suggested a willingness to team up in fighting ISIS with Assad and Putin despite their attacks on civilians and their relative inattention to ISIS. In September, for example, Trump said:

My administration…will work with any country that is willing to partner with us to defeat ISIS, and halt radical Islamic terrorism. And that includes Russia. If they want to join us by knocking out ISIS, that is just fine as far as I’m concerned. It is a very imperfect world, and you can’t always choose your friends. But you can never fail to recognize your enemies.

Assad has called Trump a “natural ally” in the effort to “defeat the terrorists.”

US concern about ISIS is understandable given its threat of terrorism beyond Syria’s borders. But in addition to being a humanitarian abomination, Assad’s slaughter of civilians has also created millions of refugees, straining Syria’s immediate neighbors and destabilizing the European Union. Just as Obama found it difficult to ignore Assad’s slaughter, so will Trump. And if he wants to succeed where Obama failed, he will need to get tough with Putin. If he does not, then he may face a situation in which Assad’s atrocities continue to attract the extremist response that Trump says is his first priority to subdue.

The enormous toll among Syrian civilians has been primarily the result not of bombs gone awry but of a deliberate strategy begun by Assad’s military and now joined by Putin’s to depopulate opposition-held areas. The emblematic weapon used by the Syrian military has been the barrel bomb. Typically composed of oil drums or similar large containers filled with explosives and metal fragments, barrel bombs are dumped by Syrian aircraft over densely populated areas held by the armed opposition. A “dumb” bomb, it is incapable of being aimed at a precise target; it simply tumbles to earth and devastates the community or neighborhood where it lands. Syrians have described to me the horror of watching a helicopter overhead dump a barrel bomb, hearing its contents swish back and forth as it tumbles, without knowing until the last seconds whether it will land on them. Russia’s entrance into the war in September 2015 introduced bombs that are capable of better targeting, but in many cases they seem to have been used simply to attack civilians and civilian buildings more precisely. In September 2016, for example, Russia, according to US officials, targeted a UN-organized humanitarian convoy.

Bashar al-Assad and Donald Trump
Bashar al-Assad and Donald Trump; drawing by James Ferguson

The Assad government, aided on the ground by forces from Iran and Hezbollah, has also deployed the age-old practice of siege warfare. The laws of war permit preventing supplies from reaching opposing combatants but not deliberately starving out civilians, as the Syrian government has done. More than a million people living under siege in such places as eastern Aleppo, eastern Ghouta, and Madaya have limited if any access to food, medical supplies, and other necessities, creating another inducement to flee if they can. (Antigovernment groups have also imposed such sieges in a handful of government-held areas.)

In addition, the Syrian government has been ruthless to people it has taken into custody during the conflict, whether combatants from opposition-held territory or suspected opponents in areas under its control. Some 200,000 people have been detained or forcibly disappeared into Assad’s prisons, where thousands have died from execution, torture, or neglect since the conflict began.

Such brutality by the government is one reason the Syrian conflict has been so deadly and disruptive and why hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed and half of Syria’s population displaced, including 4.5 million refugees. Although ISIS and opposition forces have also committed gruesome executions, Syrian activists estimate that more than 90 percent of the civilian deaths are due to government forces and their allies.

On occasion, the Obama administration has tried to press for an end to Assad’s slaughter of civilians. With Russia’s help, the US forced Assad to give up his known chemical weapons when in August 2013 his forces used sarin in eastern Ghouta, an opposition-held area outside Damascus, to kill hundreds of people in a single night. But even that accomplishment was tempered by Obama’s equivocation about enforcing his famous red line and his failure since then to impose any consequences on Syria for its continued use of chlorine as a chemical weapon beyond a failed effort to convince Russia to endorse sanctions in the UN Security Council. Because chlorine has legitimate uses including as a disinfectant, its possession is not barred, but the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of the toxic properties of common chemicals such as chlorine to kill or injure.

As for Assad’s other killing of civilians, Obama has contemplated various military options. (My organization, Human Rights Watch, has taken no position for or against any US military option in Syria.) Along with US allies such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Obama armed certain opposition forces that he identified as “moderate,” but his efforts were limited in part because those groups often joined forces in the field with the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. In July, al-Nusra said it had split from al-Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, but that has not changed US wariness of the group, with Obama announcing in November a new military effort against it. On November 11, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he is likely to end US arming of opposition forces altogether, since “we have no idea who these people are,” although his statement probably will not apply to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are focused primarily on combatting ISIS.

Obama considered retaliating against Assad’s attacks on civilians by declaring a no-fly or no-bomb zone in which any Syrian jet violating it would be destroyed. He also considered attacking the air bases from which the attackers flew. But he never took these steps, mostly out of fear of a slippery slope toward greater military involvement. One train of thought prevalent in the White House was that if the US military stopped the barrel-bomb attacks by the Syrian air force, it would face public pressure to stop parallel atrocities by Assad’s ground forces—a deepening military involvement that Obama was determined to avoid.

Moreover, room for such a strategy diminished significantly once the Russian air force entered the war in September 2015, since enforcement of a no-fly zone would risk a confrontation between US and Russian aircraft, which few would welcome. Obama seems to have persuaded Putin not to bomb the SDF, but no agreement has been reached with respect to Syrian civilians. It is questionable whether Trump will do any better—or even try.

There has also been talk, mainly from the Turkish government but also from some members of the US Congress and Vice President–elect Mike Pence, of creating “safe areas” inside Syria where Syrian civilians could congregate and, in the view of some proponents, refugees could be contained. Trump in the second debate on October 9 also mentioned building a “safe zone.” But no serious plan has been put forward to defend civilians in these areas from ground or air assault and thus prevent the kind of massacre that occurred in Srebrenica, the “safe” area where Bosnian Serb forces slaughtered some seven thousand men and boys in 1995. Camps for displaced persons in Syria, even those near the Turkish border, have repeatedly come under attack. Turkey has occupied a patch of territory in northern Syria where it is forcibly assembling would-be refugees, but no one pretends it is safe.

The only military forces that Obama has deployed have been against ISIS in both Syria and neighboring Iraq and occasionally against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Syria. US aircraft have repeatedly attacked ISIS, and US special forces—some three hundred were reportedly authorized to act as advisers in Syria as of October 31—have worked with local forces, primarily the SDF in Syria and both Kurdish and national forces in Iraq, to retake territory. The shocking brutality of ISIS and the global threat it poses make it an understandable US concern, but in the number of civilian lives taken, its conduct pales next to Assad’s.

Trump seems to agree with Obama’s anti-ISIS focus for Syria, though on the basis of dubious factual assertions. In the second presidential debate, he said: “Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS. We have people that want to fight both at the same time. But…we have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved.” He recognizes that “Aleppo is a disaster, humanitarian wise,” but when asked about the consequence of its falling, he said, “I think that it basically has fallen, okay?” With that comment he avoided the need to address the estimated 250,000 residents of eastern Aleppo facing deadly bombardment by Russian and Syrian forces. He has presented no plan to ease the suffering and protect the millions of Syrians across opposition-held parts of the country who live under constant threat of starvation, detention, displacement, or death.

In fact, Syrian and allied Russian forces in Aleppo and other parts of Syria are focused overwhelmingly on fighting opposition forces other than ISIS. Out of the estimated eight thousand fighters from all groups in eastern Aleppo, only about nine hundred are thought to be members of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. ISIS is not in eastern Aleppo at all. Despite that, in a one-month campaign from mid-September to mid-October, Syrian and Russian forces conducted 800 to 950 air strikes in eastern Aleppo, an area the size of Manhattan.

Moreover, Assad’s atrocities have strongly helped ISIS recruitment efforts. The emergence of ISIS in Syria should be understood in part as a response to years of abuse and impunity on the part of the Syrian government. Focusing on a military victory against ISIS without changing Syrian government conduct is unlikely to defeat ISIS or prevent the emergence of similar successors. So while Trump shares Obama’s preference to see the Syrian conflict as mainly a problem of defeating ISIS, he is likely to encounter the same public pressure to do something as well to help Syrian civilians under horrendous attack from Assad’s forces.

Obama’s way of addressing Assad’s mass killing of civilians has been mainly to attempt to negotiate an end to the conflict while in the interim paying comparatively little attention to how it is waged. Secretary of State John Kerry has spent endless hours negotiating with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in an effort to strike a deal that might reduce or suspend hostilities. They have secured several short-lived cease-fires but mostly have talked and talked without discernible results, producing no long-term reduction in the attacks on civilians and other war crimes that have made the conflict’s civilian toll so devastating.

Indeed, as pursued by the Obama administration, these negotiations have come at the price of pulled punches in the effort to curtail Assad’s slaughter of civilians. Particularly since September 2015, when Russian jets began bombing to bolster Assad’s increasingly tenuous hold on the country, Russia has possessed, at least in theory, enormous influence over Assad, whose survival arguably depends on continuing Russian support. Yet while Kerry was negotiating with Lavrov, the Obama administration was reluctant to exert public pressure on Moscow to curb Assad’s war crimes. With rare exceptions, the US government has treated the Kremlin as a sincere partner in peace negotiations rather than an accomplice (and sometimes active participant) in Assad’s mass murder of civilians.

The reluctance to publicly pressure Russia for its actions in Syria meant that a powerful strategy was not deployed. Assad at this stage is beyond shaming for his military’s war crimes, but Putin is not. The Kremlin, facing economic decline and growing discontent because of the drop in oil prices and Russia’s failure to diversify its economy, is eager to convince the European Union to lift sanctions imposed because of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine. Although EU sanctions address only Russia’s conduct in Ukraine, the importance of public opinion means that the prospects of lifting them diminish the more the Kremlin is seen as underwriting Assad’s attacks on civilians. That is undoubtedly a major reason why Russia has invested so much in public relations defending its intervention in Syria. Propaganda spews from its broadcasting network RT, formerly Russia Today, its news agency Sputnik, and its sizable army of social media trolls.

Yet the US government for most of the last two years has been reluctant to use the leverage provided by Russia’s need to protect its reputation in order to emphasize the Kremlin’s support for and participation in atrocities in Syria. There have been exceptions, as when Kerry called for an investigation of Russia’s “war crimes” after negotiations broke down in September 2016 and Russian bombers joined intense attacks on heavily populated eastern Aleppo, and when the US, in late September, backed a UN investigation into the bombing of a UN humanitarian convoy. But soft-pedaling and euphemism have been more characteristic of Washington’s public response to Moscow.

Maarat al-Numaan, Idlib, Syria, April 2014; photograph by Nish Nalbandian from A Whole World Blind, a collection of his photographs from northern Syria. It has just been published by Daylight.
Nish NalbandianMaarat al-Numaan, Idlib, Syria, April 2014; photograph by Nish Nalbandian from A Whole World Blind, a collection of his photographs from northern Syria. It has just been published by Daylight.

Playing down Russia’s military involvement in Syria has arguably made the quest for peace more difficult. (The same could be said of Washington’s downplaying Iran’s role backing Assad in light of the Obama administration’s primary focus on negotiating the nuclear deal with Tehran.) There is broad consensus among most observers of the conflict that the aim of negotiations should, at most, be to replace senior government officials in Syria but not the state. No one wants to replicate President George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq policy, in which the dismantling of the Iraqi state led to chaos, huge loss of life, and the rise of the predecessor to ISIS. But if peace negotiations are to achieve a durable outcome—one that really stops the proliferation of rebel groups and the radicalization of some of them—the negotiators will eventually have to consider replacing Assad and some of his senior henchmen with a government that does not have as much blood on its hands and is more acceptable to the opposition.

Russia seeks to keep a pro-Moscow government in Damascus, but even Putin seems to have no special affinity for Assad and reportedly would be willing to see him go as part of an orderly transition in which a friendly government would continue.

Still, a big stumbling block in the negotiations has been the pace of a transition—how long Assad will stay on before being replaced. Opposition forces are understandably loath for him to remain in power while he continues to attack their families and neighbors. Yet the lack of public pressure on Moscow to prevent or limit these attacks means that the killings proceed while the negotiations drag on. It also means that the likelihood of bridging the negotiating gap on the pace of change diminishes.

With these humanitarian and practical considerations in mind, the logical next step for the Obama and Trump administrations should be to intensify public and private pressure on Russia to curtail Assad’s killing and besieging of civilians and his mistreatment of prisoners. Public pressure on Putin should be seen as a necessary companion to peace negotiations rather than an obstacle, particularly because Russia had been so unresponsive to private entreaties. Public pressure would hardly be Trump’s first instinct, in view of the new businesslike relationship he has said he envisions with Putin. But if Putin pays no greater heed to Trump’s persuasion than Lavrov has to Kerry’s, Trump will quickly face a test of his leadership.

Trump may want to turn his back on Syrian government war crimes, but in view of the regional pressures created by the conflict and the public demands to address it, he will find these atrocities difficult to ignore. Otherwise, in his first major test, Trump would risk the appearance of being played by Putin rather than acting as the skilled negotiator and leader that he has described himself as being.

A central component of any successful Syria strategy will be ensuring that Russia would pay, at the very least, a severe price to its reputation if it continues to back and join Assad’s attacks on civilians. The rhetorical shift begun by Kerry in September was useful in this respect, but the rebukes that the Kremlin cares most about would come not from Washington alone but from a broad cross-section of Russia’s peers.

Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council, until recently backed by China, has stood in the way of condemnation of Russia’s complicity by the most powerful UN body, so other UN institutions should be tried. In October, for example, the UN Human Rights Council held a special session to condemn “the Syrian authorities and its allies,” especially in view of the bombing of eastern Aleppo—a useful step. The same month, the UN General Assembly narrowly denied Russia a seat on the Human Rights Council by electing two other Eastern European governments instead—a significant embarrassment for Putin. Immediately following these multilateral initiatives, Russia and Syria began a three-week lull in the bombing of Aleppo. The cause of this lull cannot be determined but its timing is suggestive. It ended only the day after Putin and Trump spoke by phone.

The logical next step to increase pressure on Moscow should be for the General Assembly to convene an emergency session on Syria, including on Russia’s actions there. The General Assembly, where there is no veto, has held emergency sessions only ten times in its sixty-eight-year history. The horrific war crimes being committed in Syria clearly warrant an eleventh.

Canada has begun the process of sounding out governments to see whether a decisive majority could be rallied in the General Assembly to demand an end to atrocities in Syria, but the Obama administration has been lukewarm about this initiative. It has questioned whether there are sufficient votes for a strong resolution; but that doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because actively deploying US diplomatic persuasion would be one of the best ways to secure the votes needed.

The Obama administration’s judgment may be affected by the US government’s dislike of using the General Assembly to circumvent a veto-stymied Security Council because it fears the same steps could be used to evade its own veto, most notably on issues affecting Israel. But ending the calamitous slaughter in Syria should be seen as more important than the business-as-usual protection of US power on the dysfunctional Security Council.

The Obama administration in its remaining two months, and the Trump administration after that, should also move beyond Kerry’s general call for a war crimes investigation. Syria has never joined the International Criminal Court, so the court for now can obtain jurisdiction only by referral from the UN Security Council—a step that Russia, backed by China, has vetoed. But the US could support efforts at the UN General Assembly to appoint a special prosecutor to collect evidence of crimes by all sides so that cases would be ready for prosecution once a tribunal became available. Some private groups are already making such efforts, but a UN-designated special prosecutor would raise the deterrent value considerably. Russia announced on November 16 that it would withdraw from the International Criminal Court—a largely symbolic gesture since it never ratified the treaty creating the court—but that would make no difference if the court, or some other tribunal, ultimately gained jurisdiction over crimes committed in Syria.

Outside of a Security Council referral, three such tribunals are conceivable: a special Syria tribunal set up by the General Assembly in an emergency session, national governments prosecuting in their own courts suspects who fall into their hands under the power of universal jurisdiction, or ultimately the ICC if a new Syrian government joins it and accepts its jurisdiction retroactively. It is unusual to appoint an international prosecutor before an international tribunal is available, but it was done recently (with Russia’s consent) for crimes in Kosovo and should be replicated for Syria. Although Trump may continue the Bush administration’s opposition to the International Criminal Court because of the risk that it would prosecute Americans, even Bush did not veto the Security Council’s referral of Sudan to the ICC for crimes in Darfur.

The US government should also increase targeted economic pressure on the Russian officials who are most directly involved in supporting and joining Syrian atrocities. For example, Rosoboronexport is the principal Russian arms dealer and it has been supplying the Syrian military. The US Congress has already barred purchases from Rosoboronexport but the Obama administration waived that prohibition so Afghanistan could continue to receive parts and maintenance for its Russian Mi-17 helicopters. The Trump administration should uphold the sanctions.

None of these measures can guarantee success. But all are designed to increase the cost of Russia’s complicity in war crimes in Syria. Given the difficulty inherent in the various military options under discussion, these reputational and economic steps are the best way to shift the cost-benefit analysis that has led Putin to join rather than curtail Assad’s atrocities, which are fueling the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups. A Trump administration, eager to show it can do better than Obama, would be wise to pursue these measures. Though Trump takes office with a presumption of working with Putin, a tougher position toward him on Syria is likely to be the only way Trump can make any progress.

—November 22, 2016

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Inside and Outside the System: Chinese Writer Hu Fayun

Hu Fayun in Wuhan, 2016
Sim Chi Yin/VIIHu Fayun in Wuhan, 2016

Over the summer I traveled to Wuhan to continue my series of talks with people about the challenges facing China. Coming here was part of an effort to break out of the black hole of Beijing politics and explore the view from China’s vast hinterland.

Wuhan seemed a logical place to start because it is one of the country’s great inland port cities—it has a population of more than 8 million and is a gateway to the interior. A conglomeration of what were once three cities, Wuhan is at the intersection of two of China’s most important rivers, the Yangtze and the Han. This made it a prize of European imperialists, who occupied it in the nineteenth century, building impressive Western-style banks and office blocks along the Yangtze River front—a smaller version of Shanghai on the coast. More recently, layoffs in its vast steelworks have led to worker unrest, while the city has been at the center of disputes over forced urbanization and evictions.

In an earlier post, I talked to the documentary filmmaker and feminist scholar Ai Xiaoming, who spoke about her efforts to document those struggling for social justice. Ai had been born in Wuhan but spent most of her adult life in Beijing or Guangzhou. I wanted to talk to someone more permanently rooted in this city, and so was drawn inexorably to Hu Fayun, a sixty-seven-year-old writer who has spent his entire life in Wuhan, except for two years during the Cultural Revolution when he was exiled to a village.

Besides remaining true to his roots in Wuhan, Hu is also atypical in his writing style. Most Chinese writers who tackle sensitive topics tend to use what Perry Link calls the “daft hilarity” style—dealing with the Cultural Revolution and other topics with the subtlety of a South Park episode. Hu prefers finely-honed novels that deal with big issues in complex, nuanced ways. His most popular work is Ruyan@sars.come, a novel written in 2004 about the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic that swept through China. (This is also his only work to be translated into English, as Such Is This World@sars.come, thanks to the heroic efforts of the tiny Ragged Banner Press, a small publisher run by the translator A.E. Clark.)

The novel centers on an upstanding woman named Ruyan—a person whose honesty and forthrightness immediately captured the public’s imagination. Reviewing it in the Review in 2011, Link wrote that the novel “shows the popular thirst to see precisely these kinds of values reemerge.”

Hu is a descendant of a long line of local scholars and minor officials from this region. His father was a doctor who in World War II joined the Chinese army—then run by the Nationalist Party—and refused to join the Communists when they defeated the Nationalists in the civil war. His father’s decision would mark him for life. Born in January 1949, just months before the Communist takeover, Hu was labeled as coming from a “bad background.” Over a very rainy afternoon, I met Hu in his home on the outskirts of Wuhan, where we talked about the lure of the Cultural Revolution, the difficulties of working within the system during this era of political persecution, and his decision to sign the bold civil rights manifesto Charter 08, which endorsed freedom of association and an end to one-party rule, among other principles.

Ian Johnson: How do you see yourself as a writer? After the Cultural Revolution you joined the Chinese Writers Association—the government body that manages authors. That meant some financial stability because all writers in the association get a salary, even if it’s not much, but it also means that the government could cut this salary if it doesn’t like your work. And yet you have often criticized the system. Do you think of yourself as being tizhinei (inside the system) or tizhiwai (outside the system)?

Hu Fayan: Somewhere in between. Before Tiananmen in 1989 I was quite hopeful. A lot of people hoped. But a lot of this hope was destroyed by the tanks and machine guns. Since then I’ve become more critical and my works have a harder time getting published.

And yet I am not tizhiwai. I still get a pension but except for that don’t have any relation to the system. I don’t attend the association’s study session or writing competitions and don’t follow their value system for writing. I feel I am a free and independent person. I basically separated myself from the system after 1989. After that I basically didn’t attend their meetings. It’s been almost thirty years now.

But you’re not a dissident.

I do not take as much direct action as some. If you think of Ai Xiaoming. If she sees that rights are being violated, she grabs a camera and goes to record it. Perhaps it has something to do with my personality or way of life. Ever since being a sent-down youth in the Cultural Revolution, I’ve feared hardship and fatigue. I like to be at home. But in some important questions, for example Charter 08, I was among the first signers. In important actions, if I feel I should express myself, then I try to pick up my courage.

I don’t want to give up my freedom to express myself because of this dread. So when a lot of people reject interviews with the foreign media, I feel I should talk. I try to be as candid as possible and frankly say my views.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution. Looking back, how do you feel about it?

It was a very confusing time. I didn’t oppose it right at the start. I could sense a beauty. It promised a more beautiful society, and a more equal society. The people they wanted to attack were bureaucrats and those whose lives were removed from the ordinary people’s lives. For a young person like me, in my heart, I really supported it.

Did you have any initial qualms?

Yes, the year before, 1965, was the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Wuhan had a film festival related to the war. There was one film from East Germany with scenes of Nazis, storm troopers, and the first persecutions of Jews. They wore armbands and dressed in military uniforms, and carried guns or clubs in their hands, smashing the stores of Jewish people. The Jews had the star of David stitched on their chest. They were pulled out of their homes, their rooms, their stores, and sent to concentration camps. They were portrayed as evil fascists for their crimes. Then in 1966 suddenly there were Red Guards everywhere. They also wore armbands. They also wore a kind of military outfit. They also paraded through the streets, shouting out slogans. And they beat people and deported them from cities. This never left me: Why did our Cultural Revolution resemble the Nazis?

The Cultural Revolution is the subject of your latest book, Midong (which could be translated roughly as “Winter of Confusion” or “Wintry Haze”). What brought you back to that era now?

I started writing it in 1985. I wrote fifty or sixty thousand words. But I stopped. I felt I had to understand things better, and think things through more deeply. We had just exited from the Cultural Revolution, so maybe we didn’t see a lot of things too clearly, or we were affected by the things we had heard. Then I decided around 2009 or 2010 to write it. And then it was published in 2013.

It was published by the prestigious People’s Literature Publishing House but then immediately banned. What happened?

You’re allowed to speak about what it is of use to them. But you can’t talk about what isn’t of use to them.

What in your book is of no use to them?

For example the different classes in the Cultural Revolution. Different people experienced it differently. It wasn’t a few people who were in charge who were bad from head to tail. It was different people in different phases, who did bad things. For example, from June to October 1966 it was one group. That was mainly the governing class and their children—the “old Red Guards.” You can’t talk about that group. Instead, you can only talk about a specific group of evil-doers, such as the Gang of Four, or Lin Biao, or the Rebel Faction.

And then the second period, from October 1966 to the end of 1967, this was the lower classes. The di fu fan huai you class—landlords, wealthy, counter-revolutionary, bad elements, rightists—as well as common workers and peasants. Those kind of kids. They made the cadres suffer a lot. So the evil in this period must be this group’s responsibility. Also in this period a lot of evil things were done by the military, which joined in as well. They took over the ruling apparatus from the bureaucrats. But what the military did can’t be discussed.

Midong and many of your books are set in Wuhan. What is the attraction of this city to you? It is crowded, polluted, and on rainy days like today all the roads seem to be flooded. And your new wife has Austrian citizenship. Why not move there?

I spend some time in Austria. Maybe we will retire there when I am finished writing. But this is a place I’m really familiar with. My stories are all set here. If I go somewhere else, I’d have to understand that area all over again, but here I know it all, I can feel it. It’s a direct feeling that I have when I write here. I don’t want to go to a beautiful place that doesn’t have anything to do with me. Every day I see it, I hear it, I breathe it. This piece of land is the truest thing. It’s the most real.

Wuhan has been at the center of much of modern Chinese history. This was the starting point of the revolution of 1911 that overthrew China’s last dynasty. It was also a center of China’s industrial and commercial life. How has this shaped the people here?

The Yangtze and the Han rivers, these two great waterways, their upper reaches extend into China’s far west. So this makes it a transport hub and influences Wuhan people’s traits. It makes them more independent and commercially minded. Think of the Cultural Revolution [from 1966-1976]. Back then, people here really opposed the old order. When I say old order I mean the seventeen years of Communist rule from 1949 to 1966. In the Cultural Revolution people borrowed Mao’s words to oppose the Communist system.

That independence of spirit is found in Ruyan, the heroine of Such Is This World@sars.come. Ruyan’s political awakening seems to be inspired by three things: personal memories of events like the Great Leap Forward; an open Internet; and efforts of the rights lawyers and citizen activists, such as those in the 2003 Sun Zhigang case. Now, ten years later, these tendencies are no longer there. The old people who knew the past are dying, the Internet is censored, and the rights lawyers have been crushed. In China’s present situation, could a Ruyan have a similar enlightenment? 

Chinese has an expression: jiangshan yigai benxing nanyi. This means “rivers and mountains move easily but it is hard to change one’s nature.” Ruyan is a dedicated, serious, and tenacious person, even if she seems delicate and weak. And speaking about China generally, I think that once you open some windows, you can’t close them. And in terms of personal memory, the space for this is still growing. Many old people, their families, their children—they’re all working hard to dig out personal memory, family remembrances.

One of the other heroes of the novel is Damo, an unassuming electrician who is actually well-read and a profound thinker. Which kind of Chinese does he represent?

These people haven’t sought out great success inside the system, or profit by being in the mainstream. They want free knowledge and a proper reflection and expression of themselves as their highest goal. This group is the greatest force in the past decade toward liberating thinking and criticizing society. It’s precisely because these people have independent professions that they aren’t afraid of the government smashing their rice bowl. Many have very simple lives, even to the point of poverty, but can make a living and take care of themselves and their family.

Has state security ever approached you?

Never directly. After signing Charter 08 the guobao approached my work unit and wanted to talk to me directly. The person directly responsible for me in the writers union he said two things: “One, If I had known about Charter 08, I would have signed it too. And two, If you want to go after Hu Fayun, if you touch him in the morning, in the afternoon I’ll call an international press conference.”

So there are good people inside and outside the system. Even though he isn’t an activist, he realized that there is significance in others doing it. I am gratified that this is different from the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps there is some progress.

This interview was made possible by a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Trump: The Choice We Face

Boise, Idaho, 2016
Carolyn Drake/Magnum PhotosBoise, Idaho, 2016

I grew up knowing that my great-grandfather smuggled guns into the Bialystok ghetto for the resistance, which staged an armed uprising there in August 1943. As an adult, researching a book about collaboration and resistance, using my own family history, I found out why my great-grandfather had been in a position to arm the resistance: he was one of the leaders of the Bialystok Judenrat, the Nazi-appointed Jewish council that ran the ghetto.

My great-grandfather’s story was at once an extreme and a typical example. Criminal regimes function in part by forcing the maximum number of subjects to participate in the atrocities. For nearly a century, individuals in various parts of the Western world have struggled with the question of how, and how much, we should engage politically and personally with governments that we find morally abhorrent.

With the election of Donald Trump—a candidate who has lied his way into power, openly embraced racist discourse and violence, toyed with the idea of jailing his opponents, boasted of his assaults on women and his avoidance of taxes, and denigrated the traditional checks and balances of government—this question has confronted us as urgently as ever. After I wrote a piece about surviving autocracy, a great many people have asked me about one of my proposed rules: “Do not compromise.” What constitutes compromise? How is it possible to avoid it? Why should one not compromise?

When I wrote about my great-grandfather in a book many years ago, I included the requisite discussion of Hannah Arendt’s opinion on the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied Europe, which she called “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story” of the Holocaust. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem she asserted that without Jewish cooperation Germany would have been unable to round up and kill as many Jews as it did. I quoted equally from the most comprehensive response to Arendt’s characterization of the Judenrat, Isaiah Trunk’s book Judenrat, in which he described the councils as complicated and contradictory organizations, ones that had functioned differently in different ghettos, and ultimately concluded that they had no effect on the final scope of the catastrophe.

When my grandmother—the Judenrat leader’s daughter—read the manuscript of my book, she demanded that I remove the Arendt quote. I told her I could not: as controversial as Arendt’s view was (and continues to be, forty years after her death), one cannot write about the Jewish councils and not acknowledge it. But I sincerely assured my grandmother that I viewed her father, who had been a local politician before the war, as a deeply moral man who did only what he thought was best for his people. My grandmother refused to understand; she and I did not speak for a few years after the book came out.

My grandmother spent the second half of the twentieth century in Moscow, far away from the Holocaust historiography wars, but she and I spontaneously reproduced a debate about collaboration and resistance that has been playing out for decades: on one side of this debate are those who argue for doing good as long as good can be done, even in constrained circumstances; on the other are those who see any compromise as collaboration. Our current situation has so far brought forth mostly the pro-compromise side of the argument, which sounds seductively like the voice of reason.

Following Trump’s first on-the-record meeting with journalists after the election, The New York Times editorial board was most struck by “how thinly thought through many of the president-elect’s stances actually are.” Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggested that this lack of expertise creates an opportunity for good people with knowledge to influence Trump: “They need to dive in now and try to pull him toward the center.” Fellow columnist Frank Bruni went so far as to suggest a radical sort of cooperation based on Trump’s apparently bottomless need for adoration: “Is our best hope for the best Trump to be so fantastically adulatory when he’s reasonable that he’s motivated to stay on that course, lest the adulation wane?”

Trump is not only vain and incompetent but also, many people have suggested, uninterested in the daily business of governing. In any case, the transition has fallen far behind schedule. Normally, at this time in the cycle, the president-elect’s picks for top posts would already be in the agencies they plan to run, getting carefully prepared briefings from senior staff and taking stock. This is apparently not happening. When Trump haphazardly met the leader of Japan last week at Trump’s own offices in New York, his transition team had yet to even contact the State Department .

Could it be that as long as Trump is not looking, good things could be done, or continue to be done? The State Department could continue to support human-rights groups abroad, until or even after he fills top diplomatic posts with cronies, environmental regulations could somehow continue to be enforced—those that cannot easily be cancelled by executive order—, the National Endowment for the Humanities could continue to fund scholarship at home. Perhaps Trump and his family will be too busy pillaging the country to pay attention to the national bureaucracy.

Perhaps. But what happens when he does start to pay attention and restrictions of the sort that his character and his views suggest are imposed? He has promised to put an end to civil-service tenure and start firing. Then a sister argument will kick in: “If I don’t do this job, someone else will.” In one version of this argument, the imaginary someone would be worse—or there would be no one at all, since Trump has also promised to institute a federal hiring freeze. In another, the someone would be no better or worse, but the job would still get done.

That was the argument my other grandmother used when she became a censor for the Soviet government. Her argument was by no means a moral cop-out. On the contrary, it was a moral choice. She had been trained to be a history teacher, but she decided that she could not engage in the act of active lying, especially to children. She did not want to use her charm, beauty, and kindness to make children think the way Stalin wanted them to think. So she became a censor. Her job was to open personal mail that arrived from abroad, read it, and block it if it contained banned material, such as a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls or Western natural-science magazines that an émigré kept sending his scientist brother.

After three years, my grandmother was rewarded for her aptitude for languages and promoted. In her new job, she read dispatches filed by foreign correspondents accredited to work in Moscow and deleted words, lines, or entire stories that Stalin did not want to be published (whenever she was in doubt, she called the question in to Stalin’s secretary). My grandmother thought of this job as impersonal—she worked behind a curtain, and the correspondents never saw her—and mechanical: she followed clear rules. In over ten years on the job, she never made a mistake—or else she would not have survived. But it had real consequences: Western newspaper readers generally did not realize that foreign correspondents were prevented from writing about Soviet food shortages, some of the arrests, and the general state of fear in which the country lived.

My family supplies other examples of this slippery slope of collaboration. Take my own. In 2012, I was working as the editor-in-chief of a popular science magazine called Vokrug Sveta when Vladimir Putin, who fancies himself an explorer and a nature conservationist, took a liking to the publication. His administration launched a kind of friendly takeover of the magazine, one that the publisher could not refuse. I found myself in meetings with the Russian Geographic Society, of which Putin was the hands-on chairman. They wanted me to publish stories about their activities, most of which, as far as I could tell, were bogus. In exchange, they promised to help the magazine: at one point every school in Russia was ordered to buy a subscription (like many Kremlin orders, this one ended in naught). I felt a slow rot setting in at a magazine I loved, but I kept telling myself that I could still do a good job—and keep many fine journalists gainfully employed. Then I was asked to send a reporter to accompany Putin on his hang-gliding adventure with a migrating flock of endangered Siberian cranes. I refused—not on principle but because I was afraid that the reporter would see and describe something that would get the magazine in trouble. The publisher fired me, but then Putin called me in for a meeting and offered me my job back—legally, it wasn’t his to offer, but for practical purposes it was.

In comparison to the Putin regime’s major abuses of power and suppression of the opposition, the story of the cranes and my firing does not deserve a mention. All that happened as a result of the hang-gliding trip (from what I know) was that two or three of the cranes were badly injured for the sake of the president’s publicity stunt, and I lost my job. But I also lost a bit of my soul and the sense of moral agency I had earned over decades of acting like my best journalist self. When Putin offered me my job back after the trip, I hesitated to say no: I loved that job, and I thought I could still edit a good magazine and keep some fine journalists employed. I didn’t want to imagine what would happen the next time I was asked to cover a Putin photo op or a fake story produced by his Geographic Society, which siphoned money off like every other part his mafia state. Fortunately for me, my closest friend said, “Have you lost your mind?,” by which she meant my sense of right and wrong.

In Bialystok ghetto, my great-grandfather’s responsibility in the Judenrat was to ensure that the ghetto was supplied with food. He ran the trucks that brought food in and took garbage out, he ran the canteen and supervised the community gardens that a group of young socialists planted. He also discouraged the young socialists from trying to organize a resistance movement: it would be of no use and would only jeopardize the ghetto’s inhabitants. It took him almost two years to change his mind about the resistance efforts, as he slowly lost hope that the Judenrat, by generally following the rules and keeping the ghetto inhabitants in line, would be able to save at least some of them.

As in other ghettos, the Judenrat was ultimately given the task of compiling the lists of Jews to be “liquidated.” The Bialystok Judenrat accepted the job, and there is every indication that my great-grandfather took part in the process. The arguments in defense of producing the list, in Bialystok and elsewhere, were pragmatic: the killing was going to occur anyway; by cooperating, the Judenrat could try to reduce the number of people the Nazis were planning to kill (in Bialystok, this worked, though in the end the ghetto, like all other ghettos, was “liquidated”); by compiling the lists, the Judenrat could prevent random killing, instead choosing to sacrifice those who were already near death from disease or starvation. These were strong arguments. There is always a strong argument.

But what if the Jews had refused to cooperate? Was Arendt right that fewer people might have died? Was Trunk right that Judenrat activities had no effect on the final outcome? Or would mass murder of Jews have occurred earlier if Jews had refused to manage their own existence in the ghetto? We cannot know for certain, any more than we can know now whether a scorched-earth strategy or the strategy of compromise would more effectively mitigate Trumpism. But that does not mean that a choice—the right choice—is impossible. It only means that we are asking the wrong question.

The difficulty stems from the realist tradition in politics. In contrast to what is sometimes called idealism, the realist position holds that the political world is governed not by morality but by clear and calculable interests. Alliances and conflicts turn into transactions with predictable outcomes. The realist reasoning is applied most clearly and most often to international relations, but it has seeped into all political life, turning virtually every conversation into a discussion of possible outcomes.

Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics.

Of course, it is not entirely impossible that, if Bill Gates follows Frank Bruni’s advice and starts wining and dining Trump, the president-elect will be so flattered that he will take some good policy proposals to heart—but it seems exceedingly unlikely. It is not impossible that if the Times and the political establishment follow Friedman’s advice and shower Trump with praise whenever he is so much as civil, he will respond positively—though one suspects that one or more of his wives have tried this age-old trick of training a man like one trains a puppy and have failed, despite being better positioned to exert influence than is the Times. Perhaps, if hundreds of federal employees stand firm and do their jobs exactly as they should be done in the face of breaking norms—and assuming they don’t get fired—Trumpism will fail. Or perhaps it will fail if they refuse to do their jobs. We cannot know.

Similarly, we cannot know whether Western sanctions have kept Vladimir Putin from invading more neighboring countries or shedding more blood in Ukraine—or, on the contrary, have caused him to be more stubbornly brutal and militaristic than he would otherwise have been. In other words, we cannot know whether economic punishment of the Russian government has been, in the realist sense of the word, “effective.” What we do know is that sanctions were the correct response from a moral standpoint—even if it is a response we have applied inconsistently elsewhere—simply because it is right to refuse to do business with a dictator and his cronies.

We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge. We know what my great-grandfather did not know: that the people who wanted to keep the people fed ended up compiling lists of their neighbors to be killed. That they had a rationale for doing so. And also, that one of the greatest thinkers of their age judged their actions as harshly as they could be judged.

Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.

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The Kurds Are Nearly There

From Tribe to Nation: Iraqi Kurdistan on the Cusp of Statehood

Kurdistan Rising? Considerations for Kurds, Their Neighbors, and the Region

Kurdish peshmerga fighters at the front line during a battle with Islamic State militants near Mosul, Iraq, October 2016
Ahmed Jadallah/ReutersKurdish peshmerga fighters at the front line during a battle with Islamic State militants near Mosul, Iraq, October 2016


The battle for Mosul has begun. For the past two years, Iraq’s second-largest city has languished under the harsh rule of the Islamic State (ISIS). Now a combined force of Iraqi army troops, Shiite militias, and Kurdish fighters, backed up by a US-led coalition of more than sixty nations, is pushing forward to retake the city. The stakes are high. Dislodging ISIS from the city where its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his “caliphate” in 2014 promises to be a formidable undertaking, given the ferocity of resistance so far. But if the coalition manages to restore Iraqi government control over Mosul, it will certainly count as a major blow to the ambitions of the jihadists—even if final victory over them is still a long way off.

So far the campaign appears to be going well. Yet its initial successes—to be expected, perhaps, in a situation where the attackers outnumber the defenders by more than twenty to one—cannot conceal the fact that the members of the anti-ISIS forces in Iraq have strikingly divergent interests. The United States and its Western allies are concerned above all with thwarting the Islamic State’s ability to stage terrorist attacks against them. Preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq, while important, is a secondary aim. The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is intent on restoring his government’s sovereignty over the country as a whole and reasserting, along the way, the dominance of the Shiite majority over a restive Sunni minority that, at least for a time, saw the Islamic State as a protector of its interests.

And then there are the Kurds. For the past twenty-five years, since a crucial intervention following the first Gulf War by the United States to protect them from Saddam Hussein’s killings, the 5.5 million Kurds of northern Iraq have been quietly running their own affairs. Currently some 40,000 Kurdish troops are taking active part in the effort to retake Mosul, and dozens have died since the operation began. But the peshmerga, as the Iraqi Kurdish militias are known, are not fighting to preserve Iraq. They are fighting to remove a major threat to their own homeland, the three northern provinces that make up the Kurdish Region of Iraq. The Islamic State, which is dominated by Salafist Sunni Arabs, has always regarded the Kurds as mortal enemies, and when the jihadists staged their surprise attack on Mosul in the summer of 2014, the momentum of their offensive brought them within just a few miles of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. It took a series of hasty American air strikes to stop the jihadists from going further.

Since then the Kurdish region has shared an uneasy thousand-mile border with the territory controlled by the Islamic State to its south, and the Kurds are determined to put an end to this lingering security threat. There is an urgency to their mission. For the continued existence of the ISIS caliphate is, in effect, the last remaining obstacle between the Iraqi Kurds and their fondest wish: the creation of the first independent Kurdish state.

There are more than 30 million Kurds scattered across the Middle East, most of them in the four countries of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—a circumstance that helps to explain the label they are often given—“world’s largest people without a nation.” The Kurds in all of these countries have endured various forms of persecution. And yet, as the Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman notes in her report “From Tribe to Nation,” “The Iraqi Kurds have endured far greater horrors and betrayal than any of their brethren across the borders.” The government of Saddam Hussein repeatedly subjected his Kurdish population to acts of genocidal violence, including, most notoriously, the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish communities in 1988. Every Iraqi Kurd has long and searing tales of trauma: childhoods spent in refugee camps, relatives dispatched to the anonymity of mass graves, villages razed to the ground.

The dream of a national homeland is one that all Kurds share, no matter where they currently live. For the past century—ever since World War I brought about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent creation of new nation-states that excluded Kurdish aspirations—they have yearned in vain. Yet now circumstances have conspired to bring the Kurds—or some of them, at least—closer to achieving a workable state than at any other time in recent memory.

To be sure, not all of the Kurds are equally well positioned to take advantage. The Kurds of Iran, who briefly enjoyed a self-governing state under Soviet tutelage after World War II, seem the least likely to strike out on their own, given the strength of the Tehran government and the relative weakness of the Kurdish nationalist movement. In southeastern Turkey, the goal of self-determination has long been pursued with particular ferocity by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has carried on a four-decade-long insurgency against the government in Ankara. After years of effectively denying the existence of the roughly 15 million Kurds within its borders, the Turkish state embarked on a policy of cautious rapprochement that culminated in the launching of peace negotiations in 2013. Last year, however, the war flared up again, prosecuted on the Turkish side by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had, for a time, pursued the peace process with more determination than any of his predecessors. The return to war, amid scenes of extraordinary destruction in Kurdish communities, makes the attainment of any sort of independence for the Turkish Kurds—a long shot under the best of circumstances—even less likely.

The situation in Syria, at least on the surface, offers more grounds for hope. The outbreak of the civil war in 2011 led to the weakening of government control over the Kurdish regions in the country’s northeast corner, and the Kurds there were quick to seize their chance. Over the past five years the Syrian Kurds have steadily built up formidable institutions of self-rule. In contrast to Iraq’s Kurdish region, however, the regions currently controlled by their Syrian counterparts contain large populations of Arabs and other minority groups, and their presence might well complicate an aggressive push for independence.

Even so, it is hard to overestimate the degree of international goodwill that the Syrian Kurdish forces have managed to acquire thanks to their muscular prosecution of the war against the Islamic State. Since the Assad government doesn’t seem especially keen on confronting the caliphate, the Kurdish-dominated forces have been supplying most of the fighters on the Syrian front of the war against ISIS. It is precisely for this reason that the Obama administration has recently begun directly supplying the Syrian Kurds with weapons. This would amount to an extraordinary departure from past practice, since providing arms would implicitly bolster the Kurds’ control over their part of Syria, and potentially bring them closer to independence—a prospect of which Washington policymakers have long been leery, since it would entail a fundamental redrawing of the borders of the Middle East.

Such caution is understandable. Yet US policy toward the Kurds will face a crucial test in the next few years—and it will almost certainly come from the Kurds of Iraq, who believe that their twenty-five-year experiment in self-government is approaching its logical culmination. The leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government, based in Erbil, have explicitly declared that they have independence in their sights. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, has announced plans to conduct a referendum on statehood once the threat from ISIS has abated. Washington, meanwhile, doggedly maintains that nothing can be allowed to compromise Iraq’s territorial integrity, periodically warning its Kurdish allies not to test its resolve. In view of the long history of thwarted Kurdish aspirations, one has to wonder: When the day finally comes, will the Kurds really be willing to wait for permission?

Caryl Kurdistan 2-col 120813

Mike King


As a people, the Kurds are magnificently contradictory. They have a sharply formed sense of identity, and yet their ethnic self-understanding allows for a dizzying diversity. Most Kurds adhere to the beliefs of Sunni Islam, yet there are also Kurds who profess Shiism, Christianity, Judaism, and radical secularism—not to mention ancient sects such as the Yazidis and the Shabaks. Moreover, millions of Kurds have, over the years, fled oppression at the hands of the nations in which they lived, creating a vast global diaspora. There are some 800,000 Kurds in Germany alone. (The largest concentration of Kurds in the United States is a population of some ten thousand in Nashville, Tennessee.)

Kurdish identity often delineates itself along linguistic lines. The Kurdish tongue—based on three rather distinct dialects—belongs to the Indo-Iranian language family, giving the Kurds a degree of cultural kinship with Iran. (Unlike the Turks and Arabs, the Kurds observe Newroz, the traditional Persian New Year.) Geography is also an important source of Kurdish self-understanding. The core Kurdish population has long been centered on the spine of mountains that reach from southeastern Turkey across northern Iraq and into the northwestern corner of Iran.

Some Kurds trace their origins back to the Medes, an ancient people who built an empire in what is now Iran and Iraq. Historians are inclined to doubt this, but it seems clear enough that Kurds have had a long presence in their region. Saladin, the leader of the Muslim armies who defied the invading Crusaders in the twelfth century, was a Kurd—though he gained fame as a religious and military leader, not as a representative of his ethnic group. The Ottomans recognized the Kurds as a distinct minority, even coining the term “Kurdistan.” The Kurds engaged in periodic uprisings against Ottoman rule, but their rebellions were almost always cloaked in the language of religious discontent. Like so many other peoples of the Middle East, they were relative latecomers to the modern idea of ethnic nationalism.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire seemed, at first, to offer a perfect opening for a Kurdish state. The victorious Allies originally planned to carve a Kurdish homeland out of the old Ottoman territories, a Kurdish delegation having pleaded its case at the Paris Peace Conference. But the Turkish nationalist leader Kemal Atatürk had other ideas. His victory in the Turkish War of Independence thwarted the West’s plans for the partition of Anatolia, and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which endorsed his new Turkish Republic, scotched the idea of a Kurdish state by including a large chunk of Kurdish-populated territory within the new Turkish borders.

This amounts to one of the great ironies of history. As Michael Gunter writes in The Kurds, Atatürk had originally envisioned his new state as a mutual homeland for both Turks and Kurds, and Kurdish fighters had formed a large part of his forces. The first Turkish parliament included seventy-five Kurdish deputies. As the years went on, however, Atatürk began to narrow his vision of the new republic to a mono-ethnic state for Turks alone. Ankara’s policies became correspondingly repressive. Within a few decades merely acknowledging the existence of a Kurdish minority had become a criminal offense.

The Kurds in the new post-Ottoman state of Syria had it somewhat better, at least at first. But as Syrian democracy withered, to be replaced by the Arab national socialist ideology of Baathism, the state’s tolerance for ethnic difference evaporated. During the 1960s, the government came up with a novel approach to making its Kurdish problem go away: it simply denied citizenship to many Kurds.

To the east, the post–World War I settlement had created yet another new state, called Iraq, which had been cobbled together from three Ottoman provinces, to be ruled under a British mandate between 1920 and 1932. The British soon found themselves facing a major threat from the Kurds of the north, who launched a full-blown jihad against their colonial masters under the leadership of a charismatic chieftain named Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji.

One of his deputies, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, would go on to become a central figure in the twentieth-century history of the Kurds—a career that ran from an old-fashioned tribal revolt to a cold war–style national liberation struggle. In the mid-1940s Barzani found himself turning for help to the Soviet Union, which became his patron during his brief period as defense minister of the short-lived Kurdish republic in Iran in 1946. When it collapsed, Moscow granted him asylum until he was finally able to return to Iraq a decade later, where he continued the struggle against the increasingly intransigent regimes in Baghdad in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite these contortions, Barzani never quite managed to live down his origins as a traditional tribal leader. The organization he created in Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), remains to this day very much under the spell of the Barzani family.

Other claimants to leadership of the Kurdish independence movement soon appeared. Within Iraq, critics of the KDP’s ascendancy—many of them members of the rival Talabani clan—formed in 1975 a party of their own, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), setting the stage for a tortuous relationship that has, on occasion, been known to explode into outright warfare.

In Turkey, the increasingly harsh oppression of the Kurdish minority under successive military governments prompted the rise of another resistance leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who founded the PKK in 1978. Unlike its Iraqi counterparts, who remained beholden to their clannish origins, the PKK started off as a classic Marxist-Leninist party but with strong nationalist claims. Öcalan ran his party along rigidly authoritarian lines, and like so many of his revolutionary predecessors, he pursued and eliminated rival Kurds with even greater ruthlessness than he attacked his enemies in the Turkish military. His claim to ultimate leadership of the global Kurdish community invariably brought him into conflict with the Iraqi Kurdish parties—a feud that continues to shape the Kurdish question today. (Öcalan, captured in 1999, is still held in a Turkish prison.)

The Kurds became deeply enmeshed in cold war politics, something that had a great deal to do with the fateful geography of their homeland. Both Turkey (with one of NATO’s biggest armies) and Iran, vital US allies, shared borders with the Soviet Union; Iraq, increasingly controlled by its own particularly virulent strain of Baathism, found a natural ally in Moscow. The PKK accordingly received active support from various revolutionary regimes around the Middle East. It sent its fighters to train in East Bloc–sponsored camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley alongside a hodgepodge of other terrorist groups.

The United States was just as happy to exploit the Kurds for its own purposes—most infamously in the 1970s, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger backed the Shah of Iran, Washington’s most important regional client, in sponsoring an Iraqi Kurdish rebellion against the Iraqi government, by then well on its way to becoming a Soviet client state. Once the rebellion had achieved the Iranian aim of extracting concessions from Baghdad, the Shah, and Kissinger, cut off support for the insurgents, leaving them to face the full wrath of their enemies. Thousands of Kurds died in the reprisals that followed. It wasn’t the first time the Kurds were betrayed by their ostensible friends; nor was it the last. Their own propensity for factionalism didn’t help their cause. For much of the cold war they appeared powerless to break the curse of history.


The turning point came from an unexpected quarter. President George H.W. Bush, an old-school foreign policy realist, had no intention of supporting Kurdish self-determination when he set out to defeat Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War in 1990. But in the war’s aftermath, his administration confronted an appalling humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of Kurds were fleeing retribution from Saddam’s forces. (Bush himself had called upon the Kurds and Shias to bring down Saddam’s regime, but then failed to offer the rebels air cover, leaving them at the mercy of Baghdad’s air force.)

The images of women and children suffering amid the snowy peaks excited a public outcry, and in April 1991 the United States, the UK, and France agreed to create a safe haven for the Iraqi Kurds. Operation Provide Comfort, as it came to be called, imposed a no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel, effectively preventing Saddam’s planes and helicopters from killing Kurds, and enabling the Kurdish militias to push Iraqi troops back out and reassert control.

They have never relinquished it. “The Kurdish safe haven was supposed to serve Washington’s Iraq containment strategy, a launching pad for the harassment of Saddam Hussein,” as Quil Lawrence writes in Invisible Nation:

But there was an unintended consequence: one of the most successful nation-building projects in American history. The Kurds held elections, set up their own social services, and started educating their children in Kurdish, not Arabic. They banned the Iraqi flag and the currency with Saddam’s face on it.

This nation-building effort continued apace after the US-led invasion in 2003. Ironically, Ankara’s refusal to allow US troops to cross Turkish territory on the way to Iraq compelled the Americans to seek other options for the northern prong of the campaign; the Kurds were only too happy to offer their support. Throughout the war the Kurds proved themselves conspicuously loyal allies of the US. While the rest of Iraq descended into a frenzy of war and sectarian chaos, the Kurdish region became for the coalition a secure and reliable hinterland (with a relatively stable economy). The Kurds are rightfully proud that the US military didn’t lose a single servicemember on Kurdish territory during the war. This goes a long way to explaining why the Iraqi Kurds have managed to build strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress over the past fifteen years, which could prove useful when the issue of independence comes to a head.

Even so, Iraqi Kurds will need more than congressional goodwill if they want to turn their region into a state. Though they can probably defy the Iraqi government in a pinch, achieving independence with Baghdad’s acquiescence would certainly be more desirable than the alternative. They may already be on their way to getting it. Amberin Zaman, one of the sharpest observers of Kurdish issues, observes that the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government have already created two committees to discuss the details of a possible divorce. She also points out that Baghdad and Erbil have worked out a resource-sharing agreement for the rich oilfields in the region around the disputed city of Kirkuk—just the sort of compromise that could accompany Iraqi Kurdistan’s separation from Iraq.

But what about the neighbors? Given their own restive Kurdish minorities, would the Turks, Syrians, and Iranians be prepared to tolerate a Kurdish proto-state on their borders? In fact, current indications are that Turkey, and to some extent Iran, may be willing to accept just this possibility. Much depends on the factional fault line that still divides the Kurds themselves. During the past decade, the Turkish government, fully aware of the bad blood between its own Kurdish rebels and their Iraqi rivals, has seen the wisdom of cultivating good relations with the Iraqi KDP as a way of undermining the Turkish PKK.1 There are also sound economic reasons for such a partnership, since Turkey has benefited hugely by serving as the main conduit for Iraqi Kurdish oil to global markets. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan, given its landlocked position, is unlikely to prove economically workable without some sort of access to global markets—but the Iraqi Kurdish leaders in Erbil have already signed long-term agreements with the Turks to ensure just this sort of access.

If all this sounds far too optimistic, Michael Rubin, in Kurdistan Rising?, has good reasons for pessimism, pointing to the many obstacles to Kurdish statehood—whether restricted to an Iraqi enclave or incorporating larger swathes of the regional Kurdish population. For all its successes, he writes, the Kurdish region of Iraq remains plagued by deep-seated pathologies. The collapse of global oil prices, coupled with the costs of prosecuting the war against ISIS and the influx of a huge number of refugees (1.8 million at last count, more than a third of the population), have sent the economy into a tailspin. Corruption remains pervasive at every level of government. Factional differences between the KPD and the PUK affect every level of administration, including the peshmerga themselves, who still answer to their respective party leaders rather than to the Kurdish government.2 The Kurds’ hard-earned reputation for relatively democratic governance has been undermined by the extension of emergency powers to President Barzani, who, citing the exigencies of the war, has remained in office long beyond his legally set term—much to the anger of the other parties in the Erbil parliament.

Rubin has a novel suggestion for future sources of Kurdish money. He suggests that the Kurds issue a symbolic currency “equivalent in value to the US dollar or European euro. In this, there is precedent in Panama and Timor-Leste, which utilize the US dollar as their currency for all practical purposes.” When it comes to the idea of a future Kurdish state achieving recognition by its neighbors, however, Rubin remains deeply skeptical—a view he shares with many other outside experts.

Rubin is entirely right to scrutinize these potential pitfalls. Creating a new Kurdish state is likely to be a highly complex affair in the best of cases. Yet it is also true that some new countries have started life under even less auspicious circumstances. As Zaman points out, Kurds have been waiting for a state of their own for a century—and they’re unlikely to go on waiting until conditions are optimal. “The ‘we are not ready’ camp cites the economic crisis, corruption, the lack of unity, and opposition from Iran and Turkey as the main obstacles to Iraqi Kurdish statehood,” she writes. “Yet, many of these issues will not be resolved by remaining part of Iraq.” The Kurds are already on the march. Their friends in the rest of the world—including the next US president—will soon have to decide whether they want to keep up.

—November 9, 2016

  1. 1

    The intense Turkish suspicion of the Syrian Kurds, as evidenced by recent Turkish attacks on their forces, also has its roots in Ankara’s hatred of the PKK, since the main Syrian Kurdish party happens to be a PKK affiliate.  

  2. 2

    For a recent analysis of this particular problem, see Bilal Wahab, “Trouble Brewing in Iraqi Kurdistan,” The Washington Institute, September 30, 2016. 

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America’s Invisible Inferno

Albert Woodfox (right), accompanied by his brother Michel Mable, leaving West Feliciana Parish Detention Center in Louisiana after forty-three years in solitary confinement, February 2016
Billy SothernAlbert Woodfox (right), accompanied by his brother Michel Mable, leaving West Feliciana Parish Detention Center in Louisiana after forty-three years in solitary confinement, February 2016

If you look inside a solitary confinement cell such as the ones I have visited in New York’s Sing Sing prison, you’ll see a gray-walled, eight-by-eight-foot room with a concrete slab bed; it’s underground, more like a tomb than a cell. The light is always on. Usually there aren’t any windows, but there is a toilet (no toilet seat or paper) and a shower.

The solitary cell is home to a single prisoner, twenty-three or twenty-four hours a day; the extreme isolation and sensory deprivation imposed by the cell can last for days, months, years, or decades on end. Someone who visits a solitary cell might not notice the feces or the urine that leaks from the cells above, down the walls into a puddle on the floor. He or she would not be shown prisoners mutilating themselves or fighting guards or one another to the death, or men in their underwear, or naked, shackled by their hands to the bottom of bunks, deprived of books, paper, radio, pens, or pencils. I have represented a range of defendants in constitutional and criminal cases during the last fifty years, and my clients who have spent time in solitary consistently testify to having witnessed, or been subjected to, these abuses.

They describe being shackled to their bunks by their feet and hands, and moved from place to place like animals. They report being fed slop and also left without food in a state of extreme hunger. They tell me that hooded guards, armed with tasers and bats, in body armor and riot gear, extract prisoners from their cells and leave them lying on the floor, beaten, bruised, and unexamined by doctors. Once you see—and smell—a solitary cell, you will never forget it.

I first saw a solitary cell at Sing Sing in 1963, when I went to visit Fred Wood, an inmate there. (Mr. Wood, who had the odd distinction of being the next-to-last man executed by New York State, laughed as he sat down in the electric chair and said, “You are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on wood.”) Since then, I have had many occasions to visit clients and talk with inmates in solitary cells in federal and state facilities throughout the country. Each of the many solitary cells I saw was an abomination.

Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement is a collection of seventeen essays by men and women who have been held in solitary confinement in American federal and state prisons. They were collected by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, Sarah Shourd, and Solitary Watch, a national organization that opposes solitary confinement. For readers who have no sense of the nature of the punishment that is exacted in their name, this collection offers an unforgettable look at the peculiar horrors and humiliations involved in solitary confinement.

America’s prisons hold 2,193,000 people. That is more than the number of people who live in Manhattan. It is also more than the total number of prisoners in either Russia or China, the countries with the second- and third-highest prison populations. The United States shares with North Korea the distinction of having the world’s highest incarceration rate. With 5 percent of the world’s population, America houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Approximately 400,000 people in our prison population move in and out of solitary, and many of America’s over two million prisoners know they can be put in solitary even if they are jailed for the most minor offenses. Between 80,000 and 120,000 men and women are held in solitary confinement every day. Every federal and state prison has solitary cells. More than 100,000 American children inhabit prisons in which solitary is considered a standard management practice. Men, women, and children can be put there for years on end, solely at the whim of a prison guard. There is no legal process that gets them there and no legal process that can prevent them from being put there.

“Cruel” and “unusual” are likely two of the first words most inmates—and most readers—would use to describe solitary confinement. But no United States court has ever held that solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment and its proscription against cruel and unusual punishment. It seems that few American judges have ever been inside a solitary confinement cell.

Hell Is a Very Small Place provides a harrowing guided tour of some of the country’s solitary units. The essays in the collection were written by inmates, some of whom have been confined for months to decades in solitary, as well as by one lawyer, two professors and legal activists, and two psychiatrists, including Stuart Grassian, a former Harvard Medical School professor who writes about the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement. Together these essays are both a condemnation of our prison system and an indictment of America. It is difficult to read this book without feeling shame.

The first American experiment in solitary confinement sprang from utopian ideals. In their introduction, Casella and Ridgeway observe that there are many historical accounts of people confined alone in towers and dungeons, and that, before the nineteenth century, many different societies used solitary as a way to torture and punish miscreants. But, they argue persuasively, “solitary confinement as a self-conscious, organized, and widespread prison practice” is a uniquely American creation.

The “penitentiary system” was introduced in the late eighteenth century in Philadelphia and was intended by its Protestant founders to quietly house “penitents” for as long as necessary in solitary so that they could have ample time to read the Bible, reflect, and change. Proud penitentiary supporters invited and encouraged important visitors from abroad to observe them; Casella and Ridgeway describe the appalled findings of Alexis de Tocqueville, Gustave de Beaumont, and Charles Dickens, who were among those who came to visit.

In their 1833 treatise on US penitentiaries, Tocqueville and Beaumont wrote that, from the very beginning, the whole system had gone horribly, murderously wrong:

The convicts had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.

Charles Dickens visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania in 1842, and the editors call him “one of the earliest—and still one of the most eloquent—critics of solitary confinement.” He described the penitents there as men “buried alive.”

In an 1890 case, the United States Supreme Court recognized the harm, cruelty, and inefficiency that Dickens and Tocqueville described, but nonetheless found solitary confinement lawful according to the Constitution. Now, more than one hundred years later, America uses solitary more often, and for longer periods of time, than any country in the world. The cruelty we impose in solitary cells is, for the most part, nearly invisible. The American government prohibits UN officials from visiting solitary cells. No president in office has ever visited a solitary cell; few judges or legislators have seen one.

The arbitrary power to send an inmate to solitary confinement does not belong to a judge or jury; instead, as Casella and Ridgeway observe, solitary is “a ‘classification’ that is handed down by prison officials” who have unchecked discretion and can subject inmates to this kind of extreme punishment for a range of infractions—walking too slowly, or too fast, or talking too much. Most systems have hearing procedures that do not have a semblance of legal process—the prison guards, usually a tightly knit unit, are prosecutors, witnesses, and judges.* More than 98 percent of prisoners’ complaints about solitary are denied.

Prisons provide jobs and revenue for the communities in which they are located, which have an interest in ensuring the facilities’ success. If something untoward happens to an inmate, it can—and often is—presumed to be the fault of the inmate rather than that of the revenue-generating prison. Mindful of this and of the very low number of prisoner complaints that are upheld, few of the inmates dispatched to solitary ever challenge their status.

A solitary confinement cell at Rikers Island jail, New York City, January 2016
Bebeto Matthews/AP ImagesA solitary confinement cell at Rikers Island jail, New York City, January 2016

The racial breakdown of those confined in solitary cells is particularly shameful: though black and Hispanic prisoners constitute 60 percent of all arrests, they make up 80 percent of the country’s prison population and 95 percent of the inmates confined in solitary cells. Matters are not getting better: in the five-year period from 1995 to 2000, the most recent years for which data are available, the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement increased by 40 percent. As the prison population increases, facilities are overcrowded and harder to control, making solitary more appealing to those charged with maintaining order. The racial makeup of our prison population, and of our solitary population, reflects a system of criminal justice in which the scales of justice are heavily weighted against people of color.

The prison system has increasingly become a warehouse for juveniles and for the mentally ill. The Treatment Advocacy Center estimated that in 2012, more than 350,000 people with serious mental illness were housed in prisons and jails, ten times the number confined in state mental hospitals.

In August 2011, a committee chaired by Juan E. Méndez, who serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and contributes an afterword to Hell Is a Very Small Place, ruled that solitary should never be used for juveniles. Often, however, solitary is imposed on juvenile—and adult—inmates who are deemed unable to handle ordinary prisons. The suicide rate for juveniles in solitary is eighteen times greater than for juveniles in the general population.

Many of the contributors to this volume lived, for much of their lives, like caged animals. Yet their voices remain those of observant people with distinctive and varied responses to their confinement. This is precisely why the collection is so revealing and disturbing.

Judith Vazquez, age fifty-nine, the first female licensed electrician in Jersey City, spent over five years in solitary in a New Jersey state prison after she was convicted of first-degree murder. Confined in a tiny cell, with a “dime-sized piece of the sky,” Vazquez describes her thirst for air—an urge to breathe free. It was so intense, she writes, that she spent months scraping her fingernails against the rubber seal on the window frame in order to create a tiny hole. “I needed some air,” she writes. “I believe it took about six months of scraping and bleeding before I finally made a tiny little hole.” The hole was not large enough to admit a breeze, but Vasquez writes that there was room enough for her to put one nostril against the hole at a time so that she could breathe fresh air in. “It gave me a sense of being human again,” she writes.

Shaka Senghor, age forty-three, was eighteen when he killed a man in a fight involving drugs. He served twenty years of his forty-year sentence for second-degree murder in Michigan state prisons, including seven years in solitary confinement. After his release, Senghor founded the Live in Peace Digital and Literary Arts Project in Detroit, and since then was named a 2013 MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow and a 2014 W.K. Kellogg Community Leadership Network Fellow.

In 2013 he published a memoir, Writing My Wrongs. Senghor’s writing provides graphic testament to the brutal and deranging force of solitary confinement. In one passage, he recalls his early impressions of his fellow inmates on the cell block called Graves, because, he writes, inhabitants are “dead to everyone in the general prison population” and because the cells are so small that prisoners feel they have been “squeezed into a coffin.”

A lot of the prisoners at Graves do act like animals, or worse. They wage battle after battle against the officers and each other. Their weapon of choice is what’s called “Weapons of Ass Destruction,” feces-filled bottles hurled at anyone considered an enemy. Once squirted with a shit pistol, no matter how many showers you take, the thought and feeling of being drenched in another person’s defecation is not easily forgotten. The smell hangs in the air like a miasmic cloud for days, and stands as a reminder for everyone else to be careful.

My client Gerardo Hernández, who did six years in solitary while serving a life sentence at Lompoc, a federal maximum-security prison in California, once gave me a particularly vivid image of the twisted forms human invention can sometimes take in extreme circumstances:

Imagine prisoners can make killing weapons out of most anything—the cardboard within a roll of toilet paper, hardened by feces. One of the few things the prisoners have and can use freely is their feces. It’s also an element that the prison guards can “keep” in the cells and on cell walls.

Senghor’s description of a Latino prisoner’s efforts to end the pain and misery that were his life in solitary suggests the perverse logic that governs solitary housing units:

One night a Latino prisoner set himself on fire, so desperate for escape from this pain and misery he would rather end his life through immolation. After days of harassment about his sexual orientation by guards, he woke everyone up in the middle of the night reciting a chilling rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. The next day he set his cell on fire. The officers sprayed him with a fire extinguisher then took him to suicide watch where he set himself on fire again.

In the small world of solitary confinement, torture takes unexpected forms. Smell, noise, and temperature can all have terrible effects. William Blake, fifty-two, who is in his twenty-ninth year of solitary after he killed an officer and wounded another in an attempted escape during a court hearing, writes that for months the first thing he noticed when he awoke in the morning was the “malodorous funk of human feces, tinged with acrid stench of days-old urine, where I ate my breakfast, lunch, and dinner with that same stink.” Blake writes that he’d seen

days turn into weeks that seemed like they’d never end without being able to sleep more than short snatches before I was shocked out of my dreams, and thrown back into a living nightmare, by the screams of sick men who had lost all ability to control themselves, or by the banging of the cell bars and walls being done by these same madmen.

Five Mualimm-ak, forty, was jailed for twelve years for a series of drug offenses and spent five years in solitary in a New York state prison. Released in 2012, Mualimm-ak is a founding member of the New York State Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. In his essay, Mualimm-ak describes an anarchic world governed by prison guards and their seemingly arbitrary rules, which they enforce by giving “tickets” that add up to special punishments:

In New York, guards give out tickets like penny candy. During my years in prison, I received an endless stream of tickets, each one more absurd than the last. When I tried to use artwork to stay sane, I was ticketed for having too many pencils. Excess pencils are considered sharpened objects, or weapons. Another time, I had too many postage stamps, which in prison are used like currency and are contraband.

One day, I ate an entire apple—including the core—because I was starving for lack of nutrition. I received a ticket for eating the core because apple seeds contain arsenic. The next time I received an apple, fearful of another ticket, I simply left it on the tray. I received a ticket for “refusing to eat.”

For parents, solitary confinement sometimes involves additional violence. My client Kathy Boudin was the young mother of a fifteen-month-old boy when she was put into solitary in the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal prison, for participating in a robbery during which three men were killed. Acting on their own authority, prison officials refused to let him visit her. After a long court battle, the child was allowed to visit so long as he and his mother remained at opposite ends of a twelve-foot-long table and did not touch each other. If the child cried, guards ended the visit. Guards checked the boy’s anus and mouth for drugs and weapons whenever he came through jail security. The child howled. We tried to get the prison officials to stop this practice, and failed.

After a four-month battle, Kathy received court permission to touch her own child during visits. A maverick federal judge presided over her exceptional case. Most of the hundreds of thousands of women kept in solitary confinement who do not have access to lawyers are not able to have physical contact with their children.

The state rules against parents touching their children serve no apparent purpose; that the government (in this case US Attorney Rudolph Giuliani’s deputies) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to keep a mother from holding her baby seems particularly irrational and despicable.

Is there reason to believe that testimony as graphic and as memorable as that collected here will bring an end to solitary confinement? Recent court decisions, legislative actions, and public outcries suggest a diminishing tendency to impose the punishment. And yet in May 2014, a federal appeals court in Denver found that Thomas Silverstein’s captivity for thirty years of solitary confinement did not violate the Constitution.

In the report on solitary confinement prepared by his UN committee in 2011, Méndez, who was held in solitary by the Argentine government in 1975 for filing writs and petitions on behalf of political prisoners, recommended ending virtually all prolonged solitary confinement practices around the globe. The committee defined “prolonged” as a period lasting longer than fifteen days and demanded that prisoners have available to them a legal process by which they can ask for release from solitary. With Amnesty International and other human rights groups, I introduced his report in a Florida federal court and its recommendations for changed public and legal procedures intended to produce a court ruling that solitary confinement violated the Constitution’s proscription against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court had occasion to consider the lawfulness of solitary confinement last summer. In reviewing Davis v. Ayala, the 2015 case over a death sentence given to a Hispanic defendant by an all-white jury, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy agreed with the majority in upholding the conviction but noted that the defendant had likely been held for twenty-three hours a day during most of the past twenty years in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot. Invoking Dostoevsky’s observation that “the degree of civilization in society can be judged by entering its prisons,” Justice Kennedy said that the conditions of Hector Ayala’s solitary confinement might have violated the US Constitution. Solitary “literally drives men mad,” Kennedy told a House subcommittee. He seemed to invite a case that would make the Court confront the constitutionality of solitary confinement.

Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg took note of the special brutality of solitary; however, most of the major recent court holdings, including one by the Supreme Court, suggest that we are a long way from abolishing a practice that degrades us all. Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement may provide a fifth vote to start restricting it.

Meanwhile, the prison-building epidemic goes on. A new $200 million supermax prison is set to open this year in Illinois that will double the number of federal solitary prison cells in the country. And powerful corrections unions continue to oppose any procedures that interfere with the total control of guards over prisoners.

Barack Obama, the first US president to visit a prison, has spoken out against solitary confinement and directed his attorney general to investigate the misuse of solitary in federal prisons. His recommendations include a complete ban on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. This year, New York City officials decided to ban the solitary confinement of juveniles at Rikers Island. But other cities and states will not come to similar decisions easily.

Today’s forward progress is reversible. Solitary will end only when the public demands it. Franz Kafka wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” This book may be such an instrument.

  1. *

    Such a system is described in the forthcoming book 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement by Keramet Reiter (Yale University Press). 

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The Magician of Manga

The heavenly musician kalavinka; drawing by Katsushika Hokusai, 1823-1833
Museum of Fine Arts, BostonThe heavenly musician kalavinka; drawing by Katsushika Hokusai, 1823-1833

Like other Japanese exports—sushi or judo, haiku or Zen—the art form known as manga has evolved amid its long history of Pacific crossings. Today, we think of manga as graphic stories, the Japanese equivalent of comic books. But during the nineteenth century, manga referred to informal drawings, sequential or not, seemingly dashed off by their inspired creator. No artist was more closely associated with manga than the amazing painter and printmaker who called himself, among some thirty other fanciful names, Hokusai (“Northern Studio”) Katsushika (1760-1849), best known, outside of Japan, for his mesmerizing series of landscape prints Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830-31), published when he was already in his seventies.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, had long possessed—in its fabulous collection of Japanese art unparalleled anywhere outside Japan—an anonymous album of drawings long assumed to be by Hokusai. That album has now been persuasively linked to the artist, through art-historical detective work, via a hitherto mysterious publisher’s advertisement, from 1823, for Master Iitsu’s Chicken-Rib Picture Book. (Iitsu was one of Hokusai’s many disguises; the title might thus be translated, as MFA curator Sarah E. Thompson notes, “Hokusai’s Tasty Morsels.”) The volume of tasty morsels remained unpublished—until now. The cover displays a partially clothed abalone-diver swooping down on her prey with a knife between her teeth. She seems just the right official greeter for Hokusai’s incisive art.

When French artists like Manet and Degas first encountered Hokusai’s manga, in fifteen volumes numbering some 4,000 plates, it was the disjunctive, off-the-cuff quality of the images that proved most exciting. Hokusai seemed to be a Japanese flâneur, sketchbook in hand, who quickly took down whatever he saw on his travels or in his teeming imagination. Again and again in Hokusai’s Lost Manga, travelers take a break from their journeys—up craggy mountains, down dangerous rivers—to scrutinize the countryside. A dapper falconer, a hawk perched on his shoulder, looks out over carefully tended fields. A dog beside him reinforces the intent gaze of hawker and hawk. This is how to view this variegated world, Hokusai seems to say, in plate after plate in this visually arresting album.

But Hokusai wasn’t just a sharp-eyed observer; he was also an exquisite and extremely well-informed craftsman, eager to pilfer whatever he could use from Western artists or the latest developments in chemical dyes. Some of the most absorbing plates in the Boston album are closely observed depictions of master craftsmen at work. In one picture, a weaver sits at a loom so enormous that it takes up almost the whole frame. We can see all the elaborate machinery of warp and weft, like a great organ at which he has just sat down to play. The pattern he is weaving is unspooling, like music, from his alert hands. In another energetic image, drawn from a No play, a pair of swordsmiths wearing ceremonial fox-hats take turns hammering a peerless blade while a mysterious deity lends a hand to the task. So vigorous are the hammer blows that one hammer leaps beyond the border of the page. In yet another image, two sculptors, dwarfed by their task, carve a huge statue to guard a temple. This image seems the most self-reflexive for Hokusai, with the roughed out form of the statue resembling an unfinished woodblock print.

Elsewhere in the book, readers familiar with Hokusai’s work will recognize the master experimenting with images that later made him world-famous: the dramatic portrait of a great wave cresting threateningly, which would become the single most familiar image in all of Japanese art; a charming picture of grooms stretching their arms to wash a horse, which Hokusai would later place in front of a waterfall, as though a great deal of water was needed for the job. Another print pairs a sea monster, slicing menacingly among Hokusai’s trademark claw-like waves, with a roof-ornament of the same monster—like a gargoyle chomping on a ridgepole—while Mount Fuji looms in the background. “Real or imagined, it’s all the same to me,” Hokusai seems to say.

Hokusai’s Lost Manga is published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb

Werner and Elisabeth Heisenberg, Göttingen, Germany, circa 1946
Heisenberg Family ArchivesWerner and Elisabeth Heisenberg, Göttingen, Germany, circa 1946

Almost as soon as World War II ended in Europe, and with redoubled intensity after the bombing of Hiroshima, physicists all over the world began to ask how close the Germans had come to making an atomic bomb. But it was not clear whom to ask. Everything to do with development of the bomb was cloaked in secrecy and ten of the leading scientists involved in German atomic research had gone missing. One of them, Otto Hahn, the first to explain the fission process that made bombs possible, was on November 15, 1945, awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery, but the prize committee, it turned out, had no idea where Hahn was.

Among the few who did know were leading scientists who had developed the American bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico. Many of them were Jews by Nazi standards who had fled Hitler’s Germany, including the physicists Hans Bethe and Victor Weisskopf, who had feared at the beginning of the war that the great German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg would build a bomb for Hitler. In 1942, learning that Heisenberg was going to give a scientific talk in Zurich, Bethe and Weisskopf had proposed an American operation to kidnap Heisenberg in Switzerland and even offered to take part themselves. This episode, improbable as it sounds, has been well documented elsewhere1 and after many twists and turns the original proposal led to Heisenberg’s detention in southern Germany in May 1945.

By November, Heisenberg, Hahn, and the other German scientists were being secretly held and closely monitored at a British country house called Farm Hall. The man who had the most to do with putting them there was the Dutch-born physicist Samuel Goudsmit, scientific director of an intelligence group called the Alsos mission. Goudsmit’s task was to track down the Germans who had been working on nuclear fission during the war and to answer the basic question—how close did the Germans get?

For the first year or two after the war pretty much everything Bethe and Weisskopf knew about the answer to the basic question came from information supplied by Goudsmit, a colleague in the Manhattan Project. The answer was not close at all. The Alsos mission found nothing that ever posed a threat to the Allies—instead there was a scattered program of small-scale, poorly funded research efforts that centered on an experimental reactor hidden in a cave in southern Germany that Heisenberg mistakenly hoped would soon be successful. When he first talked to Heisenberg in May 1945, Goudsmit had been privately scornful of German efforts that had achieved so little, and he dismissed Heisenberg’s attempts to explain the history of that little as the excuse-making of a scientist guilty of crude errors about the physics and technical construction of bombs. Freed by the British in early 1946, Heisenberg insisted for a time that it was all more complicated than that—the Germans, he said, had been spared the moral dilemma of whether to build a bomb because the job was just too big for Germany in wartime.

American officials discouraged talk of moral dilemmas, and lost interest in the basic question once Goudsmit and the Alsos mission had established that the Germans had no bombs or prototypes, no working reactors or stockpiles of plutonium and uranium-235, no community of scientists with bomb-making expertise who might work for the Russians. But Bethe and Weisskopf were different. As scientists, as pre-war friends of Heisenberg, and even as fellow bomb-makers, Bethe and Weisskopf might have been expected to ask more questions of Heisenberg, but as soon as the basic question was answered—not close at all!—their curiosity died.

In 1948, Bethe visited Heisenberg in Göttingen, in the British zone, where Heisenberg and his colleagues were again doing physics. Their talk was friendly enough, Bethe told me, but he held his own curiosity in check and let the moment pass without asking any of the questions that might have helped explain the German “failure.”

Weisskopf did likewise. In the fall of 1948 he exchanged many letters with Goudsmit, who was still trying to sort out why Heisenberg “failed,” but Weisskopf had tired of the whole discussion. “Let’s stop this useless prying into the past,” he wrote Goudsmit, adding that he wanted to tell Heisenberg the same thing. “I would make only one point, but this very strongly: stop prying into the past.”

Heisenberg was certainly the man to ask but his death in 1976 closed that door for good. The mystery of Heisenberg’s “failure” was deepened by the fact that surviving German war records provided no explanation why the program to build a bomb had been radically scaled back—essentially shut down—in 1942. Germany had begun with many advantages—first-rate scientists, the technical expertise and big economy needed for a huge industrial project, access to uranium ore in Czechoslovakia, and above all the enthusiasm of the Heereswaffenamt, the German army’s division for weapons development, which had a bomb project underway on the first day of the war, three years before the Americans got moving. The best explanation—indeed the only explanation—for the about-face in 1942 came from Hitler’s economics czar, Albert Speer, who told the German magazine Der Spiegel in 1967 that Heisenberg had convinced him that building a bomb was too big a project for Germany in wartime:

We had asked Heisenberg to put together a list with material and financial demands, and we even encouraged the gentlemen. But their demands were so ridiculously tiny—a few million marks—that we got the view that the development was very much at its beginning, obviously the physicists themselves didn’t want to put much into it.

For a historian the question inevitably then becomes: Why did Heisenberg give this advice, which ended the bomb program? By the early 1990s, when I knew him, Weisskopf had come to regret his many lost opportunities to “pry into the past” in the simplest, most obvious way—by asking Heisenberg why things went as they did.

“We never talked,” Weisskopf told me in an interview in 1991. “I blame myself most for this. I never went to him and said, ‘I have as long as you like—tell me what happened.’”

What happened was observed by Elisabeth Schumacher, who was twenty-two when she met Heisenberg at a musical evening in Leipzig in January 1937 and married him three months later. Over the following nine years, whenever they were separated by Heisenberg’s scientific travels or the war itself, Elisabeth and her husband exchanged more than three hundred letters that survived the fighting. Both Heisenberg and his wife later wrote accounts of the war years,2 but their letters, filled with the worries and hopes of ordinary family life, offer a quieter, more intimate picture of the years when Heisenberg ran the program that was going nowhere. Husband and wife both knew that the German secret police were free to open and read their letters at will, and tried to avoid dangerous ground.

Heisenberg had already drawn the attention of the Gestapo for teaching the theories of Albert Einstein, derided by Nazi scientists as “Jewish physics,” and the danger was underlined by the fate of friends and acquaintances who got into political trouble as the war unfolded. Now published in English as My Dear Li, the letters make no attempt to explain things to outsiders, and certainly not the wartime deliberations of Heisenberg and his closest friends as they considered what to say to Speer or other officials. The reader must expect no grand revelations, but will find an intimate record of the tenor of Heisenberg’s moods and preoccupations as the war gradually closed in around German scientists.

When Elisabeth died in 1998, twenty-two years after the death of her husband, she left the letters to her oldest daughter, Anna Maria, in two neatly wrapped bundles. Anna Maria edited the letters, which have now been translated into English by her sister-in-law, Irene, wife of Heisenberg’s son Jochen, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of New Hampshire.

The first of the letters was written shortly after Heisenberg met his future wife in Leipzig, where he won her heart, according to Anna Maria, with his performance of a Beethoven piano piece. They were soon married, but scientific business and later the war often called Heisenberg away. When they were apart they wrote, often daily, touching more or less substantially on all the events in which historians have taken the most interest.

Prominent among them are Heisenberg’s trip to America in the summer of 1939; his role as chief of research on nuclear fission at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin; his trip to Copenhagen to talk to Niels Bohr in September 1941; his meeting with Albert Speer in June 1942; his withdrawal with the reactor research team to southern Germany in 1943; and his months incarcerated along with other German scientists at Farm Hall in Britain after the war’s end in Europe.

Readers coming to these letters will read them as Elisabeth did, with an eye for what is between the lines. Like her, we know what Heisenberg was concerned not to write—that he was working on nuclear fission, that some German officials hoped for mighty results, that he had longed to speak with Bohr in Copenhagen about the deep questions raised by the possibility of atomic bombs. Knowing how Heisenberg revered Bohr, and what he hoped to gain from talking to his old friend, lends impact to his quiet account of their first conversation in Bohr’s house on September 16, 1941, which “quickly veered,” he wrote Elisabeth a few days later, “to the human concerns and unhappy events of these times.”

Exactly what was said by Heisenberg, and how it was taken by Bohr, are difficult to establish. But it seems clear from the available evidence, which is not scant, that Heisenberg wanted to raise the question of atomic bombs, which he knew were possible, but that Bohr angrily ended the conversation as soon as he grasped the implication of what Heisenberg was trying to say—that Germany had an active bomb program. From that moment Bohr would listen to nothing further that Heisenberg had hoped to add. (After leaving Copenhagen Bohr eventually went to the US, where he worked as a consultant on the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos.)

It was past midnight when Heisenberg returned to his hotel, where he described what had happened to his traveling companion, the physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. Heisenberg was older by a decade, but the two had been close friends for many years. Before meeting Elisabeth, Heisenberg had been in love with Weizsäcker’s sister, Adelheid. Heisenberg, Weizsäcker, and a third scientist, Karl Wirtz, were leaders of an effort to guide nuclear research past two dangers—a complete shutdown, which would condemn young physicists to military service and the brutal war in Russia, or takeover by Nazi extremists who might think an atomic bomb could still give Hitler a complete victory. A distraught Heisenberg told Weizsäcker that Bohr “has not understood anything that I said. It has gone astray.”

Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, Copenhagen, 1934
Fermilab/US Department of EnergyWerner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, Copenhagen, 1934

Bohr was angry and Heisenberg in despair. It is this conversation, which the two men heard so differently, that is the subject of Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s play, which has many interesting things to say about the relationship of Bohr and Heisenberg, but not about the German bomb program. In late 1941 in the months following the meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg in September, the bomb part of the research effort was barely alive, and it expired the following June after the meeting between Heisenberg and other leading researchers with Albert Speer.

In his letter to Elisabeth, written on the train from Berlin to Leipzig the day after the meeting with Speer, Heisenberg said he found the whole experience “exceedingly strange and unnerving; suddenly, I will no longer have to concern myself at all with the whole Lenard-Stark clique [a coterie of German physicists who accused Heisenberg of pursuing “Jewish” physics], and can push through almost anything I find important.” That ended one of Heisenberg’s fears—that the program would be shut down completely.

A few days later, worrying that he had put too much down on paper, Heisenberg wrote Elisabeth to ask if she had safely received his letter about the Speer conference. “It would make me uncomfortable if it were lost and had fallen into the wrong hands.” This touch of apprehension helps to describe Heisenberg’s wariness; his position protected him in some ways but left him terribly exposed in others.

What the letters reveal are glimpses of Heisenberg’s inner life, like the depth of his relief after the meeting with Speer, reassured that things could safely tick along as they were; his deep unhappiness over his failure to explain to Bohr how the German scientists were trying to keep young physicists out of the army while still limiting uranium research work to a reactor, while not pursuing a fission bomb; his care in deciding who among friends and acquaintances could be trusted.

As the war approached its end Heisenberg’s world grew ever smaller. He snatched moments when he could take time for his own work on theoretical problems but admitted that “it was kind of crazy” to do so. In January 1945 he wrote Elisabeth, “I am trying to keep the institute functioning on the smallest scale; under all circumstances, one must avoid having it be shut down and then having the people taken away.”

During the final weeks of the war Heisenberg kept a diary, included with the letters in My Dear Li, which describes his dangerous three-day trek by foot, train, and bicycle to rejoin his family in Urfeld. On May 2, ten days after he arrived home, Heisenberg was taken into custody by the American Colonel Boris Pash, commander of the intelligence unit that included Samuel Goudsmit. Then followed nearly eight months of comfortable Babylonian captivity, in which he was treated well but told nothing. Most of that time he and nine other German scientists, including Weizsäcker, were held at Farm Hall. Heisenberg was permitted to write home only two or three letters before his detention ended—one of them, as it happened, on August 6, the day Hiroshima was bombed.

As soon as Heisenberg and the others were told of the bombing later that day, there began an intense, extended discussion of the science involved in making a bomb, of the reasons for the German “failure,” and of the moral questions raised by a weapon of such great power. Many of their discussions were secretly recorded by the British and eventually, more than forty years later, published as what are called “the Farm Hall tapes.” It is clear from the tapes that the Germans had no blueprint for the making of an atomic bomb, and in that sense did not know how to do it. The ten scientists of course all knew one another, but they had rarely worked together during the war; they held varying political views, none of their differing programs had achieved any clear success, and all—Heisenberg and Weizsäcker included—were worried how their actions might be judged by their fellow Germans after peace returned.3

In one of his first letters to Elisabeth after returning to Germany in January 1946, Heisenberg tried to sum up lucidly why the German program had turned out the way it did. He quoted a paragraph by his friend Weizsäcker, saying it “describes this problem exactly right.” Weizsäcker had also written to his wife after the long silence of Farm Hall:

You have probably been asked about our supposed work on the atomic bomb…. As far as our work during the war is concerned: we were spared the difficult moral decision whether we should build an atomic bomb. The technical and organizational means available to us in Germany would not have permitted at all the effort America had to put forth in regard to the problem. We confined ourselves to the preliminary work on the lesser effort of building a machine [i.e., a reactor] capable of producing heat, along the same paths that America apparently used as well in its pursuit. At the end of the war, we were close to a success.

For Elisabeth’s eyes alone, Heisenberg added a further comment about the development and use of atomic bombs. “I know many of the British and American colleagues who have worked on it, some of them are my pupils,” he wrote, “and they have my sympathy, because their names are now tied to this atrocity.”

Heisenberg’s judgment was unknown to the builders of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Without question it would have infuriated them, deeply troubled as many already were by the enormity of what they had done. This question—was it right?—still has no accepted answer. It is one of history’s ironies that Heisenberg, who built no bomb, was the first atomic physicist to be asked to justify himself. What the international scientific community wanted to know was whether Heisenberg had behaved responsibly and decently, or had been only a “good German,” doing what he was told and looking the other way. In one of the first issues of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the American physicist Philip Morrison, who had been active in American intelligence efforts, wrote that “it will never be possible to forgive” the German physicists—not for trying to build a bomb, Morrison stressed, since the Americans and the British had of course done that; but for trying to build a bomb for “the cause of Himmler and Auschwitz.”

Later, when critics protested that his charge was too broad and tendentious, Morrison narrowed his indictment more specifically to Heisenberg himself, not naming but unmistakably referring to him as “a famous German physicist in Göttingen today…who could live for a decade in the Third Reich, and never once risk his position of comfort and authority in real opposition to [Hitler’s regime].”

It was not just Heisenberg who was being held to a rigorous standard by Morrison, but German science, and by extension science itself. With his attack on Heisenberg, Morrison was stumbling into the middle of an argument about the moral responsibility of scientists that began with the development (led by the German chemist Fritz Haber) of poison gas for battlefield use in World War I. The horrors of gas warfare were multiplied by atomic bombs, leading some critics to argue that scientists, fascinated by what worked and pressed by their governments to develop fresh horrors, always found it impossible to say no.

If Heisenberg had been pliable and did what he was told to protect his own “comfort and authority,” as Morrison charged, then it would be fair to say that he and the majority of his colleagues had failed a crucial moral test. But if Heisenberg had sought and found a way to say no—if he had deliberately convinced Hitler’s government to abandon hope for an atomic bomb as taking too long to make and being too big, too expensive, and too uncertain for Germany in wartime—then Heisenberg’s example would suggest that even in the midst of the bitterest of wars scientists could act morally, and remain faithful to a core of common human values.

Morrison’s attack on Heisenberg had the effect of closing down serious consideration of Heisenberg’s record. Questions about moral responsibility remained muddy in the first years after the war, but time gradually clarified them. What Heisenberg did, and why he did it, slowly emerged as one of the most uncomfortable questions of the nuclear age.

It is the moral questions about atomic bombs that make the history of the German program such a touchy matter. Heisenberg, Weizsäcker, and others were careful never to claim that the German scientists had actively opposed the Heereswaffenamt’s hope to produce a bomb during the war. “They never had to make a moral decision,” Heisenberg told a New York Times reporter in December 1948, “and this for the reason that they and the Army agreed on the utter impossibility of producing a bomb during the war.”

But how did the army know it was utterly impossible? That is what Heisenberg and his colleagues told the army, and that is what Albert Speer said they told him in 1942, and that is why the program was cut back to an insignificant research effort. Explaining what happened to the German bomb program comes down, in the end, to explaining what Heisenberg did, and why he did it.

In the first years after the war the ongoing argument about Heisenberg raised an infinity of painful questions for Bethe and Weisskopf and the thousands of their colleagues who had helped to build the atomic bombs that destroyed two Japanese cities in 1945. The subject is just as painful now, and perhaps explains why biographers of Heisenberg and historians of German bomb-making efforts have been reluctant to address, or even to cite, evidence that suggests the bomb-makers had a hidden agenda. I will cite two examples that go to the heart of the matter.

In April 1941 the German mathematician Fritz Reiche, one of the last Jews to escape Berlin safely before the border was closed, brought with him a secret message from a friend and colleague of Heisenberg’s, which Reiche passed on to a physicist he knew at Princeton, Rudolf Ladenburg. A few days later, Ladenburg reported Reiche’s message to the head of the Uranium Committee in Washington, a predecessor to the Manhattan Project. The source of the message, Ladenburg wrote, was a “reliable colleague” in Germany who wanted to warn the Americans

that a large number of German physicists are working intensively on the problem of the uranium bomb under the direction of Heisenberg, that Heisenberg himself tries to delay the work as much as possible, fearing the catastrophic results of a success. But he cannot help fulfilling the orders given to him, and if the problem can be solved, it will be solved probably in the near future. So he gave the advice to us to hurry up if the USA will not come too late.

A second example of rarely or never-mentioned evidence is a letter published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on July 7, 1990, describing a conversation about atomic bombs with Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker in early 1944. The author of the letter was Max Himmelheber, a German inventor and wartime flier, who had met Weizsäcker in Berlin before the war. In September 1940 Himmelheber’s Messerschmitt was shot down over Britain where he spent the next three years as a prisoner of war, passing the time by writing a paper on “Limits of Technology.”

In his paper Himmelheber argued that every major technical achievement had been discovered but one—“the match” needed to release the energy locked inside the atom. In late 1943, still not fully recovered from his wounds, he was exchanged through Sweden and after his arrival in Germany he sent his paper to Weizsäcker, who took an interest and invited Himmelheber to visit him at the University of Strasbourg, where Weizsäcker was teaching. In his 1990 letter Himmelheber said he was “shaken” when Weizsäcker told him, “We have found the match.” Himmelheber continued:

[Weizsäcker] asked me if I had heard the names [Otto] Hahn and [Fritz] Strassmann and proceeded to tell me about their successes. Herr von Weizsäcker told me also that he, Heisenberg, and other colleagues had been summoned [in September 1939] by a high-level office of armaments. (Today I know that it was the Herreswaffenamt.…) And now Weizsäcker told me the following story which made a deep impression: because of this summons, the most intimate circle of atomic physicists around Hahn and his discovery had convened in advance of the meeting. Speculation was that they would be asked whether they could build an atomic weapon…. Von Weizsäcker told me that the group had agreed that such a dreadful weapon should, under no circumstances, become available to the world, and that it was their duty to refuse collaboration on such a project on account of ethical considerations. Such outright refusal could obviously not be voiced because it would be viewed as sabotage, if not treason. Therefore, Weizsäcker related, the assembled group agreed to take the position not to deny outright the possibility of building an atomic bomb, but, in view of the present war situation, to make the point that it could not be implemented within a realistic time frame….

These revelations made a deep impression on me. I could hardly grasp the fact that, only a few weeks after my return from England, I was privy to knowing of a resistance group against Hitler and an all-out war, a group, consisting of most prominent personalities who, in some sense, had the wherewithal to substantially influence the fate of humanity.4

These letters potentially cast the standard history of the German bomb in a very different light, suggesting that Heisenberg and his colleagues found a silent way to make a moral decision, not that they were spared one.5

In the thirty years that remained to him, whenever Heisenberg was asked to explain the German “failure” to build a bomb, his answer was what he had written to Elisabeth in letters before, during, and just after the war—that he had stayed in Germany because it needed him, and he had been spared the difficult moral decision of whether to build a bomb by the impossible immensity of the task—exactly what you might expect to hear from a man who didn’t want to do it, and found a way to say no.

  1. 1

    See my book Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb(Knopf, 1993). 

  2. 2

    Elisabeth Heisenberg, Inner Exile, 1984; and Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond, 1971. 

  3. 3

    Just after the scientists were told briefly that Hiroshima was bombed, the following exchange took place between Weizsäcker and Heisenberg:
    Weizsäcker: I think it is dreadful for the Americans to have done it. I think it is madness on their part.
    Heisenberg: One can’t say that. One could equally well say, “That’s the quickest way of ending the war.” 

  4. 4

    Several people sent me copies of this letter in the early 1990s. One of them was Victor Weisskopf, who told me that immediately after reading Himmelheber’s letter he had contacted Weizsäcker in Germany to ask why he would have talked so openly to a man he hardly knew? Weisskopf quoted to me Weizsäcker’s response: “You must understand that under a dictatorship you develop a sense very quickly of whom you can trust and Himmelheber made a very good impression on me—I felt immediately that I could trust him.” 

  5. 5

    It is clear that more research is required. The long struggle over history still lay ahead when Heisenberg returned to Germany from England in 1946. What restored his natural optimism, as he wrote to his wife in January from the village of Alswede in the British zone (where he was still not entirely free to move about), was reuniting with his family, getting back to scientific work at a new institute in Göttingen, and doing what he could to revive German science. He had been asked repeatedly if he wanted to go to America, before the war and since. The answer, he told his wife, was still no: “I am not needed there as much: many excellent, competent physicists are there. Here, however, it matters a great deal that an intellectual life should again become viable. Since 1933 it has been clear to me that here a terrible tragedy for Germany was in progress, only I could not have imagined the extent and the ending; and I stayed here at the time so that I might also be here afterward and help. This was exactly what I also told my American friends in the summer of 1939, and the best among them could understand it; this intention remains firm and will not be betrayed.” 

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What the Trees Say

Quiver Tree Forest, Namibia; photograph by Beth Moon from her book Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time (2014). A collection of her color photographs, Ancient Skies, Ancient Trees, has just been published by Abbeville.
Beth MoonQuiver Tree Forest, Namibia; photograph by Beth Moon from her book Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time (2014). A collection of her color photographs, Ancient Skies, Ancient Trees, has just been published by Abbeville.

In 1664 John Evelyn, diarist, country gentleman, and commissioner at the court of Charles II, produced his monumental book on trees: Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees. It was a seventeenth-century best seller. Evelyn was a true son of the Renaissance. His book is learned and witty and practical and passionate all by turns. No later book on trees has ever had such an impact on the British public. His message? A very modern one. We are in desperate need of trees for all kinds of reasons. Get out there with your spade and plant one today.

Despite the catastrophes that crippled London in the next two years—the great plague and the great fire—Evelyn lived to see the book reprinted four times. A century later it was reissued with elegant copperplate illustrations and an exhaustive commentary to bring it up to date. Later editions of the book (renamed Silva) have followed, and many authors have tried to write in the spirit of Evelyn. But somehow Sylva has always remained head and shoulders above its successors. That is, until the present. The two new books on trees under review are both outstanding. In different ways their authors share many of Evelyn’s best qualities.

Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees treads closest in the footsteps of Sylva. Evelyn, it is true, was more adventurous in his choice of trees to be described in detail. He covers an astonishing range: a tally of thirty-one genera, which include newly introduced trees from the American East Coast, like red oaks and Weymouth pines, as well as trees that were seen as exotic in England, such as the cedar of Lebanon and the Irish strawberry-tree. Stafford plays safe by choosing a mere seventeen genera, which represent the common trees of gardens and woods and hedgerows throughout Western Europe as well as North America: oaks, sycamores, chestnuts, hawthorns, and so on. But there is nothing humdrum about her descriptions.

Stafford is professor of English at Oxford University and writes about novels, poetry, art, and the environment. In her own way she is as learned as Evelyn, and she is a gifted writer. What do trees mean for her? She owes this book, she says, to her “sense of wonder” at trees. She admires their physical beauty. She is astonished by their gift for survival. And most of all, perhaps, she is struck by their extensive cultural associations. She reminds us that it’s easy to take trees for granted. But we must do more than merely admire them. We must go out there, she says, echoing Evelyn’s words, taking our spades to plant new saplings for the future.

If she plants a tree, her first choice, I feel sure, will be an oak. Most sensible people find the common oak of Europe, Quercus robur, quite irresistible. Ever been inside a Royal Oak? Stafford means the British pub, not the famous oak at Boscobel in which the future Charles II hid from the fury of the Roundheads after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Of course one led to the other, and today there are more Royal Oaks in Britain than any other pubs except Crowns and Red Lions.

In her chapter on oaks, Stafford explores the tangled history of Britain’s infatuation with the species. It long predates the king’s miraculous escape at Boscobel. The oak was a symbol of power and strength from classical times. It was the tree of Zeus, king of the gods. It was the oracular tree at Dodona in Greece, meaning that it could predict the future. Augustus Caesar, ever conscious of his image, faced the Roman public wearing a civic crown of oak leaves. The tree’s “manly” virtues made it a choice as a symbol for any country, like Britain, seeking to impress its neighbors. Effortlessly it became the national tree of Britain, although the claim was not uncontested. (Many patriotic British people would be surprised to learn that twelve other European countries and the US all claim it as their national tree.)

“Sturdy, stalwart and stubborn,” Stafford writes,

the oak has always been admired for its staying power…. No other tree is so self-possessed, so evidently at one with the world. Unlike the beech, horse chestnut or sycamore, whose branches reach up towards the sky, the solid, craggy trunk of a mature oak spreads out, as if with open arms, to create a vast hemisphere of thick, clotted leaves.

It is this copious canopy that provides a home for an astonishing number of small insects, birds, animals, lichens, ferns, and fungi. If you look up at those mossy, fern-encrusted branches, you may well find redstarts and robins and wood warblers searching for insects, while woodpeckers and little owls build their nests in hollows in the trunk. A great oak is a world in itself. “This is the King of the Trees,” Stafford writes exultantly, “the head, heart and habitat of an entire civilisation.”

How long can a great oak survive? Sober estimates are impossible, since the oldest oaks are invariably hollow, and most of the annual rings are therefore missing. Wild estimates (including my own) vary between six hundred and one thousand years. Fortunately, many of the great oaks of Britain were engraved and described by Jacob Strutt for his pioneering set of tree portraits, Sylva Britannica, first published in 1826. (He borrowed half his title from John Evelyn.) As one would expect, the majority of Strutt’s ancient trees—the Yardley oak, the Bull oak, the Cowthorpe oak—have now been blown down or simply crumbled to dust. Others have been reduced, like the Major oak in Sherwood Forest, to the fate of a cripple supported by steel crutches. But a few of the most famous have survived.

“Majesty” at Fredville in Kent still stands tall, after perhaps five or six hundred years. The Panshanger Oak in Hertfordshire, much admired by Winston Churchill a century ago, still looks good for several more centuries. Even more remarkable is the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire. Stafford describes a visit she paid to this aged creature. My guess is that it’s at least seven hundred years old. At any rate its trunk was hollow enough in the eighteenth century for smart dinner parties for seventeen people to be given inside its vast interior. Now it’s only the home of a pony and some chickens. But its generous owner allows visitors. Stafford describes the experience: “like stepping from ordinary domesticity into the presence of some immortal being—ancient, wrinkled, yet oddly welcoming.”

One of her best chapters deals with the common and much-abused sycamore of Europe. She quotes a comment by William Blake: “Not everybody sees alike: a Tree that moves some to Tears of Joy to other Eyes is just a green thing in the way.” Did Blake have the sycamore in mind when he wrote those lines? Certainly the tree gets a bad press because of its habit of dropping sticky leaves on pavements and railway lines, causing delays and accidents. In fact the “honeydew” that coats the leaves is a mixture of rich, sugary sap and the excrement of aphids that feed on it. And the list of the sycamore’s so-called vices doesn’t end there. It is the tree, as Stafford says, of excess:

For many, the sycamore is too generous a tree altogether. It disturbs people’s sense of proportion and even seems to uncover lurking puritanical anxieties about excess. It is the tree of profusion: too much sap, too many leaves. Too many sycamores, in fact.

Its propeller-like seeds are a torment to gardeners, infesting lawns and rose beds alike. And worst of all, it is a “tree weed,” an invasive alien, a vicious intruder from Europe.

Stafford looks coolly at these charges, and makes a powerful case for the defense. She points out that sycamores have flourished in Britain for hundreds of years and, despite their pushy reputation, their numbers there have not increased in the last half-century. In fact they fit neatly into the ecosystem, deftly regulating their own numbers and occupying the spaces where most other trees do not flourish. They are generous in the best sense. They add elegance and comfort to the bleak Yorkshire coastline or the rocky islands of Scotland. As for the claim that they are invasive aliens, Stafford points to the thirteenth-century shrine of Saint Frideswide in the cathedral at Oxford, in which five-lobed sycamore leaves are carved on the boss above her tomb. It would appear that by the Middle Ages the sycamore leaf was already a Christian symbol, perhaps representing the stigmata or Five Holy Wounds. And judging from modern research on fossilized pollen, it is possible that this much-maligned tree is a native after all.

Poets, Stafford continues, are quicker than suburban gardeners to appreciate the virtues of the sycamore. She cites John Clare’s lyrical account of the “splendid sycamore” with its mountain of sunny green foliage. Its sticky leaves, he wrote, were a great gift to the world. We should listen to the “merry bees, that feed with eager wing,/On the broad leaves, glaz’d over with honey-dew.” Stafford also reminds us that Shelley’s bittersweet poem “Ode to the West Wind” was based on his experiences in the autumn of 1819, wandering in the sycamore woods around Florence. Shelley was in a wretched state; two of his young children had just died. That autumn it was the fall of the sycamore leaves that caught his imagination. The dead leaves were driven by the west wind—“Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,/Pestilence-stricken multitudes.” But the trees, he hoped, would “quicken a new birth.” For the west wind was propelling the “winged seeds” as well as the dead leaves. The dead leaves promised new life. “If Winter comes, can spring be far behind?”


For her chapters on the European ash and horse chestnut, Stafford strikes a more somber note. Both are European species of a worldwide genus: respectively Fraxinus excelsior and Aesculus hippocastanum. Both are now threatened by a pair of lethal diseases from the East. In fact many of the trees commonest in Europe and North America are now facing an apocalyptic threat from Asia. Fifty years ago we lost most of our elm trees to a fungus from China, spread by a beetle laying infected eggs under the bark. (“Dutch” elm disease was a misnomer. The original enemy was Asian, not European.) Today these new enemies—sudden oak death, acute oak decline, beech wilt, sweet chestnut blight, and so on—are decimating our parks and forests.

The most immediate problem in Europe is Chalara, a fungus that leads to dieback—the death of leaves and branches—in ash trees, believed to have been introduced in the 1990s from Asia on infected crates or pallet wood. In Denmark 80 percent of the European ashes have already died. The plague has now reached Britain and Ireland and is expected to be just as devastating there. Stafford offers little hope for dealing with Chalara. It may be already too late to stop. Control measures should have been taken when the disease was first identified in Eastern Europe. Even if the measures now being taken succeed, there is an even more pitiless Asian enemy behind Chalara—the emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis, a bright green Chinese beetle that has already devastated many forests in North America. So Stafford leaves us with the bleak conclusion that there is probably no way out. One way or the other, we shall lose almost all our ash trees and so many of our “familiar wood-lined roads, green parks and sheltered towns will be left, bereft and bare.”

As for the horse chestnut, half the species in Europe are already believed to be infected by bleeding canker, a bacterial infection that causes a sticky liquid to be secreted from blemishes on the bark, eventually killing the entire tree. Stafford takes a surprisingly relaxed view of this new threat. She says that “bleeding canker may…be a health scare rather than a death sentence. Faking its own death seems just the sort of trick that might engage the horse chestnut….” I wish I could believe her. In Ireland, where I live, many of the finest specimens in parks and gardens have already succumbed. Every year we lose two or three of the largest and most majestic trees in the parkland. There is no defense, no treatment.

But the good news, which should be of some comfort to Stafford, is that there is after all a way to mitigate these disasters. If the aim is to recreate the lost trees, you must make sure to choose a Chinese or Japanese or Indian species of the same genus. This means planting Himalayan horse chestnut, Chinese elm, Chinese ash, Japanese oak, and so on. For these Asian species evolved millions of years ago side by side with the Asian diseases. Today these species are immune—according to the experts I have talked to. I hope they are right. All will be clear, at any rate, within the next one hundred years.

Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees breaks entirely new ground, and John Evelyn would have been delighted with his discoveries. Wohlleben is a professional forester who works for the local community in Hümmel, a small village in the Eifel Mountains of western Germany. For years he managed the forest of beech, oak, pines, and spruce on conventional lines, felling the trees for their timber when they were mature and extracting the logs with heavy machinery. As he puts it, he “knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” But gradually he came to look at the trees in a new light. Visitors, he noticed, would admire the trees he dismissed as of little commercial value: the more crooked and gnarled the trees, the better they liked them. His own love of nature, a relic of childhood, was reignited. He began to notice bizarre root shapes and strange patterns of growth. He writes, “Suddenly, I was aware of countless wonders I could hardly explain even to myself.”

Meanwhile new generations of scientists were exploring his local forest, including a team from Aachen University. And both there and in the university in Vancouver, five thousand miles away in British Columbia, discoveries were made that astounded Wohlleben.

What both teams discovered was nothing less than a vast underground network, called a mycorrhiza, in which fungi connect trees of different species by passing chemical and electrical signals among the trees’ roots. It was an arboreal Internet—christened the “wood wide web.” Trees could actually communicate by exchanging carbon through their roots. The exchange offered mutual support. Carbon is the food of trees, created by photosynthesis, using the leaves as solar panels. Sometimes one tree would act as mother to its neighbors, giving them more carbon than it received in return. Later the debt would be repaid as the roles were reversed.

As the subtleties of this underground network were explored, it became clear to scientists that trees not only benefited by mutual exchange of food. They exchanged vital information, warning their neighbors (and children) of threats and advising them of opportunities to seize. For example, if a tree’s leaves are bitten by a caterpillar, it will send a message though the mycorrhiza, prompting other trees in the network to release chemicals that repel caterpillars.

For Wohlleben these discoveries confirmed what he had come to recognize himself: that, in their own way, trees had feelings, that they knew how to communicate with one another, and that the strong were able to assist the weak. But how to reconcile this with his job as a butcher of trees? Fortunately his employers, the village of Hümmel, were high-minded romantics like himself. They agreed to forgo the income from sales of timber and create a series of tree reserves in the forest. All timber machinery was banned. When a tree had to be felled, only horses were employed in removing the logs. The forest flourished under these generous new rules, and tourists flocked to explore its wonders. Perhaps the high-minded villagers of Hümmel had made a good commercial bargain.

Today Wohlleben continues to work in the forest. Every day, he says, he makes new discoveries: learning more about how trees live and die, how they live their lives in harmony with their neighbors and with all the rest of the ecosystem. Of course he is now more of a guardian than a manager. He organizes survival tours and has arranged for part of the forest to be set aside as a natural graveyard. And his writings have now made him deservedly famous. The German edition of the book has proved a best seller. For twenty years teams of scientists had been exploring the dark world under trees to find how they share each other’s lives. Peter Wohlleben is the first to explain and expose these discoveries. He has listened to trees and decoded their language. Now he speaks for them.

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Which Countries Will Get the Bomb?

Scientists inspecting Iraq's first nuclear reactor in Baghdad, supplied by the Soviets, February, 1968
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty ImagesScientists inspecting Iraq’s first nuclear reactor in Baghdad, supplied by the Soviets, February 1968

For some years I have been puzzling over the question of why some countries that want nuclear weapons succeed in building them and others don’t. As we enter what could be a new age of proliferation, the question takes on considerable importance. The US has a president-elect who has said he would repeal the Iran deal, which among other things prevents substantial uranium enrichment by Tehran for ten years, and who openly suggested during the campaign that our allies in Asia, and even the Arabian peninsula, take responsibility for their own nuclear deterrence. If, say, South Korea or Saudi Arabia began to pursue a nuclear program, how likely might they be to succeed? 

History offers us a number of insights about this. Among the countries that succeeded in getting the bomb were Israel and South Africa and among those that didn’t were Libya and Iraq. It seemed to me that what the successful countries had in common was both a substantial technological infrastructure and a government that was both determined and permissive. An anecdote I once heard about the Soviet program makes the point. Stalin decided that the program might be better motivated if he appointed the much-feared Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the secret police, to direct it. When Beria decided that some of the nuclear scientists were straying off the ideological reservation he went to Stalin to complain. Stalin allegedly said to him, “You leave my physicists alone. We can shoot them later.”

Among the successful countries, the story of the Israeli-program is well known: they had a very sophisticated scientific establishment and a determined government. The situation in Pakistan is even more striking. About a half dozen physicists using rather primitive computers designed the device and a very determined government backed the production of the fissile elements. And then there is the remarkable case of South Africa.

South Africa’s interest in nuclear technology goes back to the late 1940s. It was realized that the country had a substantial supply of uranium and a large number of trained scientists. The government acquired two reactors and when it began to think about nuclear weapons, the idea was to generate plutonium for them in reactors. This was abandoned in favor of enriching uranium. South African scientists adapted a method—stationary centrifuges—that had never been used on an industrial scale: injecting Uranium hexafluoride gas at very high velocity into a tube with a sharp curve. When the gas goes around the curve the centrifugal force pushes the heavier isotope U238 out, leaving more U235—which is the fissile isotope of uranium, meaning it can be fissioned by neutrons of any energy which is what you need to make an explosive chain reaction.

From this supply of U235, the South Africans amassed enough weapons-grade uranium to produce seven nuclear devices, which were never tested. In 1989 the country abandoned the program and this material was turned over to the International Atomic Energy Agency. One curious aspect of the program was that only whites were allowed to work on it. I am always reminded of Tom Lehrer’s song on proliferation:

South Africa wants two, that’s right.
One for the black and one for the white.

In this case the whites got them all.

So what happened with the failures, Libya and Iraq? A good deal of sporadic reading has long persuaded me that one way or the other both countries had or had acquired sufficient means to pursue a program—in the case of Libya there were financial resources and in the case of Iraq both financial and scientific resources. The Libyans started with almost nothing, but the oil boom enabled them to buy what they needed. Yet both countries had leaders—Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi—whose feelings about these weapons were ambivalent and always secondary to preserving the ideology of the regime. Neither, I assumed, would have had the slightest hesitation to shoot their physicists.

Now there is an excellent new book, Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons, by the Norwegian political scientist Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, that is the most detailed study of these two programs that I have seen. After reading it I think that my general conclusions were right, but the situation was much more nuanced than I had realized. The book is divided into two parts, one on each country. The Libyan story is simpler and the treatment of it is shorter so I will start with that.

One curious feature of the Iraqi and Libyan programs is that both countries had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the case of Libya, this meant that there were sporadic inspections by the IAEA. There was never much to inspect. But Libya’s membership in the NPT also meant something that I was not aware of until I read this book: the IAEA supplied instructors for courses in nuclear physics and engineering. The problem in Libya was that no one showed up for the lectures and the instructors gave up. It is an ineluctable fact that the Libyans never had the remotest chance of making nuclear weapons on their own. They simply did not have scientists with the requisite skills. 

Muammar Gaddafi tried without success to buy a finished weapon from the Chinese and in the late 1990s began going to the black market to acquire the necessary technology. The primary source of this was the Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan. The Libyans bought a package that included centrifuges and the plans for a Chinese nuclear device that had been successfully tested in a rocket. This was supposed to be a “turn key” facility, which would require less special expertise to operate, and which would provide a direct road to nuclear weapons. But the Libyans never could get it to work. Finally in 2003 they gave up and in 2004 Kahn’s package was turned over to the CIA, in exchange for diplomatic recognition.

The situation in Iraq—where the “preemptive” US war was ostensibly fought on the presumption that there was a covert nuclear weapons program in place—was much more complicated. The Iraqis did have scientists with the necessary skills. But here the regime was an impediment. An interesting case is that of Jafar Dhia Jafar. He came from an important Iraqi family and did his scientific studies at the University of Birmingham in England. He would have liked to stay there on the faculty but was turned down and returned to Iraq. He became involved with the Iraqi nuclear program early and was one of its directors. He and his colleagues never fully understood exactly what their mission was, so when one of the secretaries accidentally wrote “Unclear Physics” on the top of a letter, it was adopted as a mantra. Saddam Hussein appointed his son-in-law to direct the program. When Hussein Shahristani, one of the leaders of the program, was arrested and tortured because it was thought that he deviated from Baathist dogma, Jafar tried to come to his defense. Jafar was placed under house arrest while still trying to direct parts of the program.

A crucial moment in the Iraqi program came on July 7, 1981, when the substantial Osirak reactor that had been supplied by the French was destroyed in a daring Israeli air raid. The Israelis already had suspicions about the Iraqi program and there had been assassinations of Iraqi nuclear scientists. (Just as there have been assassinations of Iranian scientists in recent years.) The 1981 raid is often viewed as the reason the Iraqi program was halted. My view is that it was essentially pointless. The worry of the Israelis was that the Osirak reactor was going to produce plutonium. But it is hard to imagine a reactor more poorly designed for that purpose. The fuel was highly enriched uranium—a large percentage of U235—whereas what one wants is a large percentage of U238. The IAEA was present to take possession of the U235, which could have been useful for making bombs. But after the raid the Iraqis gave up the idea of plutonium and Iraqis decided to pursue a clandestine program to enrich uranium. Needless to say A.Q. Khan tried to sell them his package. The Iraqis did not trust him and in any event were not going to use centrifuges. There were other small reactors that also used highly enriched uranium and that had not been destroyed in the Israeli raid. After the 1990–1991 Gulf War in Kuwait, the IAEA removed this uranium and none was diverted.

One may ask if we had not invaded Iraq in 2003 would they have produced a bomb? I think the answer is not obvious. Saddam Hussein’s son-in law was running the program and he had zero technological competence. He was always announcing absurd deadlines. To make him happy the scientists gave him technical reports that he could not understand. But the deeper question is, Did Saddam really want a bomb? I think sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t. What he always wanted was to give the impression that Iraq might get one. In this he seems to have succeeded too well.

Which brings us to the present. Of the various countries that have been mentioned, which might be most likely to succeed? We know North Korea has succeeded. Surely South Korea and Iran could succeed. Saudi Arabia does not at present have enough of a scientific infrastructure, but with their unlimited wealth might try to buy a weapon.

The larger question is whether Trump is serious about abandoning the decades old efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. He has spoken of proliferation as being the greatest danger but does he understand what this means? Given his view if the Iran deal as somehow being financial, one has one’s doubts.

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer’s Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons is published by Cornell University Press.

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