Letters - Spring 2008

Response to Our Winter Issue

By Our Readers | March 1, 2008

Moral Principle v. Military Necessity

I read with great interest and delight David Bosco’s essay on Francis Lieber in the Winter 2008 American Scholar. It is an admirable piece of work, right on the mark in a number of crucial respects. Lieber is a famously difficult character to figure out, and I think the article does as good a job as anything I’ve read.

As Bosco observes, the central conundrum of Lieber is his combination of just-war fervor with law-of-war constraints. Lieber provides both the foundation for limits on warfare in the modern world and the rationale for disregarding those limits in the service of a just cause. This paradoxical juxtaposition is the story of the law of war in the United States writ large, and that is why Lieber and the Bosco essay are so important.

John Fabian Witt
New York City

David Bosco’s essay on Francis Lieber’s Civil War–era code of conduct in warfare was enlightening . . . until the end. Bosco did an excellent job of covering both the universal and particular dilemmas faced by the Union in dealing with Confederate combatants and civilians, and the development of an international code for conduct in war.

Unfortunately, he concludes by firing a weak and truncated shot at the Bush administration. His conclusion may well be true that the United States would have done well to publicly promulgate a new code of conduct in the wars we now find ourselves in. That would, however, require a much longer or entirely new essay.

As but one example of a lacking thoroughness, in a paragraph where he discusses the principle of reciprocity in the treatment of pows and the rarity of American soldiers being taken prisoner in Iraq and Afghanistan, he refers to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’s memo that provisions in the Geneva Conventions “have been rendered quaint.” No other explanation is provided, the quote itself seeming to be self-evident.

This phrase was repeated ad nauseam in the media and used as a political cudgel, but to my knowledge it has never been presented in context. Here is the quote in context: “renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip (i.e., advances of monthly pay), athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments.”

Those provisions applied to Al Qaeda terrorists are quaint by any rational person’s standard, and the author would have done his readers a service to cite it in context and not tag it onto a paragraph about the torture or execution of prisoners. It is indicative of the disappointing final paragraphs of an otherwise fine essay.

Scott Salvato
Rockville Centre, New York

Cuss Time

In an otherwise splendid issue (Winter 2008), perhaps the Scholar was just trying to see if its readers were awake when it chose to run that chirpy little piece, “Cuss Time,” in which Jill McCorkle implies that kids’ self-expression will be permanently impaired if they aren’t allowed, at home, to give voice to all those (usually) unprintable words they hear at school. (I note the cover resorts to “#*%@!*#!” as the title of her piece, but nothing is left to the imagination in the text of her smug essay.)

In grandly giving her son, who was eight years old at the time, five minutes a day in which to practice all the cuss words he heard at school, did she ever consider that he was etching those words into his working vocabulary and that someday they will spring to his mouth—maybe against her, his teacher, or a police officer—when she will regret her “freedom” policy?

Priscilla Taylor
McLean, Virginia

Jill McCorkle’s plea for freedom of speech for cuss words as essential for a discussion of ideas in our constitutional democracy echoes Justice John Marshall Harlan, who granted First Amendment protection for “Fuck the Draft,” the anti–Vietnam War slogan. Harlan was no liberal, but he understood that “we cannot indulge the facile assumption that one can forbid particular words without also running the risk of suppressing . . . unpopular views.” He added, “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric,” and the Constitution grants to the individual the right to choose the words deemed most effective in expressing her ideas.

History is on the side of Harlan. During the war in Vietnam, cries to Repeal the War, Stop the War, and similar exhortations, were ineffective in attracting attention. But when the cream of the nation’s youth resorted to Fuck the Draft, middle-class mothers were devastated that their children would resort to such vulgarity! What the children were saying was that their elders were willing to tolerate war, atrocities, and slaughter of civilians of a different race. But they were unwilling to tolerate their children using “bad words.”

American values were all fucked up!

Burton Caine

Letter from Vienna

As a former resident of Austria myself, I agree wholeheartedly with Alexandra Starr’s depiction of the country—or, at least, of its capital—as a thoroughly backward-glancing place (I don’t blame them; there is a lot back there on which to glance). But I do think Starr goes too far in asserting that Austrians are always looking back at their past cultural achievements. Rather, cultural pride is often a polite stand-in for a deeply suppressed political revanchism. Austria was once the largest and most powerful empire in Europe, and many of the states that now lead the continent cowered in its shadow. Today it is but a nub, and while Versailles still feels appropriately sized to a country such as France, Schönbrunn Palace seems the result of an acute case of national gigantism. By celebrating its cultural heritage, Austria can also, quietly, celebrate its former imperial status. What power, after all, must it have taken to build the palaces and estates that now house all those Schieles?

Clay Risen
Washington, D.C.


In “On the Road to Nowhere” in the Winter issue, there appears the statement that “Russia had a landed aristocracy and hundreds of millions of serfs.” In 1861, the time of emancipation in Russia, the estimated total population of the country was about 73 million, according to Nicholas Rasanovksy’s A History of Russia (1993).

Scott Carlson
Palo Alto, California

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