The skirmishes between book reviewers and authors usually make the latter look petty. They write in to complain about some small misrepresentation, coming across as defensive. The opposite is the case, however, in an exchange in The New York Review of Books between Dexter Filkins and David Bromwich about Bromwich's essay from several weeks ago titled "Stay out of Syria." (Leon Wieseltier's piece from our latest issue takes issue with Bromwich's argument). Filkins didn't author a book on Syria, but he did write an article for The New Yorker about the possibility of American intervention, which Bromwich attacked.
Filkins's letter merely points out that his piece weighed various options (none of them attractive), and that he didn't deserve to be lectured for merely raising the idea of some sort of American involvement. Bromwich's response, however, is truly special. He begins:
Dexter Filkins has been a courageous and resourceful combat journalist. But his article on Syria was an attempt at political analysis: a different kind of writing. The article asked a question—should the US back rebel forces in Syria?—yet it never paused to wonder: Why are we asking this question?
Bromwich seems very confused by the purpose of a question. We ask questions to learn more about things and then make decisions based on what we learn. Bromwich views questions themselves as some sort of nefarious device meant to further American imperialism. The letter gets more absurd as it progresses, before concluding with this:
"Last year," Filkins recalls, in a conspicuous first-person aside, "…I stood near the Syrian border and watched one of Assad’s gunships strafe a group of rebels." Political analysis, too, has a use for evidence that comes from watching and testifying. But first-person narratives are not always enough; and it is not forbidden to think.
Apparently Filkins's decision to even mention this outrages Bromwich; his final line, meanwhile, would rank high on any list of academic pomposity.
Bromwich has another piece in the NYRB this week, which merely rehashes the same debate, and describes those who have sometimes argued for intervention, specifically Susan Rice, as follows:
They combine the adjective humanitarian and the noun war as glibly as the Communists a generation ago matched the word people’s with republic.
Given that in his earlier article Bromwich castigated those who celebrated the break-up of the Soviet Union, it took me a minute to realize that this was meant as a criticism. He follows up by claiming that "a policy of humanitarian war promises to double or triple the toll of human lives." Promises, huh? Bromwich expends so much ink denouncing people who argued in favor of the Iraq war despite a lack of expertise, but he feels comfortable making a claim that would not have topped those of Paul Wolfowitz circa 2002 on the silliness scale.
Bromwich ends the piece by taking a swipe at Bernard-Henri Levy, who had written, "Aleppo belongs not to Syria but to the world." Bromwich sneers at this internationalism—I'd love to read his take on the Spanish Civil War—before contemptuously adding, "But after all Aleppo belongs to the people who live there and not the people we pay to die." I'm sure the people of Aleppo feel that the city belongs to them right now, and appreciate Bromwich's support.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @Ichotiner.