Intellectuals Take Sides on Iraq - and Knees Jerk Left

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He was, I hope, only joking, but I understand his point. When the novelist D.M. Thomas contributed to a new anthology, "Authors Take Sides on Iraq and the Gulf War," he made an observation that did not cast his profession in the most flattering light: "I would much rather trust the views of taxi-drivers on any matter of great political importance than those of writers and intellectuals. History shows that the latter almost always get it wrong."

Mr. Thomas had a good example to hand. Twenty years ago, he was asked to take part in a similar exercise - over the rights and wrongs of the Falklands War - and discovered that he was amongst just a handful of literati to argue that Britain had been right to take up arms against the Argentine junta.

History records that Mr. Thomas, and the British public, were right and the intellectuals were mistaken. Sooner or later, we will discover what posterity has to say about Iraq.

The latest edition of "Authors Take Sides" (a series inaugurated by Nancy Cunard, Stephen Spender et al. during the Spanish Civil War) does not actually appear until next month. But a lengthy extract in the Guardian newspaper gave a taste of the conventional wisdom. Mr. Thomas was once again in a minority: of the 25 contributors listed in the article, only six supported the invasion.

It is striking, too, that none of the dissenting half-dozen, with the possible exception of the novelist Francis King, could be described as members of the London literary club. The novelist Alan Sillitoe, renowned for his tales of northern working-class life, fell out of fashion decades ago.

The poet John Heath-Stubbs (born in the same year World War I ended) belongs to a generation that has all but disappeared. Duncan Fallowell is a cult figure at best, and Sir John Keegan will never be taken seriously by salon liberals because a) he is a military historian and b) he writes for the right-wing Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The big guns were on the other side. Lady Antonia Fraser and her dementedly anti-American consort Harold Pinter did their usual double-act, alongside David Hare, David Lodge, Thomas Keneally and one of the few American contributors, Paul Theroux. Louis de Bernieres, Jim Crace, Studs Terkel and Nadine Gordimer joined the chorus.

Did they give the impression of being better informed than the average cab driver? Some performed creditably. Thomas Keneally, for instance, set out his reservations over the prospects for a stable and vaguely democratic Iraq.

David Lodge agonized over fundamental questions of sovereignty and international law. Louis de Bernieres managed to make some reasonable points about Middle East history before lapsing into the depressingly familiar slanders directed at Israel's "Nazi" policies.

Elsewhere there was the dreary sound of knees jerking into position. Margaret Drabble, forever stranded in the Sixties, denounced American imperialism. Nadine Gordimer, forever stuck in the apartheid era, detected signs of "subliminal racism."

David Guterson managed to evoke the worst traits of John Kerry and Noam Chomsky: "America will only have peace and security when it sincerely addresses the legitimate grievances arrayed against it around the world. Will this happen? I'm highly doubtful. The blind greed of American capitalism, its inherent immorality, means many more centuries of horrendous suffering . . ."

One of my favorite novelists, Beryl Bainbridge - responsible for beguiling historical reconstructions in books such as "The Birthday Boys" - came up with a tortured and embarrassingly lame cop-out: "With the invention of smart bombs, murder is now best committed from a great height. I have no idea whether the recent conflict will lead to peace or stability. Why should it? Judging by the lessons of history, it is not bloody war but merely time that brings about change. …