The Devil’s Accountant [Excerpt]

Larissa MacFarquhar,
The New Yorker,
March 31, 2003

On Thursday evenings at MIT, Noam Chomsky, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century and one of the most reviled, teaches a class about politics. There are nearly two hundred students and not enough chairs, so latecomers sit or lie down on the floor, which gives the class the air of a teach-in. On a recent evening, the students came to hear Chomsky speak about Iraq. He sat with his arms folded, a little hunched over on his stool, and began to talk into a microphone. He was wearing what he usually wears: shirt, sweater, jeans, sneakers. His hair curled toward the middle of his neck and looked as though he didn’t pay it much attention. He spoke in a quiet monotone.

“When I look at the arguments for this war, I don’t see anything I could even laugh at,” he said. “You don’t undertake violence on the grounds that maybe by some miracle something good will come out of it. Yes, sometimes violence does lead to good things. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor led to many very good things. If you follow the trail, it led to kicking Europeans out of Asia - that saved tens of millions of lives in India alone. Do we celebrate that every year?”

... A student wearing a red V-neck sweater raised his hand to ask a question. “I just was wondering whether this is really a strong argument if you are talking about the motives of the government,” he began, in a European accent.

“I’m talking about expectations,” Chomsky interrupted.

“If Saddam is a monster,” the student went on, “what does it matter, actually, who is going to get rid of him? If you look at the Second World War, the alliance with Stalin was also not a very nice thing, but it was absolutely necessary.”

... “The Second World War is a slightly different story,” Chomsky continued. “The United States and Britain fought the war, of course, but not primarily against Nazi Germany. The war against Nazi Germany was fought by the Russians. The German military forces were overwhelmingly on the Eastern front.”

“But the world was better off,” the student persisted.

“First of all, you have to ask yourself whether the best way of getting rid of Hitler was to kill tens of millions of Russians. Maybe a better way was not supporting him in the first place, as Britain and the United States did. OK? But you’re right, it has nothing to do with motives - it has to do with expectations. And actually if you’re interested in expectations there’s more to say. By Stalingrad in 1942, the Russians had turned back the German offensive, and it was pretty clear that Germany wasn’t going to win the war. Well, we’ve learned from the Russian archives that Britain and the US then began supporting armies established by Hitler to hold back the Russian advance. Tens of thousands of Russian troops were killed. Suppose you’re sitting in Auschwitz. Do you want the Russian troops to be held back?”

The student was silent.