Letters — From the November 2015 issue

Letters

Poison Pen

As a toxicologist and someone who cares deeply about the environment, I was disappointed to read Andrew Cockburn’s “Weed Whackers” [Letter from Washington, September].

At Monsanto, we know we don’t have all the answers about how to make agriculture more sustainable, so we think collaboration is essential. We are proud to support and work with world-renowned institutions such as the Missouri Botanical Garden. We also collaborate with scientists in academia and the government.

One of Monsanto’s most important products is glyphosate, a tool that farmers have used to control a broad range of weeds for more than forty years. Like all pesticides, glyphosate has undergone extensive safety evaluations by regulatory agencies around the world. These agencies have consistently determined that all labeled uses of glyphosate are safe for human health and the environment. Here in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has placed glyphosate in its most favorable category for carcinogenicity. The agency classifies glyphosate as “practically non-toxic” based on single-exposure oral, dermal, and inhalation studies.

In addition to this very favorable safety profile, glyphosate has enabled a number of important soil-conservation practices in agriculture, including a practice called no-till farming, which allows farmers to grow crops without disturbing the soil. As a result, the soil becomes more fertile and resilient.

We would have been glad to discuss glyphosate’s history of safe use and environmental benefits with the writer of this story. However, the writer never reached out to Monsanto, so we did not have that opportunity.

Donna Farmer, Ph.D.
Monsanto Company
St. Louis

Andrew Cockburn responds:

I am naturally pleased that Monsanto confirms major themes of my article, including the company’s connections to the Missouri Botanical Garden and its longtime director, not to mention the collaboration — so often publicly unacknowledged — that it enjoys with scientists in academia and government.

However, the corporation’s mantra that regulatory agencies around the world have invariably deemed glyphosate safe — a claim I quoted in my article — is increasingly belied by the facts. In September, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment announced that it intends to list glyphosate as “known to the state to cause cancer.” This follows announcements by the governments of France, Colombia, and Sri Lanka that deemed glyphosate unsafe, as well as the announcement in March by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Harper’s did indeed contact Monsanto for comment before publication, and the company’s response was quoted multiple times in my piece. Monsanto may spew insults (“junk science”) at the distinguished I.A.R.C. team that studied the carcinogenic effects of glyphosate, but this awkward reality is not going away.

War Stories

After a deeply silly argument regarding narrative mode, a garden-variety rant about M.F.A.’s, and a demand for a twenty-first-century War and Peace, Sam Sacks [“First-Person Shooters,” Reviews, August], whose review touched on a collection of short stories I coedited, alludes to something quite interesting — perhaps unique to our time and place — going on in contemporary war literature. Modern America tends to view military conflict through the prism of Vietnam, and much of early Vietnam War literature was written and shaped by draftees. But my generation of servicemembers signed up for war, whether or not we signed up explicitly for duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. How does creative work produced by (or about) military volunteers relate to a citizenry separate and distinct from those volunteers? When wars are carried out by the volunteers in the citizenry’s name, but not necessarily with the citizenry’s backing, how does that affect the way stories from those wars are interpreted and understood? Readers are still figuring out how to answer these questions. We writers are still figuring it out, too, whatever our personal backgrounds, and whether the characters in our fiction are combatants fighting in strange lands or locals enduring military occupation.

Sacks’s call for didactic war lit should give anyone invested in the subject pause. Talking-head literature will only exacerbate the military-civilian divide, that ethereal but pervasive gap between the 1 percent of Americans who have worn the uniform and the 99 percent who have not. Besides, talking-head lit often isn’t any good. As Kingsley Amis said, “Importance isn’t important. Good writing is.” Everyone in the war-writing community would be wise to remember that as we go forward, anxieties about resonance and relatability be damned.

Contemporary war lit is young. The canon will get sharper and smarter, continue to find its breadth, and potentially better itself through it all. Here’s hoping our critics keep up.

Matt Gallagher
Former U.S. Army captain
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sam Sacks responds:

As I pointed out in my essay, the sameness of so much contemporary war fiction has inadvertently created a kind of stock character — the wounded veteran trying to process his or her past from the fringes of civilian society. Because this figure is so familiar in today’s literary fiction, which emphasizes personal experiences formed from trauma, alienation, and recovery, many critics have found it easy to praise these books and draw from them hollow lessons about empathy and redemption. Mr. Gallagher is within his rights to dismiss the considerations of style and technique that the books have in common (as well as considerations of the dominant ideas in the workshops in which they’re produced), but all of these things go into “good writing.” I absolutely agree that contemporary war literature is young and evolving, and that critics will have to work hard to keep up with it. They’ll also need to speak up if it seems to run aground on cliché.

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