Wednesday, February 16, 2011


February 16, 2010:

Maureen Dowd has a column in today's NYTimes in which she comments on a series of plays produced by the Pentagon and entitled "The Great Game." The plays are about the history of Afghanistan and I find it a hopeful sign that the Pentagon thinks the history of Afghanistan is an important thing to understand, although it comes a bit late, nine years late, to be exact. In an ideal world--i.e., an intelligent world--the Pentagon would have known something about the history of Afghanistan well before it went in, flags flying, guns blazing, to drive out the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden, neither of which they managed to do. But at least they're beginning to recognize that that might have helped. They're slow learners, to be sure, but at least they can now see how useful it would have been to know things like, oh, the language, and the tribal nature of Afghan society, and that even more useful thing, Afghan history.

That name, in fact, is encouraging all by itself. "The Great Game" is what the British called their long-standing, more or less bloodless contest with Russia in central Asia in the nineteenth century. The British had conquered India and India was a prize everybody wanted, but the Russians were the closest, they were expanding their own empire through central Asia toward the Himalayan passes, and Great Britain invaded Afghanistan in order to forestall the Russians acquiring influence and land in the area. The best book on the subject is Peter Hopkirk's book of the same name (The Great Game); it's long, but an easy read, and very enlightening. As we should all know, the British failed miserably to subdue the Afghans and in 1842, after promising to let them go unharmed, Afghan tribesmen descended on the last British column to leave Afghanistan at one of those Himalayan passes and killed them to the last man, woman, and child. Well, no--I think there was one survivor. We always need one, who, like Ishmael, bobbing on his coffin in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, can live to tell us the story of the search for the great white whale, and the unfortunate destruction of the Pequod, ship and crew alike, by that selfsame whale. In any case, referring to the Great Game is a good sign; it means that the Pentagon has, or has acquired, people who know the nineteenth century history and therefore something about Afghan society and its stunning otherness. Know, that is, that it operates by rules totally unlike our own.

It was the same thing in Iraq. It is always the fools who rush in, where just a little knowledge would have been enough to have added a note of caution. I remember writing about this in the pages of the Sag Harbor Express, our little local newspaper where for a while I had a column, in 2003, before the U. S. went into that country, flags flying, guns blazing, and trying to remind my few readers (I thought of them as the happy few) that it wasn't that simple. I knew something about Iraq: not the language, I'm afraid, but the culture. And how did I know? Years before I had read T. E. Lawrence's book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and I had subsequently seen David Lean's great movie based on the book, Lawrence of Arabia. And Lawrence did speak the language, he knew the names of and the relationships between the various Arab tribes, he had read the Koran and could quote swatches of it from memory, he understood the differences between the Shia and the Sunnis, and he knew how to speak to tribal leaders and what motivated them and how they lived and thought. And here were the Americans, diving 80 years later into this complex situation, thinking they would be greeted by Iraqis carrying flowers.

Now that's not much: one book, one movie, not very impressive for an I-told-you-so moment like this one. But it was clear that the Americans hadn't even bothered to know that much. Like so many empires before them, the American empire was ham-fisted and ignorant, and seemed to think ignorance was a virtue. Empires are arrogant by nature; they are built on arrogance, but a certain amount of arrogance can be helpful. The problem is that ignorance is the twin brother of arrogance, and the two together become delusional. And no one seems to learn. Currently we have the Tea Party, just as arrogant, just as unknowing, charging into Washington thinking they can eliminate a culture, defenestrate a huge, often wasteful, but still essential bureaucracy, and simplify the enormous complexity of the way Washington works with a bunch of mottoes. The Federal Government is in fact a lot like Afghanistan, and it will destroy you if you don't educate yourself about how it works and why.

Not knowing history is one of the many ways, in short, of being stupid. The levels of stupidity in the world never cease to amaze. According to Reuters, one third of all Russians believe the sun revolves around the earth. According to a Pew Foundation poll, half of all Republican voters believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. (I owe these facts to my very knowing son.) It's funny, yes, but then it's not, because ignorance has consequences, large ones, and the stupider we get the worse they're going to be. I have no solutions to this. I don't see the United States suddenly getting smart in the near future, although Barack Obama is a hell of a lot smarter than George Bush. The fact is, it all just makes me sad. I am an aged man and I would like to die happy, and I cannot do so when my country is in such steep decline. I fear for my children and my grandchildren. Sometimes I think they should learn French or Spanish and get the hell out of here before it's too late. Maybe they should learn Swedish and get themselves to the ancestral home in Jonskoping. Global warming can only benefit Sweden.