August 20, 2001
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Epiphany [ME epihanie < OFr. < LLat. epiphania < Gk. epiphaneia, appearance < epiphainein, to manifest: epi-, to + phainein, to show.]
Historian John Lukacs set me off some months ago. He speculated that much of contemporary historical writings were both unhistorical and ahistorical. He was suggesting that out of some liberal bias, blinders may be more like it, history as written neglects a core of human behavior, namely, barbarity.
In the West, the world of English language variations, we have postured ourselves to be above barbarity and, therefore, shocked when confronted by it. Specious is a word that pops to mind. For all our liberal thoughts and vast literatures of philosophy, etc., is bombing Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, much less Hamburg and a vast expanses of Vietnam and Laos with sideshows over Iraq and various Balkan areas any less barbarous than Afghan or Chechen encounters at closer range?
Intrigued, I have been plunging into books in English telling stories about the swath of planet from the Aegean Sea to the Bering Straits. A couple of epiphanies bounce up.
First, Peter the Great, a grand barbarian of Russian history from the late 1600s, early 1700s, turned the world upside down by ordering maps to show north at the bottom and south at the top. Try it. Then look at the history of Russian expansion across that swath. Whether imperial Russia or Soviet Russia, the expansion has been consistent and quite successful. Imperial and Soviet Russia have played The Great Game (actually a minor diversion compared to China) with first Great Britain and now with the American hegemony. No matter how portrayed as weak and dissolute today, Russia never relaxes at the game board of its borders. Lose a little here and win more there is how that version of history reads.
While you have your map upside down, look at the relative landmass of Russia when compared with the United States and then with the Peoples' Republic of China. Speculate a moment about the diminishing supplies of essential minerals located within the North American landmass compared with the largely undiscovered and untapped resources of the Russian landmass. Russian history from way back when to right now, shows a callous and easy willingness to wipe out anybody and anything in the way. And such eager willingness to chew up others is common throughout the great swath from the Aegean Sea to the Bering Strait. Bosnia, et al, is mere child's play by comparison.
Reading in the stories emergent from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I am struck by some sharp contrasts with the American experiences in Vietnam. There are numerous books in English written by people who went into Afghanistan with the many varieties of Mujahedin (one of many spellings attempted) who were giving the Soviets a hard time. From the 1979 invasion to the 1989 withdrawal, estimates are that more than a third of Afghani peoples were made refugees while upwards of two to three million were killed dead. There is no attempt to count the injured. Guesses from later 1970s put the total population between 15 and 16 million. The Soviets pursued a policy of seeking land rather than people. Learned from American experiences in Vietnam that capturing hearts and minds is more difficult than blowing 'em up.
A recent biography of Ho Chi Minh impressed me with the consistent determination to free Vietnam of foreigners, however defined. What is apparent from dabbling in histories of the peoples from the Aegean to the Bering Seas is a consistent determination to free themselves from foreigners, however defined. All the books written by foreigners smuggled into Afghanistan extol that determination. The reporters are aghast at the dimensions of that determination. They are nearly speechless when faced with the acceptance of, almost seeking of, death in pursuit of that overriding goal.
I went to our wonderful public library and pulled up Vietnam searching for any books in English written by folks who went into the field with Viet Minh, Viet Cong, Army of North Vietnam at any time from the French return after WWII through the American debacle thirty years later. I plowed through 132 listings in the Hawaii Public Library System. Yield? Zero. Now, dear Swans scanners, pop back a bit to my earlier piece on perspectives.
Kurt Lohbeck (Holy War, Unholy Victory, Eyewitness to the CIA's Secret War in Afghanistan, see bibliography attached) used a catching phrase: We are quite unable to understand the otherness of others. My second epiphany.
Turning out the Soviets from Afghanistan at a minor cost of a couple billion American dollars and a couple million local lives is part of a consistent history within that part of the planet. It began with the Pushtun aka Afghan or Pathan folks from those very bleak hills earlier throwing out Ghengis Khan a couple thou' years ago. Those primitive, ignorant hill folks have been regularly and routinely doing in invaders from Brits to Soviets ever since. Throw in a mix of Persians, Uzbeks, Sikhs and other locals nearby to see that slaughter, taking no prisoners and hacking up the living and dead alike, was and is norm -- not exception -- for all parties.
Reading about Russia chewing at its top end (south to us) quite relentlessly and patiently for a few hundred years is eye opening, too. Check the little bump sticking out from Afghanistan east into Sinkiang Province PRC. That neck of land is the Pamirs, mountains out of legend, remote, inaccessible and once part of the Silk Road. The border regions from Pamirs to Korea wherever Russia, however defined, however ruled, meets China are under constant siege, an inch here and a kilometer there, push a little, pull a little. Putin's Russia and PRChina just signed another treaty after a 50 year lapse. History tends to show that whenever Russia and China sign a treaty, some kind of outbreak comes along fairly shortly. Watch your local propaganda mill for developments.
So what is new in the Balkans these days? All our efforts in Afghanistan give us today's Taliban as pure an American creation as Coca-Cola ®, ©, ™ and (SM). What will we get for all our efforts in Belgrade?
Knocking off a possible reform (read Communist) government and leader in Iran just after WWII gave us first a grand tyrant, our grand tyrant, the Shahinshah who was sent packing by the Khomeini folks whom we now boycott to help keep up prices on Saudi and Kuwaiti, OPEC cartel, oil. The Shia Irani don't get along well with the Sunni Afghani, either. Le plus ça change. . . .
Back in 1984, I spent about three weeks in E2 London, an area about as bottom end as possible to find. Much of that time was involved with about a dozen exiles piled up in a couple of dreary rooms who were from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, mostly Ph.D. graduates of distinguished universities in the UK and the US. They tried very hard to convince me that Islam was a religion of love. We are quite unable to understand the otherness of others.
When is an epiphany more than twelfth day?
Milo Clark, a founding member of Swans, had it all: Harvard MBA, big house, three-car garage, top management... Yet, once he had seemingly achieved the famed American dream he felt something was missing somewhere. As any good executive he decided to investigate. Since then, he has become a curmudgeon and, after living in Berkeley, California, where he was growing bamboos, making water gardens, listening to muses, writing, cogitating and pondering, he has moved on to the Big Island in Hawaii where he creates thought forms about sunshine. Milo can be reached at Swans.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Milo G. Clark 2001. All rights reserved.
This Week's Internal Links
a song of innocence - A poem by John Bart Gerald (with etching by Julie Maas)
Bibliography for Two Epiphanies - by Milo Clark
Irrelevant Precision - by Milo Clark
Religion and War in Yugoslavia - by David Jovanovic
The Confusion of Language, Ethnicity and Religion - by Alma A. Hromic
Proactivism at The Hague - by Michael W. Stowell
Some of Milo Clark's Commentaries on Swans
Please Be Patient (a five-part series) - 06/25/01
Events - 05/28/01
Perspective and Perspectives - 05/14/01
Project Re-Think Thinking: Serendipity and Sparks of Genius - 04/30/01
Croatan - 04/2/01
Barbaric Silence - 03/5/01
The Resource Base - 02/5/01
Addendum to ...Dream - 01/8/01
...Dream - 01/8/01