My Enemy, Myself

Few people are malicious or evil for no good reason . Being evil for the sake of evil is a myth that applies only to the villains of childhood fairy tales or mainstream entertainment media.  Humans are complicated creatures who seek to rationalize everything they do. What one person thinks is evil, another may find to be acceptable, if not good. Continue reading

Operation Iraqi Freedom is Ended

Today, the US officially declared the mission in Iraq to be over, nearly a decade after it begun. Having come of age when it first started, it feels strange to imagine it is actually, even though it’s been more-or-less outside the public consciousness for some time.

I wonder what will  happen now or further down the road. Iraq is a mess on so many levels. Its economy is weak and unequal, its politics are fractious and corrupt, violence and infighting are still everyday realities, and millions of citizens remain traumatized, bitter, or distrustful of each other. How do you fix a country where nearly everyone has PTSD everything looks bleak?
Around 4,500 American troops were killed, another 30,000 were wounded, and an estimated 1 million had served during the course of the conflict. About 150,000 Iraqis, mostly civilians, were killed, and the number may be higher. None of those scars, be they physical or mental, will heal any time soon – nor will the broader geopolitical impact (deep-seated mistrust of the US, a strengthened Iran, and so on).
I wish there was more I could say, but frankly, like most Americans, I want this tragic chapter in our history closed. I should be so lucky as to be able to do that – plenty of returning veterans, many of them around my age, certainly won’t anytime soon, nor will the average Iraqi, left with an uncertain future and poor leadership. Arguably, they’ll all be damaged for good, and the larger ramifications of the conflict – which can only be speculated – may go on for generations (comparisons to Vietnam are too cliché to merit any more mention).
I’d like to think that all the blood and money that went into this effort will pay off, that Iraq, still loosely a democratic republic, will eventually thrive and stabilize for good. I’d like to think that the returning troops will be hailed as heroes, rather than be met with perfunctory respect coupled with sympathy. I’d like to believe our capacity to do good things in this world will be validated, rather than viewed with intense suspicion both domestically and abroad. The optimist in me still holds out hope that there will be some silver-lining to all this – Iraq is comparatively freer after all – but even so, the question will remain: was it worth it? At what cost did any unambiguous accomplishments, if they materialize, come?
If history is any guide, there will never be a universally accepted answer to these questions: we’ll keep debating, speculating, and disagreeing for as long as we exist. Scholars and historians will try to learn from it, or derive lessons for any contemporary foreign policy debates with which to compare. We’ll keep explaining, rationalizing, and according blame long after those involved have passed on. People will continue to find events and consequences that they can trace back to that fateful decision to invade. As with all momentous episodes, the “what ifs” will dog us forever.
In the end, I’m just glad it’s as close to over as it’s going to be (there will never be total closure) and that my fellow citizens can come home. I hope they can adjust to society, which is currently going through a bad spell, and recover from wounds both clear and unseen. In spite of the grim precedent, I hope the Iraqis can come together, pick up the pieces, and form a great nation befitting the inheritors of the cradle of civilization. They paid a great toll, largely at the hands of those who remain to fight the current government. I hope that someday, these kinds of things will stop happening. Interstate wars have mercifully been exceedingly rare since the end of World War II, but even a single one is more than enough pain and sorrow to bear, whatever the reasons.

I understand that’s quite a lot of hope to have, especially as Afghanistan remains unresolved, and the track-record for collective amnesia is disheartening. For what it’s worth, I wish everyone who has been directly affected in some way or another much peace and solidarity.

I’ll leave everyone with some images to reflect on.

The Border Crossing At Wagah

One rarely speaks of India or Pakistan without invoking their intractable rivalry and infamously tense relationship. The two nations are almost synonymous for bellicose, distrust, and – even at the best of times – overwrought relations. They’ve fought several wars, engage numerous skirmishes and indirect clashes, and been at the brink of nuclear war as recently as 2001. Much of this hostility and mutual suspicion emerges from a central cause: a territorial dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, parts of which are held between each country but claimed in their entirety by both.

The village of Wagah is located between Lahore and Amristar. Note the disputed territory.

What is most tragic is that both nations share so much in terms of culture, history, language, and religion, and even maintain relatively robust economic links, yet none of these factors help dilute the posturing over land and pride (although one could argue, as I have, that such similarities and cultural exchanges have in the past, and to this day, lessened the chances of a larger-scale conflict). Needless to say, the Mumbai bomb attacks that occurred in 2008, perpetrated by Pakistan-linked terrorists, has only made the already dim prospects for peace and a thawing of relations even darker – though presumably, things are better than they seem lately, thanks to cooler heads prevailing.

Anyway, I unfortunately don’t have much time to get into the finer details of this issue, or its future implications. Rather, I wanted to share a fascinating, little-known event that occurs regularly in the context of all this quarreling. It fondly reminds me of our human capacity to make light of even the most dire of circumstances.

Given what I’ve established about this conflict, one could imagine India and Pakistan don’t share a very open and accommodating border. In fact, there is only one road border crossing between the two countries, in the village of Wagah, which is itself split between an Indian eastern half and a Pakistani western one.

As the only place where the two nations’ troops regularly interact in a relatively open and relaxed environment, it has become the site of a ceremonial “lowering of the flags” ritual at sunset, which is like no other between any other countries in the world, much less two barely in a state of war at times. The exchange comprises I could only describe as a combination of pep rally, pantomime, cockerel-like posturing, and you-got-served-style street dancing. You literally have to see it to believe it.

From the Indian Side:

From the Pakistani Side:

Pretty dramatic stuff. This ceremony has been going on since 1959, even through all the wars and heightened periods of tensions. It hardly looks like the sort of exchange you’d expect from two nations commonly held to be mortal enemies. There is a light-hearted, even playful attitude about it, like a match between two sports teams. Despite some apparent aggression and pomp, the the troops involved seem like they’re getting into it more out of pride and sport than any maliciousness. The cheering and festive audience certainly helps bolster that impression.

Let's get ready to rumble.

In addition to this unique event, Wagah has also been the site of candlelight vigils celebrating the Independence days of both nations (August 14th for Pakistan and 15th  for India) as well as to show solidarity for peace and reconciliation. Since first emerging in 2001, it’s occurred several times in subsequent years. And aside from such displays, there have been substantial developments as well, such as the opening up of trade through the border, which has amounted to billions of dollars passing through just this little town a little. Such trade has persisted even despite the highs and lows of the conflict. Unsurprisingly, the areas is also being touted by both sides, especially India, as a tourist destination.

Between such potential mutually beneficial ties, and the spirited and well-meaning exchanges between the people of both sides, I can’t help but hold a glimmer of hope that in spite of all the vitriol seen on the political and international stage, the average person in both nations wants nothing to do with war. Maybe it’s a lot to take away from the “world’s silliest border,” as it’s called, but I can’t help but feel hope when I see the human side to these things.

On an interesting note, following bilateral talks last year, the two countries agreed to tone-down the exchange and phase it out entirely. Apparently, soldiers on each side complained of sore knees and feet from all the goosestepping and performing everyday.

The Anniversary of World War I

It’s a strange thing to think about. While in this point in time, today is just any other “normal” day in the year, nearly a century ago it marked the beginning of what was then one of the bloodiest, most intense, and most horrific conflict in the entire span of human history.

World War I, known originally as the Great War or the World War, witnessed the involvement of tens of millions of men, and millions more civilians; it was one of the first to incorporate, on a large scale, the staples of modern military technology – artillery, machine guns, tanks, planes, and others; and invoked much of the complex intrigue, realpolitik, and diplomacy that have come to define warfare in the 21st century (indeed, these factors contributed to the start of the war, and in some cases even exacerbated it). Though long since overshadowed by the more prominent and relatively recent Second World War, it was this conflict that would first introduce the 20th century to it’s  terrifying – some would say defining – new potential for stupidity, barbarity, and violence; the unresolved issues and consequences of the Great War would in fact precipitate that second horrific conflict just two decades later.

It was because it began on the cusp between modern and pre-modern warfare that the death toll – anywhere from 15 to 65 million – was so gruesomely high; advanced technology allowed men to kill each other with greater ease and speed than ever before, yet tactics and tradition didn’t adapt to this new reality, sending millions to their deaths as they charged machine gun or were in tight, vulnerable formations. It was not uncommon for thousands of men to die within a single day, in just a single battle; imagine that going on for four years (in the infamous Battle of the Somme, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed on just the first day, with total casualties mounting to 1,100,000 – larger than many wars before that time).

What’s most tragic than the eye-watering amount of death is how optimistically the war was initially pursued. Every country seemed to think it would be a clear and quick victory – no one anticipated years of an entire generation being ground with such disturbing effortlessness. There was a strong spirit of patriotism, nationalism, and pride, and men signed up or were conscripted with the assurance that they were fighting the good fight, that God was on their side, and that they’d emerge with the glory of victory. The fine window dressing of war was perhaps nothing new, but it certainly reached a whole new level of manipulation and sophistication (indeed, the modern propaganda machine as we know it was pretty much invented in this conflict, and fully utilized, thanks to the advent of radio and mass media).

As with most of my reflections on war, I could never grasp the sheer toll of death. None of us can even imagine witnessing a single life become extinguished before our eyes. Imagine tens of millions, most of them young (younger than me even).  Every one of these men had a story, a personality, hobbies, ambitions, loved ones, hopes, fears – they were all distinct individual persons whose humanity was eliminated and forgotten, rendered into cold, large numbers most of us can’t visualize. As the old saying goes, while a single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. As much as we’re horrified by the gruesome cost, our minds – especially nearly a century later – cannot even begin to grasp the nearly unprecedented amplification of human misery.

Serbian troops, waiting for battle.

Serbia, who’s role in the war is often overlooked, lost the largest amount of lives as a proportion of it’s population- 25% of all troops, 27% of it’s entire population, and 57% of it’s men; France was so weakened by the conflict – the average height of the country fell because of how many able young men were killed or maimed – that it had neither the will nor the manpower to support it’s war effort the second time around. Three mighty empires – Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire- would all collapse and cease to exist, the first of them being weakened enough to come under the rule of what would become one of history’s most totalitarian regimes (and ironically enough, one of the major factors in our defeat of the Nazis in WWII). The consequences that befell Germany perhaps need no mention – we all know how the post-war instability and harsh conditions of the Versailles Treaty facilitated the rise of the Nazis, among other fascist movements throughout Europe).  Even the peace that came after the war was bungled.

It’s disquieting that even after all the death and misery that these nations shared, war would revisit so soon and so much more horribly. The raw angst, revanchism, and misery that followed was such that it drove people to fight once more, in order to restore lost glory and right past wrongs. The bloodshed and injustice only ended up creating more bloodshed and injustice. The so-called modern age that all this occurred seemed no more enlightened and transcendent than any before it – societies were just as bloodthirsty, arrogant, violent, and barbaric than ever, only this time technology and ideology would be horrifying multipliers, especially the second time around.

I am immediately reminded of a brief but morbidly poignant poem by Carl Sandburg:

ILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,

Shovel them under and let me work–

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?

Where are we now?

I am the grass.

Let me work.

It’s remarkable how easy it is for the deaths of millions to be forgotten with the progression of time and society. Think of the numerous battles and thousands of deaths that have ever occurred on the same area of land, much of that land long since developed, built over, or innocuously overgrown with nature, losing any sort of significance (to this day, fragments of weapons and even human remains are still stumbled upon in Europe). There’s scarcely any sign today that such a conflict ever occurred in the first place. Indeed, the last combat veteran of the war died only a few months ago, leaving only Florence Green, an Allied servicewomen with Women’s Royal Air Force.  With them will be the end of any personal recollection of this now mythical conflict. Like any war, the raw passions and emotions will be supplanted by detached academic retrospection – books, films, documentaries, and war records. We’ll study it just as we do all the other wars that have ever occurred, with the second great war not too far behind (the last of that conflict’s veterans will pass within the next decade-and-a-half).

Christopher Hitchens reviewed an excellent book  that also reflects upon the scope and scale of the brutality, callousness, and arrogance that defined the war (he also weighs in with his own astute and sobering analysis):

…Ruthless as they were in the killing of others, the generals were also shockingly profligate and callous when it came to their “own.” In some especially revolting passages, we find Gen. Sir Douglas Haig and his arrogant subordinate Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson actually complaining when British casualties were too low, and exulting — presumably because enemy losses were deemed comparable — when they moved into the tens of thousands. What this meant in cold terms was the destruction of whole regiments, often comprising (as in the cases of Newfoundland and Ulster) entire communities back home who had volunteered as a body and stayed together in arms. They vanished, in clouds of poison gas, hails of steel splinters and great lakes of sucking mud. Or lay in lines, reminding all observers of mown-down corn, along the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements against which they had been thrown. Like me, Hochschild has visited the mass graves and their markers, which still lie along the fields of northern France and Belgium, and been overwhelmed by what Wilfred Owen starkly and simply called “the pity of War.” (Owen was to die pointlessly as the guns were falling silent: his mother received the telegram as the church bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice — or better in retrospect to say “fragile cease-fire.”)

For anyone else who is a military and history buff like myself, or is otherwise interested in exploring this often forgotten conflict, there is an excellent website devoted to archiving and educating about the entirety of the conflict, including a timeline, important battles and figures, propaganda posters, documents, and still more. I strongly encourage everyone to give it a visit.

I can only end this somber musing with one sliver of optimism: that since this bloody introduction into the 20th century, we’ve seen few conflicts, both in terms of frequency and intensity (though the Congo Wars and the Iran-Iraq War would certainly come as close as ever in their scale, and even similarity in the case of the latter). Despite popular belief, inter-state warfare is mercifully rare, and even the more common internal kind lacks the same scale of bloodshed – though the brutality still remains. Like the 20th century, we’re entering an age of thus-far unparalleled progress , and with it a new age of warfare: rebel movements, cartels, pirates, cyber-terrorists, and clandestine conflicts between intelligence agencies. Whether our progress will help transcend these petty squabbles, or enhanced their horror, remains to be seen. It all depends on whether we remember that progress in technology is one thing, where as progress in our way of thinking is another. While WWI is largely forgotten, we can only hope the lessons won’t be.

My Belated Memorial Day Reflections

The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: “Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony — forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother, just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up — take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”
-Protagonist Paul Bäumer, in WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front

I hope everyone had a good and safe Memorial Day. Most importantly, I hope everyone was able to reflect, even mildly, on the purpose and history of this commemoration.

War is such a terrifying thing. That sounds like such an obvious statement, but we tend to expression such a sentiment in a perfunctory fashion, rarely giving it deeper thought or – more difficultly for most people – putting ourselves in the position of it’s combatants and victims.. The entire idea of war, especially in our largely peaceful society, is fortunately quite beyond us.

As a soldier you’ve effectively signed up to become a living weapon, an instrument to both political elites and the public. You’re relied upon to protect the people, as well as serve the interests of a narrow political and economic class. Minus a few exceptional cases, you’re forced to kill strangers who you otherwise wouldn’t have had to until you (and them) were commanded to do so.

In a world where comfort and self-interest is as exalted as ever, the soldier has volunteered to put all that aside in the name of a society that dares not put itself in his or her position.How many people in our generation would dare make such a sacrifice – and I mean seriously so, not just hypothetically – if it were asked of them? We don’t even realize that most of our generation is living in one of the most peaceful eras in our long and bloody history (despite what confirmation bias and the ubiquitous media may suggest, there is far less conflict out there than we imagine, especially in terms of length and prevalence).  For most human,  war and violence were an intractable part of reality.  In the grand scheme of it all, we represent an abnormal and very lucky minority of people who see and experience far less violence than any of our ancestors.

Granted, horrific conflicts continue to persist, worsening in some areas than ever before. I have no intention of downplaying the considerable amount of suffering that wars, past and present, continue to wreak on a significant proportion of the population (around 1.5 billion people are said to be regularly affected by war and conflict, according to some reports). But, believe it or not, their scale and scope don’t come close to what was once rather average. It goes to show what a long way we’ve come so that even today’s ghastly conflicts pale in their scope and incidence compared to those in the past.

I think what’s most disturbing about war is that no one ever seems to want it, yet it continues occur anyway.  Almost every side of every war claims to be against the idea, as if war was some third party that has manipulated us into fighting. Almost all countries maintain armies to protect themselves from one another, even though every nation claims only to seek it’s own defense (the threat of “irregular” military forces, such as terrorists and rebels, have changed up this formulation to give everyone some acceptable bogeyman as justification). Of course, we can never really trust anyone and everyone, and this is something even individuals can attest to. But I still find it to be a strange phenomenon.

Are we naturally warmongering? It is the same minority of psychopathic, self-interested, or just plain bad people that are ruining it for the rest of us peaceful folks? Is conflict a human imperative, an impulse that courses through each of us as naturally as living and breathing? Is war truly the result of misunderstanding and desperation or is it something that will continued to inexplicably burden us even as we “civilize” and develop? Humans are, after all, the only living things capable of war. In a cruel irony, some have made the argument that intelligence and higher brain functions actually breed and facilitate warring inclinations.  Only intelligent beings could construct the sort ideological, philosophical, political, and religious elements that predicate all conflicts. Only intelligent beings could have the wants and the desires to drive them to conflict with one another in order satiate their existential needs. Is war truly a human disease then, a result of a perverse coupling of our primal heritage with a higher perception of self?

The answer would seem to be unfolding before us within our lifetimes: as the world becomes more globalized and unified than ever before, war has indeed declined, and the question of whether interconnectedness could reduce – maybe even eradicate – wide-scale conflict becomes deliberated. The usual tensions and divisions remain, as do the means to shed more blood than ever. But conflict has largely abated, and the majority people, even those living in destitution and social instability, remains untouched by mass conflict and violence.

As we become more interdependent, communicate better, exchange more ideas and cultural perspectives, and rely on one another’s societies for economic prosperity and indeed survival, could war become a thing of the past, as much out of inconvenience as out of mutual understanding? Did not two of the most horrific wars in modern times, World War I and II, occur after periods of protectionism and isolationism that bred hatred, distrust, and nationalism? But then again, that begs the question: as the economic crisis  and the inequities of globalization threaten more rounds of  insularism, protectionist sentiments, and nationalism, are we teetering once more to wider scale war?Whatever the guess might be, let us shift away from speculation of the unknown future and take what we know from the past.

Thousands of American soldiers died where few others would dare, joining the millions more around the world and throughout history. These people rendered themselves statistics and nameless figures so that we can live in the comfortable times that we do. We have the luxury of enjoying Memorial Day for BBQs and relaxation because of their ultimate sacrifice. I myself spent the weekend just hanging around like it was any other three-day break. It goes to show what a long way we’ve come when wars and their horrific toll could be so easily relegated to the past.