Notes from the Islamic Republic

 | 

Walking down the street in Tehran, if you’re from the Great Satan, is like starring in a triumphal procession, you attract so much attention. I was there last week and it’s the oddest feeling, nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy. People come up to you, not by ones and twos, but by the scores and hundreds and snap selfies and tell you how much they like Americans. If you happen to pass by a picnic, whole families will wave you over to join them. If it’s close to a mealtime, and it’s always close to a mealtime, strangers will invite you into their homes to eat.

Sometimes Iranians will elaborate a bit and tell you that, although they really do like Americans, they don’t approve of our government . . . which struck me as profoundly sensible, since I feel exactly the same way. Every now and then I’d wax especially geopolitical and opine that, all over the world . . . Canada, South Africa, India, you name it . . . nobody likes their own government. To which they’d reply, “Yes, but we don’t like our government a lot more than they don’t like theirs.”

It’s hard to figure where all this goodwill comes from. Back in the day, a lot of Iranians studied abroad and plenty of them must have brought home warm memories of their time in America. Part, I suspect, has to do with the fact that they don’t see that many of us anymore. I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place. Some of the good thoughts may spring from the very public alternative we provide to the society they’re forced to live in. Whatever, two or three even told me they liked President Trump because “his sanctions force our government to pay attention to the people.”

It's nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy.

For a government trying its damnedest to turn the Islamic Republic into a police state, the mullahs aren’t getting a lot of buy-in at the interpersonal level, at least when the other person is a foreigner. Iranians will tell you right up front, “We like talking to foreigners because we can discuss politics with them.” The unspoken . . . and, sometimes, spoken . . . corollary is that they’re afraid to talk politics with their own countrymen, at least if they don’t know those countrymen well enough to share a drink with. In a society where the strictures of Islam are jammed down everybody’s throats, sharing a drink with a friend is the ultimate act of trust. In fact, drinking itself is an act of trust because, with the borders shut tight and the vineyards at Shiraz long since uprooted, most of the available alcohol is brewed up from raisins.

Public defiance happens in small ways, but small rebellions are the hardest to control. Women — every woman, foreigner and local alike, even female SCUBA divers — have to hide themselves under layers of cloth. Some of that cloth can be astonishingly form-fitting, and the head coverings that go with it pushed so far back on the skull that they become more of a tease, like a very low-cut gown in the West, than anything exemplifying feminine virtue. Once, in a mosque of all places, I saw a woman remove hers entirely. It was early morning and she stood in the light streaming through a curtainwall of stained glass, the colors dancing off her face and clothes, to have her picture taken. Then pulled off her scarf so her hair could be in the picture, too. A guard, who’d been posted in the shadows to protect the mosque from just such an outrage, marched over and ordered her to cover back up.

“Now.”

With the time-honored gesture imperious women everywhere give to dismiss bothersome males, she flicked her fingers at him, he retreated to the dark recesses he’d risen up from of, and she went back to the serious business of having her picture taken.

I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place.

Iranians have rebelled in more substantial ways, too. After the Revolution, when a particularly crazed mullah ordered Persepolis bulldozed, townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the mullah gave up and the bulldozers lumbered away.

Whatever religious feelings individual Iranians have, or don’t have, they pretty much keep to themselves. Or, at least, they don’t make a show of to foreigners. Aside from a lady in the Grand Bazaar in Isfahan who wanted to sell me a tile painted with lovely Farsi script, then commanded not to use it as a trivet because the script spelled out “In the name of God,” religion only came up one time. That was in a park in Tehran when a claque of schoolgirls presented me with a scrap of paper, also lettered in Farsi. It took some asking, but the paper turned out to be a prayer for the return of the Mahdi. It was his birthday and the girls were celebrating by passing out prayers to park-goers.

The Mahdi, for those not versed in the intricacies of the Shia brand of Islam, is the Occulted Imam who, in the fullness of time, will reveal himself and reign over the Latter Days before the Resurrection. Oddly, given the echoes of Christianity in the story, or fittingly, or eerily, or because of rotating calendars, or for reasons known only to the common God our more ecumenical theologians claim we all share, his birthday fell on Easter Sunday this year.

Townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the bulldozers lumbered away.

To believers of a certain ilk, the Mahdi has already taken a stab at revealing himself. This happened in the 1880s when he led an uprising in Sudan. But it didn’t stick. He won a spectacular series of battles, then died and became occulted all over again. His movement fell apart a few years later when his successor in Mahdiship attracted the notice of a British army equipped with Maxim guns and Martini-Henry rifles. Whether he’s planning on re-revealing himself anytime soon has not been communicated to me but, whatever he has in mind, there’s not much doubt what those girls were thinking. Their faces were ablaze with the joy and light of the true believer.

All of which is to say that, whatever tensions exist between America and the Islamic Republic, they’re not on the personal level, or even the religious. Government-to-government is a different story. Citizens of almost any place in the world can pick up a visa to Iran upon arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport City in Tehran. Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even APPLY for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa . . . which means sending in a form four months in advance setting out, among other things, the complete itinerary of our hoped-for visit along with a curriculum vitae for the past 15 years . . . where we worked, what we did, what our employers did . . . and then waiting three of the four months while they check our bona fides. The people who aren’t bona fide, the ones they don’t want in their country, are employees of “certain” US government agencies, and those of us with a history of practicing journalism. That practicing journalism business gave me pause until I realized that scribbling the occasional screed for Liberty is about as removed from journalism as an honest writer can get.

If you pass muster in the government-employee and journalism departments, they’ll favor you with a document granting permission to apply for a visa. This lets you fill out a visa application, slip the document, the application, your passport, a couple of photos, and a money order into an envelope and . . . Iran not having an embassy in the US . . . send the envelope to the Islamic Republic of Iran Interest Section at the Embassy of Pakistan. Which leaves you with the uncomfortable thought that I just sent my passport to Pakistan.

Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even apply for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa

Our government isn’t all that gung-ho about Americans travelling to Iran, either. Here’s what the State Department posts on its website for those of us who might be tempted:

“Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping, arrest, detention of U.S. citizens. There is a very high risk of kidnapping, arrest, and detention of U.S. citizens in Iran . . . .” (Bolds copied directly from the original, State Department font.)

After warning you about kidnapping, arrest and detention, the site highly encourages you to register with the American embassy so that our folks in Tehran will know you’re in town and can help you get back out if things go awry. Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering. One of the ladies who traveled with us did, though, and got a note back instructing her to appoint a hostage negotiator before setting out. She submitted the name of her 14-month-old granddaughter on the ground of, “that girl always knows what she wants.”

In Iran, traveling with a group is pretty much de rigueur on account of you aren’t allowed go anywhere without a guide. (“Guide” is Farsi for “minder.”) After you leave the country, your guide goes down to the Internal Security Police and reports on you. One of our guides told me he hated doing that, not because he felt that he was betraying his clients, but because he never knew what to say. “They ask me where the tourists went and what they took pictures of and what they talked about. I tell them they went to Persepolis and took pictures of the Gate of All Nations, and talked about Alexander the Great, and the Security Police get mad and threaten to pull my license.”

Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering.

At the end of our trip we had to fly from Shiraz to Tehran to catch our flight home. Tehran has two airports. The old airport, for domestic flights, and the new Khomeini Airport for international travel. On a good day, meaning at midnight when traffic is lightest, these airports are an hour and a half apart. Our tour arranged for a cab to take us.

The driver was more than accommodating, even by the standards of an Iranian dealing with Americans. When we arrived at Khomeini, he insisted on carrying our bags into the terminal . . . even though all we had was carry-ons, and the carry-ons had wheels.

Then he insisted on waiting in line with us.

And accompanying us to the ticket counter, and on through to emigration . . . at which point he couldn’t insist any more, so, pulling out his phone, he took a selfie of the three of us with the emigration booth in the background. “To remember you by.”

To REMEMBER us by? This guy was a cab driver.

Or, when I thought about it, something more than a cab driver. The selfie documented the fact that he’d gotten us onto the plane.

Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one.

The mullahs weren’t as queasy about what we were allowed to see while we were in Iran as they were about making sure we didn’t overstay our welcome, and one of the first places we went was the Nest of Spies. Also known as the Den of Espionage or, more poetically, the Museum-Garden of Anti-Arrogance, where we were invited to inspect all of America’s latest (à la 1970s) high-tech computer gadgetry, Faraday cages, and shredding equipment left over from when the place really did harbor spies. So it’s not exactly true that we don’t have an embassy in Tehran, it’s just that we don’t currently have diplomatic personnel serving in the embassy.

A few days later we drove past, but weren’t invited to examine, the uranium processing facility at Natanz with, presumably, stuxnet still whirling away at the centrifuges.

Something else the mullahs seemed a bit lax about was military couture. Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one, which makes Iranian soldiers a lot spiffier in the personal appearance department than baggy fatigues make our guys look.

I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter.

The tailors have a full line of insignia to complete the look and, like merchants all over the Middle East, don’t seem to care whom they sell to. So, if you want, you can walk into one shop and get fitted out in the regalia of a full colonel in the Iranian air force. Or, as I did, come away more modestly accoutered with a black Revolutionary Guard shoulder patch embroidered in gold thread with a hand clutching an automatic rifle. I heard there were Hamas shoulder patches on offer, but didn’t get one.

Despite this military stuff I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter. In the been-there-done-that department, Iran is top of the line. Back in the Eighties . . . almost the whole of the Eighties . . . it got in a dispute with Iraq and refought World War I. Trenches. Machine guns. Gas. Shells. Barbed wire, and a lot of Iranians died. Two-hundred-thousand. Six-hundred-thousand. Eight-hundred-thousand, you can take your choice because nobody believes the official stats. Reminders are everywhere.

On bridges. On lampposts. On sides of buildings. And, especially, down the center lanes of highways leading into towns.

Unlike the men whose names are chiseled beneath the words “We shall never forget” on obelisks and the bases of statues in Britain and America, these dead really are hard to forget. Their faces are on big black-and-white portraits hanging, two at a time, every 20 meters or so along the center strips of highways as you drive into town. Every town, and back out on the other side. Kilometers of young men. Miles of young men leading into Tehran and Qom and Kashan and Isfahan and Yazd and Shiraz and every little village and berg in between, and into the countryside beyond. Hometown kids. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands.

The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

As with people in photographs everywhere, you feel you can look them in the eye, that you can sense who they were, and who they could have been. Skinny, scared boys. Smirking cads. Athletes. Sad sacks. You make up stories in your mind. That one was proud to serve. Or a scholar. Or wishing he were home. Or back in school. Or in his uncle’s shop, or working the farm, or hanging out on a street corner. All . . . because you know what trench warfare is like, because you know what machine guns and gas and shells and barbed wire do to human flesh . . . destined for horrible, filthy deaths. The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

I don’t have any better idea than any other friend of Liberty what really happened to those four tankers that are said to have been sabotaged in the Persian Gulf in mid-May but, to a person of my generation, the news can’t help bring up memories of what we were told happened, but didn’t, in the Gulf of Tonkin. This time feels different, though, and I sure hope it is. Under Johnson we had a president who not only was looking for a fight but was willing to manufacture an incident to create one. Blunderbuss that some people will tell you our current president is, he’s said from the beginning he doesn’t want to get us involved in wars. So, maybe, he won’t.

Whatever is really going on between us and Iran and those tankers, Iranians are not people we want to fight. They are people who, in a different world, would be our closest friends. They are funny and spontaneous and laughing and much more like us than anybody else I know about in the Middle East, than many Europeans, for that matter, but I’m not sanguine about what’s going to happen. Not that I think we’ll get into a shooting war with them, I just can’t see how we can ever get out of each other’s faces.

Two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves.

Nobody who isn’t Iranian wants the Islamic Republic to control the Persian Gulf, and nobody who isn’t Saudi wants Arabia to control the Persian Gulf. The problem from the point of view of those of us who aren’t Iranian or Saudi is that Iran has the best army in the region, is a major industrial power, has a thriving agriculture sector, and is just short of world-class in high tech. Arabia can’t so much as make a ballpoint pen. Heck, Arabia can’t even feed itself. Wheat that sells for five dollars on the world market costs ten dollars worth of water to grow in Arabia. All of which puts America in a classic geopolitical bind.

Unless we want to send our own young people to the Persian Gulf to keep Iran from taking over the whole show, we don’t have any choice but to play balance-of-power, which means sanctions, and scaring away tourists, and pushing every country we have any sway with to keep cranking the screws down tighter.

It didn’t have to be this way. It used to be there was a built-in balance of power, with Iraq sitting on Iran’s western flank, tying up its army and its resources and generally putting the brakes on the Mullahs getting too frisky. But two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves. As one of the ayatollahs, or imams, or mullahs or somebody said at the time, “Allah has blinded the Great Satan into doing our work for us.” Or something along those lines.




Share This


Meddle Not!

 | 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . . . that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

That’s the theory of the Declaration of Independence.  This is my deduction: If a government has no just power to exist, anyone is morally free to go to work and try to shut it down. We should not assume, however, that everyone should start trying that stunt, right here and right now. It’s possible that foreigners, for example, should mind their own business. Here’s a principle that used to be honored in America: our government shouldn’t meddle with the affairs of other countries, unless it has a self-defensive reason for doing so.

That principle has been interpreted to mean that all governments are created equal, and that their so-called rights should always be respected. In other words, “We have the Bomb, but, to be fair, why shouldn’t North Korea have the Bomb as well?” I can tell you why North Korea shouldn’t have the Bomb, but you know it already.

Now to my subject. Venezuela is ruled by a socialist dictatorship that is as mean and oppressive and just plain stupid as you would expect a socialist dictatorship to be. Very well. What follows from that?

Does it follow that our government should try to remove the government of Venezuela? That it should plot with the Venezuelan military to remove the country’s dictator? That it should, in effect, wage war against Venezuela as currently constituted?

This, it appears, is what our government is doing.

It’s not as if Venezuela had the Bomb. It’s not even as if Venezuela constituted an economic threat to us, now that we have enough of our own oil not to need any more of Venezuela’s. Besides, the socialists have wrecked the country’s oil industry. If crass self-interest were our guide, we would be happy to lose a competitor, in the political as well as the economic realm. The best advertisement for capitalism and limited government is the hideous failure of Venezuelan socialism.

It is reported that the vast majority of Venezuelans think it’s impossible for them to remove their own government, and that they want some foreign power to do it (guess which). I admit that if I were a Venezuelan, I’d probably be praying for an American invasion. In the current crisis, I probably wouldn’t have enough presence of mind to remember how badly the interference of “international Boy Scouts,” as Isabel Paterson called them, has turned out for some of the intended beneficiaries. But the truth, the truth on which self-interest and moral principle agree, is that the Venezuelans got themselves into this mess, and they need to get themselves out of it.




Share This


Muzungus in the Mist

 | 

Part I: The Slow Cyclists

“Run!”

“Run where, Papa?”

“Into the bush! Now!

Little seven-year old D’Artagnan had no idea what was going on. Was he supposed to run “into the bush” alone? Why? Rwanda had very little “bush”; it was all agricultural small holdings.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time.

That was the evening of April 6, 1994. That afternoon Rwandan Hutu dictator and president, Juvénal Habyarimana, along with Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, also a Hutu, were shot down by missiles fired at close range as their plane was landing at the Kigali airport. Officially, the attackers remain unidentified. Though Hutu extremists blame the Rwandan Patriotic Forces (RPF) — Tutsi and moderate Hutu rebels opposed to Habyarimana’s dictatorship — RPF forces were nowhere near the area. Only the elite presidential guard was nearby, stationed at the Kigali airport, next door to the president’s compound — and they were armed with missiles.

Habyarimana was just returning from Tanzania after a regional summit. Three months prior he’d signed the Arusha Peace Accords, a power-sharing deal with the RPF that was supposed to put an end to the long-running civil war between the National Revolutionary Movement (MRND) and the RPF. A cabal of Hutu extremists in high government posts, reluctant to cede any power or spoils, opposed the deal. Habyarimana himself was no fan of it; the international community and the RPF’s military might forced it on him.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time. Machetes imported from China, grenades from France (military support of several kinds had been provided by the French government), and masus, clubs with protruding nails on their heads, had been stockpiled for this moment. Extremist Hutu militias, known as the interahamwe (those who attack together), had trained for this moment since 1990. Within hours of the downing of the plane the interahamwe went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians — including the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana.

We’d gone to Rwanda to bike around the small country, our favorite way of discovering new places. With an undergraduate minor in primatology, I wanted to see gorillas up close. What better venue than the Virunga volcanoes where Dian Fossey had done her studies? And my wife Tina had never been to Africa. It was a bucket list thing.

Within hours the militias went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians.

We signed up for an 8-day tour with Slow Cyclist, an outfit out of Britain. Having been an outdoor guide all my life, hiring a guide rankled. But the gorilla permits are difficult to acquire, there are no adequate maps of Rwanda’s back roads, my Kinyarwandan is non-existent, and Slow Cyclist promised a first-class mountain bike tour with a guaranteed gorilla trek at the end. So I held my nose and signed up for their Kigali to Virunga ride along the steepest, roughest backroads in East Africa (I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo), with custom lodging at tea plantations, private homes, and reservation-only boutique inns.

After the Slow Cyclist tour, Tina and I would traverse the Congo-Nile Trail, a moderately hard world-class mountain bike trail along giant Lake Kivu on the Congo border. Because much of the single-track is difficult to follow and lodging scarce and variable, we planned on hiring a guide from Rwandan Adventures, a custom guide outfit. After that we’d be on our own across the southern half of the country and back up to Kigali. Our full route traced a circle around the western half of Rwanda, starting and ending in Kigali, which is approximately in the center of the country.

Even though we brought our bikes with us, entry formalities were search- and customs-free. The immigration official greeted us with a big smile and declared that we were VIPs. He asked my profession. I said I was a retired teacher. He responded, “My son says that teachers never retire.”

I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo.

On the first day Slow Cyclist took us to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Two hundred and fifty thousand people are buried there. Our guide around the small museum was D’Artagnan. Something about our small custom group — seven participants from the US, Switzerland and Germany — seemed to affect D’Artagnan’s stock presentation. When he recounted the events of that April 6 evening he couldn’t hold back his tears. Neither could we.

“How did you survive?” we hesitantly but anxiously asked.

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated. He added that the interahamwe grabbed small children by the feet and swung them against masonry walls to smash their heads; larger ones were decapitated by machete. No one left that museum tour without physically touching D’Artagnan, who nonetheless left us without ceremony.

In some ways the Rwandan genocide was much worse than the Nazi Holocaust. Patrick Mazimpaka, a minister in the 1997 RPF-led government reflected, “In Germany, the Jews were . . . moved to . . . distant locations, and killed there, almost anonymously. In Rwanda . . . your neighbors killed you. In Germany, if the population participated in the killing, it was not directly but indirectly.”

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated.

Mahmood Mandami, in his scholarly analysis When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, says:

The technology of the Holocaust allowed a few to kill many, but [in Rwanda] the machete had to be wielded by a single pair of hands. It required not one but many hacks to kill even one person. With a machete, killing was hard work; that is why there were often several killers for every single victim . . . The Rwandan genocide was very much an intimate affair. It was carried out by hundreds of thousands, perhaps even more, and witnessed by millions.

Then there are the raw numbers. Rwanda had seven million inhabitants before the genocide. Nearly one million were Tutsis. During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute. That the entire Tutsi population wasn’t annihilated is due to the many waves of Tutsi refugees that found asylum in Uganda, Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania before and during the killing.

The disaster didn’t begin there. The Hutu-Tutsi rivalry became deadly in 1897 when the ruling class — mostly Tutsis — imposed heavy duties on the peasants — mostly Hutus. Then it took another turn in1933 when the Belgian authorities decided to issue mandatory identity cards to all Ruandan-Urundis (as residents of the colony were then called), thereby freezing ethnic and class identity. It was then that infrequent pogroms — by both sides — began taking place. Before then, the Hutu-Tutsi classes were not fixed: a Hutu could become a Tutsi and vice versa. Intermarriage was common, to such a degree that an observer could not visually distinguish an archetypal Hutu from a Tutsi. (Except for the king, who was 7’2” tall; height is a supposedly defining Tutsi trait.) Neither could we make such visual distinctions during our one-month sojourn and 700-kilometer bike ride around the country.

During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute.

Killings began in earnest in 1959, with subsequent waves in 1962, 1963, 1967, and continued periodically until 1994. In 1972 there was a 250,000 reverse massacre: of Hutus in neighboring Burundi by the Tutsi-dominated government (even though the Hutu-Tutsi proportion in Burundi was the same as in Rwanda: 85% to 15%).

The RPF started their advance south from Mulindi, headquarters next to the Ugandan border, on April 7. Though Kigali was only about 80 kilometers away, they began a three-pronged pincer movement targeting Byumba — the first big city on the road south — Kigali, and Butare, Rwanda’s number two city and intellectual capital, with the intent of breaking supply chains and laying siege to all three. They were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius. When government troops faced the RPF advance, they often ran away. The Interahamwe, armed only with machetes and masus, followed them, while the Hutu Power militias evaporated. The Presidential Guard, the best trained soldiers of the regime, put up the most resistance. As Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, stated in his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, “The RGF (Rwandan Government Forces) soldiers were killing for the sake of killing, not knowing or caring why. In this type of conflict, the men fighting for principles they believed in would inevitably win.”

Finally, after the RPF victory on the Fourth of July, 1994, the Hutu militias, Interahamwe, and remnants of the previous government’s army fled to Congo and regrouped there, with hopes of overthrowing the new RPF government in Rwanda. Kagame, the defense chief of the RPF (and later president of the country) would have none of that. He enlisted the aid of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whom he’d helped to topple Ugandan dictator Milton Obote with the RPF forces, to neutralize the génocidaires.

The RPF were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius.

Counting the killings before the genocide, the genocide itself, and killings that continued in wars directly resultant from the genocide, the death toll topped six million.

* * *

In Kigali, Slow Cyclist ensconced us in the Heaven Chalet, next door but one to President Paul Kagame’s residence and about two blocks from the Hotel Mille des Collines, site of the events depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda. If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads. Each hill is overlaid with a paisley street pattern with connector avenues to the other hills.

Kigali is a spotlessly clean city. In fact, all of Rwanda is litter-free; plastic bags are even outlawed. Not only are the people proud of their country but on the last Saturday of every month all businesses shut down and a general cleanup ensues. Kigali is also a city without slums, beggars, homeless people, bare footedness, potholes, or animals — even dogs. Their curious absence drove home for us, more than anything, including the numbers of dead, how they died, and D’Artagnan’s tale, the enormity of the genocide.

If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads.

When the genocide ended on July 4, 1994, a country of 10,000 square miles was peppered with one million dead. They lay both scattered and in clusters, many piled in churches where they’d sought refuge (although there were a few hastily dug mass graves). Rwanda’s neglected and hungry dogs dug into the corpses. As if carpets of corpses weren’t overwhelming enough, watching hungry dogs scavenging the dead was beyond anyone’s tolerance. All dogs were killed. Nearly 25 years later we encountered only two instances of dogs, both pets of foreigners.

The police, according to all accounts, are incorruptible. One informant told us that when offered a bribe, they are instructed to accept it and keep it — and then to write a citation for bribing. Emi, our driver and guide, said thieves and assaulters were lucky if caught by the police. Woe betide the miscreant who is set upon by witnessing passersby before the arrival of the cops.

Traffic laws are strictly enforced. One practice that wouldn’t pass muster in the US but makes the streets much safer for pedestrians and bikers is that any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge. Motorcycle taxis (moto-taxis), the most common mode of public transportation (along with buses and bicycles kitted up with a back seat), carry a spare helmet for fares. And they are scrupulously honest, with no price negotiation. Just flag one down, state your destination, and upon arrival hand over any denomination of Rwandan francs, and you’ll get the right change. How they figure the correct amount remains a mystery to me, but the fares for similar distances from different drivers remained consistent.

To avoid Kigali traffic — which isn’t particularly fast or outrageously dense — Slow Cyclist drove us to the outskirts of the city, and up the first thousand feet of our first day’s ride. With another 4,000 feet up to go, and 50 kilometers along impossibly steep and rugged dirt roads, we’d have been hard pressed to reach the Sorwathe Tea Plantation in Kinihira, our first night’s lodging, without that initial motorized boost.

Kinihira had been fought over in the civil war launched by the RPF in October 1990. It was here that much of the Arusha Peace Accords had been negotiated. It then became neutral ground and was the site of the official launch of the UNAMIR peace keeping force in October 1993. We slept on hallowed ground.

Any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge.

As avid bikers, Tina and I can hold our own in any group. But the four 26-year-old Swiss and one German, all experienced mountain bikers, made me feel my age; it was my birthday, and I’d turned 69 that day. Still, it was a tough day for us all: two flats, one lost biker, and a crash so bad it forced the German to ride in the four-wheel drive support vehicle for two days with a bandaged forearm. Was it going to be so difficult every day?

Pretty much. Fifty-five kilometers and 3,500 feet of altitude gain on the second day, all on rocky, rutted four-wheel drive back roads. We started, however, with a tour of the tea factory, with full-on hygienic suits. Observing the sophisticated operation, which was literally “in the middle of nowhere,”’ we were amazed that the entire factory was operated by four massive wood-burning boilers stoked round-the-clock.

During that day’s ride, Tim, one of the Swiss riders, and an economist by trade, with a take-no-prisoners approach to development economics, deigned to ride with this old fogy. He was open and friendly, with a confident arrogance that I found attractive. Since both of us were impatient with small talk, I told him I was an admirer of Hayek and Mises. He added Hernando de Soto, confirming that we shared some theoretical premises.

I then asked him what he thought of Jeffrey Sachs, the doyen of development economics. Tim found the man’s views deplorable and unrealistic, but had bought the main book that expounded his views. When he saw that the introduction was written by a rock star, Bono — Tim’s words were now dripping with sarcasm — he put off reading it.

On a roll, he moved on to a rant about “fair trade,” one of his favorite foils. Like the American economist Tyler Cowen, who observed that if you want to help the really poor, you don’t buy “fair trade,” Tim had his own beef with the concept, especially when thoughtlessly lumped in a basket of other trendy ideologies.

Was it going to be so difficult every day? Pretty much.

A friend back in Bern, an advocate of fair trade and sustainability, had been buying a “fair trade” avocado when Tim revealed to her that the inefficiencies behind that import did not fit a sustainable model — on any level. She sheepishly put the avocado back on the shelf. I sensed an opening to have fun by presenting a poser on economic inefficiencies, as follows.

Our biking guides, Olivier and Godfrey, came from Rwanda and Uganda respectively. Both were 23 years old, excellent competitive mountain bikers, personable and sensitive, with good English. Slow Cyclist also runs tours in Transylvania, Tuscany, and Greece that are manned by locals. Savannah, our Slow Cyclist head honcho on this tour, told me that Slow Cyclist was mulling over bringing Olivier and Godfrey to Transylvania as on-the-ground biking guides — initially on a training basis — and bringing Romanian guides to Rwanda. I told Tim about Savannah’s plans, drolly emphasizing how inefficient such a move would be.

Tim looked at me impishly and admitted that there were some things more important than economic efficiency. I could tell by his smile that a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, had found a new friend.

I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted.

During the succeeding days we continued to enjoy various topics in economics. One evening after a couple of banana beers, I brought up a thought about incentives that I‘d been mulling over for a while when he asked me how long Tina and I had been married; a question, no doubt, precipitated by how well — and uninhibitedly — she and I got along.

I told him we weren’t married, but had been together for 30 years and had known each other for 40, adding that we thought marriage was premised on the wrong set of incentives. Tim was intrigued. I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted. Better to promise to leave each other if not treated with love and respect; that way, you’re both always at your best and remain attractive to each other. Remember that love is a marketplace and that potential mates are everywhere and that we’re always comparing what we have to what we could have. So always be at your best so you remain your mate’s number one attraction.

Tim just stared at me, transfixed. There was little under the sun that he hadn’t thought about, but I could tell that what I had just said was new, really new, phrased in his economist’s language.

Tim’s fellow Swiss, all single and consisting of a lawyer, a tech whiz, and another economist — one whose work had been quoted in academic papers — were also of an intellectual bent. The following morning all four rode without their usual vigor; they’d stayed up most of the night drinking beer and discussing my views on marriage. Adrian, the other economist, thought me a bit cold, cynical, and outside the mainstream — hence the long discussion. But Tim was convinced of the soundness of my analysis and decided to approach relationships from a new perspective.

* * *

Our little group was mobbed by locals at every tiny village and water, rest, and regrouping stop. Rwanda is densely populated; there are people everywhere, though white people are very uncommon. As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps. But when the cameras came out, so — often — did their shyness. Adults would also crowd around curiously, inspect our bikes, shake our hands, and try to engage us with smatterings of French or English, such as “Good morning” or “What is your name?”

Tina and I, with Kinyarwandan phrases taped to our handlebar packs, would respond in Kinyarwandan, a difficult and unintuitive language for us. Often, just for fun and to elicit laughs from the kids, I’d respond nonsensically and unexpectedly with some words I’d memorized, such as inkoko (chicken), umukondo (belly button), and ingrube (pig) — ordinary words, but out of the ordinary in introductory conversations. One of the words I memorized was umwirabura, black person, which I’d lob back at being called a muzungu.The pitch-black African faces would break into broad grins with teeth so uniform and white that we began to wonder how such perfect dental health resulted in this third world country. And it wasn’t just the nearly universal perfect dentition that was noteworthy. Like the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, Rwandans — men, women, and children — are good-looking and of above average intelligence. In a month and 700 kilometers, we saw perhaps a handful of smokers and even fewer overweight people. At the risk of losing further credibility, I’ll add that — in our experience — they are all friendly, transparent, outgoing, honest, and helpful. When faced with a hill too steep, roadside Rwandans would pitch in to help us push our bikes. They are a people to fall in love with.

Muzungu: originally a Swahili word meaning “aimless wanderer,” but now generally used as a term for white people. However, it can also be used for any foreigner, including American black people. Emi, our driver, told us he’d driven many American actors, including Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Isaiah Washington (an actor in Grey’s Anatomy)to and from the gorilla trekking. Though singling out Washington, Emi generalized to other American stars (mostly black, but including some whites), saying that they were all nice but had a propensity to use “jive” language that included terms such as “bad-ass,” “fucking amazing,” and other obscenities used as intensifying modifiers for compliments. Emi had to gently censure them. Rwandans are conservative in deportment though generally liberal in attitudes. They found jive language offensive and offputting.

As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps.

On our third day out we approached the Rift Valley in northern Rwanda, with its lakes and volcanoes swaddled in mists that added an air of mystery to our anticipation. After a half-day of riding, which included a single-track section composed of an eight-inch ridge flanked by foot-and-a-half-deep ruts on each side that only Olivier and Godfrey could ride, we arrived at Lake Ruhondo. Two wooden boats with canopies, close relatives of the African Queen, awaited to take our bikes and us to the Foyer de Charité, a Catholic convent on a distant shore. Poor Godfrey and Olivier. They couldn’t swim and were terrified of the boat ride, snuggled in their Mae Wests and begging us not to move from our seats for fear of unbalancing the boats. After their display of expertise on the single-track, their worry was an endearing counterpoint.

The following day began with a walk down to the lake and another boat ride to an even farther shore, followed by a steep 2.5-mile uphill walk to the tony Virunga Lodge for a lunch of pea soup and tenderloin steak.

A mile before the lodge, we hit a newly-built public library, again in the middle of nowhere (yes, I know, it’s getting old . . . all of Rwanda seems to be in the middle of nowhere). It was a modest structure, but well-planned and executed. At least half a dozen people were using the new computers or perusing the stacks. One budding artist was drawing a charcoal portrait of a silverback. They were thrilled to have muzungu visitors. We got a tour. All of us made generous contributions to its upkeep and expansion.

Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation.

The Virunga Lodge sits atop a hill with stunning views of the Virunga volcanoes. We were welcomed by a drummer and two Intore (“warrior”) dancers. It’s only accessible by bike, helicopter, or very long four-wheel drive. You can’t get there by car unless you have a four-wheel drive. Inside, the Dian Fossey map room beckoned.

Louis Leakey was important in recommending primatologists to the National Geographic. He favored women: Dian Fossey for gorillas, Jane Goodall for chimps, and Birute Galdikas for orangutans. But I sought credit in that map room for George Schaller, the pioneer of mountain gorilla studies in the Virungas, and without whose groundbreaking research Fossey might not have gotten anywhere. And, taking pride of place . . . there he was, in a large framed article crediting him with initiating the gorilla studies.

In the afternoon we rode 26 kilometers, downhill, on perfect tarmac to Ruhengeri. On the outskirts we passed the headquarters of Team Rwanda, the national cycling team, and stopped for a short visit. It was a first-class operation, with some bike frames weighing as little as three pounds. Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation. The first set of high-end bikes was donated to the team by President Paul Kagame. When the team rides, either for practice or for competition during the Tour de Rwanda, people line the streets and cheer as they pass — behavior our group experienced often as we rode.

Bikes even played a part in the development of Rwandan coffee (heirloom bourbon of an Arabica strain), to my taste the best in the world, comparable to Jamaican Blue Mountain. In 2002, the world discovered Rwandan coffee. But there was a big problem for the small holders who grew the beans. The beans need to be processed within eight hours of being picked, or they begin fermenting, developing rotten flavors. Some farmers, after picking the coffee in the morning, would have to walk up to 15 miles in the sun, carrying hundreds of pounds of fast-fermenting cherries — the red fruit that contains the beans — on a home-made wooden bike or on their heads, balanced on woven baskets.

We ran across some of these old wooden bikes, more akin to scooters (see picture). They could carry over 100 pounds, but weighed nearly 100 pounds themselves and were impossible on even the slightest incline. In the “Land of a Thousand Hills” they weren’t much of a solution.

In 2005, Tom Ritchey, the developer of the mountain bike — in partnership with Gary Fisher — decided to help the Rwandan coffee farmers. He designed a cargo bike that could haul 330 pounds — two bags of coffee cherries, two goats, or three children. He launched it in 2007, named it the “Hope Bicycle,” and priced it at $110 (still a steep price for a coffee farmer), and sold at a subsidized price.

The bikes were a big success, saving farmers time and effort and allowing them to maximize their profits. However, as is the bane of many development schemes, a shortage of parts — brake pads, derailleurs, chains, etc. — in time made the bikes undependable. And as President Kagame’s emphasis on developing Rwanda’s infrastructure bore fruit, Ritchey’s Project Rwanda’s time came to its end. We were lucky to come across a couple of these Project Rwanda bikes, the Humvees of the bicycle world, still in use. Parts are more available today.

In Ruhengeri — hometown of our guide Olivier, and the past headquarters of Hutu Power, President Habyarimana’s organization that engineered the genocide, we stayed at The Garden House, a private home with five guest rooms, owned by a Brit-Rwandan couple with three pet dogs.

* * * *

We awoke at 5 a.m. to joyous singing and clapping — the cadets’ morning routine at the nearby police and military academies. Today was gorilla tracking day. At Volcanoes National Park we were broken up into small groups according to ability, were assigned a ranger, and underwent an orientation. The park was established in 1925, encompasses five volcanoes, and extends into Uganda and Congo (the Congo side was closed because of rebel activity in the area). Today in Rwanda there are about 600+ gorillas (up from 400 in 2016) in about 30 family groups of about 20 individuals each. Some groups are harder to access than others, hence the division of the tourists into groups by varying degrees of ability. This was about the only place in Rwanda where we saw other muzungus.

At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our group consisted of four Slow Cyclists and one lady from New York. Our objective was the Hirwa or “Lucky” family group, up on “Old Man’s Teeth,” a volcano whose carapace had eroded and only its core, jagged and multi-summited, remained. We were escorted by an armed ranger, three trackers with walkie-talkies, and one porter who distributed hand-carved walking sticks, essential in the steep, muddy, and foliage-thick tracks that passed for “trails.”

A gorilla sighting is not guaranteed, even after one has paid $1,500 per person for the permit, and I resigned myself to our fate, whatever it turned out to be. Along the way the ranger explained that his gun was for protection against Cape buffalo, not gorillas. After about half an hour of uphill trudging, stumbling, machete hacking, losing shoes in the mud, and much walkie-talkie back-and-forth in Kinyarwandan, the ranger gathered us around a large tree and had us remove our backpacks and walking sticks and cache them there. One tracker had reported a member of the Lucky group up ahead. The removal of our extraneous gear made us more familiar to the primates and avoided their snatching our stuff, however playfully. At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our first encounter was lightning fast — a young male surfaced above the undergrowth and gave three or four chest beats directed our way before quickly disappearing. Fiddling with my camera, I’d almost missed him. Nearby, an intermittent procession of gorillas wandered in one direction, a pattern I didn’t discern but which the trackers did. They directed us to a tiny clearing where females and youngsters were congregating. Finally the silverback male — papa — lumbered through, gave us a glance, and sat on his haunches about 30 feet from our little group, which was by now crouched on its haunches. The trackers and porter remained almost out of sight; I suppose to visually minimize the size of our group.

We remained in close proximity for over an hour, watching mothers and children interact, mothers and others groom each other, juveniles brachiate and chase each other around trees, and babies try to get papa to play (a hopeless task). At one point Tina put down her camera and phone in front of her, and lay down on the ground to just enjoy the show. That’s when a young juvenile gave her an impish glance and began approaching within two feet of her. “Take that phone away!” shouted the ranger in a muted voice.

Not a few minutes later, the same juvenile grabbed a stick and approached her again to play. “Do not engage!” came the ranger again. Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens. We were all vetted for coughs, sneezes, or any other visible signs of sickness before going.

Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens.

On the way back I felt the same way I had after listening to the Westminster Abbey choir performing their Christmas service — overwhelmed yet exalted, moist-eyed with respectful elation, quietly contemplative at the remarkable hour we’d just experienced with our closest primate relatives, our extraordinary and compelling creature cousins. Emi, our driver, broke our reverie, asking for our reaction. He’d visited the gorillas eight times, and each time he’d felt the same way we did.

“At $1,500 a pop each?” I exclaimed incredulously. He responded that each time, his clients had paid his way.

miller 0354

Rwandans love their gorillas. At the base of Old Man’s Teeth volcano a beautiful outdoor ceremonial area has been built to hold “Gorilla Namings.” A three-story high silverback sculpted out of dry vines holds court over a promenade, a manicured courtyard, and other staging ornamentation. When a new gorilla is born, a naming ceremony is held at this arena — the newborn is not required to attend.

We brought up the disparity in gorilla trekking prices between Rwanda and Uganda, where a permit costs only $750. In 2017, Rwanda had doubled its price to $1,500. The price change has hit the Rwandan gorilla tourist industry hard. So the Rwandan Development Board has provided a 30% discount between November and May, the low season. Emi said that Rwanda wants to make its gorilla sanctuary fully sustainable and that the rangers and trackers are well paid. He added that each gorilla family in Rwanda is exposed to tourists for only one hour each day so as to minimize any possible stress. By contrast, in Uganda, even if permits are “sold out”, it is possible to approach “someone” and get a permit outside the normal channels. The result is that Uganda’s gorilla families are exposed to tourists all day, every day. Who knows where those last minute permit fees end up?

Rwanda is a fascinating place to visit — as I continued to find, in the second half of my journey.

...to be continued...




Share This


Kashmir: The Constant Conflict

 | 

On February 26, 2019, the Indian Air Force, for the first time since 1971, conducted a raid inside Pakistan, and allegedly hit a terrorist training camp, killing more than 250 terrorists. Pakistan showed photographs of damage to a tree or two. According to Pakistani officials, no one died and no infrastructure was damaged.

It is hard to know the truth, for India did not provide any evidence, nor did Pakistan allow journalists access to the site. Both governments blatantly lie to their citizens, retailing falsehoods so hilarious that even a half-sane person could see through them. But drunk in nationalism, Indians and Pakistanis normally don’t.

India’s intrusion was in response to a suicide car-bombing on February 14 in Kashmir, a bombing that killed 45 troops. Indians were moving a convoy of 2,500. They were in buses, not in armoured cars, as officially stated. Challenging the army is sacrilegious, so no one asks why their movement was so badly planned, and why they had not been airlifted, which would have been far cheaper and easier.

Both governments blatantly lie to their citizens, retailing falsehoods so hilarious that even a half-sane person could see through them.

In all the ramping up of emotions in the aftermath of the suicide bombing on the troops, it became very clear that the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, would lose the next elections, which are due in a couple of months, unless he retaliated. Sending India to war was a small price.

Soon after India’s intrusion, Pakistan closed its airspace. Tension at the border went up significantly, and continues.

A day later, Pakistan attempted airstrikes in India. In the ensuing challenge, one of India’s MIG-21, known as flying coffins because they are very old and outdated, was shot down by a Pakistani missile. The Indian pilot parachuted into Pakistani territory. India claimed to have downed a Pakistani F-16. Pakistan denied the claim.

TV stations in both countries were singing songs about the valor of their troops, which consist of uneducated rural people with no other job opportunities and absolutely no clue about what they’re fighting for. These troops act as gladiators for the spectacle of the bored, TV-watching masses, who feel vicariously brave while munching their chips. Of course, the social media warriors know that it is not they who would be at the frontlines in any serious conflict.

It became very clear that the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, would lose upcoming elections unless he retaliated. Sending India to war was a small price.

It is not in the culture of the Third World masses to feel peace and happiness. Either they are slogging away in the field and going to sleep a bit hungry — which helps to keep them focused and sane — or, if they have time on their hands, they become hedonistic and graduate to deriving pleasure from destructive activities. The latter becomes apparent as soon as they have enough to eat. This feedback system in their culture applies entropic force to take them back to Malthusian equilibrium.

Pakistan’s raison d'etre is to obsess over Kashmir and the human rights violations therein that the Indian army inflicts, oblivious of a much worse tyranny provided by its own army and fanatics, particularly in Baluchistan. Once Pakistan’s social media had put the people into a trance of war, officials had no option but to retaliate.

Both armies are thoroughly incompetent and disorganized, and extremely corrupt. (Troops in India actually double up as house-servants of their bosses — something that would be inconceivable to a well-organized and truly nationalistic body of soldiers.) The tribal societies of Pakistan and India merely posture; they have no courage to go into a real war. But alas! Posturing can become reality.

On this occasion, threats of nuclear bombing were made. The bombs would probably have failed to explode, but it was obvious that the United States could not be a bystander. Despite the fact that Trump was busy in Vietnam with another nuclear-armed country, North Korea, he had to make a few calls. He had to interfere, as an adult does when two kids are fighting. Those of us who complain — quite rightly — about the US military-industrial complex should consider the unseen, unrecognized good that the US does in helping to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

Once Pakistan’s social media had put the people into a trance of war, officials had no option but to retaliate.

The cause of such a war — the stated point of contention between between India and Pakistan — is Kashmir. They both want to have Kashmir. And, just to complicate things, some Kashmiris want full independence. But it must be said: the approach of everyone involved is grossly stupid.

Kashmir (including Jammu, “the gateway to Kashmir”) has a GDP of US $22 billion. It has only 1% of India’s population, but it gets 10% of federal grants. India’s defense budget is US $52 billion, with Kashmir as the primary reason; and because of Kashmir a lot of additional funds are spent on internal security, including the 500,000 Indian troops positioned there.

Kashmir is a bottomless pit for India, and the money does no good for Kashmir, either. Kashmir must exist under the tyranny of terrorists and of Indian forces, who under the law do not face accountability in the courts. Kashmir has no resources of value or any economy of substance; its populace is inward-looking and fanatic. There is no reason for India not to kick Kashmir out of the federation.

Pakistan, with a fraction of India’s economy, spends money comparable to India’s to try to take over Kashmir, occupy the one-third of Kashmir that it has right now, train terrorists, and, as a consequence, destroy itself economically and socially. Were Kashmir to join Pakistan, it would offer only negative value, dragging down Pakistan’s per capita GDP. There is no rational reason for Pakistan to accept Kashmir, let along fight for it.

Threats of nuclear bombing were made. The bombs would probably have failed to explode, but it was obvious that the United States could not be a bystander.

Kashmir as an independent country would be landlocked and not much different from Afghanistan. No sane Kashmiri would want to be independent from India. Although India is backward and wallows in poverty and tyranny, in relative terms it is the best hope for Kashmir. Moreover, Ahmadi Muslims who went to Pakistan after the separation of 1947 are deemed non-Muslims by mainstream Pakistanis and by Pakistan’s constitution. The same fate awaits Kashmiris if they join Pakistan.

In a sane world, there is nothing to negotiate. As you can see above, I could be on any of the three sides of the negotiating table and accept demands of the other two without asking for anything in return. Unfortunately, my compromises would not be seen as such. In keeping with Third World proclivities, they would be seen as signs of weakness, and new demands would soon be made, ceaselessly generated by superstition, ego, expediency, tribalism, and emotion. This, not Kashmir, is the primary problem, and this is the reason why here is no solution, ever.

Muslims are not the only culprits — it is merely that talking about them post-9/11 is politically more acceptable. In the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Africa, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims are all included in the cycle of tyranny and irrationality. If Islam comes across as worse, it is mostly because in these places it has institutionalized irrationality, fed on it, and been self-victimized by it.

Kashmir is a bottomless pit for India, and the money does no good for Kashmir, either.

Since the inclusion of the sharia in Pakistan’s constitution in the 1980s, Pakistan, which was until then richer than India on a per capita basis, has taken a rapid slide downwards. Today, freedom of speech is so constrained that any accusation of having said a word against the “holy” book or the army can result in capital punishment — if, that is, one avoids getting lynched before reaching the courts.

A Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death in Pakistan in 2010 for the crime of drinking water from a cup reserved for Muslims. After a decade of prison, she was released, not because the supreme court saw the case as utterly stupid, which it should have, but because it didn’t see a clear proof that she had committed the “crime.” Pakistan erupted in civil chaos as millions walked the streets, asking for her blood. In my totem pole of values and consequences, Pakistan is 25 years ahead of India in self-destruction.

I arrived in India last week. Corruption these days hits me soon after I land. It has now become customary for the toilet-caretaker at the airport to demand a tip. With his dirty hands he offers tissue paper to me and tries to make me feel guilty if I don’t accept it.

In the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Africa, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims are all included in the cycle of tyranny and irrationality.

The Indian government has tried to control corruption, through the demonetization of 86% of currency in 2016 and the imposition of a nationwide sales tax a year later. While these haven’t controlled corruption, they have managed to seriously harm the economy by destroying the informal sector, which employs 82% of Indians. And without the informal sector, the formal sector will falter.

Financial corruption is not even the real problem. Were bribery to stop, India would rapidly become North Korea or Eritrea. I say that because financial corruption is a necessary safety valve in overregulated societies. When such backward societies do manage to control bribery in isolation, they create extremely suffocating environments. North Korea and Eritrea have actually controlled bribery by getting their citizens to snitch on each other and by extraordinary levels of punishments. Backward societies like these are necessarily subdued and stagnant, lack of skills being the real reason for their backwardness; and the lack of the safety valve of bribery constricts whatever potential they have. But financial corruption, a symptomatic problem, is seen as the prime problem by politically correct kids who go to study at Ivy League colleges and then to work for IMF, the World Bank, etc., without a real-life experience. They see financial corruption being removed from one place, only to find it reappearing in another; they don’t understand what is happening.

India is an ocean of corruption, but it’s not just financial. More importantly, it’s cultural. The real corruption is cultural irrationality, the irrationality of people who operate not through honesty, pride, compassion, or honor, but through expediency. Trying to control bribery in such societies does not work, because bribes are just a part of the whole package of social corruption and irrationality.

Financial corruption is a necessary safety valve in overregulated societies. When such backward societies do manage to control bribery in isolation, they create extremely suffocating environments.

As the economy has grown, India has been on a path to increased fanaticism and violent nationalism. These days, if you are found to be in possession of beef, you risk getting lynched. Nationalism is on the rise, rather rapidly. You are forced to stand up for the national anthem before the start of movies in cinema halls. Complaining against the Prime Minister on social media can land you in prison. Opposing his policies can get you beaten up. India’s constitution stays secular, but the trend is in the same direction that Pakistan has been on.

The World Bank, IMF, etc. continue to report that India is among the fastest growing economies in the world, and is perhaps even faster growing than China. While these numbers are completely erroneous, even if they weren’t, institutionally the Indian subcontinent has been rudderless since the time the British left. All economic growth since the time of so-called independence has come because of importation of technology from the West.

But what about the fact that India has one of the largest numbers of engineers and PhDs in the world? It is easy to get a degree without studying — and not just in India — and the results are obvious. In the age of the internet, when a competent engineer can work remotely for a Western client, Indian “engineers” work as taxi drivers, deliver Amazon products, or get jobs as janitors. Their degrees are just degrees on paper.

India has been on a path to increased fanaticism and violent nationalism. These days, if you are found to be in possession of beef, you risk getting lynched.

Moreover, education is a tool; so is technology. They must be employed by reason. Without reason, “education” and technology serve the wrong masters: tribalism and superstitions. No wonder that with increasing prosperity, “educational” achievement, and better technology, India is regressing culturally.

India is massively lacking in skills. As I write sitting in India today, I ask my maid, who is joining the university soon, not to put the dusty carpet on my bed. But I must remind her this every day. She struggles to write her own name. Very simple algebra is beyond her grasp. Her case might be an extreme one, but most Indians are completely unprepared for the modern economy. This is the reason why you hardly see anything in Western markets that is made in India, despite India’s having more than one-sixth of the world’s population. It is virtually impossible to form a company of five people in India and expect it to work with any kind of efficiency.

People often blame China for copying Western technology. While that is true, one must recognize that copying takes a certain amount of skills that people in some other economies simply don’t have. The situation of India has worsened as the best of Indians now increasingly prefer to leave for greener pastures, even including Papua New Guinea. Lacking leadership, post-British India is rapidly becoming tribal, fanatic, and nationalistic. We must remember that India as a union is together only because of inertia from the days of the British. When the inertia is gone, India will fall into tribal units, as will Pakistan and much of the rest of the Third World.

Without reason, “education” and technology serve the wrong masters: tribalism and superstitions.

A horrible war will one day break out between India and Pakistan. It will not be because of Kashmir, which is just an excuse, but because irrational people always blame others, envy, and hate them. They fail to negotiate. They have no valor, but constant posturing will eventually trigger something. There is no solution to their problems. Every problem that the British left behind has simmered and gotten worse.

As soon as India reaches a stage where it can no longer grow economically because of imported technology, its cultural decline will become rapidly visible. Though India is 25 years behind Pakistan, both are walking toward self-destruction, to a tribal, medieval past.

As for the US, the job of any rational US president is to help ensure that destruction stays within the borders of India and Pakistan.




Share This


Remembering the Great War

 | 

As the world prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I on November 11, 1918, director Peter Jackson accepted a daunting commission: to create a documentary that would honor the soldiers who fought in the trenches, using the original footage that was filmed 100 years ago.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war. Jackson would not interview modern historians about the significance of the war or provide any scripted narration. Instead, Jackson would bring these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

The result is a magnificent piece of work, both in the story it tells and in the technology Jackson used to tell it. This is a film made entirely in the editing room.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war.

To create the storyline, Jackson and his team reviewed over 600 hours of interviews with survivors, conducted during various commemorations of the War to End All Wars. Jackson then began selecting portions of the interviews, taking a snippet here and a snippet there, until he was able to cobble together a narrative line that begins with young 16- and 17-year-old boys sneaking off to lie about their ages in order to join the army; follows them into the trenches, villages, and battlefields; and ends with the survivors returning home, many of them injured, many of them “loony” (an earlier term for PTSD), and many of them (according to one of the narrators) facing employment signs that said “Army veterans need not apply.” Their remembrances, told with voices that are cracked with age, are moving and authentic. No historian’s expertise could tell their story better.

Once the storyline had been established, Jackson reviewed 100 hours of footage from the war, selecting the best scenes to match the narration. Much of the footage was third- or fourth-generation, meaning it was a copy of a copy of a copy, each generation becoming less and less crisp. Much of it was either too dark or too light to be viewed clearly. And all of the movements were jerky and unnatural as the filmmakers had to crank the film through the camera by hand, trying to keep it steady at approximately twelve frames per second, which is only half the number of frames per second that we are accustomed to seeing in today’s movies.

And here is where the magic begins. Jackson used computer technology to add frames to the footage, smoothing out the action and making it feel as normal as any film you would see today. Then he colorized the film, using actual uniforms, tanks, and other artifacts from his own considerable collection of WWI memorabilia to help the artists get the colors just right. Next he enlisted professional lipreaders to figure out what the men were saying in the footage, and hired voice actors from the actual regions of each regiment, so the accents would be authentic. He added sound effects made by recording actual tank movements, mortar explosions, bayonet affixions, and other background noises. Finally, he created a natural musical score largely based on whistling and other natural music of the battlefield. The result brings these antique films to life. We simply forget that cameras couldn’t do this 100 years ago.

Jackson brings these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

I’m not usually a fan of colorization; while it does make a film feel more natural for modern viewers, it neutralizes the skillful play of shadow and contrast designed deliberately and carefully by directors of the ’30s and ’40s. They knew what they were doing, and they did it well. However, in this film the colorization is a masterful addition. It brings out details in the film that in black and white were hidden or completely lost. Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

We also see how terribly young these soldiers were, marching off to war and grinning for the cameras. Although we never know their names, Jackson edits the footage so that several of the men come into view several times, and we begin to identify with them. We see not only the war, but how they lived, what they ate, how they slept, and even how they played. And in many cases, we are seeing them just before they died. It is a sobering, respectful, and impressive film.

They Shall Not Grow Old is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it simply asks us to consider the cost of war — not in the billions of dollars that are spent, but in the millions of lives that are lost. The title of the film is based on a selection from Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance called “For the Fallen,” which has been used as a tribute to all who die in war:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

Lee Teter’s painting “Vietnam Reflections” pays a similar tribute to the fallen, but from a different perspective, that of the grieving survivor. It depicts a man, clearly a veteran though he wears no uniform, mourning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, where the names of all the fallen are etched on a long, low wall deliberately situated below ground level. His head is bowed in quiet anguish, his arm outstretched and his hand leaning heavily against the wall, willing it to reach inside and touch his comrades on the other side. Unseen by him, because his eyes are closed, several soldiers seem to be standing inside the wall, their reflections ghostly as they reach out, hand to hand, to console the man who, having survived the war, continues to carry its burdens. His guilt is understood by the clothing Teter chose to give him. He is dressed in a business suit; the soldiers wear army fatigues. A briefcase rests on the ground beside the veteran; the soldiers carry field kits. The businessman’s hair is flowing and tinged with gray; theirs is dark and crew cut. The fallen soldiers shall not grow old, start businesses, or have children.

 Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

And therein lies the survivor’s grief. “We that are left grow old,” as Binyon says in his poem, but survival is neither a reward nor a relief. It is a burden. Age does weary them, and the years do condemn.

No one knows the true story of war except those who experience it, and even then, it is a private, individual grief that none of them can truly share or understand. Consequently, using the voices of the actual soldiers to tell their story was a brilliant narrative strategy for They Shall Not Grow Old. They speak next to one another, but not in conversation with one another. The viewer remains enveloped in the currency of the story and simply observes their experience without explanation, editorializing, or the distraction of a modern historian’s modern interpretation.

The film is moving and impressive, but you’ll have to find it on Netflix or another platform because its theatrical release was limited to just December 17 and December 27. And that’s a shame, because the moment when Jackson switches from the jerky, original, black and white footage to his colorized and edited version is breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see it on a full-sized screen. If you do see it, make sure you watch the director’s cut with Peter Jackson’s interview explaining how he did it. It’s like listening to a magician’s reveal.


Editor's Note: Review of "They Shall Not Grow Old," directed by Peter Jackson. WingNut Films, 2018, 99 minutes.



Share This


Beyond Relativism

 | 




Share This


Not to Praise, But to Bury

 | 

As another elder statesman dies and the nation is caught in the grip of another bout of panegyrics, it’s worth stepping back to concentrate on the individual lives that they touched during their time in the halls of power. For George Herbert Walker Bush, specifically, that means considering also the plight of Keith Jackson.

In 1989, Jackson was a high school senior in Anacostia, southeast DC, living in one of the worst zip codes in the country. Like many of his peers, Jackson was a low-level drug dealer, one of the smallest cogs in a larger machine, like the Baltimore towers in The Wire. Crucially, he had reached his 18th birthday when the federal government started setting him up for a presidential publicity stunt.

See, George Bush, seemingly desperate to prove he was man enough to live up to his successor, wanted a set piece to kick off his own extension of Reagan’s War on Drugs. So his staff came up with the idea of busting someone for selling crack cocaine—still the drug warrior’s enemy of choice—in the shadow of the White House.

Bush demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts.

DEA agents offered up Jackson as a patsy. He’d been on their radar for months—so if selling drugs in and of itself was really such a big deal, they could have grabbed him at any point (and then he’d be replaced by another young slinger with no other prospects, and then another, ad infinitum). No, he was only worth it if he could be sacrificed for a higher purpose, like making a weedy, “wimpy” Massachusetts desk-occupier look like a tough guy. That purpose in hand, the undercover DEA agent on Jackson’s case asked him to meet at Lafayette Park, promising an extra premium to lure Jackson to Northwest DC, where black residents of the city almost never went. (As a measure of how stratified and segregated DC society was at the time — not to mention how complete the failure of the educational system — when the undercover DEA agent asked Jackson to meet him in the park across from the White House, Jackson didn’t know where that was until piecing together that it was “where Reagan lives,” and he was hesitant to make the trip because one thing he did know is how much greater the police presence would be in Official DC.)

The purchase took place on September 1, and on September 5 Bush was holding up a plastic baggie of crack cocaine during a White House address, noting that it had been “seized” (not bought) just across the street. He demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts. He got all of those things, often in connection with mandatory minimum laws that eliminated judicial discretion in sentencing (and which perpetuated a nonsensical divide in sentencing between powdered and crack cocaine, the burden of which fell almost entirely on the black community).

If George Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it.

Keith Jackson was one of those who fell prey to a mandatory minimum. The DEA arrested him, not at the sale for whatever reason, but immediately after Bush’s speech. After his first two trials ended in hung juries, a third trial saw him convicted and sentenced to a legally-mandated decade in prison without parole. The judge in the case, uncomfortable with the mode of Jackson’s entrapment, urged him to ask the president for a commutation. But Bush had almost immediately washed his hands of the matter: facing criticism from a variety of sources including even those had a stake in the Drug War’s continuance (like the head of the city’s police union), Bush said, “I cannot feel sorry for [Jackson]. I’m sorry, they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country.” And so, for the crime of selling 2.4 grams of crack cocaine to another consenting adult in a place where there had been no recorded drug busts in the past, Keith Jackson served almost eight years in prison.

What happened to him after that point is not known. One doubts that Bush ever dwelt on Jackson or any other of the thousands affected by yet another surge in the War on Drugs—young men and occasionally women losing their futures to ruthless sentencing guidelines and the economic incentives of incarceration, or often just their lives to police enforcement or to the criminal turf wars that invariably follow the artificial limiting of a highly in-demand substance. Add in the families and communities that depended on this suddenly absent and incarcerated generation, and it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions.

But if Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it, as the Iraqi people had ample opportunity to learn. In the rush to war with one-time American ally (indeed, almost appointee) Saddam Hussein over the invasion of Kuwait, Bush infamously allowed himself to be swayed by the testimony of a supposed refugee of the conflict, known only as Nayirah, who spoke of Iraqi soldiers raiding Kuwaiti hospitals, pulling prematurely born infants out of incubators and tossing them aside to die. By the time it was discovered that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., and the entire thing had been organized by an American PR firm in the employ of the Kuwaiti government, the war was already over — though its repercussions will persist long after our lifetimes.

Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were killed in that first Gulf War, with the particular highlight of the Highway of Death, in which American forces blockaded and massacred retreating Iraqi forces, as well as any civilians unfortunate enough to be within cluster bomb range. Content with this level of slaughter, Bush called off hostilities the next day—a point in his favor, perhaps, when compared to those overseeing the unceasing carnage of today’s forever wars. But Bush hardly had clean hands before this, having already orchestrated an illegal invasion of Panama. Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair; it will be decades though, if ever, before we learn just how deeply he was implicated.

There’s much else to dislike about the elder Bush and the legacy he is leaving behind, in particular his enablement of many awful people. You can draw a direct line from his campaign manager Lee Atwater and his infamous Willie Horton ad to the race-baiting scare tactics used by Donald Trump. A look at Bush’s administrative appointees reveals many of the big names—Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld — who would go on to botch the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, all the while pushing for ever more wars on ever more fronts. (Which is not even to mention his son who, in signing off on Gulf War Redux, committed what is thus far the greatest geopolitical blunder of the century.) You could talk also about his surrender to the tax-and-spenders on budget issues, or to the Religious Right about gay rights. You could also give him credit where it’s due: for handling the end of the Cold War with flexibility and grace, for committing himself to promoting volunteerism and community service, for not following in the footsteps of his father, Prescott Bush, and signing on to any half-baked fascist coups against the US government.

All this, at least the good stuff, or the bad stuff that various media figures want to recast as good, will be gone over ad infinitum. But when you see the footage of his funerals, when you take in the official outpouring of grief that is increasingly mandatory on such occasions, when above all you hear anyone talking about how George H.W. Bush advocated for a “kinder, gentler conservatism,” spare a thought for Keith Jackson. It’s more than Bush ever did.



Share This


Vietnam Revisited

 | 

I never fought in Vietnam. By the time I was old enough to go, I held a high draft-lottery number and a student deferment, and was never called up. I do remember the war, though. Early on, when Kennedy sent in the advisers, I was in elementary school, and saw the pictures on TV and in Life magazine. When Johnson sent in half a million men, I was in junior high, and we argued about the war in class. When Nixon came to power I was in high school, and we debated it more. When the four protesters were killed at Kent State University, I was finishing my first year at the University of Washington in Seattle. My instructor in German cancelled classes and gave us all A’s so we could go protest. I stood aside, watching the protesters flood onto Interstate 5 and block traffic until the cops pushed them off the exit to what are now the offices of Amazon.

My sentiments on the Vietnam War, like those of most Americans, evolved. In 1975, when South Vietnam collapsed, its government appealing for help and the US Congress and President Ford offering none, I was as coldhearted as anyone. I thought, “To hell with Vietnam.” I had been reading about it, thinking about it, arguing about it since I was a kid. During that time 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what? In economists’ terms, the mountain of corpses was a “sunk cost” — and I was ready to watch the whole damn thing sink into the South China Sea.

I was living in Berkeley, California, when the South fell. I remember standing outside my apartment on May 1, 1975, taking photographs of a parade down Telegraph Avenue welcoming the Communist victory. “All Indochina Must Go Communist,” one banner said. Well, I hadn’t evolved that much. For me the fall of South Vietnam was a day for quiet sadness.

By 1975, 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what?

As a kid in junior high, I had supported the war. Recall the geopolitical situation: Communists had eaten up a third of the world, with big bites in Eastern Europe in 1945–48, China in 1949, North Vietnam in 1954 and Cuba in 1959. They had been stopped in a few places — in Malaya, by the Brits — but once firmly established they had never been pushed back.The Cold War’s rules of engagement were that the Communists could contest our ground — what we called the Free World — but we dared not contest theirs. And the end of that road did not look good.

When I used that argument — and “domino theory” is not a good name for it — no one knew the Communist system was facing extinction. People knew it was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread.

All the old arguments came back as I was reading Max Hastings’ new book,Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975. Hastings, an Englishman, is my favorite military historian; for years I have had his 1987 book, The Korean War, on my shelf, and I breezed through his 752-page Vietnam in a few days. In this book Hastings has undertaken to write the narrative of the war, and not all from the American side, but also in the voices of South and North Vietnam. Hastings reveals that there were arguments and worries on their side as well as ours. Many in the North hated the draft and did not want to trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to fight. Over the years, 200,000 Northerners deserted while in the South. The Northern soldiers also underwent far more privations than the Americans or their Southern allies, living on rice and water spinach (sold in Asian markets here as on choy) and often starving. On one occasion, Hastings says, they killed and ate an orangutan.

People knew communism was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread

Hastings analyzes the assumptions and the strategies of both sides. To the low-level Vietcong, the war was mostly about getting rid of Americans who looked and acted like the “long-nose” French, Vietnam’s late imperial overlords. The cadres tried to indoctrinate the VC in Marxism, but identity politics had the stronger pull.

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side. For a military historian, Hastings makes a key admission when he says that fighting was less important than “the social and cultural contest between Hanoi and Saigon.”

In that contest, the North’s standard-bearer was “Uncle Ho,” the Gandhi-like figure of Ho Chi Minh, who had kicked out the imperialist French. In the South, a society that included landowners, merchants, and bureaucrats who had worked for the French and prayed in the same church as the French, one of the icons was Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. One observer said that Ky, an air force pilot with slick black hair and a pencil-thin moustache, looked like a saxophone player in a cheap Manila nightclub. Writes Hastings of Ky, “He was publicly affable, fluent, enthusiastic about all things American but the taste of Coca-Cola — and as remote as a Martian from the Vietnamese people.”

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side.

South Vietnam was a society rotten with corruption and ill-gotten wealth. “Again and again,” writes Hastings, “peasants were heard to say that whatever else was wrong with the communists, they were not getting rich.” History shows, though, that life is easier in a society in which some are wrongly rich than in one in which the rich are rounded up and shot, leaving everyone else poor. Hastings writes that when the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon, the soldiers were amazed at how much stuff the people had.

The Vietcong were terrorists. They beheaded the village chieftains who opposed them, and sometimes buried them alive. The Americans were told to behave better than that, but with their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm they dispensed death wholesale. American soldiers, Hastings writes, went to war “wearing sunglasses, helmets, and body armor to give them the appearance of robots empowered to kill.” Back at base, “Army enlisted men took it for granted that Vietnamese would clean their boots and police their huts.” And also use the bar girls for sexual entertainment.

Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese still fought and died for their state, and also worked with the Americans. First-generation Vietnamese in my home state are fiercely loyal to the old Republic of Vietnam, and still fly the yellow flag with the three stripes. Apparently they were not a majority of their countrymen, else the conflict would have come out differently.

With their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm the Americans dispensed death wholesale.

As the Pentagon Papers showed, smart people in the US government saw early on that South Vietnam was ultimately not a viable cause. President Kennedy expressed his doubts, but he also believed deeply that his mission was to stop the Communists. “Nothing that came later was inevitable,” Hastings writes, “but everything derived from the fact that sixteen thousand men were in country because John F. Kennedy had put them there.”

Hastings doesn’t buy the theory propagated in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK that Kennedy was on the verge of backtracking when he was shot.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, sent half a million men to Vietnam because he didn’t want to be blamed for losing it, as Truman had been blamed for losing China. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat. For each of these US leaders, the concern was his country’s prestige (a Sixties word) and his own political standing. “An extraordinary fact about the decision making in Washington between 1961 and 1975,” Hastings observes, “was that Vietnamese were seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon it.”

Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were focused on the Chinese and the Russians, and assumed they were in charge in Hanoi as much as the Americans were in Saigon. Hastings says it was not so. The Russians and the Chinese were frustrated at the North Vietnamese aggressiveness, and repeatedly advised them to cool it. Within the North Vietnamese leadership, Ho often agreed with his foreign advisors, but Hastings says that policy was set not by Ho but by Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan, “though the world would not know this.”

Nixon saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat.

By Hastings’ account the Americans were not the only ones who made big mistakes on the battlefield. Militarily, the biggest Communist mistake was the Tet (Lunar New Year) offensive of 1968. Le Duan’s idea was to show the flag in all the Southern cities, spark an uprising among the people, and swamp the Southern government in one big wave. In the event, the South Vietnamese didn’t rise. In Saigon, the Vietcong breached the wall of the US embassy, and in Hue, North Vietnamese regulars occupied the town north of the Perfume River for several weeks and methodically executed all their enemies. But everywhere the Communists were driven back.

The Vietcong lost 50,000 dead in Tet and follow-on attacks, five times the combined US and South Vietnamese military deaths. Largely cleansed of Vietcong, the countryside was quieter in the following year, as the North Vietnamese Army built up forces to fill the void left by the defeated Southern guerrillas. Though Tet was a military defeat for the North, the US press played it as a Communist show of strength, thereby tipping the balance of opinion in America against the war. For the Communists, a military defeat became a political victory.

The journalists had played it the way it looked, and it hadn’t looked like a South Vietnamese victory. American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident, which was used in 1964 to justify the de facto US declaration of war. Of the two supposed attacks on the destroyer USS Maddox, Hastings writes, one wasn’t real and the other was “a brush at sea that could easily and should rightfully have been dismissed as trivial.”

For the Communists, the military defeat of the Tet Offensive became a political victory.

In the case of Tet, US journalists inadvertently helped the enemy, but generally the press gave Americans a more accurate picture of the war in South Vietnam than the government did. The press did a poor job of reporting the shortcomings of the North, but it wasn’t allowed to go there. In 1966, when I was arguing with my schoolmates for the war, I repeatedly heard them say that communism would be a bad system for us, but it was a better one for the Vietnamese. If Americans had good reporting from North Vietnam, I don’t think my schoolmates would have said things like that. We anti-communists were right about one thing: communism turned out to be just as bad as we said it was.

The question remains as to what, if anything, America should have done to stop the Communists in Vietnam. Hastings quotes CIA officer Rufus Phillips describing what America did: “We decided that we were going to win the war and then give the country back to the Vietnamese. That was the coup de grace to Vietnamese nationalism.” But if it was wrong to do that in Vietnam, it should have been wrong in Korea, and it worked there, at least well enough to preserve the Republic of Korea. It can be no surprise that Kennedy and Johnson would try a military solution again.

What was the difference? Hastings touches on this question only briefly, mentioning the obvious: Korea is a peninsula with a border just 160 miles long, while South Vietnam had a border with Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam more than 1,000 miles long, perforated in many spots by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the complex of corridors through which the Communists infiltrated the South with fighters and supplies. The warfare on the Korean peninsula was conventional, with front lines; in Vietnam it was a guerrilla contest while the Americans were there, becoming conventional only after they had decided to go. The physical climate was different, too. The Koreas were divided on the 38thparallel, about the latitude of San Francisco; the Vietnams were divided on the 17th parallel, about the latitude of Belize City. All of Vietnam is in the tropics, with attendant cloudbursts, humidity, bacteria, and bugs.

American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident.

And there were political differences. Ho Chi Minh was a hero of national independence; Kim Il Sung pretended to be one, but had a less inspiring story. Also, in Korea the old imperial masters were not long-nosed Caucasians but Japanese.

A penultimate thought. Hastings quotes without comment Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of capitalist Singapore, to the effect that if the Americans had not resisted the Communists in Vietnam, “We would have been gone.” Call this the “domino theory” if you like. It was a view I encountered in the early ’90s, when I worked in Hong Kong for Asiaweek magazine. Our founder and publisher, a Kiwi named Michael O’Neill, maintained that the American effort in Vietnam had stopped the Communists from pushing on to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, China had junked communist economics, and Vietnam, unless it wanted to remain poor, would have to do the same. And that, O’Neill argued, meant that the Americans had really won the Vietnam War, even if they didn’t know it.

Or maybe, I thought, we had lost the war but in the long run it didn’t matter — because the war wasn’t the decisive contest.

Twenty-one years after the war ended, I traveled to Vietnam with my wife and six-year-old son. In Danang I met a group of men who had fought for the South and suffered persecution from the victors. They weren’t bitter at the Americans, nor were the tour guys who drove us to Khe Sanh and were too young to remember. In the North, at Ha Long, I chatted up the proprietor of a tiny restaurant who said that during the war, when he had been a truck driver for a state-owned coalmine, he had lost his house to American bombing. I told him I was very sorry my countrymen destroyed his house.

He shrugged. “I have a better one now.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975," by Max Hastings. Harper, 2018, 857 pages.



Share This


What Do You Make of This?

 | 

Years since the war in Afghanistan began: 17

Percentage of Afghanistan currently controlled or contested by the Taliban (most favorable estimate to the US): 44

Years since the war on drugs began: 104

Percentage of Americans 12 years of age or older who use illegal drugs (2016 estimate): 10.6

Years since the war on poverty began: 54

Money so far expended on the war on poverty (2014 estimate): $22 trillion

Percentage of Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 13

Percentage of African Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 22

National debt, 1970, as percentage of GDP: 35

National debt, 2017, as percentage of GDP: 104

Years served in the House of Representatives (5 samples):

  • Don Young, (R-AK): 45
  • Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI): 39
  • Steny Hoyer (D-MD, minority whip of the House): 37
  • Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, minority leader of the House): 31
  • Maxine Waters (D-CA): 27

Years served in the Senate (5 samples):

  • Patrick Leahy (D-VT): 43
  • Orrin Hatch (R-UT): 41
  • Mitch McConnell (Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr., R-KY, majority leader of the Senate): 33
  • Diane Feinstein (D-CA): 26
  • Patty Murray (D-WA): 25

Total years of service of politicians just mentioned: 347

Members of Congress proficient in practical mathematics: no known instances




Share This


Is the Libertarian Movement Moving Anymore?

 | 

It’s been a long time since there was a new libertarian book I wanted to read. Or a libertarian argument I itched to join.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence. I think it peaked in the ’90s.

Think back on that time. In 1994 the Republicans rallied against Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan and took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and with a staying power they hadn’t had in 70 years. Bill Clinton tacked to the right, famously saying in 1995, “The era of big government is over.” Whether or not Bill meant it, it meant something that he said it.

Politicians get their proposals from ideas current at the time. If the New Deal was socialistic, it was because in the first half of the last century, socialism was in the air. Similarly, Bill Clinton did some pro-market things in the ’90s that Democrats wouldn’t have done 70 years before.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence.

The reigning ideas had changed. When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from the free-market economists, principally Martin Anderson and Milton Friedman. Starting under Jimmy Carter and continuing under Ronald Reagan, the federal government followed the advice of the economists and ripped away price and entry controls over airlines, trucking, and natural gas. It opened up the telephone industry to competition and removed interest-rate controls on banks. The New York Stock Exchange freed itself of controls on commissions. The Supreme Court freed professionals of controls on advertising. When unions failed to seed themselves in the new tech industries, they lost their grip on most of the private economy.

Under Clinton, the government supported the extension of private property into the radio spectrum and into the North Pacific fisheries for halibut and black cod. Clinton signed the Republicans’ North American Free Trade Agreement and the Republicans’ welfare reform.

In the last half of the ’90s came the dotcom boom. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others became cultural figures in a way businessmen hadn’t since the 1920s. The Democrats were happy with the dotcom boom. Al Gore even claimed parenthood of the Internet.

When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from free-market economists.

All this was totally unlike the reigning Democratic thought of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s.

And in the ’90s there came peace. For the first time since Adolf Hitler, America had no enemy. That was a new thing, and a wonderful thing.

None of this is hardcore libertarianism, but think of what libertarianism really is. The essence of it is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life. Well, the biggest threat to private life is war. From 1940 through 1973, the military could pluck a young man out of private life against his will, put a gun in his hands and make him bellow, “Yes, Sir!” But even with the draft gone, war still skews thought and feeling. It limits what a society can afford, what it can allow, or even what it can discuss. Remember the time after Sept. 11, 2001.

Libertarians like to say their philosophy is about freedom, but it is a particular brand of freedom. The Left offers a brand of freedom: “Just let us control your work and property, and you can be free of worry about food, shelter, schooling, public transit, sickness, and old age.” The Left dismisses the libertarian’s freedom as “the freedom to starve” — which, among other things, it is. The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face. And if enough individuals crash and burn, people may decide the system that allows it is not worth it. The libertarian’s freedom requires a large dose of self-reliance — and in the ’90s, self-reliance was pushing forward with welfare reform and the most entrepreneurial economy since the 1920s.

The essence of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life.

Regarding self-reliance, the frontier political struggle was for private accounts within Social Security. Here was a proposal to phase down payments out of a common pot under government control and phase in individual accounts under private control. Libertarian purists were prissy about it, because the individual’s control was going to be limited and the contributions would still be compulsory, but these are not realistic people, and nothing was ever going to satisfy them. The limited Social Security “privatization” would have been a big change, a culture-shifting change. The Left sensed how big it was, and denounced it in an emotional fury as a Wall Street plot to make financiers rich. And it wasn’t. I knew who the proponents were. I had interviewed some of them and written about them. I had read their books. They weren’t trying to make money; they were trying to make the world better. The most credible ones, the ones from the commercial world, made an economic case that had to do with individual wealth, not Wall Street’s profits. (For example, see The Real Deal: The History and Future of Social Security, bySylvester Schieber and John Shoven, published by Yale University Press in 1999.)

We forget that in the private sector, individual accounts did push aside “common-pot” pension plans. They’re called 401(k) plans. They increase the individual’s chance to gain and also his risk of loss — a net gain for self-reliance. They were put in by employers, not by employees. But with Social Security, the Democrats appealed to employees’ fear of loss, and the “privatizers” were defeated — decisively. Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s. And those who keep predicting that Social Security will fail are wrong. It won’t. Congress will fix it by raising taxes, probably by eliminating the cap on taxable income. If they have to, they’ll cut benefits in some gentle and technocratic way.

The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face.

It has been years since Republicans talked about private accounts in Social Security. It’s a dead body they don’t want to be reminded of. Donald Trump vowed never to go near it, and he won’t.

The ’90s were the time of greatest libertarian momentum. By my reckoning, they ended with several events.

The first event was the protest against the World Trade Organization in my hometown, Seattle, on November 30, 1999. The Left came out — tens of thousands of them — against trade. I had imagined that the Left had withered away like the Marxian state, but I was wrong. They were here. They would come again in the Occupy Wall Street demos, and in the Bernie Sanders campaign, loud and obnoxious.

The second event was the end of the dotcom boom in early 2000. You can extend the rules of capitalism when there is a surplus of happiness. Not otherwise.

Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s.

The third event was the attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

After the war came another recession, worse than the one before it. Bankers and capitalists were seen to be bad, and Alan Greenspan was ejected from the people’s hall of heroes.

And then came Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.

Can anyone argue that we’re progressing?

Has there been a libertarian moment to compare with the ’90s? There were the campaigns of Ron Paul — which amounted to what? What did they achieve? Paul has not changed his party, as Barry Goldwater famously did. Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party, and into an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, resentful mess. Ron Paul’s son is still in the Senate, but one man does not a movement make. Note the exit of Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona — not a good omen.

George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

So where are we, now? Here in Seattle, with my city council putting a (since-retracted) head tax on Amazon in order to succor the squatters on public land — and passing out tax-funded vouchers to donate to dingbat political candidates — it feels like a socialist moment. I also read in the press that Democrats across the country have turned left, and are toying with such Bernie-style ideas as free college for everyone, Medicare for everyone, and a guaranteed job for everyone. There is even babbling out there for UBI — universal basic income.

For everyone.

Those are all hobgoblin ideas until you think of the typical American Democratic politician we all know trying to define them, sell them, and get the average American to love them and pay for them. I imagine that, and I feel better. I think the socialists are selling something Americans won’t want to buy.

Anyway, I hope so.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2019 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.