Wednesday, September 16, 2009

War, Myth, and Imagination

You may know the name Saira Shah from her documentary Beneath the Veil, her record of the daily lives of Afghan women under the Taliban.  In her book The Storyteller's Daughter (Knopf, 2003), she makes the point that she had first felt driven to cover Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation from the vantage points of Peshawar and the so-called "tribal areas" for a personal reason.  She grew up in England in a formerly landed, aristocratic Afghan family that lost their Afghan estate overlooking Kabul during WW II.  Her grandfather and father, both gifted Sufi storytellers, had woven a mythic Afghanistan for her in words, so powerfully that she need to climb to Paghman to confirm its reality as an actual place with evidence of the mosaics and orchards they had described to her.  The myth, and the family connection, gave her the motivation to slog through the mountains of the Hindu Kush and endure the surreal world of spies in Peshawar, somewhat protected by the presence of her extended family.  

She needed to see that Afghanistan existed, as corroboration of the myths, even if only in hindsight, as with her family's ruined estates.  At least her elders hadn't made it all up out of whole Afghan cloth.  At the same time, she admits that her pursuit and questioning of the myth blinded her to the meaning of the extremist factionalism emerging literally under nose.  Her view of Afghanistan had about it the myopia of a personal quest.  

Most myths can overpower reality, often with devastating consequences.  The British, driven by a misguided notion of cultural archaeology, a kind of nineteenth-century Aryanism, and the seductive ideology of orientalism, all grafted to imperial pretensions on a vast scale, made as much a mess of the Middle East and Central and South Asia as one can possibly imagine, and did little if at all better in Africa.  We continue to pay the price for their arbitrarily drawn borders in Israel, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, just to name the most currently explosive.
Despite the wreckage, the British imperial myth, until it gave out under its own weight after WW II, sustained their Asian and African adventurism.  Myths can produce a maddening perseverance.

That said, we don't have much of a track-record when it comes to perseverance in wars overseas.  We have gotten into some we had no business joining--Vietnam and the Second Gulf War for starters, certainly the Spanish-American War--but we have arguably avoided some that the cause of justice required us to enter, or enter earlier than we did--Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur.  We show signs of nervousness in Afghanistan, as soon as our withdrawal from Iraq puts it back on the front page and Gen. McChrystal and Admiral Mullen suggest they probably need more troops.

One could argue this caution about foreign involvements shows us admirably free of the imperial pretensions of other great powers historically--the British, the Russians, Alexamder the GReat, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane the Great, the Romans, even the Japanese, Nazi Germany and the Soviets under Stalin and his successors until Gorbachev.  Fair enough.  We have had a series of myths, though, principal among them the moral imperative of democracy.  It has a serious flaw, however, in that, allied with the anti-myth of Communism or just on its own, it can get us into wars where we don't belong.  

More dangerously, right now we have another myth, the war on terror.  Our military has not always had a brilliant track record on understanding how to fight the war in front of them rather than the last one.  They have made some egregious mistakes in Afghanistan, and shown some signs of correcting at least some of those mistakes.  Sarah Chayes' The Punishment of Virtue (Penguin, 2006) makes that case clearly for the early phases of the war.  Chayes' book tells a cautionary tale we must all consider, even if it comes from one of the few journalists who has covered the war in Afghanistan and found herself transformed into, as one of the American troops based outside Kandahar puts it with some astonishment, "a hawk."

In a sense she tells a variation on the story Saira Shah tells.  By now we know what Shah discovered, that we had a war between factions of fundamentalists running parallel to the anti-Soviet conflict, than which it turned out by far the more important.  We think we've gone to fight bin Laden, but even if we win that battle, possibly by forcing the Pakistanis to come clean and start helping us, we risk losing the war if we don't leave behind an Afghanistan where people can make a living, trust their government, and have no reason to trust the Taliban and grow poppies.

The myth of democracy fails us at crucial times, not because of our over-reliance on mythology.  Human societies need myths as part of their fabric, their way of understanding the world.  It fails us because another myth has penetrated our consciousness too shallowly.  It motivates a journalist-turned NGO founder such as Sarah Chayes:  the ability and need to imagine another culture than one's own without judging it.  In our obsession with accomplishing missions, we so often botch or nearly botch them precisely because the culture in which the the military objectives exists has other priorities.  We don't find them interesting, because they don't mirror ours.  As Saira Shah realized at the ruins of her family's Paghman estate, we have to accept reality, however crumbling, and take some relief from the fact that we have someting more at hand than a mere myth.  In Afghanistan, or anywhere, we have lives to protect, cultures to protect.  At times we screw that up with the best of them, but we've done it right, too.  We have to learn to find Afghanistan as interesting as we finally found Europe in WW II.  

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your lens and your education this past week. I need it. I picked Afghanistan in the fourth grade as a country I planned to get to know as a young girl. I am grateful to this day that I did and still remember so much from this study. What I remember most is how no one is ever victor in a war against/ in Afghanistan.

    Last week, I saw a map that represented where UNC-CH students study abroad. So few travel beyond Europe (which was my story as well). We learn best when we explore first. I am not saying travel to Afghanistan right now but it is a kick in the pants, my pants, to travel beyond my own traditional paths.