I was born in 1965, the year the first U.S. combat troops went to Vietnam. Growing up in middle-class America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I distinctly remember that “Vietnam” – the place name stood in for a great many things left unsaid – was not discussed, almost taboo, among my parents’ generation. I didn’t realize this at the time, of course. I could only smell it, like the residue of something the dog left on the carpet, through the layers of deodorant and disinfectant.
Americans who had lived through “Vietnam” were emotionally and politically exhausted and had declared a tacit truce among themselves. That suited them – all of them, on all sides – but it left my generation poorly served. How can young people learn the lessons of history, if no one is willing to teach them? I had to assemble the puzzle for myself later, through self-directed reading and actually going to live in Southeast Asia. My first clue that I would need to do this came when I asked an older friend what “the sixties” had been all about, and he blurted out in bitter exasperation: “It was about how the blood of the war got on everyone’s hands, and we couldn’t wash it off. It’s still all over the place.”
And it still is. And now, even to get back to Vietnam to deal with it honestly, we would have to wade neck-deep through several more recent wars’ worth of moral and historical muck. I wonder what the chances are of that. We do have the excuse that we have immediate and pressing compulsions and distractions, as well as both genuine and bogus causes for optimism. But we always have those. We had them, for example, during “Vietnam” itself. “You would hear constantly, ‘Napalm will win the war for us,’ Clyde Edwin Pettit told me when I knew him in Bangkok in the mid-1990s, when he was returning annually to Vietnam. “F–king napalm was the greatest thing ever to come down the pike, you woulda thought. It was always something was winning the war.”
Pettit was the author of a prescient 1966 letter to J. William Fulbright that compelled that powerful senator to reverse his position on the war, and of the 1975 book The Experts: 100 Years of Blunder in Indo-China (alternate subtitle: The Book That Proves There Are None), which consists of 439 pages of nothing but direct quotations from politicians, professors, and pundits, all purporting to understand what was happening or to know what was going to happen in Vietnam, arranged chronologically. Read from cover to cover, as Ed insisted it should be, The Experts amounts to a narrative of mounting horror and increasingly tortuous self-delusion. If this sounds familiar, it should. If any document demonstrates the staying power of human self-delusion, it’s Pettit’s masterpiece.
It occurred to me recently that, if he were alive today, Ed Pettit might say that drones are the napalm of our time. The common element is death rained down from the sky, and drones take this a step further by leaving the inflictors of it safe back in the States. Anyone who understood as Pettit did that, far from being “the greatest thing ever to come down the pike,” napalm was both immensely destructive to civilians on the ground in Vietnam and counterproductive to American goals, would endorse the argument made by the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid in the May 23 issue of The New York Review of Books, that any hope of building a reliable partnership with the governments of countries like Pakistan depends on
support for the complicated and unique internal political processes that can build in each a domestic consensus to combat extremists – who, after all, typically kill more locals than they do anyone else. International pressure and encouragement can help secure such a consensus. But it cannot be dispatched on the back of a Hellfire missile fired by a robot aircraft piloted by an operator sitting halfway around the world in Nevada.
I’m troubled by the fact that devices called drones feature prominently in Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman’s ominously-titled classic science-fiction novel The Forever War. I’m bothered by eyewitness accounts like that of William Dalrymple, author of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, who recently told a Seattle audience:
In movies there’s usually one drone, and these guys in their shirt sleeves in Virginia directing them. But in Jalalabad it’s sort of like a New York taxi rank: all these drones taking off, one after the other.
Above all, I’m haunted by my friend Uong Leap’s childhood memory of seeing Khmer Rouge fighters in the tops of palm trees, shooting AK-47s at U.S. helicopters in southeastern Cambodia in the early 1970s. “Oh, crazy time!” Leap told me, with a jarringly cheerful grin. Leap knows what came after that crazy time in Cambodia, because he survived it.
What will come after the current crazy time in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called “intelligent and compelling” by Mohsin Hamid and “wonderful” by Edwidge Danticat. He is also the author of Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012) . His next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. Web: www.ethancasey.com. Facebook: www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author. Join his email list here.
On my Facebook page on May 1, the second anniversary of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, I re-posted the link to an article of mine originally published in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. In the distress of that extraordinary moment, pulling an all-nighter in a motel room in Fort Worth, Texas, I had written:
As I watch over and over the mobs in New York and Washington, I fear two things. One is that too many Pakistanis are too traumatised to lay aside their anger and frustration. “WE HATE AMERICANS!!!” a Pakistani I don’t know personally told me on Facebook, just as I was finishing this piece. When I pointed out that I’m American and asked if he hated me, he replied, “I hate all of u!!” The other thing I fear is that too few Americans appreciate the difference between global war and a giant football game.
I had titled my article “The urgent importance of mutual respect.” Last week, my re-posting of it elicited this response from Bryan Zaydel, a mailman in Detroit:
Know what’s more important than “mutual respect”? Destroying those that wish to destroy us. Fortunately, you bleeding heart liberals are far outnumbered by people who don’t give a rats a#$ about what the world thinks of us.
I don’t know Bryan Zaydel, though it happens somehow that, through the magic of Facebook, he and I know someone in common. It wouldn’t matter what he has to say, and I wouldn’t call him out by name, except that these days, such words reverberate instantly worldwide, and impressionable young people read them and, like the Pakistani quoted above, respond in kind. All of which accomplishes less than nothing, because it stokes an atmosphere in which more violence by “us” against “them” (and vice versa) can seem justified.
Also last week, I had the pleasure of hearing William Dalrymple speak at the Seattle Asian Art Museum about his new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42. As I said in my Huffington Post review, any summary a reviewer could offer would be the merest potted version of what took the author years of research to stitch together, so I prefer to urge you to read the book itself. And please do read it, especially if you’re American; there are things in it, facts as well as truths, that you need to know. In Seattle, Dalrymple said things that I’m sure he says every time he gives his slide show:
Russia crushes liberty [according to British propaganda]. The British, despite having crushed liberty in the princely states in India, do not see themselves in quite the same light. For freedom’s sake, they must conquer Central Asia. … The reality is that it’s a pipe dream. … [A misunderstood and overblown intelligence find] allows an ideologically driven group of hawks to have the war that they’re already determined to have. … And, rather like Wolfowitz in 2001, it all looks as if it’s a done deal. And in that smugness lie the seeds of their undoing. … Another thing that happens – of course this would never happen today – is that they think they’ve secured Afghanistan, so they go off and invade someplace else. … The regiments that are deserted by their British officers in the Khord Kabul [Pass] are the regiments that rise up first in 1857. … But the British can’t let this go, because they know that if they do, they’ll lose their Indian empire.
The relevance to more recent history comes through loud and clear in both Dalrymple’s presentation and his book. I hope it’s also clear what all this has to do with Bryan Zaydel in Detroit. Like me or, for that matter, like William Dalrymple, the only power Zaydel has to influence public events is through his words. Freedom of speech is a right but, if any of us uses words publicly in a damaging or dangerous way, the rest of us are both free and obligated to hold him or her to account.
At the same time, what the juxtaposition of Dalrymple’s Seattle visit and Zaydel’s vitriol brings home is that, important though it is, the earned wisdom of someone like Dalrymple will reach only those Americans who want to be reached – or, more optimistically, who know that they need to be reached. In the U.S., there really are three distinct publics: officialdom and the East Coast “policy elite”; the liberal coastal cities and sundry university towns; and the rest of the country. On his recent U.S. tour, Dalrymple reached two of those: audiences in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, plus a briefing at the White House. Officialdom will be receptive or not, depending on their political predilection of the moment. Affluent, literate, largely white and somewhat smug liberal audiences like the one in Seattle are appreciative and buy books, but don’t need to be influenced.
William Dalrymple lives in India and can’t be everywhere, except through his books and other writings. I’m also, for my part, doing what I can. So are many others. But the challenge is as big as America itself, and the question is: How can the Bryan Zaydels of the world or – more feasibly – the millions who live in places like Detroit and Fort Worth and are well-meaning but frightened and bruised by all the recent history we’ve lived through, be persuaded that “they” don’t all “wish to destroy us”?
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called “intelligent and compelling” by Mohsin Hamid and “wonderful” by Edwidge Danticat. He is also the author of Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012) . His next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. Web: www.ethancasey.com. Facebook: www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author. Join his email list here.
Should Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42 be read as an account of the first Afghan war in its own right, or as a cautionary tale in the context of Afghanistan today? The question is pointless – the answer is “Yes” to both options – because all history is written with at least implicit reference to its author’s own times. And William Dalrymple is helpfully willing to be quite explicit on this point: He acknowledged to Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian that there was “an element of calculation” in the book’s timing; and near the end of the book itself he writes that, “despite all the billions of dollars handed out [since 2001], the training of an entire army of Afghan troops and the infinitely superior weaponry of the occupiers, the Afghan resistance succeeded again in first surrounding then propelling the hated Kafirs into a humiliating exit.”
It’s hard to be much more explicit than that but, perhaps aware that Americans sometimes need things to be spelled out very explicitly indeed, just three days before the book’s April 16 U.S. publication date, Dalrymple published a New York Times op-ed in which he quoted a recent Taliban press release that claimed: “Everyone knows how Karzai was brought to Kabul and how he was seated on the defenseless throne of Shah Shuja. So it is not astonishing that the American soldiers are making fun of him. … It is the philosophy of invaders that they scorn their stooge at the end.” But in order to appreciate the effectiveness of that nugget of Taliban propaganda, you need to know who Shah Shuja was. “We may have forgotten the details of the colonial history that did so much to mold Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule,” commented Dalrymple, “but the Afghans have not.”
In Return of a King, Dalrymple has done again what he did magnificently for two other telling episodes of British imperial history in White Mughals (2002) and The Last Mughal (2006). He told Jeffries that he sees the three books “very much as the East India Company trilogy,” and that is a very correct and useful way to see them. Until further notice, the trilogy must be read and assessed as the crowning achievement of Dalrymple’s career.
Any summary a reviewer could offer would be the merest potted version of what took the author years of research to stitch together, so I prefer to urge you to read the book itself. A professor who assigned The Last Mughal in a university class I attended a couple of years ago described it as “a ripping good yarn,” which is a way of saying that Dalrymple has a narrative gift. The aesthetic enjoyment we find in such books is a good thing in itself, and of course it’s important at the same time to keep in mind both the horrific reality of the events they depict and their enduring relevance: Mark Twain’s hoary but true adage that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Another professor recently told me he’s already getting blank stares from students when he refers to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Our choice as a species is either to yield to the understandable ignorance of each new generation, and our proclivity to indulge and enforce forgetfulness of our embarrassments, or to resist these. This is why the study of history is important. Dalrymple makes it enjoyable by writing well and engagingly, but it’s up to us as readers to meet him halfway. I would add that it’s important to write and read at book length, because narration is a truer facsimile of historical reality than bullet points or video or tweets.
The history of human folly rhymes back through Saigon in 1975 and Dien Bien Phu in 1954, through Delhi in 1857 and Kabul in 1842, Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, etcetera, all the way back to the fall of Rome. Indeed there’s something Gibbonian about Dalrymple’s three history books, much less in the tone – Dalrymple is not orotund but friendly and patient – than in the fondness for footnotes and, more basically, in the cautionary intention.
Americans need to refer first not to Rome, though, but to Vietnam, which our society never dealt with honestly before plunging into similar tragic follies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed reading Return of a King, with its author’s insistence on documenting the myopia of many of the British political and military leaders of the time, kept bringing to mind The Experts: 100 Years of Blunder in Indo-China (1975) by Clyde Edwin Pettit (alternate subtitle: The Book That Proves There Are None), which is nothing but 439 pages of mostly myopic quotations, artfully selected and arranged to constitute a chilling and implicitly incisive narrative. The fact that Pettit’s masterpiece is largely forgotten is very much to the point, and so is the fact that it shouldn’t be.
(Speaking of Saigon, and the South Vietnamese who were abandoned as the helicopters lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy almost exactly 38 years ago – on April 30, 1975 – just as I was finishing this review I saw this headline featured prominently on the New York Times website: “Afghan Interpreters for the U.S. Are Left Stranded and at Risk.”)
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called “intelligent and compelling” by Mohsin Hamid and “wonderful” by Edwidge Danticat. He is also the author of Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010) and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012) . His next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author. Join his email list here.
Aiken, South Carolina, February 23 - We’re hearing more in the media these days about drones, which I suppose is an improvement on 2009, when an audience member at a church in Seattle asked me, “What’s a drone attack?” I don’t have much to say about drones that isn’t being said, except that – as my late grandmother, may she rest in peace, would have put it – they’re just plain wrong.
I’ve been wanting to say that for a while, but it’s hard to get a word in edgewise, what with all the other people who have things to say about drones lately. I happen to be writing this in South Carolina, home state of Senator Lindsey Graham, who just the other day caused a ripple in the national and international media by telling a small-town Rotary Club, “We’ve killed 4,700 [with drones]. Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.”
The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph described Senator Graham’s comments as “the first time a politician or any government representative had referred to a total number of fatalities in the drone strikes, which have been condemned by rights groups as extrajudicial assassinations.” Graham may or may not regret having spoken unguardedly, and I don’t doubt that he does hate the fact that drones kill innocent people. I do too, and so do you, whatever your views on the issues drones are supposed to be helping address. Drone pilots do too, which is why, as the New York Times tells us, they “get mental health problems much like those of pilots deployed to combat.” One or more of the big pharmaceutical companies might well be working on something to help drone pilots deal with their “stress disorders” (I quote the quasi-medical cant phrase from the Times‘s headline), but no pill can fix their – or our – real problem, which is not medical or instrumental or even political, but moral. Drones and drone strikes are just plain wrong.
The other New York Times headline that has me up writing this at four in the morning is “U.S. Opens Niger Drone Base, Building Africa Presence.” It’s necessary to live in the world as it is, and I know that whatever I say or write will have no effect on the deployment or use or effects of drones; they will now be used in Africa, and the Times is doing what the Times does as the house organ of the American establishment: just letting us know. As a friend of mine said in a different (but not so different) context years ago, “‘You are powerless, you have no power.’ That’s what they’re saying.”
The message is that drones are here to stay and that, by definition, if you’re not prepared to get with the program, you’re on your own. It can be dispiriting to be reminded of this, but it’s also a simple statement of the obvious. Evil deeds, such as terrorism and drone attacks, arise out of the dark depths of human nature, and each of us is intangibly but inevitably implicated in them. And They – whoever They are – are not asking for our approval or advice, but requiring our acquiescence.
So why not simply acquiesce? Because, as the American writer Wendell Berry said in a different (but not so different) context years ago, “Protest that endures … is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” In other words, the requirements of self-respect should trump those of Them. My late mentor Clyde Edwin Pettit told me Vietnam had taught him that “all governments are bad.” Or, as he put it in the foreword to his 1975 masterpiece The Experts: 100 Years of Blunder in Indo-China, “The Vietnam War is a textbook example of history’s lessons: that there is a tendency in all political systems for public servants to metamorphose into public masters, surfeited with unchecked power and privilege and increasingly overpaid to misgovern.”
I included both of the quotes above in my book Alive and Well in Pakistan, which was published nearly ten years ago now. My point in both quoting them then and wheeling them out again now is that, amid all the sound and fury of this or any other time, some questions and truths are in fact unchanging, and if we don’t hold onto these, we risk destroying not only each other but ourselves. Such truths are universal, and they also have particular national and local applications. As someone who has been blessed for nearly two decades by the friendship of many Pakistanis and of Pakistan as a society, the word “sickened” is far too mild to describe how I feel about the damage drone attacks are doing in and to Pakistan. And as an American who loves my own country, I’m concerned with the question of whether America is a free country – which I was raised to believe was the point of America – or some sort of consensual military dictatorship.
Which is why I find myself left utterly cold – chilled, even – when, as happens routinely these days, airlines invite active-duty military personnel to board planes ahead of the rest of us, along with pregnant women and people rich enough to buy first-class tickets. Or when, as I did last Thursday night, I pass beneath a huge banner reading:
The State of Georgia and the City of Atlanta
Welcome Our Troops Home
I have at least one relative and several friends and acquaintances who are serving or have served in the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Pakistan. You probably do too. I don’t condemn them for being there, and whatever they think, in the privacy of their own thoughts, about what they’re doing is their own business. I look forward to welcoming them home safely. But I have enough hard-earned, ground-level authority in that part of the world and elsewhere to know how tragically unhelpful their continuing presence there is, and I don’t like being bullied into expressions of pious jingoism by craven politicians and commercial airlines.
But at least the soldiers are there in person. The rest of American society is using them to keep our dirty work at arm’s length, exactly the way a young man with a joystick in Nevada uses a drone flying over Pakistan. No wonder we’re all suffering from stress disorders.
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called “magnificent” by Ahmed Rashid and “wonderful” by Edwidge Danticat. He is also the author of Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010) and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012) and co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). His next book, Home Free: A Real American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans. Join his email list here.
Farmington, New Mexico, December 4 - In October 2008, I had the honor of introducing David Oliver Relin at an event hosted by the King County Library System in the Seattle suburb of Renton. How long ago that seems. The prestige of Greg Mortenson and the phenomenal popularity of the book Three Cups of Tea were nearing their peak. I was pleased to have been asked to introduce Relin to an audience in my home city, and interested to meet the man.
I told the audience something I still believe: that, by writing Three Cups of Tea, Relin had done a good deed for which we owe him a debt of gratitude. The library people also asked me to do a short audio interview with Relin, which they posted on their website (unfortunately, I can’t find it by searching there). I found him likable, cosmopolitan and intrepid, an “Asia hand” after my own heart; he had spent time in Nepal and Vietnam, both countries I also know, and was eager to talk about his wide range of interests and next projects. I felt it was to his credit that he didn’t want to be known only as the co-author of Three Cups of Tea.
I felt envious of him too, of course. He was only two years older than I and no better a writer, yet he had happened onto a book project that not only was both meaty and useful, but surely made him a whole lot of money. Many writers spend a lifetime craving but never finding such a sweet spot. Three Cups of Tea should have made Relin’s career, and therein lies his tragedy. News reports of his suicide mention that he had been unhappy about having to share credit for the book’s authorship with Mortenson. As he told Etude, the University of Oregon’s literary journal, in 2008: “That’s been the only negative thing about this whole adventure for me. It was published that way over my objections.”
In retrospect, I hear in those words less bitterness than gracious dignity and restraint. In my interview with him, I took a wild guess and asked Relin if he had been influenced by an earlier similar bestseller, Tracy Kidder’s account of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti, Mountains Beyond Mountains. He readily acknowledged that, yes, he had used it very directly as a model. As someone interested in both Haiti and Pakistan and admiring of both Farmer and Mortenson, I found the connection intriguing, and for a writer there’s no shame in being influenced by another writer. There is shame, though, in being forced to run away from your own work. I think Relin appreciated my having asked such a writerly question; implicit in it was respect for him as an author – respect he wasn’t getting elsewhere.
I don’t know what else might have been going on in Relin’s head or in his personal life. But if I had been bullied, as he apparently was by Penguin Books, into sharing authorship credit on a book that I and I alone actually wrote, no amount of money could have made up for the indignity. Mountains Beyond Mountains is a better book than Three Cups of Tea, and one reason is that Mountains Beyond Mountains is indisputably Tracy Kidder’s book, not Paul Farmer’s. Three Cups of Tea always felt to me, even before the scandal, like what it apparently is: a project cobbled together by way of an introduction in a Manhattan office tower. Kidder, by contrast, enjoyed a substantial prior reputation and conceived and decided on his own to write his own book. Kidder thus was, and remains, able and willing to do what authors are supposed to do: shoulder an author’s authority and the responsibility that goes with it.
In April 2011, immediately after 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer broke the Three Cups of Tea scandal, I wrote an article defending Greg, in which I specifically asked Relin to step forward. Perhaps a little pompously, I wrote:
It’s not okay to give [John] Steinbeck a pass [for partially fictionalizing Travels with Charley, as proven by journalist Bill Steigerwald] but attack Greg Mortenson for what likely are much lesser literary evasions, inaccuracies, or whatever you want to call them. And on this point I would like to hear from David Oliver Relin, the writer who shares authorship credit and royalties 50/50 with Greg. Relin has rarely been acknowledged as he should be for having actually writtenThree Cups of Tea. Now would be a good time for him to step forward and shoulder the responsibility that goes along with authorship.
At the time and since, I’ve been baffled by Relin’s silence. Now, I think I understand better. How it must have irked him to be strong-armed by his own publisher and stiff-armed by Mortenson’s camp, only to find himself yoked anew with Mortenson at the wrong end of a frivolous lawsuit and forced to pay his own legal bills. So much for all the money he made from the book, for starters. All of us – Jon Krakauer and the producers of 60 Minutes, Greg Mortenson himself (who also has remained frustratingly quiet), the board and staff of the Central Asia Institute, and we millions who allowed ourselves to bask in Greg’s good works thanks to Relin’s good book – need to face the fact that the scandal’s costs now include the human life of a good writer who was never allowed to claim full responsibility for his own work. Who should be held responsible for his death?
ETHAN CASEY‘s next book, Home Free: A Real American Road Trip, will be published next year and is available for pre-purchase. He is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). He is also co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans. Join his email list here.
My many Pakistani friends know that I’m always ready and willing to write and speak about my love for their country, regardless of how opaque or disturbing its domestic politics might be at any given moment, or how bad its relations with America might become.
Right now, both are as bad as they’ve been in quite a while. There’s a lot to say – but a lot of it is being said, by the usual American and Pakistani commentators and reporters. The question in my mind, which I would like your help answering, is what I can or should be writing or saying.
So this post is an open letter to ask how I can help. So far this year I’ve made a few significant statements, particularly my speech at the United States Air Force Academy in February addressing a string of appalling atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. I also gave a talk titled “Pakistanis and Americans: We’re All in This Together” at a dinner hosted by the Milwaukee-area Pakistani community in April. Otherwise, over the past several months my time and energy have been sapped by unavoidable commitments and deadlines in my personal life (moving house) and unwelcome distractions on other work fronts.
Life is more settled now, and I’ll be spending the rest of the summer preparing the ambitious fall itinerary for my next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip. I’m very concerned these days with domestic American society and its fate, and I plan to be blogging at least weekly on American topics throughout the summer as well as while traveling, between early September and mid-December.
But I also – and always – feel a responsibility to write and speak out about Pakistan, especially now as relations between the U.S. and Pakistani governments continue to deteriorate alarmingly. Where, when and how to do this, in order to be most effective, is the question. Until a few months ago I wrote a regular column in the leading Pakistani daily Dawn, but that was cancelled because of budget constraints. I would welcome any and all opportunities to contribute to Pakistani media. But, as I say every chance I get, the real audience that needs to hear from me – from any friend of Pakistan – is the American public.
This is one purpose of my driving trip around the U.S. this autumn. Everywhere I go, I will seek and create opportunities to educate and engage Americans about Pakistan. Pakistani friends in Wisconsin are planning a full schedule of events and meetings at schools, bookstores and Rotary Clubs there in late September, and I hope Pakistani communities elsewhere will do the same. I’ll soon be publishing dates and details of my planned route, but for now these remain somewhat flexible, so if you think I can be helpful by visiting your city this fall, please contact me.
A related point that I feel compelled to emphasize constantly is that we cannot count on mainstream American media outlets to be more than fitfully hospitable. I’ll readily accept any chance to talk about the Pakistan that I know and love on national or local TV or radio in the U.S., as I did on Keith Olbermann’s show Countdown in March, but such chances tend to come only at moments when events boil over into a crisis. The public’s attention is always fickle, and Americans are especially distracted this year by the election and by ongoing personal and national economic worries.
So it’s more important than ever for us to take the initiative to meet Americans where they live: in schools and colleges, civic groups, churches and synagogues, even literally in their living rooms. This is what I’ve been doing for several years, and I’m gearing up to do it all over again, on a bigger scale, this year and beyond. I’m also considering adapting material from my two previous Pakistan books, and from my 2011 trip to flood-affected areas of Pakistan, into a short book geared toward American youth. And I intend to visit Pakistan again sometime in 2013.
If you’re Pakistani, Pakistani-American, or a friend of Pakistani people like me, then I need your help and encouragement. Please join my mailing list, like my Facebook page, support my livelihood by buying or sponsoring my books, and contact me directly. At a time when U.S.-Pakistan relations have (as an American friend who is currently in Pakistan informed me last week) “deteriorated to an all-time low,” with U.S. Embassy staff instructed to minimize all contact with Pakistanis, there’s a lot of work to be done. So let’s do it.
June 23, 2012
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). He is also co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans
Wednesday’s news, broken by the Los Angeles Times, is that U.S. troops in Afghanistan posed for photographs with body parts of dead Afghans. By the time you read this, no doubt everyone in America who is paying any attention at all (many are not) will be aware of this news, and all too familiar ideological battle lines will have been drawn all over again.
“Still think that ‘most’ of our troops are honorable, Ethan? The mounting evidence is starting to suggest otherwise,” a friend asked me by email on Wednesday.
Did I say that? If so, I’m rethinking it. Not because the latest news is surprising, or unprecedented. Surely U.S. troops in Vietnam – and any troops in any war – indulged in similar morally and physically disgusting horseplay. Of course, during past wars there were no digital files or Internet to transmit them instantly worldwide. But the presumption that in the past the truth was suppressed doesn’t imply that to suppress it now would be the right thing. What’s wrong now was wrong then, and vice versa.
So, can incidents like the one that came to light Wednesday be justified or excused? No. So where does that leave us Americans, in whose name “our men and women in uniform” are fighting in Afghanistan? In addition to the indisputable moral wrongness of the actions in question, it leaves it clearer than ever that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is neither politically nor materially sustainable. When we leave – and it is a question of when, not if – we will leave behind a mess. But could it possibly be a bigger mess than the one we’ve created and are currently wallowing in?
I don’t have a full article in me to write about this incident, because there’s nothing new to say except that it’s more of what we already knew was going on. The question facing Americans is: What are we prepared to do, say, or acknowledge, in the face of the factual and moral truths that we can no longer deny?
I wrote two articles on related subjects in January and gave a speech at the United States Air Force Academy on February 23. Here are excerpts and links:
Ultimately it’s not – and shouldn’t be seen as – being about what Americans or Indians do to Muslims, but what any of us are willing to do, and be seen doing, to each other, and – framed more constructively – what we might still do to reclaim our humanity.
We can’t deplore (such a milquetoast word) enlisted Marines urinating on people we’ve defined as our enemy without acknowledging that (another lame phrase) “our political leaders” – which is to say all of us, especially if we still believe in democracy – are guilty well prior to the Marines themselves. What could the Taliban do to us that’s worse than the things we’re already doing to ourselves and each other? And is allowing ourselves to commit atrocities preferable to leaving ourselves vulnerable?
It’s helpful to remember that some moral dilemmas aren’t actually dilemmas at all. We all know darn well, as my late grandmother would put it, that some things are just plain wrong. For example, you don’t have to be a theologian or moral philosopher to know that it’s wrong to urinate on other people, no matter who those people are or what bad things they might have done. You can be an uneducated farmer’s daughter like my grandmother and know that.
ETHAN CASEY‘s next book, to be published in 2013, is Home Free: An American Road Trip. He is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). He is also co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans
SEATTLE – Well, the latest news is that a lone U.S. serviceman has gone on a shooting rampage outside Kandahar and killed at least 16 people. The Los Angeles Times reports:
The shooting early Sunday took place in Panjwayi district outside Kandahar city, in a village called Alkozai. U.S. military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was believed that the assailant had suffered a mental breakdown.
There are so many questions raised but not answered here. We can and will learn more details over the coming days, but the thing is, I’m not confident the real questions will be answered satisfactorily. Why did he suffer a mental breakdown? Will he, and he alone, be held responsible? Another way of asking that is: Will he be made a scapegoat, like the enlisted personnel at Abu Ghraib? Might one of these incidents prompt some real soul-searching higher up the American chain of command – maybe even a high-profile principled resignation by, say, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of Defense?
I do know there are many good people in the U.S. military - I’ve met them – and that they take moral and ethical issues seriously. Less than three weeks ago I had the honor of being heard out respectfully when I gave a challenging speech (titled “Some Things Are Just Plain Wrong”) at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. What I do know is that this incident requires a real, soul-searching moral response by the American military hierarchy.
But the military does the bidding of civilian society, and that’s where the real soul-searching needs to take place. I know Americans have a lot on our plate these days, what with the mortgage crisis, the election, etc. But Afghanistan is not far away; it’s right here, bleeding all over American society. Afghanistan is one of the things on our plate, whether we like it or not.
Americans have become great excuse-makers. When Jared Loughner killed several people and almost killed Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords outside a Safeway in Tucson last year, people like me who saw the incident as inherently political were shouted down by the many who glibly claimed he was a “lone nut.” (One of the articles I wrote at the time is online here.) That excuse didn’t cut it for Loughner, and it won’t cut it in this case either.
I can’t say all that needs to be said in one hastily written article. Nor should I: there needs to be a real, honest conversation about Afghanistan among Americans. Finger-wagging by one writer, or even by a few writers, won’t suffice.
For now, I’ll try to draw our attention back to a question that’s behind so much recent history – so far behind that it usually goes unasked: Do we Americans want to have a relationship with the rest of the world, or do we just want to use other societies and nations for our own purposes?
I recently completed a small research project about coverage of Pakistan and Afghanistan after and before 9/11 in Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. As far as I can tell, the last article fully devoted to Pakistan in Foreign Affairs before 2002 was “The New Phase in U.S.-Pakistani Relations,” by Professor Thomas P. Thornton of Johns Hopkins University, published in – get this – 1989. It’s a memorandum from an era now long past, and any number of passages from it could be quoted for ironic or darkly comic effect:
The United States must consider how to react to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan: Should we use this favorable situation to enhance our role in the region along the Soviets’ southern flank? Or should the United States reduce its heavy commitment in such a distant region and postpone thinking about South Asia until more pressing problems elsewhere have been taken in hand? … The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan reduces the need for an intimate relationship with Islamabad.
Todd Shea, a high-school dropout who has lived and worked in Pakistan providing disaster relief and health care since the earthquake that killed 80,000 people there on October 8, 2005, and who has never been invited to contribute to Foreign Affairs, has an answer to Thornton that resounds with tragic echoes of what might have been. Here’s what Todd said to me in July 2009 (I quote this passage in my new book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti):
I believe that it was a direct recognition that in the eyes of the U.S. leaders at the time, they were barbarians, subhuman, not worth it. And I would submit that they are human beings, that if U.S. leaders had treated them as important in a human way, then society in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be far further along today, because we would have helped them avoid all the things that are happening now. If you remember, at the time, we were loved. Both countries were in such a state of need, and then we just left. “We got rid of our big enemy, let’s get outta here,” and boy, wasn’t that a strategic error. When the [Berlin] Wall came down and we were waving flags and saying “America, America,” why weren’t we waving Pakistani flags? I remember seeing the Wall come down and all that, and I don’t remember hearing anything about Pakistan.
And yes, it has everything to do with Vietnam, with which American society never did come to terms. As an older friend once told me, what the Sixties were about was how “the blood of the war got on everyone’s hands, and we couldn’t wash it off. It’s still all over the place.”
But it’s possible to see clearly, even through the fog of war – if we want to, which means shouldering responsibility for things from which we’d rather avert our eyes. In Bangkok on January 13, 1966, a young journalist and sometime U.S. Senate staffer named Clyde Edwin Pettit, who had recently been in Saigon where he had spoken “intensively to over 200 people from colonels to privates, journalists and businessmen, Vietnamese, and English and French colonials,” typed a long letter to Senator J. William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Fulbright read into the Congressional Record and later publicly credited with having compelled him to reverse his position on the war. In the letter, Pettit asserted that it was “vitally incumbent that we speak and speak with sincerity” to the Vietnamese:
I question both our original involvement and the deepening of our commitment. … I am very frightened. I could talk about bright spots; there are many. I do not think they override the stark, terrifying realities of a stalemate, at best, purchased at inconceivable cost and coupled with humiliating setbacks and losses. Then always, and I do not say this lightly, there is the unlikely but ever-present possibility of catastrophe. The road from Valley Forge to Vietnam has been a long one, and the analogy is more than alliterative: there are some similarities, only this time we are the British and they are barefoot. … I would rather America err on the side of being overly generous than on the side of military miscalculation of inconceivable cost. For what, the world might well ask should we win the gamble, have we won?
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans
Happy New Year. There’s a lot to catch up on since I paused this column over the holidays in order to finish writing and otherwise finalizing my book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, which is now at the printer and will be published March 1. You can read an excerpt and/or pre-purchase Bearing the Bruise here.
The latest thing we’re all being forced to try to make sense of and/or pick up the pieces from is the video of four U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Last Friday I woke up at 2 a.m. feeling an itch in my brain, so I got out of bed and wrote “Marines Urinating on Dead Taliban: How Low Will We Go?” If you want to know what I think about the incident itself, please read that article. This article is about some of the comments posted on that one, which brought home that some things that seem glaringly obvious to me are quite a bit less so to many of my fellow Americans.
“To call for these four guys’ heads over something so minor is ridiculous,” asserted one reader.
In response to my remark that I’ll remember the urination incident the next time I witness passengers in a U.S. airport breaking out in applause when the gate agent or flight attendant congratulates “our men and women in uniform,” another wrote: “You are free to think that, you are free to write this column … thanks to men and women in uniform. Your statement shows your ignorance of the service and sacrifice of people like myself who give of ourselves and willingly put ourselves in harm’s way to ensure our loved ones and people like yourself can be free. This also shows blatant prejudice of an entire group based on the actions of a few. May you continue to enjoy the freedoms earned by men and women that volunteered to ensure you never lose them.”
My response to such pro-military bullies and blowhards is: No, I’m not free because of the sacrifices of “our men and women in uniform.” I’m free because I’m free. You can’t give me my freedom, nor can you withhold it. It’s mine by right. That’s what America is all about – right?
I’m prepared to insist on that point because, even though freedom is mine by right, I can keep it only by exercising it. So I’m going to continue exercising it, because it’s not possible to be both completely free and completely secure, and I prefer freedom. Fetishizing “our men and women in uniform” leads to justifying, excusing, or explaining away whatever they might do in the heat of battle. But should they even be in battle in the first place? And, despite their bravery and training, “our men and women in uniform” seem somehow to have failed or neglected to protect me from the National Defense Authorization Act, which since December 31 provides for indefinite detention of U.S. citizens. It’s fair to ask whether the Taliban are truly more dangerous to Americans’ freedom than the United States Congress or Supreme Court.
A commenter on Sebastian Junger’s fine Washington Post article “We’re all guilty of dehumanizing the enemy” wrote: “It’s tribal. It’s not a police action. While these acts are deplorable, they are also understandable. In a warrior’s mind, they already dehumanized the enemy.” I can’t disagree with this; as Junger pointed out, “A 19-year-old Marine has a very hard time reconciling the fact that it’s [allegedly] okay to waterboard a live Taliban fighter but not okay to urinate on a dead one.” We can’t deplore (such a milquetoast word) enlisted Marines urinating on people we’ve defined as our enemy without acknowledging that (another lame phrase) “our political leaders” – which is to say all of us, especially if we still believe in democracy – are guilty well prior to the Marines themselves. What could the Taliban do to us that’s worse than the things we’re already doing to ourselves and each other? And is allowing ourselves to commit atrocities preferable to leaving ourselves vulnerable?
How you see this incident depends on whether you’re willing to acknowledge that the corpses urinated on were those of human beings. One all too typical commenter on the version of my article published in the Huffington Post trotted out familiar tropes:
Radical Islamic men use their own children as suicide bombers, stone women to death because they have been raped and want to kill and destroy anyone or any society on this earth that does not agree with their violent way of living life under their extreme religious beliefs. So why should I have an issue with some Marines pissing on the dead bodies of those same men who would kill me simply because I exist? Well, I don’t have a problem with it. You truly reap what you sew [sic] in this world and when you want to destroy all others, you can’t afford to be offended by a little urine.
Wow. Does this writer know anything about the daily lives, culture, and history of Afghan people, or is he or she just guessing?
I’ll give the last word, for now, to Jafar Siddiqui, my fellow American whose “PenJihad” blog I quoted in my previous article. “Good article Ethan, but I disagree with your title,” he wrote.
How do you, or anyone else, know the dead men were “Taliban” or “insurgents” or even armed and posing a threat to the soldiers who killed them? … The dead men could very well have been the good guys and our guys were simply looking for a kill. Far too many of the people our guys kill “out there” … are not proven as hostiles but simply as “suspected insurgents.” Innocents, in my book.
I foresee the need to continue this conversation, and I’ll be doing just that as I drive around America this autumn.
Ethan Casey is the author of books on Pakistan and Haiti. You can follow his work by “liking” his Facebook page. You can also support his book Home Free: An American Road Trip by pre-purchasing it for $19.95 per copy plus $3.95 shipping, and it will be shipped to you as soon as it’s published sometime in 2013:
I haven’t fully digested the disgusting news that U.S. Marines have been caught on video urinating on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, so this post is not offered as a coherent think-piece. But what is there to think about, anyway? What is there to say, really, except that there’s absolutely no excuse? No excuse for the policy makers and officers, but neither is there one for the brutalized young perpetrators. Their lowly enlisted status doesn’t excuse them; we should offer them compassion, but not absolution, for the guilt they carry. The next time I’m in a U.S. airport and the passengers break out in applause when the gate agent or flight attendant congratulates “our men and women in uniform,” I’ll remember this incident.
In keeping with its maddening, self-regarding role as the American Pravda, the New York Times worries in a hand-wringing “analysis” that “the images could incite anti-American sentiment at a particularly delicate moment in the decade-old Afghan war.” Well, how could they not have that effect? And why shouldn’t they?
Jafar “Jeff” Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American acquaintance of mine who lives near Seattle, where I live, writes a reliably candid blog called “PenJihad.” In his latest installment, aptly titled “Marines Urinating on Dead Muslims,” Jeff offers this challenge to his fellow American Muslims: “There is no action against the anti-Muslim hate-mongering climate in this country because we Muslims do not do anything to make ourselves politically significant so, why should anyone care about us?” This echoes my own 2010 article “Muslims in America: Time for a Movement?” The question mark is important, because I’m not a Muslim, and I won’t presume to tell people who are more vulnerable in American society than I am what they should do. But I am an American, and I still believe, as I wrote in that article, that “Muslims have a historic opportunity to play an important leadership role in American society today” – not only for their own sake, but for the sake of our politically rudderless and morally feckless society as a whole.
I happen just this week to have submitted to the “Books & Authors” section of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn my long-overdue review of a powerful book, a collection of writings from Indian periodicals and websites compiled and edited by Sanjay Kak, titled Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir. Congratulations to Penguin India for publishing such a book. In one piece, “Kashmir’s Abu Ghraib?”, contributor Shuddhabrata Sengupta describes an appalling YouTube video tagged “brothers watch, sisters please do not watch” and popularly known as the “Kashmir Naked Parade Video,” apparently shot by an offending Indian soldier himself with a cell phone. There’s no need for me to describe the video; you get the picture. “At least in the pitched street battles, we see adversaries, albeit unequal adversaries, policemen, paramilitaries, soldiers one side, and the angry tide of stone-pelters on the other,” writes Sengupta.
Here, there are no adversaries. Prisoners are not in a position to be adversarial when surrounded by heavily armed men in uniform. What we see instead are unarmed captives, people who are in no position to threaten or endanger the security forces. That such people should be made to undergo a humiliation such as this is proof of the extent to which the forces of the Indian state in Kashmir have become brutalized by the experience of serving in Kashmir.
Ultimately it’s not – and shouldn’t be seen as – being about what Americans or Indians do to Muslims, but what any of us are willing to do, and be seen doing, to each other, and – framed more constructively – what we might still do to reclaim our humanity. I have some thoughts on that, which will need to wait for another time (soon). For now, here are some of the extremely hard questions that Sengupta raises:
While the making of atrocity images such as these have for long been a part of the apparatus of violence, the ubiquity of mobile phones as recording devices, and of internet-based social networking sites as vectors of circulation has taken the phenomenon to a new level. We have no clear understanding of what motivates the making of these images. Are they meant as evidence of a “job well done” – to be shown to superiors who actually sanction torture and humiliation but have no way of assessing their effectiveness or actual operation because of the legal difficulty involved in maintaining official records of “unofficial” secrets? Or, are they simply testosterone-fuelled perversities, operating in the same sphere as MMS messages of pornographic sadism?
Sengupta also asserts that
There is need for further research on questions such as whether or not the makers of these atrocity images are also consciously seeking each other out, both as audiences and as competitors, in a new economy of prestige linked to the capacity to represent and circulate one’s own cruelty. In other words, are the makers of the videos in Kashmir, or in the Jaffna peninsula, aware of, and in some senses seeking to out-do the actions of their peers and predecessors in Abu Ghraib? Also, is there an informal network of know-how, pertaining to techniques for torture and humiliation that lubricates the virtual matrix inhabited by the protagonists of the so-called “global war on terror”, that operates in much the same way as the networks that bring together paedophiles and sex offenders on online platforms in the darker parts of the internet? Finally, how and why do these videos leak out of these networks into the wider public domain? Are there weak, conscience-stricken, anonymous whistle-blowing links at the fringes of even the darkest recesses of power (as is evident from the centre of the WikiLeaks storm) that cannot bear the burden of carrying power’s dirtiest secrets?
But here’s something for Muslims to reflect on: a video of Pakistani soldiers killing captives in the Swat valley was briefly circulated on Facebook as one of Indians killing Kashmiris. Sengupta points out, all too rightly:
The irony of a Pakistani atrocity being briefly misattributed as an Indian one only underscores the fact that when it comes to the everyday operationalization of state terror, the security apparatuses of India and Pakistan aspire to the same low standards, which make it quite possible for those seeking to score a few cheap propaganda points on either side to – deliberately or otherwise – confuse one perpetrator for another.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that the U.S. military and security apparatuses obviously aspire to, or at least achieve, the same low standard.
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). His next book, Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, will be published in March 2012. Web:www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans