Daily Archives: September 20, 2014

The Story of the Malakand Field Force: Read from August 23 to September 20, 2014

“It was a strange thing, to watch these conspicuous forms toiling up the hillside, dodging this way and that way, as the bullets cut into the earth around them; but with the experience of the previous ten minutes fresh in the memory, pity was not one of the emotions it aroused.”

If I told you I was reading a book about a mountain war in the Swat Valley region of Afghanistan against religious extremists whom no matter how much talent and treasure you throw at them ever seems able to conquer or defeat them and that most of the arms given to any Afghan allies just winds up being used against you at the end of the day, you would be forgiven for thinking I was talking about a contemporary book and not one written over 100 years ago with Winston Churchill as the narrator. And this is what is so striking about the book: that the same war is still going on today.

This book is one of the ultimate examples of there being nothing new under the sun. Literally every single point Winston Churchill makes about his observations about his time in the forward push into the Afghan region at the end of the 19th century can be applied to today’s war in the region. From religious extremism that fuels an endless wave of brave young men to literally throw themselves against the bullets and steel of a vastly more powerful enemy, to the splintered alliances and feuds of the local tribes which everyone takes advantage of to keep them from uniting less they become a truly formidable foe, to the moral dilemmas of burning villages to starve out combatants, or the light years wide gulf between Western values and Eastern Islamic values.

And when I wasn’t shaking my head at the similarity to today’s conflict, I was in awe of the absolute and astounding ignorance and racism that is so idly tossed about by Churchill. Here are an entire population of human beings written off mostly as savages. He makes no bones about this, he sees all these people as less than human. Yes there are exceptions when some of the tribesmen act honorably, but he mentions this not as a matter of course, but almost as if he’s shocked to find an honest man from Afghanistan.

But I’m not going to write this book off as useless because in its ignorance we can learn quit a lot.

This is a work of nationalistic propaganda. Churchill doesn’t even try to hide this fact and he does an excellent job of turning his experiences into the fuel that fires the imaginations and romanticism of young British men to go fight for glory and honor. Everywhere in the book are the brave, stoic, and cheerful British fighting against dangerous odds, but always victorious. Yes some men die, but there is still glory in it all and no young man will be forgotten. And through this propaganda we can begin to understand the propaganda used on the tribesmen themselves. Where Churchill calls men up to the flag out of a sense of duty, the Afghan uses religion as their fire to fight.

Yet he fails to see any real similarity between the two opposing ideologies even when he clearly draws the distinctions. He explains the courage of the young British soldier is rooted in sentiment and even vanity. Yet the tribesmen find courage in religion and their conviction of eternal reward will always be stronger than the abstract constructs of race or military division. The British must invent methods to induce courage; the tribesmen are born with it.

And after all these mountains are their home, they fight and die for their own land whereas the British are, in the grand scheme of things, just trying to maintain a buffer region between British India and Russia. The British couldn’t care less about the Afghans or their history or their struggles. When he muses of the ancient history of the land he remembers Alexander the Great leveling whole great cities that are now completly forgotten. In fact he believes everything in this region, once dead, is forgotten to time. It never occurs to him that the people living her might actually have long memories.

Churchill also fails to understand why the tribesmen are so willing to stand up before all those terrible British guns time after time after time only to be mowed down instantly. He seems to think they are idiots, but what do the tribesmen think? They see a bunch of cowards with guns hiding in trenches and behind stone barriers instead of charging out gloriously onto the field of battle. Where Churchill wonders how the tribesmen could possibly be so ‘savage’ as to mutilate the body of an injured soldier, where he wonders why they only attack when the British retreat, why they only take advantage of weakness, aren’t they wondering just the opposite?

He speaks of the virtue and vitality of military camp life, of no worries for the future, of the memories and friendships formed in the British army, of the good it does the body, and then adds how much everyone wants to go home regardless of these positives. But don’t the tribesmen love the former as much as we the later?

It’s this gulf of understanding that after over 100 years has still not been crossed or even properly surveyed. He believes dealing with the tribes on an individual basis, of utilizing silver over steel (as he puts it), of playing one tribe against the other will pacify them, make them desire comfort and western values. And this has been the policy ever since and it hasn’t had any effect we were hoping for. We fundamentally misunderstand these people because we believe in order and comfort whereas they do not. They live in the most rugged spot on earth, why would they suddenly want comfort and stability? And using them as a buffer against Russia has only exacerbated the issues for us by arming these tribes who then after saying “thank you” use those weapons to fight us. They know they are being taken advantage of and they resent us for it – as they should.

And while we may scoff at the Islamic idea of religious superiority, here in this book, without any political correctness to temper what we still know to be true, is the racist attitude we still hold over these people, what he refers to as “… the prestige of the dominant race “. We may not say so in that language today, but that ancient racism, that terrible misunderstanding and division between cultures is what fuels this fight and will continue to do so for another 100 years.

For as glorious as the battle seems in this book, for all the bravery he writes here and all the moral high-ground he believes he rides his polo ponies on, this is a very sad book. It’s a sad book because it exposes how little we all understand each other, how much hatred and ignorance fuels our imagination just as much as romantic visions of glorious heroism can. There are no winners here.

Eugene Onegin: Read from September 12 to 20, 2014

One of the major undercurrents of classic Russian literature is the exploration of freedom vs. the constraint of society. While this theme is by no means unique to the Russians (or even the Western 19th century), Russia’s society at the time under Tsarists rule was far more restricted, far more smothering, routine, and conservative than most other nations. Perhaps these constraints are why Russian literature has enjoyed such success in and out of that country because the rules of society are well defined and easily learned by the reader and so all a writer must do is create a character who decides to break one (or more) of these rules and they instantly have a story with drama.

I kept thinking about constraints and restrictions during this novel whenever the rhyme scheme was particularly clever or when the main characters would attempt to remove themselves from society: either Eugene whiling away his days in isolation or Tatyana immersing herself in books. The entire structure of the novel, the AbAbCCddEffEgg scheme, never ceases or breaks form – it is, in a sense, Russian society itself: unbending and regimented, yet beautiful in its own way if you can learn to accept the structure. And of course this is where the drama for our heroes derives from, from the desire to break from that structure.

Eugene is bored with everything. Nothing in society interests him because he believes himself to be better than society. He is vain and shallow, he has only a topical knowledge of what’s going on in the world. When he’s given the chance to escape society he’s equally as bored in the country with all the provincial customs and less than cultivated neighbors. His fault is that he’s a combination of banality and self-important individuality. He knows how to play the game, he knows the rhyme scheme of society, but he’s not creative enough to break the rhyme.

Tatyana, too, is apart from society. She spends all her days reading books, but they’re all terrible romances that can teach her nothing about how the world really works. She believes she’s being cultivated by immersing her self in the books of the English at the expense of her own country – a language she can’t even read or write in. She believes she has found something superior to the Russian ways of doing things, when in reality she’s only fooling herself. She is Russian and her fate, like the rhyme scheme, is structured and preordained for her.

In fact everyone in this novel eventually has to settle for what Russian fate has in store for them. Lensky is literally killed by the rules of the game. Tatyana’s mother long ago accepted her lot, her nanny, too, had long ago at the age of 13 been married off. And while their emotions about their lack of control over their fate is complicated (we never really get her nanny’s true feelings about this though I get the suspicion Pushkin was attempting to show the perverse treatment of peasants), when it comes to Olga, we get a character who is more than happy to play within the rules. In fact Olga may be the only happy (or at least happier) character in the story. She knows the game, accepts it, and tries to make the best of it for herself.

And so Eugene and Tatyana are just as doomed as the nanny. They are both forced, one way or another, to abide by the rules, to give up and give in and play the endless game of banal society with its silly rituals and traditions and empty conversation and vapid personalities.

Perhaps this is the best insight we as foreigners can have into how Russian society really thinks. All through Russian history their society has been strongly regimented, either under the Tsars or under communism or now under Putin’s neo-authoritarian control. The Russians always seem to have to contend with the fact that Russia is too large, too powerful, too unforgiving to fight against and that all would be better if you just gave yourself up to the comfort of the controlled society and do the best for yourself within those rules, vapid and insipid as they might be.

And in some ways there is a lot of appeal for living under such structure because you can always know what to expect, there are no surprises and you do not have the stress of having to forge your own path anew as you do in other more democratic countries. The Russian society will provide the rhyme for you, whereas in the West you have to figure out a rhyme for yourself. (as an aside the documentary My Perestroika deals with this loss of comfort from the regimented rules of communism quite wonderfully).

But I don’t believe Pushkin is making the case that a strictly rhymed Russian society is the best, highest, and most noble of options. Eugene and Tatyana are quite miserable in the end for having tried to forge their own path. They both love each other but she will not break the rules anymore and he, through his own vanity and self righteous, has managed to pretty much exile himself from society. They both fought and they both lost.

Pushkin does not offer any solutions but he does clearly show us what is going on in Russia at the time, something nobody else had been capable of doing before. His genius was exposing Russian society for what it was – a regimented, stifling and controlling environment nobody can escape happily – which later writers and artists were able to use as the blueprint for affecting change. After Pushkin came Gogol who in Dead Souls was able to subvert the conception of how landowners used their serf labor, later still was Tolstoy who in Anna Karenina explored many of the same themes to show how little in Russian society had changed, especially for women, but that it was possible to escape by turning back to nature. Dostoyevsky explored how corrupt the society was, how infected man had become with sin and that the only solution was personal revolution – though what he envisioned and what really took place were the exact opposite of what he had hoped for.

Aside from Russia, however, can we learn anything about our own society in our own time – close to 200 years later – from this book? Does Pushkin speak to any universal themes larger than just Russia? While I, as an American, have a wildly different set of experiences than a Russian my same age, I too can relate to the idea of what it means to either take part in the rules of society or be pushed away by them. My culture may be very different, but I must still go along to get along, I must be able to find happiness within the rules or else be miserable because there is no escaping society, not though living in the woods or in books or by travelling abroad. None of us are special enough to not have to take part in society, none of us are better than anyone else. We must all take part in society and the harder we fight against it the more likely we will be doomed by it.

A funny saying these days is ‘Don’t be basic’ which means we acknowledge there is a lowest common denominator to our society but we should always be looking for a way to do better, too.

8% done with Stoner

WOW! WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN!

For the first time in his life he is aware of loneliness. Art is revealing his human condition. He rebels a little against the Foot’s (feet= labor) by demanding his own time. He’s like Adam and Eve who has eaten from the fruit of the tree. He is no longer a beast of burden, but a human being.

He carried around his cap and gown because his education is useless for his old farm life