Thursday, September 30, 2010

Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game

I was led to this history of the struggle for central Asia by reading Kipling's Kim. In studying a lot of Victorian literature, I had a glancing knowledge of what was involved in the Great Game shenanigans and the Afghan Wars, but I'd never read anything specifically focused on the history. Hopkirk's book is a great overview of the major actions from the late 18th century through the beginning of the 20th century.

Fascinating, thrilling, and completely maddening, never has so much been lost for so very little. This was the Cold War pre-game with Russia and Britain thrusting and feinting, waging war by proxy, and sending ridiculous official memos to one another, but never actually coming to blows directly. One would push too far (usually Russia), then the other would finally threaten to retaliate, and somebody would back down, but not of course, until they had seen many hundreds, if not thousands of people die in whatever madness they had lately been pursuing. The painting above memorializes one such enterprise.

When the Afghans drove out the British garrison in Kabul in 1841, 16,000 soldiers, some family members, and camp followers were set upon in the Gandamak gap and massacred just about literally to a man. A few of the native soldiers managed to slip away to the caves, but only one seriously wounded military doctor reached the Jalalabad Gate, where the next British outpost was located.

I amused myself this afternoon by visiting some of the spots on Google Earth, which made the whole thing that much crazier. Hopkirk tries his darndest to describe how desolate, remote, forbidding, and dangerous the landscape is, but nothing quite does it justice. Google Earth made me feel kind of nauseous as I zoomed virtually down into the Khyber Pass or into Chitral. It's rocks people. Big, jagged, up and down rocks with inordinately fierce people climbing out to slit your throat for you, then as now. I am by no means criticizing the Afghan people, who have been beset on all sides for nearly their entire history -- and people will simply NOT STOP coming in to mess with them.

To what extent did we (the general Western "we") create the Taliban? That is a question that begs asking. Of course, there is all the complicated strategic and political "reasoning" behind the Western powers clashing over Afghanistan. No one really wants it for itself (although these days, mineral resources are probably more of consideration), but it just happens to be on the way to places and things that people do want. I'm no political analyst or foreign policy expert, of course, but the whole thing does look rather insane from a certain viewpoint.

There are great illustrations throughout -- mostly of the cast of characters over the years -- soldiers, adventurers, spies, khans, shahs and various potentates. The story can pretty much be boiled down to the captions: "hacked to death by a Kabul mob," "paid for with his life," "assassinated," "beheaded," "slaughtered," "massacred"... You get the picture. And yet, there was never a shortage of men willing to pose as horse traders, wandering holy men, or snake oil salesmen and venture off to the back of beyond, just on the off-chance they wouldn't be thrown into a foul pit, pushed off a minaret tower, hacked and dismembered, or have their head paraded through town on a pike. Oh, and that's if they actually made it to their destination without starving, freezing, taking ill, or being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Seriously, these people needed some reality TV and Farmville to sap their dreams of grandeur.

Now, you shouldn't assume that I didn't entirely enjoy the telling of this history. It's just that it's so mind-boggling in its waste and utter hubris. That and the fact that I woke up this morning, after finishing the "final" chapter last night to this story: "Signaling Tensions, Pakistan Shuts NATO Route." Love the inset map. Holy crap.


TheBob said...

Finally got a chance to begin reading this. Your description of the book is excellent. I'm a little put off by the way Hopkirk addresses facts -- he has a habit of writing that a person "must have" been thinking something.

You know, I love Americans for their forward thinking and their (generally) common desire to set aside history. This is a great strength of America, in that we have managed (generally) to keep from propagating any one of the many senseless wars of our ancestors. However, like with any strength, it comes with its own shadow, which in our case is a seeming inability to learn any serious lessons from history. I swear there are a couple of those British generals whose quotes could be exchanged word for word with Donald Rumsfeld.

Another good read -- thanks as always for the recommendation.

TheBob said...

Oh no! Someone reserved the book at the library, and I'm only 1/3 through! Hate it when that happens.

One other thing that occurred to me as I was reading this (and maybe you said this already, can't remember) -- it's really interesting to me the almost total lack of the involvement of the United States in all these intrigues. Seems like several lessons there -- maybe the most obvious for us, that the British were quite secure in their understanding of themselves as an empire, maybe without realizing that 100 years later, they'd be overshadowed completely.