A Theological Lesson Via Military History

In Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (J. B Lipincott, New York, 1966, p. 85), Bernard B. Fall describes the build-up which foretold the grim military disaster to unfold at Dien Bien Phu–the lack of adequate defenses and ammunition, the poor tactical location etc–making note, along the way, of that curious mixture of arrogance, complacency, and overconfidence that infected French military leadership. There were ample notes of worry too, of course, and finally, even of the grim resignation that is often the military man’s lot. The deputy chief of staff of the French commander General Cogny, Lt. Col. Denef had written in an assessment to his commander that “It is too late to throw the machine into reverse gear….That battle will have to be fought on the scale of the whole Indochina peninsula or it will become a hopeless retreat.” As Fall notes:

In transmitting this report…Col. Bastiani, the chief of staff added a note of his which was deeply significant:

I fully agree…in either case, it will have to be the battle of the Commander-in-Chief. I think he must have foreseen the necessary requirements before letting himself into that kind of hornet’s nest.

This was the ultimate excuse of a staff officer: the situation was hopeless, the action made no sense, but there might after all be higher reason for all of this. “The Führer must know what he is doing.” This phrase had been repeated a hundred times over by the German defenders of Stalingrad as they senselessly fought on toward catastrophe.

The analogy that may be drawn with theological responses to the problem of evil is inescapable and irresistible. There is, all around us, misery and suffering and disease and pestilence afoot, all apparently for no good reason. How is this reconcilable with an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God? One answer: evil is a ‘local’ disaster, the ‘badness’ of which vanishes when viewed from a broader, all-inclusive, synoptic perspective–the one God has.  From our epistemically limited perspective, we might be surrounded by catastrophes that suggest disorder and untrammeled badness, but zooming back reveals a larger plan within which these seeming disasters fall into place, directed onward and upward by a grand teleological scheme of greater order and good. (The chemotherapy kills healthy and cancer cells alike, but it heals the body. Trust the doctor; he knows best; he will make sense of your nausea, your hair loss, your weakened body. Or something like that.)

So if we are to ‘endure’ these disasters, we must reassure ourselves that someone, somewhere knows what time it is, what the score, the deal, is. Much like the determined soldier marching into battle, ours is not ask why, but to do or die. Our lot, of course, would be considerably improved if we knew why this was all necessary; after all, as Nietzsche had pointed out, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” For the theologically inclined and the militarily obedient, the ‘why’ is supplied by faith in the benevolence of the Supreme Commander. The rest of us are left to weakly reassure ourselves that this too shall pass. Or not.

RIP Muhammad Ali: Once And Always, The Greatest

Muhammad Ali was the first Black Muslim American I heard of. Before his name entered my immature consciousness,  I did not know Americans could be Black or Muslim. (This revelation came to me during a classroom trivia quiz; ‘Muhammad Ali’ was the answer to the question ‘Who is the world heavyweight champion?’) It is hard now, more than forty years later, to adequately describe the presence that Muhammad Ali had in the lives of young boys like me in the 1970s. Ali was the Greatest; there was no disputing it. He went down, and he came back up. He had his jaw broken; he lost his title; he went to jail. But he kept fighting, literally and figuratively. I read his The Greatest as a young boy and quickly memorized its details: his Louisville childhood, his Golden Gloves bouts, his 1960 Olympic gold medal, his throwing the medal into a river in response to Jim Crow experiences at a local restaurant, the going professional, the precocious career, the fights with Sonny Liston, the draft resistance, the surrender of the title, the loss to Ken Norton, the epic bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, the comebacks. (The Greatest ends with the Zaire fight; a postscript mentions the Thrilla in Manila with Joe Frazier.)

It was a story that once again, introduced me to a side of America  I did not  know about; it was an awakening and an enlightenment.

I think I dimly understood as I read Ali’s autobiography that I was not reading the story of an ordinary sportsman, that there was no way to make sense of Ali’s life without thinking about the racial politics in which it was embedded. You just could not. ‘Nigger’ is a very common word in The Greatest; you hear it when Cassius Clay wants to be served at a whites-only restaurant; you hear it in the story Ali is told by a black man about how he was castrated by the Ku Klux Klan in the American South; you hear it in the dismay over his conversion to Islam, as he changed his name to ‘Cassius X’ and then, ‘Muhammad Ali’; you hear it in the epithets hurled Ali’s way after he refused to participate in the war crime known as ‘Vietnam’; you hear it in the glee of those cheering for his opponents; you could, if you cocked your ear at the right angle, hear it in the recurring fantasy of the Great White Hope who would show up to whip this upstart black man’s ass and teach him some manners.

Because that’s what Ali didn’t have. He didn’t have manners. He was rude; he spoke about things people didn’t want sportsmen to talk about: racism, apartheid, white supremacy, an immoral foreign policy. He gatecrashed a party in which sports champions, especially black ones, were expected to be polite and deferential and grateful to their white backers for having been lifted out of the poverty that was otherwise their birthright. Ali would not settle for such handouts; he wanted nothing less than a full seat at the table.

Ali was a very good boxer too. He was the lightest heavyweight of all; he had great footwork; he threw a mean jab. He was never famous as a big puncher, but he still knocked out many of his opponents. His most incredible achievement still remains his beating George Foreman in 1974. It is worth remembering that Foreman had knocked out–in very early rounds–Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, two men who had taken Ali the distance in long, brutal, fifteen-round bouts of battering; Ali was expected to lose comprehensively to him. Instead, Ali knocked Foreman out in the eighth round with a straight right. An astonishing result in an astonishing fight.

There are people today who still imagine that sports can, and should be, divorced from politics. Muhammad Ali married the two; he was a sportsman who was a politician. He fought political battles every time he stepped into a ring and dropped into his fighting crouch; he fought them every time he answered a question at a press conference, knowing that reporters wanted copy that would confirm stereotypes of dumb, hulking, brutes who directed primeval force at their civilized white opponents. Ali walked away from fame and fortune when he was at the height of his powers; he could have simply taken up a cushy military job behind the front lines, visited some troops, performed the modern equivalent of a minstrel show and done his bit to ‘keep the troops happy’ with a few witty lines. He would have come back to safety soon enough, and could have fought every fight from that point on under the banner of ‘American soldier’ or ‘war veteran.’ He could have kissed the collective ass of national self-righteousness, and asked the nation to shower its kind blessings on him; instead he handed out generous helpings of stubborn defiance.

A couple of years after I had arrived in the US, I spent an afternoon drinking with a friend in a bar in New Jersey. As the evening crept up, an old man at the counter went on a rant about Ali, about how he could have been the greatest, but he threw it all away: “all he had to do was to serve in the military just like every other young man in his time did.” Yes, that’s ‘all’ he had to do. And he didn’t. He knew the simplicity and ease of the path not taken; he knew the difficulties of the fork he did choose. It is crucial to the Ali legend that we understand his greatest bravery lay not in his ability to take a beating, to withstand a punch; it lay in his defiance of commonsense and consensus, in his refusal to seek out easy popularity, to swim with the tide.

Ali was a black man in America; that fact alone made him a fighter. He knew that every time he stepped into the ring; and he knew his fights didn’t end when he stepped back out. His participation in that continuing struggle, and his awareness of it, made him the Greatest, once and always.

RIP Muhammad Ali.

Meeting The Children (And Grandchildren) Of ‘Celebrities’

Have I told you about the time I met Richard Wright‘s grandson at an academic conference? A few seconds after we had begun conversing, I blurted out, “Your grandfather changed my life, my perception of this world; I saw and understood myself differently once I had read Native Son.” My interlocutor thanked me politely; he smiled; we talked a bit more about his project to make a documentary on whale hunting, and the pressing need to conserve those majestic leviathans of the deep. As our little meeting concluded, I half-jokingly offered my services as a volunteer assistant for his project. He promised to stay in touch.

Then there was the time when, strolling down a brownstone-lined street in Brooklyn on my way to my gym, I passed, for the umpteenth time, a man strumming on his stoop–on one occasion, a mandolin, on another, a ukulele, and of course, a guitar. Finally, one day, I stopped and struck up a conversation. A few minutes later, I had been informed the gentleman I was speaking bore the last name Westmoreland. When I asked, ‘That Westmoreland?,” back came the answer: ‘Yup.’ I was talking to the son of William Westmoreland, the man who conducted the Vietnam War for many gory and increasingly pointless years. But, as his son assured me, the last word on that sorry business has not been written yet; perhaps some vindication might yet make its way to his father.

And then, of course, my daughter goes to daycare with Amartya Sen‘s grandson; his mother, Sen’s daughter, is a friend of ours. We do the things that parents of children who are friends with each other do: playdates, birthday parties, impromptu dinners. Sometimes I hear that the great economist himself stopped over at her place for a quick visit, on his way, perhaps, to another keynote address or to receive another award. (Someday, I hope to run into him and press copies of my cricket books into his hands; I’ve heard he is a fan of the game and might be tempted to check these. I hold little hope that he would be interested in my academic writings.)

Encounters with the children of celebrities are a curious business. You make indirect contact with ‘fame,’ with ‘achievement,’ with ‘success’; you sense, dimly, a glimpse of the distinctive life that they live (or lived.) You feel, as an undercurrent running through your encounters, a brush with ‘history.’ If you are so inclined, you might grasp at these insubstantial offerings, and revel in them. Celebrity spotting of any kind, even with a twist like the one noted here, is always great party-conversation fodder. But you also come to realize a simple fact about the human condition, about the gulf that separates us from other individuals. These folks, your ‘friends’ of a kind, are gloriously distinct and separable from their celebrity ancestors; they live their own lives; they are their own persons. Talk with them all you want: you won’t get an autograph; the fame they might have  known intimately won’t rub off on you.

The Trials Of Muhammad Ali

We all know the story:

In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title, [Muhammad] Ali refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. The U.S. government declined to recognize him as a conscientious objector, however, because Ali declared that he would fight in a war if directed to do so by Allah or his messenger (Elijah Muhammad). He was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing title. He did not fight again for nearly four years—losing a time of peak performance in an athlete’s career. Ali’s appeal worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1971 his conviction was overturned. The Supreme Court held that, since the appeals board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to petitioner, it was impossible to determine on which of the three grounds offered in the Justice Department’s letter that board had relied. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.

But even if you do, or think you do, you should still go see Bill Siegel‘s The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Because it is almost inconceivable, in this day and age, to think that a professional sportsman at the prime of his career, would take on, and steadfastly stay true to, a political and moral stance that was quite as unpopular as Ali’s was in his time.

Muhammad Ali was not just a black man in 1960s America; he was a black Muslim. But he was not just a black Muslim, he was a vocal and visible one, who made it clear his faith was not just a matter of personal spirituality but a political statement too. He did not keep his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and its radical theoretical commitments and pronouncements a secret, and he insisted that he be called by his adopted name, punishing those, like Ernie Terrell, who refused to respect this new identity.

Many found Ali’s commitment to the Nation of Islam problematic, and indeed, some of his echoing of that group’s most polarizing statements are still discomfiting. But it is precisely his unapologetic statement of those beliefs that provides The Trials of Muhammad Ali one of its strongest moments. In a television interview–on the David Frost show–Ali is asked for reassurance that he does not really believe that ‘the white man is the devil’ as Elijah Muhammad says (“That’s not really true, is it?”). Much to Frost’s surprise, Ali does not back down. Instead, he passionately affirms his beliefs all over again; he believes in every word Elijah preaches.  As he points out to Frost, he’s given up his title, he’s ready to go to jail, he’s given up many dollars of earnings; these actions which made him, a black man, even more unpopular, and also cost him his livelihood were made possible by the strength of his faith in a man who he considered to have shown him the light. Given that, why would Frost expect Ali to disown him on national television?

Ali’s words can be viewed as evidence of an unintelligent bullheadedness. but they are also admirable. He could have thrown Elijah under the bus for the sake of an easy and cheap popularity with a mainstream national audience, and then, when questioned about his turncoat words by his friends and other followers of the Nation of Islam, he could have performed another backpedal, claiming his words had been ‘taken out of context.’ A slither here, a slide there, and Ali could have deftly wiggled between the cracks, keeping everyone happy.

But Ali kept it simple. He was standing on his feet, and he didn’t intend to sink to his knees again.

This Summer I Hear The Drumming, Sixteen Dead in Panjwai

It seems a peculiarly American destiny, hovering over the heads of this nation and its people, to keep on reading, in the morning papers, news paragraphs like the following:

Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end. Their resistance puts Mr. Obama in a quandary, as he balances how to hasten what is increasingly becoming a messy withdrawal while still painting a portrait of success for NATO allies and the American people.

A military presence in a foreign land; a seemingly endless, intractable, formless conflict; a political establishment confused about war objectives, tactics, and strategy; military and political commanders at loggerheads; the calculus of troop withdrawal, as always, juggling with face-saving devices as the original provenance of war’s declaration and continued execution fades into a remote past; these are all familiar components of wars persecuted overseas.

And now, it seems, another more gruesomely familiar piece can be fitted into this emerging puzzle: the cold-massacre of innocents, carried out by a member of the military. US Army Sergeant X (we do not know his name as yet), coldly, deliberately, kills sixteen civilians in Panjwai District in the province of Kandahar.  He goes on a deadly walkabout a mile from base, hunting door to door for prey, breaking in to kill at three separate locations. At the end, he collects the bodies of eleven victims, which include four girls, and cremates them.

Assessment of Sergeant X as psychopathic is likely; he is in custody and presumably, the wheels of justice, military and civil will now grind to dispense the appropriate punishment. Well, one can hope; let us not forget that the gentleman whose name sprang to some folks’ lips when they first heard the news of the Panjwai massacre, Second Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted, found guilty of killing twenty-two villagers, given a life sentence, but only served three and a half years under house arrest.

But the policies, mechanisms, and machinery, both political and military that brought Sergeant X to Panjwai, that kept him there, along with thousands of other US troops (and their Afghan henchmen) will not be on trial along with him. Sergeant X will be tried as isolated singularity, as exception, the lens narrowly focused on him and his deeds. Synoptic perspectives on his presence in the midst of his victims will be in short supply; laser-like precision of diagnosis and prescription, discarding broader political views, will be much more popular.

Of course, what makes Panjwai genuinely tragic is that it was foretold: dirty wars like Afghanistan inevitably dehumanize and produce these moral catastrophes. The question was when, how often, where; the genuine curiosity was only directed, perhaps, at the eventual body count. Sergeant X has had a small, walk-on part to play; he has performed it with gruesome efficiency. The rest of the accompanying charade can now be kicked off.

Girl, Napalm, and ?

So what did you fill in the blanks? Vietnam, I’m guessing ((Chrome’s autofill suggests “photo” and “attack” when I begin typing in “girl napalm”). And the reason for that in all likelihood is Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the subject of Nick Ut’s iconic, Pulitzer-prize-winning image of the Vietnam war.

That straightforward association of “girl” and “napalm” with “Vietnam” came to me as I read The Gangster We Are All Looking For, the 2003 novelistic debut of Vietnamese-American author lê thi diem thúy. In particular, it happened as I turned to page 86 and read the narrator of the novel, a young girl, displaced after the war to the US, tell us about one of her mother’s memories:

She had heard a story about a girl in a neighboring town who was killed during a napalm bombing. The bombing happened on an especially hot night, when this girl had walked to the beach to cool her feet in the water. They found her floating on the sea. The phosphorus from the napalm made her body glow like a lantern.

As I read the lines I thought about Ut’s photograph; precisely the association lê thi diem thúy wanted me to make. To work in a direct reference to Phan Kim Thi Phuc would be clumsy given the novel’s structure, so the most perspicuous way to bring the reader to her–in a quasi-autobiographical book written by an author whose identity as a refugee from the Vietnam war is known to the reader, whose narrator is a refugee and so on–is to simply use “girl”, “napalm”, “bombing” and “village” together. It worked. (I cast my mind back to the time I first saw the photo in an anthology of Life‘s photographs in my school library; I was a sixth or seventh-grader then, and my notion of a wartime photo was restricted to explosions, fireballs, mushroom clouds, gleaming weaponry, and strong, grimy men in martial poses. A young, naked, helpless girl in pain didn’t fit in well. More to the point, in my dim understanding of the war, it was the US v. Someone Or The Other and the thought that the US–strictly speaking, a South Vietnamese plane and pilot–was responsible for her defenceless, agonizingly painful state of being was jarring.)

That straightforward reaction was followed rather quickly by a sense of disbelief that more than a decade after the launch of the Afghan war (on 7th October 2001), I cannot think of a single, classic, enduring photograph associated with that continuing conflict. (In the case of the Iraq war, the Abu Ghraib photographs now aspire to the status of “iconic”). Somehow, despite the multiple documentaries made on the war (including the excellent Restrepo), and despite the enduring presence of “Pakistan” and “Taliban” in American geopolitical discourse, Afghanistan has once again managed to stage a forgotten war.

But it has been aided and abetted in that trick by the pernicious combination of a forgetful polity and successive administrations determined to reinforce that not-so-benign neglect with the always-powerful machinery of bluster and obfuscation about war aims, strategies and objectives. Forgetfulness, in this case, seems to be almost effortlessly associated with pointlessness.