The Struggle in the Bardo

AP/AP - An army helicopter flies over the Siachen Glacier on Pakistan-India border, 2003.

The base at Gayari, where the avalanche hit, sits at about 15,000 feet, near a border where thousands of Pakistani and Indian troops stand guard across a no man’s land at elevations up to 22,000 feet. The Siachen Glacier often is called the highest battlefield on Earth.

-Richard Leiby, “Himalayan avalanche buried scores of Pakistani troops, army says,” Washington Post, April 7, 2007.

Something about this phrasing – despite the tragedy of the situation – inspires wonder and awe. The fact that I’m captivated by it is a reminder that I’m still a nerd, which I appreciate. There’s a cinematic quality to it; an air of futility as well. It’s akin to spacefaring battles, or a war on the moon. An alien, inhospitable landscape that men are willing to die for.

This reflects my own tastes more than anything, but much writing on India and/or Pakistan, though especially the former, seems to take place in the teeming cities or lush semi-jungle areas. But there’s a very distinct subcurrent in military-related fiction and literature set in the mountains and passes. Think General Raj-Singh, the Tiger of Delhi. Or a temporary safehouse in Himachel Pradesh. 10th Mountain: there may be hope for you yet.

Of course, it helps that I can’t help but be reminded of the epic, climactic “War of the Asuras” in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (it should be fairly obvious why):

Their task now was to blast the defenses away and go south through that pass, down to some level below this floor of the universe. The pass to India, supposedly. Gate to a lower realm. Very well defended, of course.
      The “Muslims” defending it remained invisible, always over the great snowy mass of granite peaks, greater than any mountains on earth could be, asura mountains, and the big guns brought to bear on them, asura guns. Never had it been so clear to Bai that they had gotten caught up in some bigger war, dying by the millions for some cause not their own. Ice and black rock fangs touched the ceiling of stars, snow banners streamed on the monsoon wind away from the peaks, merging with the Milky Way, at sunset becoming asura flames blowing horizontally, as if the realm of the asuras stood perpendicularly to their own, another reason perhaps that their puny imitation battles were always so hopelessly askew.
      The Muslims’ big guns were on the south side of the range, they never even heard them. Their shells whistled over the stars, leaving white rainbow frost trails on the black sky. The majority of these shells landed on the massive white mountain to the east of the huge pass, blasting it with one stupendous explosion after another, as if the Muslims had gone crazy and declared war on the rocks of the Earth.

Why They Fight

They hate us because we don’t know why they hate us.” The perceived ignorance of Americans as to the wider world around them was often cited as a compelling reason for the mass murder of several thousand citizens on September 11, 2001. Low scores on math and science, and the inability of two-thirds of Americans between eighteen and twenty-four years old to locate Iraq on a map in 2006 merely perpetuated this claim; that somehow American geographical ignorance is responsible for jihadists and regional strife around the world.

This is of course not the only suggested explanation for conflict in the developing world. Essentially, all the arguments put forth can be summarized as pertaining to ‘greed’, or monetary and personal gain, and ‘grievance’, i.e., ideological and cultural clashes. Abridging the vast array of motives to these two is oversimplifying the matter to begin with; further choosing one of the two as the sole factor would be downright spurious. Complicating matters is the tendency to use the ‘pre-modern’ character of third world conflicts to build an intellectual bridge back to the very beginning of history. Continue reading