Book Review: The Silk Roads

This is a frustrating, though still useful, book. Historian Peter Frankopan’s title claims this is “a new history of the world”. He then proposes that what the world needs is to reorient its focus from Europe to “the silk roads”, vaguely defined by him as “the region between East and West.. from the Eastern shores of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to the Himalayas”. This almost certainly reflects the fact that the core of this region happens to his particular area of interest (Turkey, Persia, Central Asia and Russia) as a historian. Having made this decision, he has to force the rest of the story to keep coming back to this region, to somehow keep his argument afloat. My recurring thought on reading this book was that all this is unnecessary. He could have written a history of the region without pretending that this was the REAL history of the world, and it would have worked fine. Or he could have attempted a history of the world and not bothered with this tendentious framing. But he insists on doing both, and it causes endless (and needless) irritation. Continue reading “Book Review: The Silk Roads”

Aamir Khan’s Dangal Takes China by Storm

Pakistani academic and ex-diplomat Aamir Khan is an old friend, and he recently wrote a piece on why Dangal is such a hit in China.
What do you think?

Excerpt:

But why did the Chinese fall in love with this movie? Firstly, no country in the world is more sensitive, even obsessed about the achievement of its children than China. The gaokao or university entrance examinations are a case in point. Mothers actually take their offspring to nearby hotels so that the child does not have to travel. They even block adjoining roads so that horn-noise does not distract the examinees. No amount of funds is enough and no level of effort is satisfactory to prepare these children for the future. The movie catches this collective nerve perfectly.
For Chinese viewers, even the slim-fat Aamir Khan reflects control over one’s body. That this is achieved through sheer hard discipline is both magical and achievable. Like China’s own success

At the same time, many Chinese children are being spoilt by the 4-2-1 syndrome. This refers to four grandparents, two parents and one grandchild — the latter has neither siblings nor first cousins. All six parents and grandparents spend money to pamper the “little emperors”. Thus when Aamir Khan cuts his daughters’ hair so that they can fight better, or makes them run for miles, this fits perfectly into the Chinese parental mental grooves. Fed up with Korean soaps, featuring feminized males with long nails, plucked eye-brows and rose-petal lips, Chinese parents have taken their children in droves to Dangal not only to motivate them but also to shame them.

Then, the movie itself is a metaphor for China. Like the future champions but now-penurious village girls who cannot afford to eat even chicken, China has overcome incredible odds to rise from poverty in 1978 to become a politically-stable economic juggernaut that is proud to assume international leadership. Dangal is China itself. No sky is high enough for the Chinese spirit. For Chinese viewers, even the slim-fat Aamir Khan reflects control over one’s body, achieved through sheer hard discipline is both magical and achievable. Like China’s own success.

Six Days of War. June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Today was the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war. What follows is a review I wrote last year of Michael Oren’s book about the 1967 war. I am posting it today to commemorate the anniversary, and to think about what has changed, and what has not, about the equation between the “Muslim world” and its more modern competitors.

To the extent that it existed, this sense of the Muslim world being one of several “competitors” in a war of civilizations  existed mostly in the Muslim world in the last 100 years; and even there, mostly in the minds of religious fanatics such as Maudoodi or Sayyed Qutb or modern Islamists such as the Indian Islamist Mohammed Iqbal.  Most Western, Chinese or Japanese thinkers were unlikely to have something called “The Muslim World” on their list of civilizations competing in the modern world. This has certainly changed in recent time, with at least the Right wing of Western Civ and (and to a lesser extent, of Chinese and Japanese Civ) becoming almost hysterical about the threat posed by Islam. But has the balance of power changed? and if it has, has it changed enough? I think today’s drama in the GCC (among many things) indicates that the balance on the ground has not changed by much. The Muslim world is richer, and some countries (Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia) are more powerful than they were in 1967; Pakistan is even a nuclear power (and in the minds of many of its own citizens, if not all its power brokers, an “Islamic nuclear power”), but in many other ways the dreams of May 1967 were the high point of (delusional) confidence in the Muslim core region. In that year, many, perhaps most, in the Muslim street were eager to believe that their armies could, if given the opportunity, annihilate the “Zionist entity”. Which is why so many spent the first few hours of the war celebrating what their leaders were describing as “great successes”; that reaction seems unlikely today. If there were a new war, and Arab radio stations claimed the Israelis were losing, most people would not believe it, even if the Israelis really WERE losing.
Anyway, on to the review. And don’t miss the documentary at the end.

Review Continue reading “Six Days of War. June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East”

The First Rule of Realism is..

Colonel Yingling (formerly with McMaster in Iraq) has written a superb piece in “Foreign Policy”. Obviously there is a lot going on and I want to blog soon, but have been busy, so I just wanted to put this out there for comments..

Excerpt:

As in Athens, the destruction is as much moral as political. Words have ceased to convey their ordinary meanings; alternative facts, fake news and pseudo-science are sufficient substitutes for the genuine articles.

Unsophisticated observers mistakenly believe that Realism is the glorification of brute force, and that Trump’s foreign policy is a manifestation of realist principles. Careful readers of Thucydides know that the’ glorification of brute force makes more enemies than friends. America’s enemies will recognize that they need not fear an administration prone to empty bluster abroad and scandal at home. Of greater concern, America’s friends may calculate they cannot trust an administration that discards the work of decades so casually.

..In Washington, President Trump is rapidly dismantling the system of mutual obligations that produced the longest period of great power peace in the nation-state era. He publicly glorifies brute force, unaware or uninterested in the dangers of destroying the liberal international system that FDR and his successors created. Thucydides’ lessons were meant to last forever, but cannot be easily distilled into 140 characters. Nevertheless, the least informed president in American history might benefit from adopting the Durden Doctrine: The first rule of Realism is you don’t talk about Realism.

16th Light Cavalry. A historic picture and an anecdote from Kashmir

Corrected Officer List: Sitting on ground Left to Right: Lieutenant Harbhajan Singh (1) and Lieutenant Muhammad Afzal (2).

First Row Seated: Left to Right: Captain Khalid Jan, Captain Hira Lal Atal, Second-in-Command (2IC) Major Basil Holmes, DSO, Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel A. H. Williams, MC (with dog in his lap), Major Faiz Muhammad Khan, Captain K. M. Idris (11), Risaldar Major Ugam Singh (12).

First Row Standing: Left to Right: Unidentified VCO, Lieutenant Inder Sen Chopra (3), Lieutenant Enait Habibullah (4), Lieutenant K. K. Verma (5), Captain S. D. Verma (6), Captain M. S. Wadalia (7), Lieutenant Ghanshyam Singh (8), Lieutenant J. K. Majumdar (9), Lieutenant P. S. Nair (10) and unidentified VCO.

16th Light Cavalry was one of the first cavalry regiment of the Indian army that was Indianized.  7th Light Cavalry was the second cavalry regiment that was Indianized and later 3rd Cavalry was also earmarked for Indianization.  Disproportionately, large number of future senior cavalry officers of Indian and Pakistani armies belonged to these three Indianized cavalry regiments. They were the founding fathers of armored corps of Indian and Pakistan armies.

King Commissioned Indian Officers (KCIOs) were graduates of Sandhurst and Indian Commissioned Officers (ICOs) were trained at Indian Military Academy (IMA) at Dehra Dun. During the war, Indian officers were commissioned as Emergency Commissioned Officers (ECOs) after only six months of training. The picture is circa 1936, therefore most Indian officers are KCIOs and only two ICOs as first IMA batch known as ‘pioneers’ was commissioned in December 1934. Both are from the first IMA course.

Major Basil Holmes: In this 1936 picture, he was Second-in-Command (2IC) of the regiment. He was an Australian and served with Australian army during First World War.  He was ADC to his father Major General William Holmes who was killed by a shell in France during a tour. He won Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in First World War. After the war, he transferred to Indian army and after a career of twenty one years in India, retired as Colonel and went back to Australia. Continue reading “16th Light Cavalry. A historic picture and an anecdote from Kashmir”