Sunday, November 15, 2009

We've grown accustomed to these wars

THERE'S a haunting, if apocryphal, story of how infants born in war zones have difficulty sleeping without the sound of distant gunfire, and are soothed by recordings of such sounds as if by lullabies or the sibilance of gentle rain.

There is another, more reliably documented, story of a young photographer from a small town in the midwestern United States, who as a boy had been moved by Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning 1969 photograph of a Vietnamese army general summarily executing a Viet Cong prisoner on a Saigon street.

As soon as he was old enough, the lad had made his way to Mogadishu, Somalia, on the brutal streets of which he sought to replicate in his own photography the image that had so inspired him as a child.

He was shot dead in the process, and his family displayed that chillingly familiar tableau among their son's work at his wake.

Popular culture is seeded by the romanticised iconography of war as present-day landscapes are haunted by the gaunt concrete relics of bygone trauma.

Amid the reams of commentary on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last week was Harvard professor Dominique Moisi's reflection in these columns that "such walls represent the realities that lay behind their construction; realities that, unfortunately, later generations may be unable or unwilling to change" . But the world's most enduring conflicts since the end of World War 2 are now advancing through their third generations. As the well-known "Third-Generation Curse" holds, they are entering a critical and unprecedented new phase.

Among Palestinians, Israelis and Koreans, no one under 60 could possibly remember a time before -- or even between -- wars.

For the blighted communities embroiled in the score or more of protracted armed conflicts at present peppering the globe, anarchy, deprivation and danger have become normal.

There are stories of prisoners being freed after long sentences returning to plead for readmission to the only world they knew.

If war is all that people have ever known, what would they do without it? Who would they be? And how long would it take to remake themselves as neighbours and co-citizens of the killers of their families?

It can happen. It's happening fitfully in Rwanda, 15 years since the genocide of an estimated 800,000 people. But that paroxysm of ghastly carnage lasted just 100 days. (And, certainly, there's less scope for further action of a similar nature when the survivors mostly lack hands.)

Civil wars do end, of course. The craziest of them -- China's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution; Cambodia's 1975-79 Khmer Rouge interregnum -- tend to end as nightmares do, in befuddled mystification.

Former Khmer Rouge strongman Ieng Sary, now 85, was recently asked by a French film crew how he felt about the two million deaths under his regime.

He muttered tersely that they did not even understand the question they were asking him, and therefore could not possibly understand any answer he could give them.

The likes of Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic deny that they even waged war in the first place; it was merely domestic household maintenance.

In wars without end, the ancestral conflicts into which new generations are born shape and colour their creation myths, cultural paradigms, community politics and rites of passage.

Religious orthodoxies function well in such circumstances. Scriptures stripped to their sinew and bone -- eyes for eyes, teeth for teeth, generation-girding curses and feuds -- offer suitably unwavering moral compasses for navigating through the bloody rubble of collapsed civilisations.

By the third generation of endless conflict, new social orders emerge. Warring tribes begin "maturing" into political organisations; establishing structures and institutions; expanding the vocabulary of antagonism to include diplomatic language and the formalities of negotiations, agreements, treaties -- even the semblance of democratic processes.

From the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the western slopes of the Hindu Kush, however, nascent democracies are electing to institutionalise the very conflicts they were meant to end.

In the greatest mockery yet of "Western-style" democracy as a civilising impulse, wherever it has been newly sprayed over ancient enmities, people are apparently prepared to abide by the devils they know and vote for civil war.

A lot of people, it seems, like war. They rarely include the professional soldiers of standing armies, for whom life just couldn't be better without it, but some see grandeur and nobility in conflict; it offers them purpose and meaning.

Many remain persuaded that there are such things as "just", "righteous", "holy" or "winnable" wars.

They may play first-person-shooter video games and read Tom Clancy a lot, but they would agree with Aeschylus that war offers lashings of tragedy and heroism to offset the farcical mundanities of life and paintball.

Those for whom war has become a living culture and cherished tradition, however, without which their lives are meaningless and their babies can't sleep, might consider pursuing it by other means and calling it party politics. Rehman Rashid New Straits Times

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