Sunday, 20 November 2011

Silly Billy

I like reading the letters page of the TLS.  I am always interested in the stupidity of clever people:

Sir, - John Keay, in his review of books on Afghanistan (September 30), writes of “the US-led invasion of 2001-02”.  Mr Keay is quite inaccurate.  Before the fall of Kabul to the insurgent Afghan Northern Alliance in November 2001, and the subsequent collapse of the Taliban regime, there were no foreign regular combat formations in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance did receive American air support and assistance from special forces (both US and British); that, however, is not an invasion. Substantial foreign ground combat forces - including Canadian - only entered the country after the Taliban had been deposed by indigenous Afghan forces.   Those foreign troops entered with the agreement of the Northern Alliance, still the UN-recognized government of the country. Some invasion. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council unanimously established in December 2001 the International Security Assistance Force (not a NATO operation until 2003) with a limited mandate confined essentially to Kabul. The British-led force did not have to fight its way in. In fact, the support given in October and November 2001 to the Northern Alliance is a very close analogy to NATO's support of the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya with air power. Yet no one refers to an invasion of Libya - while the myth of the invasion of Afghanistan lives on, largely as a result of consistently thoughtless use of the term by those who should know the facts better.  (Mark Collins, TLS, 11/11/2011) 

In the same issue there is a review of some new books on Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.  How did that start?

[The Soviet government] had been invited by the country’s new rulers, who saw themselves as Marxist-Leninists…  Among those eager for military assistance from Moscow was the Afghan Communist Leader Hafizullah Amin [who the Russians quickly killed]…. 

Unlike the Americans, though, the Soviet leaders were not keen to invade:

“[T]he Soviet government had little choice but to give the new Communist government their full support.”  They were hamstrung by the logic of superpower rivalry, and their critical faculties were dulled by the need to place events in Afghanistan into an appropriate framework of analysis [in this case the class struggle].

Later in the review we read of another kind of stupidity (exacerbated by an equally impoverished “framework of analysis”):

Kalinovsky cites an American diplomat in Islamabad saying in May 1989 that “the Russians did it to us in Vietnam, and we’re going to do it to them in Afghanistan.”  The same person believed that the resistance of the mujahideen would lead to a “successful market democracy”….  (Archie Brown reviewing Afgantsy and A Long Goodbye)

This was after Gorbachev had requested American assistance to stop the supply of weapons to the mujahideen, so as to prevent the country descending into chaos, and remove the possibility of the Islamic extremists taking power.  The American administration, of course, was not interested in such humanitarian intervention.  The more deaths the better, if it could hurt the Russians.  The relatively liberal and cosmopolitan Kabul was a necessary sacrifice…

Collins is typical of a certain kind of mind.  One that believes the world can be understood by reference to a dictionary: once you have defined your terms correctly you have exhausted the topic is the idea.[i]  As if to understand George W. Bush and Richard Nixon it is enough simply to describe them as American presidents from the Republican Party.  Such an approach leads, just like the above letter, to absurdity.  In this case it ignores the vast changes in political landscape that separates these men; changes that have completely transformed the meaning of these two terms: Nixon far to the left of all subsequent presidents, either Republican or Democrat. 

If we were to accept his particular definition we cannot speak of a Russian invasion of Afghanistan; for such is the narrow alleyway our understanding has been forced to squeeze through.  Indeed, given such a tight definition, we will have to erase the term completely: all countries find pretexts for their wars; always ready to enlist the disgruntled and the disposed; in fact anyone who has a grudge against the offending regime.  Cortez, let us not forget, had his army of local helpers, and profited by the dissensions of the Aztec empire:

By 1519 the Mexicans would have liked to have conquered Tlaxcala if they could have done so.  Their failure to do so, indeed, was one reason for their undoing.  (Hugh Thomas, The Conquest of Mexico)

Yes, it is a strange kind of mind; and leads, inevitably one suspects, to the kind of passionate partisanship on display here.  For a mind so narrow and confused is unable to grasp that the world cannot be confined to the double-paged columns of the Collins English Dictionary.  No wonder he gets angry when the world does not conform to his simple certainties.  Much easier to deny it; preferring words to the reality they are supposed to describe. 

The bias is clearly revealed in his comments on Libya: contrary to his assertion there are plenty of people who think what has happened there is a NATO invasion; indeed there appears to have been ground troops used during the fighting.  For a mind glued so strongly to his definitions, however, such views are hard, if not impossible, to see: “regime change” and “intervention” clearly cannot constitute an invasion.  They are on different pages of the dictionary.[ii]




[i] The classic diagnosis is Ernest Gellner’s attack on the Oxford Linguistic School in his Words and Things.  In that book he attacked their belief that everything could be reduced to common usage, and in a cutting phrase called the OED their Koran.
[ii] One day I might go through his letter in detail – just about every point is debateable. At the moment it doesn’t seem worth the effort; so poor is the reasoning.

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