Toppling the Buddhas

Two giant stone Buddhas towered majestically over the Afghan terrain, marking the thriving Buddhist community below. In time, Islam replaced Buddhism, and the mighty carvings were less revered, in fact occasionally threatened. But it took the fiercely dogmatic Taliban to decide their time had come. From their perspective the figures were an affront to Islam.

But driving out this last symbol of Buddhism was no easy task. Chains or ropes would hardly do, considering one statue was 180 feet high, the other 125. The job was entrusted to the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which normally dealt with human executions but was ready to take on Buddhism. For fire power, it assembled artillery, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons, but the combined assault only produced a few chips.

To get serious, the Taliban rounded up a couple dozen prisoners who were told to bring in the dynamite. One of them, Mirza Hussein, years later told BBC: “We were chosen because there was nobody else. We could be disposed of at any time” – like the Buddhas. One in fact was shot because a bad leg kept him from hauling explosives. For twenty-five days they painstakingly stuffed the dynamite into every available crevice, sometimes drilling holes to make room. Protests from outside were unavailing.

When the statues were finally reduced to rubble, the Taliban rejoiced, dancing, firing their weapons into the air and slaughtering nine cows as a sacrifice. But Hussein was not happy with what he had done. Nor was most of Afghanistan and for that matter the rest of the world. Not just a religion had been obliterated but a crucial part of Afghan heritage. How much did the Taliban care for the country they were intent on ruling?

Giant standing Buddhas of Bamiyan still cast shadows, Sgt. Ken Scar, 17 June 2012

Was the demolition also a signal? Taliban chief Mullah Omar liked to explain that the statues were destroyed to keep the U.S. from threatening his country. If he had no qualms about obliterating a major monument in Afghanistan, why hesitate to do the same to America via bin Laden? Despite the Afghan blast heard round the world and the warnings of dissident Taliban leaders, Washington was not listening. Six months later on 9/11 the World Trade Center at massive human cost joined the Buddhas.

Fighting But Not To Win

Hawkish members of Congress and the media have seized on possible intelligence indicating that Russia is paying bonuses to Taliban who kill Americans. Even if it’s true – and it may not be – it’s a pittance compared to the resources the U.S poured into the effort to overthrow the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the l980’s by aiding the rebel Mujahideen. It’s a policy that worked and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There’s no possibility of Russia coming back or even wanting to. Putin, a strict nationalist, hardly compares to the communist Soviet regime spreading a murderous ideology around the world. Yet he has been elevated to the status of foreign devil of the moment by Washingtonians yearning for battle at least from the armchair. Chief among these are the so-called neoconservatives who have managed to play a central role in the foreign policy of the last four Presidencies – Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump – exhibiting a knack for political survival while promoting a series of misguided wars.

It began with Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack. The perpetrator Osama bin Laden had been harbored by the Taliban in Afghanistan. So the U.S. made a crushing attack on the Taliban and bin Laden was within easy reach. But under neocon pressure, troops were not supplied to keep him from escaping across the border to Pakistan. Instead they were diverted to Bush’s main preoccupation Iraq, where a war was launched on a variety of false pretexts.

With bin Laden still at large, the Bush White House felt free to take on Afghanistan. It was only a matter of weeks, a top anti-terrorism adviser told the Russians: “We’re going to kill them We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” But as the Russians found out and before them Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the British, nobody successfully invades Afghanistan. That now includes the U.S., which today faces an enemy as strong as ever.

The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842, by William Barnes Wollen (1898).

Early on Bush proclaimed, “You’re for us or against us.” There was nothing in between, which includes most of humanity, and at the time two top Taliban leaders who were seeking to overthrow the harsh rule of Mullah Omar and form a government that would be true to Islam and also acceptable to the outside world. They spoke the language of moderation.

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar had been a founder of the Taliban but at great personal risk he went to Pakistan in 1999 on the pretext of receiving medical treatment. In fact, he was there to meet CIA agents to seek U.S. help for the new government he envisioned. He had over a thousand police at his disposal and an alliance with the forces of a top anti-Taliban commander.

But he spoke in vain, as did Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who warned the U.S. of an upcoming bin Laden attack. On arriving in Kabul, the Americans continued to ignore both well-placed defectors. Muttawakil was sent to prison for eighteen months and underwent mild torture. Khaksar asked for protection. It was denied and he was killed by his Taliban enemies. If aided, could they have succeeded and spared the U.S. its longest war?

There’s a tendency to conflate the wars before and after 9/11, but they’re not the same. Judge them as you will, the pre-9/11 conflicts all had a clear purpose: escaping British rule, ending slavery, expanding America, defeating a bellicose Germany, stopping the spread of Soviet communism. Post 9/11 wars, while ceaseless, have only a cloudy or shifting purpose, Afghanistan being the prime example. Its unpopularity rivals that of the Vietnam War with this difference: there’s no draft. U.S. combat deaths remain limited while Afghan casualties, military and civilian. continue to climb. So popular outrage is muted and the war goes on.

Knocking Grant Down

Ulysses S. Grant was not born to privilege. He grew up in a modest house in a small town in Ohio and followed his father in tanning animal hides for leather. Showing no particular aptitude or ambition, he attended West Point which he hated. After that he tried his hand at a number of businesses all of which failed. He got in the habit of some heavy drinking. Not the stuff of statues.

Then in 1860 came the outbreak of the Civil war. He joined up and found his calling, becoming a skilled fighter as well as commander. Imperturbable, fearless under fire, he won the admiration of his troops and caught the eye of President Lincoln in search of a general who could face down a determined Confederacy. As commanding general of Union forces, he fought stubbornly, making some costly errors along the way, until his adroit maneuvers culminated in a crucial victory at Vicksburg that assured the defeat of the South and Lincoln’s reelection. He was the man of the hour.

Ulysses S. Grant on Horseback

He was less successful in his second career as U.S. President. Embroiled in a politics he couldn’t quite understand, he was unable to cope with the get-rich- quick schemes that followed the war and almost any war. Retirement came as a relief and off he went to see the world. Along the way he ran into German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who had united Germany and thus had something in common with the general who kept America united. In a remarkable conversation in 1878 between two major figures of the 19th century, Bismarck remarked that it was sad to fight your own people in a war.

“But it had to be done,” said Grant. “Yes,” said Bismarck. “You had to save the Union just as we had to save Germany.” “In the beginning,” replied Grant. “but as soon as slavery fired upon the flag, it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.” He even restrained his impetuous General Sheridan so that the war would not end too quickly without the abolition of slavery

Bismarck went on to say that there had been an attempt on the life of Germany’s King Wilhelm, a sincere republican in principle, “ and one of the kindest old gentlemen in the world, and yet they must try and shoot him.” Replied Grant: “The influence which aimed at the Emperor’s life was an influence that would destroy all government, all order, all society, republics and empires.”

Anticipating the eruptions of the next century, he spoke prophetically but of course did not live to fight that battle.

A Riot To Remember

In July 1863, the war was not going very well for the northern Union forces as they tried to defeat the Southern Confederacy. Recruitment was slipping in a sign of war weariness and casualties were staggering. To try to replenish ranks and encourage more volunteers, the Republican Government under President Lincoln took the step of establishing a draft, a serious extension of national power. Opposed to the war, the Democratic Party denounced the move as a threat to civil liberties.

Those likely to be drafted then took action. They were mostly Irish American immigrants with few means, living in cramped often fetid quarters in New York City. They had low paying jobs without the benefits available today. They were indifferent to slavery and feared that if they went off to war, freed blacks would replace them. Adding to their anger was the fact that those with money could buy their way out of the draft or find substitutes. It was a rich man’s war, they complained, and a poor man’s fight.

“Charge of the Police on the Rioters at the ‘Tribune’ Office.” Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 1, 1863.

Unimpeded, they took to the streets. There were no statues to be tumbled but plenty of damage to be done otherwise. They attacked, looted and burned stores, often owned by blacks, and police stations and Protestant churches. They lynched several blacks with genuine nooses. They particularly targeted known abolitionists and their newspapers like the New York Tribune. At a time of more assertive journalism, editors armed their staffers to confront the rioters. New York Times editor Henry Raymond, a top Republican, wielded a newly invented Gatling gun to defend his paper.

But there was no stopping the riot with available forces. Police tried but were undermanned. Federal troops normally nearby had gone off to war. In desperation, Washington rushed several regiments from the war in Pennsylvania to the city where they fired on rioters the way they had on Confederates. That did it. Twenty thousand troops maintained the draft and kept the peace for the remainder of the war. More than one hundred people had been killed, most of them rioters.

As it turned out, the draftees were not needed very much. There were about 46 thousand of them compared to 800 thousand volunteers who did most of the fighting and dying. The riot was an indication of seriously divided opinion in a war that cost more lives than any other in U.S. history, and it should be noted that Irish Americans, removed from the slums, fought willingly and gallantly in subsequent wars.

Black Lives 1860

In the year 1860 American blacks were locked into slavery. Then the Civil War began which liberated the slaves at the cost of 360 thousand Union lives, mostly whites with ten per cent blacks who had been freed. They died, yes, but usually with the battlefield agony that preceded death. It was not a pleasant thing.

Lt. Colonel Richard Irwin, who participated in the Union capture of Port Hudson in 1863, describes the battlefield: “Our loss in the two assaults was nearly 4000, including many of our best and bravest officers. The heat, especially in the trenches, became almost unsupportable, the stenches quite so, the springs gave out, the creek lost itself in the pestilential swamp and the river fell exposing to the tropical sun a wide margin of festering ooze. The illness and mortality were enormous. The labor of the siege, extending over a front of seven miles, pressed so severely upon our numbers, far too weak for such an undertaking, that the men were almost incessantly on duty. And as the numbers diminished, the work fell more heavily on those that remained. From the first we had nearly 20 thousand men of all arms engaged before Port Hudson and at the last hardly 9000, while every other man might well have gone on sick report if pride and duty had not held him to his post.”

Battle of Port Hudson / J.O. Davidson – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

This of course was just one of innumerable battles in the four year war. It was sustained by a cause that was both clear and uplifting – the abolition of slavery, which distinguishes it from current U.S. wars that seem to have no particular purpose and unlike the Civil War don’t end in victory. To be sure, not all who fought necessarily opposed slavery. They reflected northern opinion which was divided. But they fought nonetheless and thereby contributed to the cause that prevailed.

There were other reasons for the war: a need to prevent southern secession and preserve the union and an increasing hostility between north and south. As always, hotheads on both sides yearned for a violence they would not be able to control. But at the heart of the conflict was the issue of slavery. Without that there would have been no war.

The war did not solve all the problems between the races. Years of brutality and discrimination against blacks continued on the long road to equality. But the Civil War set the precedent. There was no going back. The enormous bloodshed – far beyond any other U.S. war – settled the matter. Standards for justice are very high today. No shirking allowed. But what more could be asked of the Union soldiers who gave all they had?

Freud Up To Date

In a somewhat controversial piece celebrating Jewish genius, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens makes a surprising omission. Absent from his list of Jewish notables over the years is famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. This may have been a lapse on his part, but it does reflect current opinion. Freud has little to say to present times, rooted as he is in outmoded concepts of the role of sex in human life and unconscious drives over which we have no control.

For Freud sex was unforgiving. Infancy wasn’t spared. That’s where it all began in confusion over mother and father, leading by stages to sexual fulfillment or repression and neurosis of which psychoanalysis held the cure. No such thing, said later analysts. Free will still exists and accidents even happen that are not dictated by fate.

Sigmund Freud – By Max Halberstadt – [ Christie’s]

What’s more, Freud is definitely out of place today, very politically incorrect. He was condescending to women and considered all departures from normal sexuality a matter of arrested development. Politically, he was a conservative who favored strong man rule, though not, to be sure, Hitler who drove him from Vienna. He detested America with all its talk of equality while enjoying chats with that teller of tall tales Mark Twain. Today he would probably be closer to Trump voters than to the elite of Manhattan who once adored him. So goodbye to Freud.

But not so fast. His probing of the unconscious has ties to world affairs. Like everyone, he was appalled by the barbaric eruption of World War One after a century of general peace and prosperity. He rejected the common explanations – too much nationalism, too little love, not enough communism and a dozen other ideological cures. The reason he concluded in his book “Civilization and Its Discontents” lay in the permanent drive of aggression in every human that surpasses even the sexual drive. “The inclination to aggression is an original self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man that constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization… All life essentially consists of the struggle between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species.” Which wins depends on the determination of humans who recognize what they face and are not misled by the spurious reasons that lead to wars, including U.S. wars since 9/11. It’s the Freudian cure of self-recognition – Freud up to date.

The Charitable Cartels

The drug cartels are killing more Mexicans than ever, far more than are dying from coronavirus, but with a new twist. They’re also trying to keep some alive by supplying needy Mexicans with food and other supplies they don’t get from the government. “Who do they think they are?” asks an indignant President Lopez Obrador. “The government?” That seems to be the case.

With much fanfare and social media promotion, the cartels are enjoying their new charitable image. It can’t hurt business. But true to form, they’re also imposing a strict quarantine in parts of Mexico. Troubled U.S. states like Michigan and New York might take note of their means of enforcement. No fine or reprimand but in one case – according to the Wall Street Journal – a stiff whacking of a violator with a paddle marked “Covid 19.” Mexicans stay willingly indoors.

Though drug czar El Chapo Guzman is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison, he is nevertheless an influence in the relief effort. His daughter Alejandrina is distributing boxes of supplies with his familiar face stenciled on them. No escaping El Chapo if you want to eat. Alejandrina in fact has a business offering products in the name of her father whom she describes as a “humble orange seller with many goals and ambitions.”

An unidentified woman distributes provisions in boxes stamped with the image of the convicted drug trafficker (Mexico News Daily)

There’s an even more impressive name associated with cartel enterprise: Osama bin Laden. In fact, a leader in the Sinaloa cartel is known as “El bin Laden,” who appropriately uses heavily armed gunmen in pickups to distribute supplies bearing, course, the image of bin Laden. He taunts authorities by saying if you don’t like bin Laden, then provide supplies of your own.

Sometimes the cartels cannot help themselves and go back to business. Some criminals disguised as health workers approach elderly people with sanitation tips. With a special lubricating oil on their hands they quickly slip off rings, bracelets and other jewels, leaving their victims in worse condition.

What matters is that in sickness or in health the cartels rule.