India Uncut

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

India, 1947. Iraq, 2006

In a remarkable piece in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan writes:
I have been reading "Freedom at Midnight," the popular classic of 30 years ago that recounted the coming of democracy to India. The authors, journalists Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, capture the end of the Raj with sweep and drama, and manage to make even the dividing of India and Pakistan--I mean the literal drawing of the lines between the two countries, by a British civil servant--riveting. But the sobering lesson of this history, the big thing you bring away, is this: They didn't know.

Mountbatten and Nehru and Jinnah were brilliant men who'd not only experienced a great deal; they'd done a great deal, and yet they did not know that the Subcontinent--which each in his own way, and sometimes it was an odd way, loved--would explode in violence, that bloodlust would rule as soon as the Union Jack was lowered.


Everyone in a position of authority seems to have been blinded, in part, by the Mission.

The tough, preternaturally self-confident Mountbatten had been sent by London to oversee independence, and he was bloody well going to do it. He was Mountbatten of Burma after all, and he'd first toured India with his cousin David, the future Edward VIII. Imperialism was over, Mountbatten was given his charge: get Britain out with grace and dignity, part as friends, preserve the special ties between London and Delhi. For Mountbatten, speed was everything. He thought the sectarian violence that had begun to crop up as independence neared would be quelled by the transfer of power and partition.

For Nehru, the mission was to secure a free and democratic India. Only then would he realize his personal destiny, to become its first prime minister and impose upon its masses the Fabian socialism that had so impressed him when, as a young Indian outsider at Cambridge, he was dazzled by London's salons. (Those salons damaged him more than any British prison ever did.)

Jinnah sought to create the world's biggest Muslim nation, with him as head. On the day of independence, Pakistan was littered not by little flags but by pictures of one man: him. He ate bacon with his eggs, liked whiskey at night, and seems never to have had a personal religious impulse he could not squelch. But he too had a destiny, and if the Subcontinent had to be rent for him to achieve it, then so be it.

So they were all driven by their mission. And by personal ambition, which tends to narrow one's focus, or rather train one's focus on oneself, and away from more important things.

And there was something else.

The leaders of the day did not know that terrible violence was coming because of what I think is a classic and structural problem of leadership: It distances. Each of these men was to varying degrees detached from facts on the ground. They were by virtue of their position and accomplishments an elite. They no longer knew what was beating within the hearts of those who lived quite literally on the ground.


This is a problem with government and governing bodies--with the White House, Downing Street, with State Department specialists, and the Council on Foreign Relations, and West Point, too. It is not so much a matter of fault as it is structural. The minute you rise to govern you become another step removed from the lives of those you govern. Which means you become removed from reality.

This is what I've been thinking about as I've considered the obvious fact that those in positions of authority in Washington were taken aback by and not prepared for the strength and durability of the insurgency in Iraq. Obviously India in 1947 is not Iraq in 2006. But there is a lesson both have in common.
Read the full piece. Food for thought in the end, where Noonan says that Mountbatten could have prevented partition. In hindsight, of course, it's easy to say how. In hindsight, everything is easy, all pain is avoidable. But caught in the middle of that tumultous thing called life, we so often make the wrong choices.

Self-deception comes easily to all of us, as it no doubt did to Mountbatten and Nehru and Jinnah and Bush, partly because it's probably been programmed into us by natural selection, because it's a quality necessary to survive. How, after all, could we live in hope if we accepted the truth about ourselves and the world around us?

T-Shirt motto of the day: "There is nothing to live for, but I'll pretend otherwise."
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