by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
For most of April and early May, the world’s attention was glued on Jenin as the Israeli Defense Forces sent an armored column and accompanying infantrymen to root out suspected terrorists and their apparatus of suicide bombing. European tabloids ran racy headlines, assuring us that the leveling of apartment buildings and destruction of infrastructure were the moral equivalent of abject murder and chaos on an unprecedented scale. Yasser Arafat followed their cue, and dubbed it a “Jeningrad.”
On our own national news, frenzied Palestinian spokesmen and their supporters each night maintained that “thousands” of innocents had been butchered in a “genocide.” Newspapers ran cover stories on the “massacre” as pundits assured us that such “barbaric” reprisals would only be counterproductive. There were hurried shuttle missions of various European diplomats, and our secretary of state was rushed to the scene to defuse the apparent powder keg and to find out what actually had transpired. The United Nations pontificated and promised to send an array of investigators. The slander of “war crimes” was promiscuously aired.
And? Most reliable estimates reveal that fewer than 60 Palestinians were killed — most of them combatants who perished in street fighting — along with at least two dozen Israelis.
Meanwhile, for much of this same year, hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis and Indians have been facing off in Kashmir. Lately, more die there weekly than in Jenin, and the forces now arrayed — perhaps a million combatants in all — do conjure up memories of Stalingrad or the Bulge. Both sides are nuclear. And one, Pakistan, is autocratic, without a political opposition — and refuses to sign on to a no-first-launch policy in regard to its nuclear-tipped missiles.
Surely, by any historical standard, this fighting is seminal in a way Jenin was not — whether one invokes the sheer numbers of combatants, the tally of the dead, the likelihood of drawing in millions of combatants, the danger of a nuclear China and Russia lining up on opposite sides of the nearby conflict, or the specter of a nuclear exchange with millions of dead innocents in the world’s largest cities — Delhi, Bombay, Islamabad, and Karachi — and the potential toxic clouds of radioactivity that could blanket the globe.
And? Until very recently, the world has largely neglected the crisis.
What accounts for this surrealistic asymmetry in the world’s attention? Why do billions know the street names of Jenin and not a single city in Kashmir — or the faces of Sharon and Arafat, but not that of the Indian prime minister?
Such nonsense is not a new phenomenon. History can be cruelly arbitrary in according importance to some battles and not others. Numbers sometimes mean little — otherwise we would all recall Suchow, where a Nationalist Chinese army of 600,000 ceased to exist, rather than Marathon, where 192 Athenians perished. Do strategic and long-term political consequences, then, “privilege” certain battles over others? Not always. True, we remember Chaeronea, where the free Greek city-state was lost, but not the horrific battle of Coronea (“Like none other of our time,” wrote Xenophon) a few miles away, that changed almost nothing. Yet more books are written on Little Big Horn (212 dead) than on Stalingrad (a million casualties) — even though the former had no long-term effect on the Western expansion, while the latter ended the German army as an offensive force altogether.
Location, of course, is also critical. Who remembers the savage battle of Plataea that put an end to the entire Persian invasion and occupation of Greece? Salamis, however, where Persia was checked, but not expelled, is deemed a lasting turning point of history — no doubt in part because it was fought on waters in sight of Athens, rather than on an obscure farming plain in the back roads of Boeotia. Had the murderers of September 11 leveled our only two skyscrapers in Fresno, they may well have likewise butchered 3,000 Americans at work — but I am not sure that the effects on the national psyche would have been the same as that of the collapse of the iconic World Trade Center in the city from which our news, fashion, art, literature, and finance emanate.
Sometimes there are the flukes of history: Take away Teddy Roosevelt from San Juan Hill, and no one knows San Juan Hill. Most English professors I know can tell you that Cervantes fought at Lepanto and that Byron wrote a poem about Don Juan, but otherwise do not know much about the context or details of Lepanto.
Of course, military historians have their own perverse standards of historical importance. We talk about Leuctra, Cannae, Adrianople, Crécy, or Austerlitz not necessarily because the world was changed or hundreds of thousands butchered, but because (unlike, say, Mantinea or Trasimene) there were purportedly brilliant tactics, new roles for cavalry and longbows, or changes in the way generals thought about war.
So numbers, casualties, location, long-term political ramifications, tactical breakthroughs, and the presence of celebrities — all these determine why one battle is remembered and not another. That explains an entire contested genre of “The World’s Greatest Ten Battles” or “100 Decisive Battles,” and dozens of classic compendia of the world’s most “decisive,” or “important,” or “landmark” battles — as few historians cannot agree on what should be remembered as worthy and what clearly is not.
But there is another on the national psyche and perhaps more decisive, criterion at play here. Western civilization — with its commitment to individualism, secular rationalism, and a greater abundance of personal freedom — invented history (Herodotean “inquiry”) and provided the engine for its dissemination, in everything from printing presses and consumerism to free discussion and mass literacy. The result is that we Europeans and Americans most prominently decide what to study and what is important — and the world mostly goes along, for good or evil, in airing our news, reading our books, and watching our movies.
Thus many lament that the Lilliputian Custer continues to hog our attention, while thousands of Native Americans in thousands of wars remain unknown to the historical record. But, on the other hand, we condemn now Hernán Cortés as a demon for destroying Tenochtitlán, but not earlier the Aztecs for creating the machinery of mass murder that could sacrifice and slay tens of thousands on the great pyramid in a single weekend. Why? Largely because Spanish annalists like Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote honestly about Cortés, and there was a literate, wealthy, and influential audience to read him — in a way not true in Mexico a half-century earlier.
I think this dominance of the West explains much of our skewed emphasis on Jenin rather than on Kashmir. Because of past American aid to the region, we have a preexisting interest in its events. Oil and terrorism play their role as well. But far more importantly — because Israel is a Western society that invites hyper-scrutiny by Western intellectuals, and because of the Palestinians’ efforts to connect the plight of the West Bank to the general idea of American victimology — our influential media, academics, and bureaucrats give the Palestinian problem an attention that is not commensurate with the more dangerous crisis in Kashmir.
In Kashmir, both parties are non-Western. We know Mr. Musharaf’s face only because of our own war on terrorism; indeed, earlier during the campaign of 2000 most of us, including our president, had no idea who he was. While our elites can vent the full range of their anger and self-righteousness at Israel — as the symbol of Western “colonialism” using its superior power and wealth to “oppress” the “other” — Kashmir offers no such romance or glorification of the noble, indigenous anti-Westerner, and almost no opportunity for the political correctness of the morning latte or the evening seminar. An American college student going to Bethlehem to hand out aid packages to the Palestinians is more likely to land on television than be jailed; if he does that in Kashmir, he has a good chance of being shot in obscurity — if not vaporized, in the not-so-distant future.
What could a Noam Chomsky or Edward Said say of Kashmir in its eleventh hour that could win acclaim among our intelligentsia — other than evoking the lame “legacy of colonialism” or the wages of “Western nuclear proliferation”? It is one thing to talk of one’s own “moral indignation” or bandy about “postcolonialism” and “racism” when one or two civilians are killed by a stray Israeli rocket each week — but quite another when 500,000 are atomized in the blink of an eye by an on-target Pakistani missile.
The truth is that the West is out of it in Kashmir. The two belligerent societies both qualify as members of “the other,” and hate each other in a very visceral and ancestral fashion — far more than either despises the Americans or British. Christianity and Judaism play no role; it’s a squabble between Islam and Hinduism. Anti-Semitism cannot take root where Jews are not to be found. Westerners should favor India in the manner that they should favor Israel — inasmuch as both states are democratic, more accountable to their citizenry, and with a free media. But we learned long ago that the moral equivalence embraced by our elite often means that authoritarian utopianism — Mao, Fidel, Ho, or Daniel — is preferable to grassroots and consensual, yet sometimes imperfect, politics. So do not hold your breath that elections in either Delhi or Tel Aviv carry much weight with our professors and journalists.
In short, there is nothing to be gained on the cheap by signing petitions for Kashmir, rallying at Berkeley for or against India, or praising or condemning Pakistan on television. Instead, Kashmir is very deadly business, where the lives of millions may well hang in the balance — and where easy and smug proclamations pale beside the specter of vast cities in ashes.
In short, how we see Jenin and Kashmir tells us quite a lot about ourselves.
©2002 Victor Davis Hanson