History lives

The other day my son and I were talking. I was telling him one of the reasons why I like history:

"If you could see the people you read about in history books, you'd realize just how like us they really were."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that things like technology, vehicles, clothes...they all change; but people are really just the same. Our brains are more or less the same, we laugh the same, grow old the same. It's our tools and general knowledge that change. If you take someone today, say a skateboarder or nurse, and place that person in the past, he or she would look more or less the same. When I read history, that's what I see."

A case in point was the story that appeared recently in the Toronto Star about an auction at Christie's. Up for sale was a collection of memorabilia of Sir Charles Seymour Wright, a young Canadian who joined Robert Scott's tragic Antarctic expedition in 1910. After reaching the South Pole, Scott and four companions never made it back to base camp. Charles Wright was with a second group who traced Scott's final movements and found the tent.

The story in the paper brings Wright's exploits to life, but not so dramatically as an astounding photograph of Wright himself. Like some of the classic photographs of the past, this one stands out for its remarkable intensity. It shows Wright at around age 23, hair tussled, a few days' growth of beard, sunburned skin and white spots on his face. His eyes penetrate into the lens of the camera.

It's an amazing photograph because it looks so current: you could easily take this portrait to be that of a modern-day snowboarder, hiker or surfer. It's a bit of a shock when you realize that this photograph is a hundred years old, from another century.

See for yourself: the photograph and article from the Toronto Star can be found here.

History is a living thing.

The photo of the pharaoh statue in the corner is courtesy of Rodolfo Belloli.

Moving forward on Afghanistan

Watching news coverage on television of the war in Afghanistan, it's hard to get a sense of what progress, if any, is being achieved by Western military forces. We see scenes of soldiers on foot patrol and occasionally interaction between them and local people. Sometimes, we see the aftermath of an improvised explosive device. There have been many civilian casualties. Overall, the military objective of stabilizing the country by ensuring security and winning "the hearts and minds" of the population appears a nearly impossible task. The country is vast and underdeveloped; the local security forces, police and army, too small, susceptible to pressure and corruption; the divisions between tribes, interests and loyalties very hard to overcome.

While safety has been improved in some cities and other areas, it has come at a great cost, in terms of financial resources and human life. Efforts to create national infrastructure have been hampered by corruption, betrayals and the insurgency.

The war in Afghanistan is being played out against a backdrop of high-risk geo-political tension: perceived global threats from fundamentalist religious regimes; the lure and traps of oil revenues; the strategic positions of Western democracies, China and Russia, just to list several issues.

Increasingly, it appears the road to stability in Afghanistan may lie not so much in centralized democratic government, but rather in developing local leadership in the rural areas and assisting people in creating workable alternatives to Taliban rule. We may need to abandon notions of Western-style democracy in Afghanistan. Countries rarely achieve in a few short years what others have developed over hundreds.

Traditionally, people in Afghanistan respond to tribal leaders. Perhaps greater efforts can be directed towards protecting and encouraging these leaders. Moderate religious authority figures, likewise, could be assisted, so that they regain their former standing in their communities. They will also require complete protection from insurgents and their radical form of Islam. None of this will be easy.

Analysts argue that allowing Afghans to determine local solutions to local problems may be a more effective approach to securing the country from the Taliban threat. This will take patience and fortitude. But perhaps Western countries will be seen more as genuine partners than occupiers and invaders, as Taliban propaganda surely labels U.S. and NATO forces.

If such an approach yields results, we should see fewer troops on the ground.

For more information on military options in Afghanistan, see Mitchell LaFortune's article in the New York Times. LaFortune served as an intelligence analyst with the 82nd Airborne Division in two tours of duty in the country.

See also Thomas L. Friedman's backgrounder on the global perspective on the war. It's a revealing behind-the-scenes op-ed piece entitled: The Great (Double) Game.

For a variety of comments on the situation, see Afghanistan and the Counterinsurgency War at PBS.org

Photo credit: United States Marine Corps, through Wikimedia Commons.