Category Archives: scholarship

Persian Poets Favored in the West

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2305-16:

Every hundred years or so, the reading public in the West discovers another of these Persian poets. In 1800 it was Hafez, in 1900 Omar Khayyam, in 2000 it is Rumi. The choice depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions. So Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khayyam with the aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery. Of course, an attentive and imaginative reader can avoid the solipsistic trap, especially if he or she can read even a little Persian. But the mirror of language and translation means that the reader may see only a hazy but consoling reflection of himself and his times, rather than looking into the true depths of the poetry—which might be more unsettling.

On the surface, the religion of love of these Sufi poets from eight hundred years ago might seem rather distant and archaic. That is belied less by the burgeoning popularity of Rumi and Attar than by the deeper message of these poets. Darwinists who, like Richard Dawkins, believe Darwinism ineluctably entails atheism might be upset by the idea, but what could be more appropriate to an intellectual world that has abandoned creationism for evolution theory than a religion of love? Darwinism and evolutionary theory have demonstrated the intense focus of all life on the act of reproduction, the act of love. The spirit of that act and the drive behind it are the spirit of life itself.


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Persia Under the Mongols

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2008-32:

Khorasan suffered terribly again as the Mongols moved in to punish those who continued to resist, and to set up their occupation regime. In Tus, which they made their base, the Mongols initially found only fifty houses still standing. The golden age of Khorasan was over, and in some parts of the region agriculture never really recovered. Where there had been towns and irrigated fields, the war horses of the conquerors and their confederates now were turned out to graze. Wide expanses of Iran reverted to nomad pastoralism, but these nomads were more dangerous, ruthless mounted warriors of a different kind. Peasants were subjected to taxes that were ruinously high and were collected after the fashion of a military campaign. Many fled the land or were forced into slavery, while those artisan city dwellers who had survived the massacres were forced to labor in workhouses for their conquerors. Minorities suffered, too. In the 1280s a Jew was appointed as vizier by the Mongols, but his appointment grew unpopular, he fell from office, and Jews were attacked by Muslims in the cities, establishing a dismal pattern for later centuries: “[They] fell upon the Jews in every city of the empire, to wreak their vengeance upon them for the degradation which they had suffered from the Mongols.” It was a grim time indeed. Khorasan was more affected than other parts, but the general collapse of the economy hit the entire region.

The Mongols, who made Tabriz their capital, spent the next few decades consolidating their conquests and destroying the Ismaili Assassins in the Alborz mountains, just as the Seljuks had tried and failed to do for many years before 1220. Some smaller rulers who had submitted to the Mongols were allowed to continue as vassals, and in the west the rump of the Seljuk Empire survived in Anatolia on the same basis as the Sultanate of Rum. In 1258 the Mongols took Baghdad. They killed the last Abbasid caliph by wrapping him in a carpet and trampling him to death with horses.

Yet within a few decades, astoundingly, or perhaps predictably, the Persian class of scholars and administrators had pulled off their trick of conquering the conquerors—for the third time. Before long they made themselves indispensable. A Shi‘a astrologer, Naser od-Din Tusi, captured by the Mongols at the end of the campaign against the Ismailis, had taken service with the Mongol prince Hulagu, and served as his adviser in the campaign against Baghdad. Naser od-Din Tusi then set up an astronomical observatory for Hulagu in Azerbaijan. One member of the Persian Juvayni family became governor of Baghdad and wrote the history of the Mongols; another became the vizier of a later Mongol Il-Khan, or king. Within a couple of generations Persian officials were as firmly in place at the court of the Il-Khans as they had been with the Seljuks, the Ghaznavids, and earlier dynasties. The Mongols initially retained their paganism, but in 1295 their Buddhist ruler converted to Islam along with his army. In 1316 his son Oljeitu died and was buried in a mausoleum that still stands in Soltaniyeh—one of the grandest monuments of Iranian Islamic architecture and a monument also to the resilience and assimilating power of Iranian culture.

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Languages of Persia, 500 B.C.

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 574-94:

Although Darius established a standard gold coinage, and some payments were made in silver, much of the system operated by payments in kind. These were assessed, allocated, and receipted from the center. State officials and servants were paid in fixed quantities of wine, grain, or animals; but even members of the royal family received payments in the same way. Officials in Persepolis gave orders for the levying of taxes in kind in other locations, and then gave orders for payments in kind to be made from the proceeds in the same locations. Couriers were given tablets to produce at post stations along the royal highways, so they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BC. There are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than fifteen thousand different people in more than one hundred different places.

It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. We know from other sources that the main language of administration in the empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of the Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that histories were recorded, that poems were written down, and that all sorts of other literature once existed and have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there, either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated writing with inferior peoples—or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth—but not to write it.

That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite, or Assyrian empires, either. It is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BC, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks an anomaly.

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Missionaries and the Growth of Area Studies

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4678-4717:

THE MAN WHO came to be called the “viceroy” of South Asian Studies had a high position in government during World War II and used it to promote the academic study of India. Missionary son W. Norman Brown (1892–1975) got to know Kenneth Landon in the Washington headquarters of the Office of Strategic Services. But unlike Landon, who had heavy policy responsibilities, Brown was in the research division, where he headed the South Asian section. In 1943, Brown convened a “private IPR roundtable” at Princeton to talk about India. The main item on the agenda was Brown’s memorandum, “Suggested Program to Promote the Study of India in the United States.” The memorandum called for the creation of institutes, teaching programs, and public lectures designed to advance knowledge of India.

That an officer of the OSS could run a private event under the auspices of the Institute of Pacific Relations highlights the easy back-and-forth between IPR and government officialdom. The roundtable also shows how an OSS officer could promote an academic cause not immediately related to the war effort. The roundtable is revealing, further, for the individuals who participated in it. Brown knew how to light a fire under people located in potentially relevant networks. The recently elected congressman Walter Judd was there. So was the prominent Asian affairs writer T. A. Bisson, who was then serving on the wartime Board of Economic Welfare. Present, too, was Harry B. Price, the lobbyist who had been Executive Director of the “Price Committee”—the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression—and who by 1943 was coordinating the Lend-Lease program for China. Brown made sure that the Rockefeller Foundation sent representatives. The group also included journalist Varian Fry, already a legend in Washington circles because of his death-defying work for the Emergency Rescue Committee in Vichy France, smuggling more than two thousand anti-Nazi refugees out of Marseille. The presence of Judd, Bisson, and Price, all of whom were former missionaries to China, shows how Brown mobilized the missionary network for his own purposes, and how that network easily bridged different mission fields.

After the war the enterprising Brown established himself as one of the most successful empire builders in an academic generation legendary for its empire building. Whenever there was a committee related to his interests, Brown ended up chairing it. Whenever there was a center or an institute to be established, Brown was invited to serve as its director. Whenever there was an academic position to be filled, Brown’s advice was taken into account. Whenever there were funds to be distributed, Brown was part of the decision process. Whenever there was a major event concerning India, Brown’s views about it were quoted. Focused, efficient, and determined, Brown was the prototype of the academic operator.

Brown’s counterpart in postwar Japanese Studies was another missionary son, Edwin Reischauer. The Chinese Studies equivalent was John K. Fairbank, who was neither a missionary son nor a former missionary but whose formation as a scholar was heavily influenced by the missionary contingent. This chapter is devoted to the careers of these three men and the attendant growth of what came to be called Foreign Area Studies. By 1967, missionary son and Japan scholar John W. Hall was justified in claiming that the success of Area Studies in the previous twenty years had rendered obsolete the old charge that American academia was parochial. The universities of no other nation had achieved as wide a global range as those of the United States. This could happen as rapidly as it did because so many missionary-connected individuals were ready to make it work. In no other institutional setting was missionary cosmopolitanism more visible than in academia, and nowhere was its Asian center of gravity more consequential.

There were few American missionaries in Russia and Eastern Europe. Programs for that part of the world developed without significant missionary background. This was also true for programs focused on Western Europe and its sub-regions. Latin American Studies had no special need for missionary-connected individuals because Latin America was the subject of extensive academic study before the war and its major language—Spanish—was widely spoken in the United States. 3 There were plenty of missionaries in sub-Saharan Africa, but the Foreign Service and the OSS did little recruiting there because that region was not a major theater in World War II, and its strategic significance in the Cold War was not recognized until much later.

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Hue 1968: Round 2, March 1975

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 8377-8420:

The city of Hue fell again and for good in March 1975, and Saigon followed a month later, as US helicopters scrambled to evacuate remaining American personnel and as many South Vietnamese officials as they could carry. The final images of desperate civilians clinging to the skids of American choppers as they lifted off framed the futility of the decade-long effort.

Nevertheless, in the nearly half century since, some American military historians and many American veterans have insisted that the Battle of Hue was won, and that, indeed, the entire Tet Offensive was an unqualified American victory. Westy certainly felt that way. Eight years later, in his autobiography A Soldier Reports, he was still insisting that he had not been surprised by the Tet attacks—he said he had forecast the attacks on the city but that word apparently did not reach the MACV compound in Hue. He conceded at long last that on the morning of January 31, 1968, “the MACV advisory compound was under siege and most of Hue was in enemy hands, including much of the Citadel.” Yet the battle to win back the city warranted only two pages in his 566-page book. He portrayed it in perfunctory terms, complimenting the American and South Vietnamese commanders on their excellent leadership, exaggerating enemy deaths, and underreporting the number of Americans killed by nearly a third. He lamented the destruction of the historic city, and effectively lay blame for all civilian losses on Hanoi, citing only those killed in the purges. He makes no mention of civilians killed by American and South Vietnamese bombing and shelling. If your knowledge of the Battle of Hue came from Westy alone—from his public statements at the time and from his memoir—you would view it as a thumping American victory.

You have to give the general credit for consistency. On the day after the Saigon flag was run back up the pole at Ngo Mon, he gave a long interview to reporters in Saigon, in which he again declared that the Tet Offensive had been a “military defeat” for Hanoi. He was still anticipating the big attack at Khe Sanh and did not even mention Hue. Even the fact that the enemy had surprised him (slightly) by the number of forces they deployed, to him this was not a setback but an opportunity: “In a very real sense, when he [the enemy] moved out of his jungle camps he made himself more vulnerable and gave us an opportunity to hurt him severely.” He denied that his official casualty estimates were inflated and said that the enemy’s offensive was a sign of desperation. Westy added that many NVA and VC had fought “halfheartedly.”

This was certainly not the experience of those who fought them in Hue. To a man, the American veterans I interviewed told me they had faced a disciplined, highly motivated, skilled, and determined enemy. To characterize them otherwise is to diminish the accomplishment of those who drove them out of Hue. But taking the city back qualifies as a “victory” only in a narrow sense—they achieved their objective. In any larger sense the word hardly applies. Both sides badly miscalculated. Hanoi counted on a popular uprising that didn’t come, while Washington and Saigon, blindsided, refused to believe the truth. Both sides played their roles courageously, and to terrible effect. In sum: Hanoi’s troops seized the city and were then forced at tremendous cost to relinquish it, while the city itself was leveled in the process. The status quo was upheld but greatly diminished, and it lasted for only a few more years. How is this victory? It takes a determined act of imagination for either side to make that claim. It makes more sense to consider the ways both sides lost.

If we use Westy’s favorite measure, the body count, the battle’s clearest losers were the citizens of Hue. In the city today, where memories of that nightmarish month are still bitter, it is said that there is a victim under every square meter of ground. It remains a shameful fact in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its citizens were dispatched deliberately by their “liberators.” The ruling Communist Party labors to promote national unity by remembering the conflict not as a civil war but strictly as a struggle for independence, so reprisals against its own countrymen are an inconvenient memory. The party has never named or punished those responsible, not least because they were following clear orders from above. Many of those who carried out the purges have been celebrated as heroes of the state. The official position is that while there were some excesses, some “mistakes,” the numbers have been exaggerated by Vietnam’s enemies.

Of those who perished, by far the greatest number were killed by accident, either in the cross fire or by allied shelling and bombing. Accidental deaths do not equate morally to mass execution but, as the writer Tran Thi Thu Van has pointed out, the effect is the same. Today we rightly weigh the cost in civilian lives whenever violent action is taken, but I found very little concern expressed in 1968, not in any of the official papers I reviewed, not in contemporary press accounts or the dozens of books and papers written since, and not, for that matter, in any of the interviews I conducted. Vietnamese civilians, when they do come up, are described as a nuisance, even though the battle, like the war, was ostensibly about them. Nearly every marine I interviewed recalled seeing dead civilians in the streets, inside buildings, and in bunkers underneath those buildings. The Citadel, in particular, was a confined area, where escape was all but impossible. Nearly all the civilians I interviewed who survived the battle described losing family members, most often to shells and bombs. The survivors described, without hesitation, bombardment as the most terrifying memory, even those who’d had family members executed. If Hanoi did not win many new friends by taking Hue, neither did the allies in taking it back.

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Retelling the Indian Wars in the American West

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 322-354:

A newspaperman once asked George Crook, one of the preeminent generals in the West, how he felt about his job. It was a hard thing, he replied, to be forced to do battle with Indians who more often than not were in the right. “I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when Indians see their wives and children starving and their last source of supplies cut off, they go to war. And then we are sent out there to kill them. It is an outrage. All tribes tell the same story. They are surrounded on all sides, the game is destroyed or driven away, they are left to starve, and there remains but one thing for them to do—fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.”

That a general would offer such a candid and forceful public defense of the Indians seems implausible because it contradicts an enduring myth: that the regular army was the implacable foe of the Indian.

No epoch in American history, in fact, is more deeply steeped in myth than the era of the Indian Wars of the American West. For 125 years, much of both popular and academic history, film, and fiction has depicted the period as an absolute struggle between good and evil, reversing the roles of heroes and villains as necessary to accommodate a changing national conscience.

In the first eighty years following the tragedy at Wounded Knee, which marked the end of Indian resistance, the nation romanticized Indian fighters and white settlers and vilified or trivialized the Indians who resisted them. The army appeared as the shining knights of an enlightened government dedicated to conquering the wilderness and to “civilizing” the West and its Native American inhabitants.

In 1970, the story reversed itself, and the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. Americans were developing an acute sense of the countless wrongs done the Indians. Dee Brown’s elegantly written and passionately wrought Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and, later that same year, the film Little Big Man shaped a new saga that articulated the nation’s feelings of guilt. In the public mind, the government and the army of the latter decades of the nineteenth century became seen as willful exterminators of the Native peoples of the West. (In fact, the government’s response to what was commonly called the “Indian problem” was inconsistent, and although massacres occurred and treaties were broken, the federal government never contemplated genocide. That the Indian way of life must be eradicated if the Indian were to survive, however, was taken for granted.)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee still deeply influences the way Americans perceive the Indian Wars and has remained the standard popular work on the era. It is at once ironic and unique that so crucial a period of our history remains largely defined by a work that made no attempt at historical balance. Dee Brown gave as the stated purpose of his book the presentation of “the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it,” hence the book’s subtitle, An Indian History of the American West. Brown’s definition of victims was severely circumscribed. Several tribes, most notably the Shoshones, Crows, and Pawnees, cast their fate with the whites. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee dismissed these tribes as “mercenaries” with no attempt to understand them or explain their motives. These Indians, like the army and the government, became cardboard cutouts, mere foils for the “victims” in the story.

Such a one-sided approach to the study of history ultimately serves no good purpose; it is impossible to judge honestly the true injustice done the Indians, or the army’s real role in those tragic times, without a thorough and nuanced understanding of the white perspective as well as that of the Indians. What I have sought to do in this book, then, is bring historical balance to the story of the Indian Wars. I hesitate to use the word “restore” when speaking of balance, because it is the pendulum swings that have defined society’s understanding of the subject since the closing of the military frontier in 1891.

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Russian–Papuan First Encounter, 1871

From Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871–1883, trans. & ed. by C.L. Sentinella (Madang, PNG: Kristen Pres, 1975), pp. 17-20:

As I was approaching the hut I heard a rustle and, on glancing round in the direction from which it came, some paces away I saw a man standing as if rooted to the ground. He glanced for a second in my direction and then dashed into the bushes. I went after him, almost at a run, waving a piece of red cloth which I found in my pocket. Looking back, seeing that I was alone and completely unarmed, and that I was making signs to him to approach, he stopped. I slowly approached the savage, silently offering him the red cloth, which he took with obvious pleasure and bound round his head.

He was a Papuan of medium size, of a dark chocolate colour with dull black somewhat curly hair, short like a negro’s, with a broad flat nose, and eyes looking out from under overhanging brow ridges, and a large mouth, almost, however, covered by a bristling moustache and beard. His entire costume consisted of a rag about 8 inches wide, tied firstly in a kind of girdle and drawn down between the legs and attached to the girdle from behind. Two lightly-bound bands of plaited dry grass were placed above the elbows. On one of these bands or bracelets was stuck a green leaf of Piper betel, in the other on the left side was a kind of knife, made of a smooth sharpened piece of bone (a cassowary bone, as I afterwards found out). The savage was well-built, and with a well-built musculature. The facial expression of this, the first of my new acquaintances, seemed quite engaging. I somehow thought that he would obey me, and I took him by the hand, and not without some resistance led him back to the village. At the open space I found my servants Ohlsen and Boy, who were looking for me, and were at a loss as to where I had gone. Ohlsen presented my Papuan with a piece of tobacco—which, however, be did not know what to do with—and silently taking it he thrust it behind the bracelet on his right arm, beside the betel leaf.

Whilst we were standing in the middle of the village, from amongst the trees and bushes, savages began to appear, uncertain whether to approach, and ready at any minute to turn in flight. They were silent and stationary, remaining at a respectful distance but closely watching our movements. Since they would not move, I had to take each one separately by the hand and, in the full sense of the word, drag them into our circle. Finally, having gathered them all in one place, tired out, I sat down among them on a stone, and proceeded to distribute various trifles—beads, nails, fish hooks, and strips of red cloth. They obviously did not know the significance of the nails and hooks, but not one of them refused to accept them.

Around me were gathered eight Papuans. They were of varying sire and showed some, although very insignificant, differences. The colour of the skin did not vary much. The sharpest contrast with the type of my first acquaintance was a man, rather taller than the average size, lean, with a hook-shaped prominent nose and a very narrow forehead pressed in on the sides. His beard and moustache were shaved, and on his head towered a sort of hat of reddish-brown hair, from under which, hanging down on the neck, were twisted plaits of hair, exactly like the tube-shaped curls of the inhabitants of New Ireland. These curls hung behind the ears, down onto the shoulders. Two bamboo combs were sticking out of the hair, one of which, thrust into the back of his head, was decorated with some black and white feathers (cassowary and cockatoo) in the shape of a fan. Some large tortoise shell rings were inserted in his ears, and in the nasal partition a bamboo rod was inserted; the thickness of a very large pencil, it had a pattern carved on it. On his neck, in addition to the necklace of the teeth of dogs and other animals and shells, hung a small bag. On the left shoulder hung another bag reaching down to the waist and filled with various articles.

The upper part of the arm of this native, as of all those present, was tightly bound with plaited bracelets in which were thrust various objects, some of bone, others were leaves or flowers. Some of them had a stone axe slung on their shoulder, some were holding a bow in their hands of considerable size (almost the length of a man) and an arrow more than a metre long. Their hair styles were also different with different colours of the hair, some completely black, others decorated with red clay, some had the hair worn like a hat on the head, and others had it cropped short, while still others had the previously described ringlets hanging round their neck—but all were curly like a negro’s. The hair on the chin was wound in small spirals. There were minor differences in the skin colour. The younger were lighter than the old.

Of these eight Papuans of my first meeting, four appeared sick. Two had legs disfigured by elephantiasis, and one was an interesting case of psoriasis, which had spread over his entire body. The back and neck of the fourth was studded with boils, which formed large, hard protuberances and on his face were several scars, probably of previous such boils.

As the sun was already setting I decided, in spite of the interest of my first observations, to return to the corvette. The whole crowd accompanied me to the beach carrying presents; coconuts, bananas and two very wild piglets, whose legs were tightly bound and who squealed untiringly, all were placed in the boat. In the hope of more firmly strengthening the good relations with the natives and also with the idea of showing my new acquaintances to the officers of the corvette, I suggested to those surrounding me to accompany me to the corvette in their pirogues. After prolonged discussion five men got into two pirogues, the others remained and even, it seemed, strenuously tried to dissuade the courageous ones from their bold and risky undertaking. One of the pirogues I took in tow and we made towards the Vityaz. Halfway, however, the bolder ones had thought it over, and by signs indicated that they did not wish to go further and tried to release the tow rope. At the same time the other pirogue quickly turned back to the shore. One of the men sitting in the pirogue which we were towing behind us even tried to cut through the tow-line with his stone axe. It was only with extreme difficulty that we succeeded in dragging them on deck. Ohlsen and Boy took them up the ship’s ladder practically by force. On deck I took the “prisoners” by the arm and led them down to the quarter-deck. Their whole bodies trembled with fear, and it was only with my support that I could keep them on their legs, supposing, probably, that I was going to murder them. Meanwhile it had grown quite dark and lamps were brought and gradually the savages grew calm. They even brightened up when the officers brought them various objects and treated them to tea, which they drank up straight away. In spite of such a friendly reception they were obviously pleased to go, and went down the ladder with great haste to their pirogue, and quickly rowed back to the village.

On the corvette they told me that, in my absence, natives again appeared and brought with them two dogs, which they killed and whose carcasses they left as a kind of gift on the beach.

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