Monday, May 30, 2011

Beating Swords into Plowshares

Today is not only Memorial Day, a time set aside to remember our fallen, but for the next four years, including today, we’ll be observing the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War.  That’s still not very far away in time, if you think about it.  Theoretically, some dude born in April 1865, at about the time Grant and Lee met at the Appomattox courthouse, could live 75 years, which according to my math skills would take us to 1940, and people born on or before 1940 are certainly still around.  So we’re just two people away in history, as it were.  Heck, Civil War veterans in their eighties and nineties were still living when my dad was a baby.  The History Channel is presenting a new documentary on Gettysburg tonight, so perhaps I’ll go to the gym and watch it while on the elliptical machine, as we don’t have cable TV at home.  I’m not a huge Civil War buff, but I love history and certainly know a thing or two about this period.  Besides, if Ridley Scott had something to do with the production, as the YouTube promo video indicates, it’s gotta be good!  Of course Memorial Day is about more than just the Civil War.

Some historians and pundits, perhaps more with an axe to grind or exaggerated desire as Americans to appear objective, have portrayed the United States as a warmongering nation.  To be sure, we’ve had our fair share of conflicts going back to the 1620s before we were even a nation.  Yet how we stack up against, say, Britain, Germany, France and China, with respect to the virulence and frequency of warfare, is an open question in my mind that merits further study (and not off the cuff anecdotal “evidence”).  I don’t mean to dodge this question about America’s putative love affair with war, but I am more interested in the human species and a world-wide perspective than in the specific military history of the United States.  So the bigger question for me is whether the Homo sapiens will someday sheathe his weapons.  The answer is decidedly NO.  I tell you, my liberal friends give me grief on this issue, as they seem to think I’m some kind of jingoistic patriot justifying conquest and beating the war drum.  But I look at these queries about the human condition as a social scientist and amateur biologist.  As Jesus said, we’ll always have the poor among us, or more broadly, tension between the Haves and Have-Nots.  We’ll always have epidemics, for microbes do not give a rat’s ass about humanity’s moral progress.  Lastly, we’ll always have wars, though according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker their frequency—Gott sei dank!—has lessened in the modern era.

Someone might say that such a prognostication of our species opens us up for a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Part of getting out of the circulus vitiosus of war and genocide that has plagued humans since the Paleolithic era involves a bold new vision for our future, one that depicts a world awash in peace and harmony.  Should disagreements emerge, diplomacy and negotiation would hold sway and put us back on the road toward love and mutual respect.  I would like a world like this.  In fact, I long for it.  We should indeed hope for an irenic future in our societal evolution, but a world without conflict and war, even genocide, is nothing but a fantasy so long as Homo sapiens populate it.  I have no pathological distaste for humanity, no psychological bent toward doom and gloom pessimism, and certainly not a fatalistic attitude toward civilization.  I’m not stating what I want to be the case, but what is the unfortunate situation regarding our evolutionary heritage.  Thus, seeing in the future more wars and genocides, as terrible as those things are, does not create them ex nihilo.  The reverse is likewise true.  Dreaming about a future utopian bliss will not bring it into being.  After all, the call for peace has existed just as long as the call to arms.  The Hebrew prophet Isaiah foresaw nearly three thousand years ago an era in which armies would “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”  One in which “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”  In what millennium was all of that supposed to happen?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Chapter 3: Tree Without Leaves (4/6)

Spring 2006

“What is it?”  Just as Rachel was ordering her medium latte with soy milk, Joyce, her colleague, elbowed her in the side.  She motioned her head toward a tall, shaven-headed soldier standing behind her in line and ostensibly admiring her backside.  Little did she know that what caught the man’s eye was actually a brochure sticking halfway out of the back pocket of her jeans.  He looked closer to make sure it said what he thought it said, apparently unaware that the two civilian women were now taking notice of him.

“Excuse me?  Do you see something of interest?”

The man, Captain Kam McKelway, turned red.  “Oh, you think…I mean…I know what you’re thinking…”

Rachel didn’t miss a beat.  “Well, if what you think I’m thinking is something like Why is this guy staring at my ass?, then, Yes, you nailed it.”  Joyce laughed as she left the counter with her drink.

Rachel turned around abruptly.  “Okay. Where was I? $3.80.”  She plopped the money onto the counter.  “There you go!”  She gave the chatty twenty-something Indian man at the register a big smile.  “Keep the change, Arshad.”

As she grabbed her drink, Kam started to chuckle.  Rachel jerked around to face him again.  “What’s your problem?”

“Me?  Well, if you must know, I find it funny that you think the world revolves around your…ass, as you so elegantly put it.”

“Oh, I see,” Rachel responded cheekily.

At this moment, both Kam and Rachel looked over at a sergeant gazing back at them.  He was holding a slice of pizza in his hand and cracking up over their exchange.  As if cognizant that their conversation was a spectacle, Rachel seemed to become more sassy in her demeanor.

She looked briefly at Kam and shook her head in disapproval.  “Whatever.  Glad to provide amusment for ya.  Enjoy your coffee.”

As she ambled over to the condiment counter with Joyce and sprinkled a yellow packet and a pinch of cinnamon into her cup, Kam detected a playful expression in Rachel’s face.  He also thought she was the cutest thing he had ever seen.

Certain that this little chat was over, he ordered his drink from Arshad and secured one of only two tables in the small coffee shop to read his book.  Rachel and Joyce had left the premises, but he could hear them talking to some soldiers just outside the door.

Suddenly Rachel reentered the coffee shop and approached Kam.  “Okay, Captain…McKelway.”  She inspected the velcro name tag on his uniform.  “What so interested you then?”

“Excuse me?”

“You claim that you weren’t looking where you shouldn’t be looking.”

“Right.  I mean, not that...Wait, let me stop there.”

“About to dig your hole deeper?”

“You got it!”


Kam kept his nose in his book for a few minutes.  Rachel shrugged her shoulders and started to walk out the door.

“Sugihara,” he uttered nonchalantly.


“White Mocha!” Arshad called out.

“Let me just get that...”

“Yeah, sure.”

Kam took a swig of his caffeinated beverage.  “Chiune Sugihara.”

“The Japanese guy?”  Rachel became conscious of the brochure in her back pocket and reached around for it.  “Yep, that’s what it says alright.  He was a...”

“...Japanese diplomat, or consul rather.  He saved Jews in Lithuania by stamping their visas against orders so that they could leave Nazi-controlled Europe.  Many of them went to Japan or China, I think, and from there to the United States.  It’s a compelling story.  The man is a hero, someone who could have easily followed an easier path, but he risked a lot to help people whom he didn’t know and from whom he had nothing to gain.”

While Kam was speaking, Rachel stood in silence and amazement.  How does he know all this?  By this time Joyce was outside with a cigarette talking to a gaggle of contractors and soldiers.

“He survived the war and lived to a ripe old age into his 80s.”

“Wow.  So what are they teaching soldiers nowadays?”

Kam chuckled.  “Let’s just say I’m a history person.”

“That’s for sure.”

“But I can’t remember when this happened.  1941, I'm guessing.  I should know this.”

Rachel scoured the brochure.  “1940,” she corrected him.

“Thank you.  Just like to know my dates.”

“You’re weird.”

“You have no idea!”  Kam winked and stuck his nose back in the book.

Rachel chuckled and caught herself letting her emotions getting the best of her.  She looked outside and made eye contact with Joyce who looked at her watch and gave her a puzzled look.  Ready to go or what?

“The only thing I would add is that Sugihara wasn’t the only hero.  The people who lifted up their visas to him as he hastily stamped them from his train window had their own stories, their own personal acts of heroism.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” replied Kam, placing the book on the table.  “Just consider what they went through.  These people lost their homes, faced hostile bloodthirsty SS killers, not to mention erstwhile neighbors who coveted their property.  Just imagine: You’re uprooted, you’ve lost loved ones…”

“I can imagine that,” Rachel interrupted.  “And then there’s the train trip across Siberia.  Imagine a 16-year old girl and her sister all alone dealing with all of that?”

Some soldiers walked in to order coffee.  In the corner was a TV blaring Bollywood music videos.

“Large mocha frappe!” called out the barista with a thick Indian accent.

“So, I apologize for the accusation,” said Rachel.

“Oh, you mean…no…it’s okay.  I’ve been accused of much worse.”  Kam smiled warmly.

“And sorry to interrupt your reading.”  She turned to leave.  “Enjoy your coffee, weird history guy.”

“That’s Captain Weird History Guy,” he corrected her.

“I’m sorry…”


“Can I just ask you one thing?”


“Why are you so interested in Sugihara?  Can I see the brochure?  You’ll keep me up tonight wondering this.”

“Well, you’ll keep me up wondering how you knew all this stuff.”  Rachel thought that sounded flirtacious.  There was a moment of awkward silence, but it soon dissipated.  After all, they seemed to share a special knowledge about history.

“Yeah, what are the odds?”

“Hold on. Joyce is waiting for me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“No, it’s okay. Hold on.” Rachel almost bumped into a soldier who standing behind her as he was waiting in line. She popped her head out the door. Joyce was stubbing out her cigarette. “Go ahead without me. I’ll be there soon.”

“You like this guy or what?”

“No, it’s not like that.”

“Okay.” Joyce kept talking to the soldiers.

Rachel came back to Kam’s table and handed him the brochure. “Please sit down.”

“Oh, it’s a conference on Sugihara…at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.” He kept skimming it.  The conference already occurred last year.  Did you go to it?”

“My brother sent it to me along with a DVD about the man. I just thought I’d read it here at the café.  We’re waiting for a flight to the states and got bumped…again.”

“Good luck with that.  I’ve sat in that PAX terminal waiting for an eternity, it seems.”

“So I just thought I’d sit there and educate myself.”

Kam gave her a look.  “Because he saved your grandmother?”

Rachel was dumbfounded.  “How do you know that?”

“You mentioned a 16-year old girl on a train through Russia.  Was that your grandmother?”

“Yes.  My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.”

“So she’s still alive then?”

“Very much so.  She’s 82 and still going strong.  She and her sister, who died on the way from pneumonia, were saved by Sugihara, well, in part.  My great grandparents had sent their daughters to Lithuania just as the Germans invaded Poland.”

“Wow!  What a family history you have!”

“Yes I do.  I didn’t know about him, Sugihara that is, until a few years ago.  Bubby, I mean, my grandmother, didn’t herself know much about him but she never forgot him. Anyway, my brother and I resolved to visit a Sugihara memorial to pay tribute. Honestly, it’s also an excuse to go visit some places.  It was Barry’s idea.  He’s a history buff.”

“Yeah?  Then I like him!”

Thursday, May 26, 2011


I received an email from a student yesterday informing me that authorities in Serbia have today arrested Ratko Mladić, the Bosnian Serb military leader who’s been on the lam for over fifteen years.  I wrote about him on this blog about a week ago, as I’ve been interested in the topic of Bosnia for years now.  More recently I featured Mladić and the evil tragedy of Srebrenica in one of my class sessions.  As it turns out, the fugitive was indeed in Serbia, about fifty miles north of Belgrade according to my Google Maps skills.  In the photo that’s been released he’s definitely aged; worry of capture, a couple of strokes, and lack of proper medical care have no doubt taken their toll.  Perhaps his ill-health is the ultimate hero in the story of his “capture.”  Maybe his wife and son Darko figured he’d be better off in custody with hospitalization than on the run without it.

Serbian President Boris Tadić claims he had no idea that perhaps the most wanted man in Europe was living in comfort next to the capital.  Sound familiar?  The Pakistanis knew nothing of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts for the last five years, residing as he did in a large compound next to a major military base?  As President Reagan once quipped in a discussion of Soviet posturing, we in America have an agrarian term for such a notion.  As I wrote last week regarding the family’s recent claim that Mladić is already dead, I say the same thing about the Serbian government’s claim of ignorance: b__s__.  (By the way, that stands for “bullshit,” but I didn’t want to print such a foul word).  I’m no conspiracy theorist and I certainly can’t prove my assertion, but surely the Serbs could have delivered him up years ago if they had wanted to.  I’m sure Tadić and the Interior Ministry were torn, not wanting to arrest a local hero yet desiring to start the process of admission into the EU (which was conditioned on the fugitive’s capture).  I personally don’t think Serbia, a government that masterminded such destruction throughout the Balkans only fifteen years ago, should be admitted in the near future, certainly not before the Republic of Turkey, notwithstanding the latter country’s similar issues with a dark past.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Conspiracy Theorist (2/2)

Conspiracy Thinker: “So our government caught and killed Osama bin Laden, right?”

Benighted Soul: “Yes, of course, that’s what the reports say…”

Conspiracy Thinker: “Wrong!  Wow, you’re more naïve and ignorant than I thought.  It’s not your fault, though.  I mean, heck, you’ve been duped by the government into thinking that.  The so-called education system here in America is nothing but a tool to dumb us down and keep our minds numb.”

Benighted Soul: “Yeah?”

Conspiracy Thinker: “Oh yeah.”

Benighted Soul: “Well, it’s in the news…from tons of news sources, so…”

Conspiracy Thinker: “So that makes it true, huh?”

Benighted Soul: “Look, I’m just saying that….”

Conspiracy Thinker: “That’s what they want you to think.”

Benighted Soul: “Who?”

Conspiracy Thinker: “What?”

Benighted Soul: “Who’s they?”

Conspiracy Thinker: “Who?  The government, that’s who they are!  And not just the government, but the bankers and corporate world who control the purse strings, those who operate behind the scenes like puppet masters.”

Benighted Soul: “It’s possible, I guess…”

Conspiracy Thinker: “Damn straight. Open your eyes, man.  It’s just like the Kennedy assassination all over again!”

Benighted Soul: “What do you mean?”

Conspiracy Thinker: “The mafia and the government colluded to kill the president.”

Benighted Soul: “How do you know all of this?”

Conspiracy Thinker: “I’m an informed citizen who seeks out the truth, come what may.  That’s just who I am.  I refuse to succumb to the lies that are foisted upon us.”

Benighted Soul: “So have you read any books on the Kennedy assassination?”

Conspiracy Thinker: “I can’t remember.  But I’ve done research on the internet and have seen documentaries and movies…”

Benighted Soul: “How do you know your sources are reliable?”

Conspiracy thinker: “How do I know?  Trust me, they’re reliable.  The bigger question is how you can rely on the propaganda machine otherwise known as the duplicitous U.S. government.  Freedom of the press?  That's a big joke.  They're bought and paid for by the powers that be!”

Benighted Soul: “Can we go back to the death of Osama?”

Conspiracy Thinker: “There you go!”

Benighted Soul: “Excuse me: the so-called death of Osama?”

Conspiracy Thinker: “That's better.”

Benighted Soul: “Does it matter to you that Al Qaeda in fact admitted that he was killed in the raid?”

Conspiracy Thinker: “Absolutely not.  First of all, who is this Al Qaeda? It’s an American-made organization that wreaks havoc in the world so that good old Uncle Sam can justify its wars and oppressive taxes.  Geez.  Next thing you’ll be telling me is that Middle East terrorists were responsible for 911!  The ridiculous hijacked-plane theory.  Please!”  [He laughs.]

Benighted Soul: “It didn’t happen that way?”

Conspiracy Thinker: “Oh my poor boy!”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Conspiracy Theorist (1/2)

Conspiracy theorists are like cult members, and sometimes the two go hand in hand. They know what they know and that’s that!  Before I castigate the conspiracy theorist, let me say at the outset that I find conspiracy theory a fascinating and entertaining theme for novels and movies, and perhaps even fun speculation in the real world.  Moreover, sometimes careful and often retrospective investigation reveals that there are conspiracies behind political events, acts of violence, and mysterious happenings.  So Ockham's razor, the concept that the simplest answer is usually the best one, doesn't always hold up.  What I’m addressing here, however, is the habitual conspiracy theoristand "theorist" is probably too generous a termwho more often than not will accept no other viewpoint.

This person espouses his theory which such conviction, so definitively, as if he’s bringing the tablets down from Mount Sinai or speaking like the Pope ex cathedra.  It’s a truism not to be disputed.  Unfortunately, the conspiracy theorist does not demonstrate a relentless search for truth, as he might claim; he doesn't indicate a mind involved in the painstaking work of research, one that sifts through various interpretations and a diverse set of evidence before making a humble, tentative decision on the matter, all the while conceding other potential explanations.  No, he's gravitated toward the road less travelled.  He's got his answer, his account of what happened, what really happened, and of course it's a story that goes below the surface and behind the scenes, though dark alleyways and smoke-filled rooms.

When you are dealing with hardcore conspiracy theorists you need to remember two things: (1) You can’t reason with them, or if you can, it's like pulling teeth.  They’ve already made up their mind.  They’ve decided, based on a selective use of sources (which are often dubious anyway), that what appears to be true for most people is an illusion.  You can try taking them to task, not allowing them to assert their usual claims unchallenged, but their standby tactical response to anything you might say is to sow the seeds of skepticism.  When all is said and done, they see you as either a dupe or a heretic.  (2) Secondly, the burden of proof is on them, not on the mainstream community of thinkers, researchers, scholars, pundits, and investigators who have arrived at a general consensus.  Should the conspiracists provide evidence either to disprove or call into question the "conventional" account, then fine; but the ball's in their court, not the other way around.

Why are conspiracy theorists like this, you ask?  That's a really good question, my friend (though I suspect you're doing someone else's bidding in asking the question, a mere puppet on a string).  I think there are a a few basic reasons, which for the purposes of discussion I’ll isolate into separate categories.  Some of these theorists merely have an axe to grind.  Those who espouse the “911 hoax” of a controlled demolition probably despise the Bush administration, the U.S. government more generally, or perhaps Jews who allegedly conspired to draw the U.S. into a war in the Middle East.  That is to say, their ideological commitments are more important than reality on the ground.  Hatred or a political agenda is only one reason, though.

The conspiracy theorist also evinces a pathological need to be part of an esoteric community, among the select few of those “in the know,” or simply a maverick who goes against “conventional wisdom.”  They relish the attention they get for their novel viewpoint. They like the paternal feeling of superiority in “enlightening” or “educating” benighted souls about the “truth.”  Another reason for conspiracy theories, to be sure, is that sometimes the real story seems too darn prosaic and simple.  One racist guy took out Martin Luther King, Jr.?  No, it's gotta be something more sinister and grand than that.  Finally, I suppose that some of them actually believe what they’re saying, but sincerity for hardcore conspiracy theorists is a problematic notion.  The fact that they usually don’t listen to equally if not more valid explanations of an event or issue suggests a bit of self-delusion on their part and even a volitional steering from the truth, either half-consciously or otherwise.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

End of the World Again

If the end of the world doesn’t happen today I’m gonna be pissed! You’ve heard about today, right? May 21st, Judgment Day, according to some Bible thumpers who apparently have a lot of time and money to spread the word through a massive advertisement campaign.  At first I was skeptical.  Come now!  The end of days?  The rapture?  Tribulation?  Now?  I mean, I could understand if, say, Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, who lived during the Late Middle Ages and painted the image above, thought the world was going to hell in a handbasket; he witnessed a dark era of plague, chronic war, famine, and lack of central plumbing.  Moreover, I was a bit taken aback that the major news networks are keeping this “story” on the front burner.  I heard soldiers talking about it during my military drill one day and academic colleagues at the university ruminating on it the next.  I would just shake my head.  So why do I accept it now?  Why am I a doomsday believer?  Well, I guess it’s because I’m easily subject to peer pressure and fall into line when I’ve heard something often enough.

And why would I be pissed if this apocalypse does not come to pass?  I emptied out my bank accounts, cashed my treasury bonds, and still went into debt in order to live high on the hog this past week.  I’ve probably gained about 20 pounds gorging myself on filet mignon and pie in the finest restaurants and staying in penthouse suites at top-rated hotels.  As in the days of Noah, I don't give a rat's ass about civility and decorum.  I've brazenly picked my nose in public.  I’ve told people what I really think.  I stuck it to “the man” at work.  I’ve stopped brushing my teeth.  Why should I bother?  Heck, I’ve dispensed with all niceties and pleasantries.  No time for that crap.  I don’t see fire and brimstone yet, but hopefully the Bema seat judgment is on its way this afternoon.  Otherwise, I’ll go on in this life broke, woefully in debt, without a job, overweight, sober, syphilis-ridden, carless, and saddled with arrest warrants for public nudity and urination.  After my indulgences this week, I won’t even afford a tube of toothpaste.  O ye avenging angels, quickly descend upon us in your righteous wrath!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

War Criminal

You’ve of course heard it said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  So is mass murder.  Two sides of a conflict can have a completely different reaction to a horrific event.  Whenever July 12-13 rolls around, the local Muslim population and international dignitaries gather at Potocari, Bosnia, the site of a former UN compound, to commemorate the massacre of about 7,500 males that occurred at Srebrenica, a so-called UN “safe zone” back in 1995.  The sadness and sense of loss is palpable, even through the YouTube videos that I’ve viewed. Relatives of the dead pray for their departed loved ones in a solemn occasion.

Meanwhile, local Serbs drink, dance, sing and clink their beer bottles in festive merrymaking. To be fair, it just so happens to be a Serb holy day.  But whose name will you hear being praised from their lips?  General Ratko Mladić, the erstwhile commander of the Bosnian Serb Army that cut a swath into Eastern Bosnia in the mid Nineties, the end result of which was a Republika Srpska ethnically cleansed and recognized by the international community.  On that evil day in 1995, buses carted the males off to kill sites in the surrounding area, while an ineffectual and virtually quiescent UN Dutch battalion of 450 troops stood by.

Mladić looked the part of a dark hero for a people with a torturous history: barrel-chested, ruggedly handsome, snarl painted on his face, and a look as if he were to blow his top at any moment.  The middle-aged commander humiliated his Muslim and Dutch captives and seemed to relish every minute of it. He’s been a fugitive wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague for years.  He’s probably hiding in Serbia, but no one knows for sure.  Years ago he would periodically appear in videos of family gatherings.  His counterpart, Radovan Karadžić, who was the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the war, had been hiding in Belgrade with a white bushy beard and mustache until authorities finally nabbed him in 2008.  But Mladić is a bigger fish, as he was directly responsible for the Srebrenica genocide.  He’s also a liability, for Serbia will never be able to enter the EU without delivering him up.  His family is trying to get him declared dead, claiming that the now 68-year-old has had strokes and that his lack of communication with the family means he’s passed away.  Right!  Nice try.

One of my students, who was probably no more than five years old during the Bosnian War, commented in class thus:

I can't wrap my head around the idea that while life was "normal" growing up in the 1990's in America, there were such horrific things going on in other parts of the world. Its crazy to me that things like this are still happening in the world, because of the way of life I have. I can't imagine what the wives and children of all the men felt when they were gathered and taken away from the area, and killed. It's just such a cruel, unfair act that its hard to understand the motivation behind those who kill the innocent.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chapter 3: Tree Without Leaves (3/6)

Dear Rachel,
I hope I’m not upsetting you by writing.  What a way to start a letter, I know!  And as you can see, I haven't stopped my habit of writing real hard copy letters when an email would probably do the job.  It’s been nearly three years since we last saw each other.  I hope you’re doing well.  I just thought I’d give you an update and let you know I'm alive.  Please don’t read into this letter anything more than that, not that you would.  Boy, I’m batting a thousand in this letter so far, aren’t I?

Anyway, I found out that you’re still in Afghanistan through Joyce.  Remember her?  She’s still in Kabul doing the same old thing, or so it seems.  She still knows everything about everyone.  Doesn’t she have a life?  LOL.  Yes, as the return address indicates (if you didn’t somehow know already?), I’m here in Afghanistan in a different capacity, but I’ll get to that below.

I’m truly sorry to hear about your grandmother passing away last year.  I wish I had met her.  You at least have her story deep in your heart.  Barry, who kindly sent me an email about the family, said you were the last person she spoke to.  Otherwise, he didn’t mention you much and I didn’t ask.  She was 86 or 87, right?  Wow!  I'm sorry for your loss, truly.  I only hope that the last sixty or so years of her life, surrounded by children and grandchildren, made up for the tragic days of her youth.
Were you ever able to make the trip to Lithuania?  I hope so.  Barry didn’t write anything about that.  (By the way, he said I should say hello to you, but I was going to write anyway.)  Your brother also mentioned that he still wants to visit Japan again in spite of the infamous “Sushi Incident.” :)
The slacker that I am, I still haven’t run a marathon.  I’ve finished a couple half marathons, though, and that’s good enough for me.  I’m still at Hexington, teaching the usual courses and still working on that book.  Kristine and I still don’t really talk…. But I’m hopeful that we’ll salvage a relationship.  I think she’s finally seeing the ugly side of her pot-smoking boyfriend, but maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part.  (And yes, I know I share blame for what happened between us.)  Since Kristine’s gone to college, as of two years ago, I haven’t seen April at all.  I don’t know what she’s up to, but I wish her well.
I relinquished my commission a year ago and now spend my non-academic time working for War Crimes Watch, during the summer and on special assignments during other times in the year.  I figured 14 years of fun-filled military service is sufficient for me, and it was getting in the way of what I really wanted to do.  I found out about WCW this past June through a colleague at Hexington.  They might send me to an African site in the future.  If they were to do so it would be my heritage coming full circle.  You might recall that my grandfather was a missionary in Kenya.
But that probably wont happen, for the organization's leadership know I have experience in Afghanistan.  Considering the violence in the region, they’ll probably keep me here for a while.  As it turns out, I’ll be part of an investigation of a mass grave in your neck of the woods, Paktia Province to be specific.  I suppose I can say this much, for its supposed to happen under the radar.
Rachel, your commitment and passion for the downtrodden, the wretched of the earth, rubbed off on me.  (I’m being serious, mind you.)  I wanted to do my part, and determined, given my academic interests, involvement with such an organization would be a good fit for me.  Thanks for planting a seed in my heart.  I mean it.  Helping others, to the extent that I can, is not only a humbling experience but also the path toward my own healing.  I guess Im finally looking beyond the pernicious Self for a change.
For the record, I’m healthy in body and mind.  The past is the past.  I’m a different person. Well, not entirely.  I’m still the morose and sarcastic (and exceedingly handsome!) creature you knew.  But I have a zest for life and have found a degree of contentment.
If you should want to contact me or meet at Green Beans in Bagram for a cup of nostalgia, you have my current address.  Perhaps that’s not a good idea (?), but I just want to see you.  We can have a friendly chat.  Arshad and the same crew still work there!  Can you believe it?  They still have that photo of us on the wall.  It would be fun to just talk.  I’m curious about the work you’re currently doing on the other side of these mountains I'm now looking at.  Would like to catch up.  That’s all.  KAM

P.S. You got me hooked on Bollywood tunes.  Thanks a lot!  It’s my secret passion.  No one must know!
The letter evoked so many thoughts and even more questions.  Rachel felt she couldn't process them all, nor did she want to.  After all, she couldn't afford to divert her mind from the work at hand and redirect it toward a past love, especially one that was so complicated.  She had enough on her plate these days.  She was trying to make a difference for these abandoned girls in a forgotten corner of the world, and she thought seriously about returning to medical school in the not-too-distant future.

Kam was suddenly reentering her life, it would seem.  Rachel had decidedly ended their drama years ago, yet this one letter opened up those discarded feelings.  It had not been easy emotionally to let go that part of her life, though her recollection of its passing was now more tidy in her mind than the situation had been at the time.  She cleared the cobwebs of her heart, yet the spider remained.

Please don’t read into this letter anything more.  Rachel came back to this line again and again.  Was he teasing her?  Maybe he really wanted her to read between the lines.  If she was reading more into this letter than what lies on the surface, she thought to herself, it was an involuntary, half-conscious reflection.  Images and memories paraded through her mind.  She had a smile from ear to ear as she took in Kam’s words, seeing in his comments the same wit she had fallen in love with.  She made a mental note to bridle this smile should the topic of Kam come up around Carol, and Mina too.

Did he want to rekindle their relationship?  Is that presumptuous, if not egotistical, to think so?  Is he back on a personal suicide mission?  Does he not know that she is now involved in the same investigation?  How could he know this?  She knew she still loved him, but she suppressed her feelings.  What else could she do?  She laid back on her bed, as the next day would be a long one.  She returned Bubby’s locket to its hiding place in her bag and tried to fall asleep.

Squinting from the Afghan sun, Rachel, Diet Pepsi can in hand, made her way with Mina to Pete’s security shack, a wooden structure “sunk halfway in the ground and probably built in the early 90s.  It would not have remained standing were it not for the hundreds of empty Soviet mortal shells that lined the foundation and low stone wall surrounding it.  Rachel thought this overgrown dugout a fitting location for Pete’s office.

It was late morning on a Tuesday.  They were going to make their routine visit to the village of Qalabeh in a three-vehicle convoy, the minimum protection requirement.  Pete’s security team would escort them after alerting the U.S. Army battalion in the area of their departure time.  On this particular day the Australian security chief was running late.  One of the Lispee vehicles, an armored Toyota Land Cruiser, had been under repair at the PRT and he left a few hours earlier with some of his men to bring it back to th
e orphanage compound.

Given that the tribal elders in the region and Zormat District officials supported the orphanage, such junkets were relatively safe.  Mine-clearing vehicles swept the area almost daily.  Still, Rachel hated that word relatively, uttered so often when Pete, his Lispee guards, or soldiers at the PRT discussed security measures.  To calm her nerves, she would remind herself that an Army colonel and his staff, along with Farid Gul who would ultimately become the director, had met with local leaders in a jirga, or community council, explaining and reassuring them that such a project was in their best interest.  Overcoming their initial skepticism, the Afghan men signed onto the idea wholeheartedly, seeing opportunities for development and education.  With this stamp of approval by the leadership, what could go wrong?

On darker days, Rachel knew that this question could have a disheartening answer.  There were no guarantees outside the wire.  The Taliban had sent a threatening letter to the elders only a month ago, and what the latter had decided to do about it wasn’t exactly known to internationals in the area.  They had already given a pledge of hospitality to those engaged in humanitarian relief in their land, including the military in support of such work.  The same tribal code of Pashtunwali that obligated the Taliban to protect and defend Usama bin Laden was in play here.

Rachel was also aware that there was more to worry about than the Taliban in this warlord-ridden country.  Jalaluddin Ahmadzai was a name she had been hearing ever since she started working in Paktia Province.  A sadistic Pashtun leader who joined the Taliban when it benefited him personally but easily reneged on any agreement when it did not, Ahmadzai had allegedly been on the payroll of the CIA back in the 1980s.  No tribal code, it seemed, bound his behavior, and Rachel thought such detachment frightening.  Yet for now she managed to push such thoughts away, along with her memories of Kam, at least until she made it back into the relatively safe confines of the compound by the days end.

Visiting the villages and hamlets in the environs allowed Rachel to talk to Pashtun women about their experiences since the fall of the Taliban.  (These connections and her medical knowledge recently landed her the position with Mustafa’s UN-sponsored forensic team.)  She would give tips on hygiene and health, plus a little English instruction if they requested it, with Mina all the while translating and handing out scented sanitizer bottles.

Perhaps just as important, Rachel would lend a Western ear to their grievances, for the women wanted to address problems that the “American invasion” had caused for them.  Often they would end up complaining more about aspects of their lives that had no apparent connection to U.S. and NATO operations.  Getting these women to open up was not difficult.

She relished the cross-cultural experience, the opportunity to connect with the local women, and all too often she would come away from these meetings amazed that two civilizations, the industrialized West and the people of Pashtunistan, had absolutely no clue as to how the other lived.  Rachel loved the children at the orphanage, but she longed for this adult interaction and sometimes went stir crazy inside the compound.

Making connections with the Afghan women was not new for her.  Before joining TKG, she lived with a Tajik family in Kabul and often accompanied the two daughters to the local clinic, the Laura Bush Maternity Ward, where they found work as nursing assistants.  Rachel instructed them and other women on basic nursing skills and bedside manners.  She then started to meet them in their homes, under the watchful eyes of brothers and fathers.

That was five years ago, her first overseas mission with a humanitarian NGO.  A friend of the Davison family, a medical doctor who had worked with Doctors Without Borders in Eritrea, hooked her up with Gardien de Mon Frère, a French organization that focused on education for women in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban.  Worried about her daughter after she unexpectedly dropped out of Johns Hopkins med school a year earlier, Rachel’s mother steered her in this direction hoping to draw out of her whatever seemed to make her lethargic and even despondent at times.  Both of her parents didn’t understand why their only daughter had at that time become so listless, especially given her gregarious nature.  They couldn’t know that for the next five years Rachel would be picking up the pieces of her life, for the life she had plannedthe life that in a way had been planned for herwas not to be.

As she rounded a crate full of water bottles near Pete’s office, she observed Farid and Wahid, the driver of her vehicle, speaking rather intensely with a group of bearded men.  The strangers claimed they had found homes for some of the girls.  Farid, a diminutive middle-aged Afghan American who had lived in New York since the late 1980s, was trying to convince the persistent men that they must be mistaken.  Finally, when two Lispee security guards veered in their direction, they gave up the game, walked back to their beat-up pick-up truck, and departed the compound.  Rachel’s alarm quickly turned to anger.

“Who are these men?  Who let them in here?” she asked.

“They said initially that they were working for Ed,” Farid responded.

“What?  That’s crazy!”  Rachel knew that Ed hired locals to help him on engineering projects around the compound, but they had to pass a security clearance with Pete first.

“Maybe they bribed the guards.”  It was no secret that Farid disliked Pete’s men after one of them made a disparaging remark about Afghanistan’s rivalry with neighboring Pakistan.  Rachel knew this backstory and therefore gave the security detail the benefit of the doubt whenever Farid subtly portrayed them in a negative light.  This time he wasn’t so subtle.

“Shit!  I’ll have to tell Pete about this.  They’re vultures!”  She looked at Mina.  “Did they run out of boys to prey on?”

Ed drove up in a Gator utility car.  He had been overseeing the installation of a new drainage pipe on the north end of the compound.  “What was all that about?”

“Some local creeps trying to abduct our girls,” said Rachel.

Farid gave Ed a more measured explanation.  “Those men thought they could bluff their way into our defenses, or at least they wanted to see how we’d respond.  It was probably a test of some kind.”

“A test?  What do you mean?”  Rachel found Farid’s words disconcerting.

“I don’t know for sure.  Just speculation on my part.  Let me put it this way: they didn’t appear to be here on their own initiative.”

“Everyone’s serving a warlord around here, it seems.”  Rachel worried that Farid would take her words as an insult to his country.  “I don't mean...”

“No offense taken, Ms. Davison,” responded Farid, picking up on her sensitivity.  “You’re right.  Such is my country.”

“This is a good country,” Ed clarified.  “Good people.  I wouldn't be here if I didn't think so.  Yet I wouldn’t be adverse to more security.  I don't know who those men were.” Ed motioned towards the dust clouds still hovering behind the bearded men’s vehicle in the distance.  “But the guys working for me are telling me with increasing urgency that we should beef up physical security around here.  Listen, I don't mean to sound like an alarmist...”

Wahid, leaning up against an SUV puffing a cigarette, had been listening to the conversation.  He acquired a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Kabul Polytechnic but made more money with USAID as a driver.  “You can't trust anyone around here,” he said.

Farid turned to Ed.  “You should inform Mr. Ledbury about this issue,” he suggested.  Farid never seemed to refer to anyone he worked with by the first name.

“Pete knows about these issues,” Ed responded.  “Work in progress.”

“It’s about funding, like everything,” added Rachel, as if defending Petes abilities.  Ed knew that increasing Lispee’s contract to include more guards and equipment was beyond Pete’s pay grade, and Pete himself had complained to his higher-ups in Manchester.  Rachel intended her words more for Farid.

While they were waiting for Pete to return, Mina unburdened her soul with Rachel about a family issue.  An aged district official from the Murrad Khani quarter of Kabul, where Mina’s family resided, wanted Mina’s pretty thirteen-year-old sister’s hand in marriage.  She would be his third wife, allowed by the Qur’an but unprecedented for someone of his stature.  (Mina, as a widower and with a barren womb, according to the vicious rumor mill, did not have to face such proposals.)  She feared for her younger sister, for the official wasn’t exactly distinguished for his kindness.  The man’s wives and female cousins had already started to negotiate a union with Mina’s parents.

“He’s a good man and his standing in the community would bring honor to the family.”

“Come now, Mina, it’s me you’re talking to.  What do you really think?  It’s okay.  You can tell me.  I  know you talk to your sisters and aunt about this.”

“He’s old…and ugly,” Mina responded sheepishly.

“Is there a way out of this situation?”

“It’s my mother’s decision to make.  It would help our family.”

“Yes, I know.  But I think he’s just a horny old man.  She’s just a child.  He'll probably beat her.”

“Don’t say such things, Rachel.  Please.”

“I'm sorry, Mina.  It just makes me angry.  I know it’s the culture.  I really do.  But what kind of man, especially an elder man, a grandfather, would marry a child?  We call this sort of thing pedophilia.”

Pete’s convoy pulled into the compound.  A hefty 50-year-old man with a sandy blond beard and a full head of hair to match hopped out of a Land Rover.  Men in blue and grey jumpsuits followed him to the security office.  Pete’s guards were mostly ex-soldiers from Peru or paramilitaries from Colombia, with the one exception being his “second,” Jimmy, a Fijian who once served in the British army and later became a professional wrestler.  Unlike TKG’s contract, Lighthorse Security, Protection and Investigations recruited no local Afghans.  This was yet another point of contention with Farid, though the company had its reasons for this policy.

“It’s a good day for a drive, eh?”  Pete’s Australian accent boomed over the din of the engines.  “Good weather.  Clear sky.  The gods are pleased.”

“We had some unexpected visitors not long ago,” Ed informed Pete.

“Yes, I heard.  Got Jimmy at the guard shack looking into it.  When we get back today, heads are going to roll.”  Pete didn't seem convincing in his response.  Rachel figured he was preoccupied with the business at hand: getting to Qalabeh and back safely.

“Alright ladies, we’re ready to go!”

“Ladies?  Is that supposed to be flattery?”  Rachel liked playing off of Pete’s good nature.  He laughed heartily in return.

As he climbed into the lead vehicle, Pete inadvertently revealed a sidearm holster under his jacket.  Rachel had always wondered why a man who purportedly served in the Australian SAS and received high recognition for a commando operation in East Timor would walk around Afghanistan unarmed.  Now she knew that Pete was all about stealth.

Even his appearance was deceptively banal.  Though he had gained weight since his military days, he retained muscular arms and legs.  Rachel came to see Pete’s  portly midsection, seasoned face, and jovial nature as a disguise to put locals at ease.  Like everyone else at the compound, he was a complex individual; whereas she had thought of Pete almost as a comic figure, she now could picture him blowing the head off an alligator in the Outback.  Later that evening, she would make the mistake of telling Carol about the pistol; the woman’s knee-jerk response was to whisper a phallic comment into Rachel's ear.

The drive to Qalabeh from the compound led roughly ten miles through a verdant patchwork quilt of irrigated fields.  On either side of the road wheat stalks wove in the autumn breeze.  While it was getting past harvest time, Rachel could see farmers and laborers still carrying bundles of grain and baskets of vegetables, just as their forebears had presumably done in the days of yore.   Paktia Province is a mountainous region peppered with mountain passes and small valleys where agricultural settlements, tucked away near mountain streams and nestled in the auburn foothills, hibernate in the harsh winters and come to life again every spring.

Amid the lush landscape they could see outside their windows evidence of a country at war for thirty years—a few shattered buildings and rusting tanks resting in the middle of nowhere.

Wahid pointed out another scar of war: a gaping hole where a water pump once stood.  “The Russians bombed the shit out of it.  There is more evidence of their cruelty around here, but the brush has since grown over it.”

“Why must this land experience such suffering?” Rachel asked.  “I’m in awe of the beauty, but the harsh living conditions are bad enough.  How can Afghans live with the incursions of warlords and invading armies for so long?”

“People are such.  That’s all.”  Wahid’s laconic answer surprised Rachel.  It could have come from Kam’s lips.

Qasabeh was now in their sight.  For the third time Rachel and Mina were visiting the village.  District officials and the provincial governor had recommended Qalabeh as the location for a free medical clinic sponsored jointly by the Zormat PRT and Afghan National Army.  Its central location, a bazaar that attracted people from all around, and relative ease of access for mountain communities made it ideal for a medical outreach.  This time Rachel and Mina were visiting the women of Qasabeh without the clinic operation, for the military had called it off only the day before.

Pete had the vehicles park just outside the village and instructed his men to stay near them.  Short of an unlikely attack, they were by no means to reveal their weapons.  Armed protection was a necessary precaution in this volatile land; at the same time, TKG’s success in visiting these women hinged on trust.  Armed foreigners were an obstacle in the way of that trust.

Donning brightly colored shalwar kameez, Rachel and Mina covered their heads with pashmina scarves just before they climbed out of the Land Cruiser.  Greeting their eyes once again was a village of thatched-roofed dun-colored dwellings and narrow dirt streets.  The bazaar was in full display from the road: fruit stands, containers of spices, slabs of goat meat covered with flies hanging in a butcher’s shop.  Merchants sat in their stalls counting beads and eyeballing strangers.  Pete escorted the two women to the humble home of Hassan Hasbullah, as females could not walk around unattended unless they gathered into a large group.

What struck Rachel everytime was the virtual absence of women—on the street, at the market, in the fields.  “You’d think that civilization sprung up without the need of women,” she’d tell Carol later.

But there’s another world, one inside those earthen dwellings, beyond the eyes of strangers.  The women awaiting the American and her translator from Kabul congregated in an enclosed backyard of a two-story mud hut, away from the prying eyes of men.  Here they could take off their burqas.  They had set a table with noodles, rice, hummus, naan, rice pudding, and a rice dish (palao) with chunks of lamb meat.

Rachel was pleased to see Mahnoor, a woman she met on her previous visit, preparing tea with her two prepubescent sons at her side.   Because Mahnoor was about her age and seemed genuinely happy with her husband, Rachel was looking forward to a conversation with her.

Barely into their mutual greetings, Nasreen, one of senior women and the wife of the aforementioned Hassan, began to speak in a forceful tone.   Rachel could tell she had something on her mind even as the women greeted one another.  “Government soldiers are looking for my son,” she explained in a raspy voice.  “They think he was part of an attack on a village near Gardez.  This is a lie!  Can you help me?”   As she spoke, Rachel noticed her withered hand just inside the long sleeve of her tunic.

The old woman was originally from a different clan when she came to Qalabeh over thirty years ago.  She was the victim of a Pashtun practice known as swara, which means she was an “offering” as a child bride from one clan to another in order to resolve a dispute.

In addition to concern about her son, Nasreen gave Rachel an earful about the lack of security.  Through Mina’s translation she explained to Rachel that the villagers had given information on the Taliban but have seen no tangible improvements in their security.  Those grim black-turbaned men take harsh revenge on informers, she told them.  Unfortunately, they often don’t know who’s an informer and who’s not, so they kill indiscriminately.

Other women were eager to tell their stories, as if Nasreen had opened the door for discussion.  A couple of younger women in the group, Leila and Sajida, had expressed interest in going to school in Kabul and teach English or work at one of the beautician shops there. Sadly, Rachel knew that she would most likely not fulfill this aspiration. Leila was her husband’s second wife and subservient to the first.  Her husband worked at the PRT Gardez as a construction worker.  The other woman, Sajida, pretty face and plump body, was betrothed to a man three times her age, but her parents were still negotiating the deal.

A woman named Safia talked about her family tragedy, though it was difficult for Mina to hear her low voice over the noise of the children.   About seven months ago, she told them, her cousins Aziz and Dadullah died in a conflict between  a warlord and the Taliban.  When Mina pressed her for more information at Rachel's behest, Safia admitted that they simply disappeared and she suspects they were killed.  Later, during the investigation of a mass grave site, Rachel would follow up Safia’s comment.

The woman’s words reminded Rachel of a story she had come across recently.  She decided to share it with the women to lighten the mood.  For her own sanity she wanted to get away from all those tragic stories the woman loved to tell.  She found herself embellishing the account more and more as she read the faces of the women when Mina translated the story to them.

One day a young man named Zabiullah staggered into a village.  Serving as a bodyguard for a warlord, he suffered from a gunshot to the abdomen and had left a river blood behind him.  The Taliban had ambushed him and his men at a makeshift checkpoint on the Ring Road and a fierce gun battle ensued.  It wasn’t looking good for poor Zabiullah.

By the strengh of Allah, Zabiullah managed to drag himself toward the nearest village.  A woman named Sasha nursed Zabiullah back to health and they fell in love.  They ran off together, because they’re families would never agree to their marriage.  He was from the Popalzai tribe and she was from the Noorzai tribe.  Zabiullah’s parents and many brothers were particularly vehement about the pitfalls of marrying a woman outside their community, but they could not persuade the young man to change his course.  (At this point in the Rachel’s narrative, Sajida sat up and uttered a loud sound, something between a gasp and a cough.  Rachel couldn't tell whether she was disapproving of the story, took heart in Zabiullah’s devotion to Sasha, or found something she ate disagreeable.)

The unlikely couple, brought together by fate, had nowhere to go.  They considered starting a new life in the capital or maybe Kandahar, but they had no connections and no means.  Rachel told her colleagues about the situation to see if they could find refuge—and Zabiullah better medical care—in the United States.

Since they both knew a little bit of English already, Kendra Kasperbauer, the daughter of Sandy and Trent, and the inspiration for the Kendra Group, had connections at the Canadian  embassy in Kabul to make it happen.  They now live in Toronto, where Zabiullah works at an Afghani restaurant near the university.  Sasha, who until recently had been corresponding regularly with Rachel, expressed hope to enter the nursing program at Ryerson University.

Rachel suspects that they’re elopement didn’t really end in bliss, but she left that part out of her story. Sasha’s last letter, a mixture of Dari and English that only Rachel could understand, contained stress signals.  Zabiullah was planning a return to his ancestral homeland in the Korengal Valley, as his father needed him to help his brother look after their patch of land when he dies.  Sasha dreaded this prospect, and she intimated that their relationship had suffered because what he perceived as her westernization.  She wouldn’t give details.  Lacking specifics of what happened gave Rachel enough wriggle room in her romantic imagination to make up a better ending to the story for her present audience.

When Rachel and Mina got up to leave, Leila looked at them with a mischievous smile.  “Tell us about your man.”


“She said she wants to know about your man,” Mina dutifully translated.

“Yes, I got that much.  But I don’t have a man...”

When the women insisted that she share a personal story, Rachel finally decided that nothing communicates openness or breaks the ice better than a few autobiographical reflections.  She had dated a couple of men in the past three years since her breakup with Kam, but her mind gravitated toward Kam for a story.  If the Tale of Zabiullah and Sasha merited editing, Rachel deemed the narrative of Rachel and Kam in desperate need of on-the-fly revising for her non-Western listeners.  It started one early evening at Bagram in the spring of 2006.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Dark Side of Mount Ararat

I hate using cliché phrases, but history has not been kind to the Armenians. 1700 years ago this ethnic group formed a Christian kingdom in Eastern Anatolia, the Armenian heartland, even before the Roman Empire tolerated the religion. The ravages of time, or more specifically the depredations of invaders and conquerors throughout the next millennium—Arabs, Sassanids, Byzantines, Seljuks, Mongols—put the Armenians on the defensive and ultimately left them an island civilization surrounded by a sea of hostile neighbors and demanding overlords.  A series of Turkic invasions throughout the Middle Ages culminated in the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.  Armenians, most of whom lived in the six Armenian vilayets or provinces of Eastern Anatolia, formed one of the large non-Muslim minority groups of the empire’s millet system.  While the Ottomans had tolerated these subjects, the fate of the Armenians, after nearly six centuries of discrimination, took a darker turn in the late 19th century as the empire, “the sick man of Europe,” staggered and limped along amid the fragmentation of its lands.  Whereas the Ottoman sultan had thousands of Armenians massacred before one century was done, the Young Turk regime during World War I would choreograph a systematic genocide in the next.  Still, the Armenian diaspora has managed to survive and even flourish for almost a century now.  The Republic of Armenia in the Caucasus became an independent state in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Empire, but even more Armenians reside in places like Beirut, Tehran, Aleppo, Paris, Montreal, and Los Angelesthe “command center.”

This brings me to the book I recently finished reading: Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream (Harper Collins, 2010).  The young author, Garin K. Hovannisian, offers a well-written account of his family’s history.  The story revolves around his great-grandfather Kaspar, grandfather Richard, and father Raffi. These three men were trailblazers in their own way.  Kaspar survived the 1915 genocide as a teenager and would eventually emigrate to the United States and set up a home in the San Joaquin Valley of California.  Richard Hovannisian would become a professor of history at UCLA and a pioneer of Armenian studies.  Finally, the author’s father, Raffi, after graduating from UCLA (a common source of education for this family, as it has been for my own), would acquire law degrees and get involved as an activist and politician in the struggle for Armenia’s independence.

The mass murder of Armenians during World War I involved the systematic killing of an estimated 1.5 million people, leaving many of the survivors to form a diasporan community throughout the world.  The Medz Yeghern, or great calamity, is the boogeyman that haunts Garin and his forefathers.  He refers to a “family brokered between a genocide and a dream,” and I take the latter to mean both the American dream and the family’s aspirations to find restitution and vindication for their people.  The “shadows” that cast a dark gloom over the family’s history refer not merely to the genocide itself.  The Republic of Turkey has continued to deny the crimes of its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire.  Such denial is like a second stab in the back to the Armenians, not allowing them to mourn properly, for the grieving process necessitates a confession and acknowledgment of past sins; this injustice has been playing out for many decades now.

The Turkish government’s narrative for these deaths is plausible on the surface, and most Turks on the street, it would seem, have bought into it.  First, Turkish officials and academics reduce the numbers of casualties significantly.  Holocaust deniers do the same thing.  Second, they claim that these deaths occurred because of wartime measures.  The Ottoman Turks relocated the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia away from the eastern border so that they could no longer aid and abet the Russian enemy against the Ottoman Empire in their pursuit of an Armenian nation state.  Finally, representatives of the Turkish Republic almost always make the claim that Turks and Muslims suffered in greater numbers during World War I, as if such a numbers game is an adequate rebuttal to the charge of genocide.  Armenians and non-Armenian genocide scholars worldwide who have considered the evidence see 1915 as the first genocide of the twentieth century.  I don’t want to get into the minutiae of the arguments, but the number of victims, the manner of death, the evidence of systematic murder from top officials, and the geographic spread of the killings belie the Turkish claims about “unfortunate” deaths in the context of war.

Before we condemn the Turks out of hand for such an insidious denial of a people’s fate, let us consider the killing, starvation, and relocation of various Indian Nations in North America at the hands of the U.S. government and its willing accomplices, the settlement communities.  The reasons that we do not recognize this tragedy as genocide, or at least ethnic cleansing, are, I suspect, the same for the Turkish government.  First, it would open up a legal and costly can of worms, as the victims would take to the courts for reparations and restitution.  Second, it’s a matter of national honor and pride.  Who wants to think of their country as the perpetrator of genocide?  However, the comparison between the Armenian Genocide and the “American Holocaust” has its shortcomings.  Americans in the last 20 to 30 years have been coming around to the idea that, for example, the Plains Indian Wars, the relentless pursuit of the Nez Perce, and the Apaches War were not really wars at all but rather desperate attempts by ethnic communities to survive against a white culture bent on their destruction.  Moreover, to be blunt, our ancestors did a more efficient job of killing a people and its culture than did the Ottoman Turks.

The author sifted through dusty family archives and above all a recording of his great grandfather telling of his experience not long before his death in 1970.  Kaspar Gavroian, who changed his surname to Hovannisian to honor his father (the author’s great-great-grandfather Hovhannes Gavroian) upon arrival in America, had the most harrowing experience as a youth imaginable.  While his father was off fighting the war, gendarmes and Kurdish death squads rounded up the rest of Kaspar’s family from the village of Bazmashen in the vilayet of Kharpert and sent them off on a death march into the Syrian desert.  Turkish soldiers and gendarmes murdered and raped at will, and Kurds came down from the mountains to participate.  Some of the attractive women had opportunities to save themselves by becoming concubines and wives of their captors.  As for Kaspar, he survived because his mother let him become a servant boy to a Kurd.  He would never see his family again.  The boy would grow up quickly, for after he fled his new life of servitude, he found himself in an “Army of Orphans” defending the town of Garin against the Turks.  Robbed of his family and his youth, Kaspar arrived on Ellis Island in 1920 to start a new life for himself with little prospects.  A difficult man who would soften a bit  in his latter years, Kaspar would overcome the odds to become a first-generation Armenian American.  He would marry and have four sons in the peaceful surroundings of the San Joaquin Valley, which served as a transplanted Kharpert for an expatriate community.

Unlike his brothers, Richard Hovannisian had little interest in farming at the family homestead in Tulare, or anywhere else for that matter.  His destiny was a bookish one.  Attaining degrees at Berkeley and UCLA, the author's grandfather Richard would move his family to an upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles and enjoy a long, prestigious career.  Currently  a Professor Emeritus of History at UCLA, Richard spent years on a seminal multivolume history of the first Armenian Republic (1918-1920) and mentored a number of doctoral students.  Occasionally he weighed in on the Armenian Genocide.  How could he not, as an Armenian American professor of history?  Yet his involvement in this controversy, it seemed, was never a primary academic interest, but rather the call to duty in defending the record of history.  Family of Shadows gives a few instances of conflict between the author’s family members, namely his grandfather and father, and deniers of the genocide.  I was already aware of efforts on the part of the Turkish government to control the narrative regarding 1915 by endowing university chairs with the tacit understanding that the recipient of such an honor would be kind to Turkey's past.  I didn't know about the battle inside the UCLA history department over an endowed chair in Turkish studies to counterbalance the one in Armenian studies that Richard had painstakingly established, in part with his own money.

Garin makes it clear that his tale is one of two homelands: the heartland in Eastern Anatolia and what has traditionally been called Russian Armenia on the other side of majestic Mount Ararat.  The former is part of the Republic of Turkey and is largely off limits to Armenian expatriates and other Westerners who might want to poke around there, while the latter existed under Soviet rule until an independent nation emerged in the early 1990s.  Moreover, both expatriate Armenians and citizens of Armenia have been in constant conflict with Azerbaijan over a mountainous region called Nagorno-Karabagh that is populated mostly by Armenians.  Among the list of Stalin’s evil actions we should include his capricious transfer of the region to Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1920s.  Garin’s father, Raffi, who embraced life as a third-generation Armenian American and excelled in academics and football as a young man, would make the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, the independence of Armenia, and the independence of Nagorno-Karabagh his lifelong pursuits.  Unlike his father Richard who preferred a life of scholarship, the son would become a political activist, even to the extent of renouncing his U.S. citizenship to become an Armenian citizen and the country’s first foreign minister.

If you want to learn more about the Armenian American community and the impact of genocide on a family from generation to generation, check out Garin Hovannisian’s book.  The author is obviously proud of his heritage.  Here and there he’ll mention well-known people who are either Armenian or partly Armenian: Cher, Andre Agassi, Mark Geragos (of Scott Peterson fame), William Saroyan, George Deukmejian et alia.  (Somehow he forgot to mention Dr. Kervorkian!)  I’ve been reading about the Armenian Genocide for years and still have learned a few things.  For instance, I didn’t know about the impressive Armenian Genocide Memorial erected in 1968 at Bicknell Park in Montebello, California.  I gained new insights on the Armenian diaspora, especially in California.  Overall, Family of Shadows presents a compelling story of survival, assimilation, and success.

I’ve added this book to the required reading for a course I’m teaching in the fall semester.  While the author goes into more detail on the struggle for independence for Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabagh region than my undergraduate students will want to know, this political struggle is an important part of the story: like the Jews seeking refuge in a nation state of their own, Armenians’ establishment of a homeland is a matter of survival.  The Republic of Turkey has been a strong ally of the United States for decades, and for this reason, only one U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, has publicly called the 1915 tragedy genocide.  I find myself in the disconcerting position of being a Turcophile and yet committed as an academic who dabbles in the field of genocide studies to inform students about this evil act.  Hopefully, all the cards will be out on the table someday.  Hopefully, the successors of Mustafa Ataturk Kemal, who once referred to the genocide as “a shameful act,” will see the wisdom of owning up to the sins of the past.  Then again, the United States has not fully dealt with the skeletons in its own closet.