Lessons of History: States, Peoples, Soil

Peter d'Errico

In a recent column in The Guardian, British Major-General Jonathan Shaw explored lessons to be learned from "well-meaning but misguided" Western military efforts in Afghanistan. Shaw asked a question perplexing many commentators: How can "the Taliban [be] reemerging after all the violence that has been brought to bear against it since 2011?"

Shaw approached the question from experience. He was commander of allied forces in Basra in 2007 and now chairman of Optima Group, "a global provider of counter-improvised explosive device (C-IED) and search capabilities."

Shaw's answer to the question went well beyond standard media comment and looked at root issues. "Our incomprehension about current events," Shaw said, "is fuelled by our ignorance of the culture, the political soil of Afghanistan (and of Syria, Libya and Iraq)."

But, Shaw added, the ignorance goes deeper and lies closer to home: ignorance of foreign cultures "starts with an ignorance about the fragility and the contingent nature of our own systems." In other words, those who are perplexed about Afghanistan and the Taliban—not to mention the Islamic State and other groups—don't understand either the "foreign" cultures or their own.

With Shaw's critique in mind, let's look at the rhetoric of the current American presidential primary campaigns, where several candidates are calling to promote "democracy" by bombing and invading other countries.

Neocon candidates try to outdo one another with demands for military force wherever they perceive it will appeal to voter fears, whether Iran or Iraq, Afghanistan or Russia, Syria or Libya. Ignorance of the histories of these countries doesn't get in the way of—even encourages—their calls for intervention.

But, as Shaw said, "Unless and until we understand the conflict we are looking at, we would be well advised to follow the Hippocratic oath to 'do no harm'." Shaw added, "Liberal democracy is a rare flower…the form of which differs even in its heartland of western Europe/America." He criticized the "neocon belief that [liberal democracy] is the natural condition for society."

Shaw looked at the history of western "state" government. He said, "We have lost sight of how the very concept of the 'state' is a western construct, enshrined in the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to bring to an end the 30 years war in Europe."

Though Shaw did not discuss American Indian history, his recap of the history of 'state' systems illuminates the difficulties of using the notion of 'sovereignty' to describe American Indian self-determination. The notion of 'sovereignty' derives from the Westphalian idea of government as a top-down, unitary 'state' structure. Indian Nations never followed that model.

The "state" model of government may have solved problems among warring Christian European nations, but that form has also been used to undermine traditional Indigenous governments and impose neo-colonial governments on non-state peoples. The American 'state' deployed military and economic coercion to force Indians within the 'reservation' system, subject to over-arching 'state' sovereignty.

Shaw pointed to resistance to state boundaries in the Middle East: "In Syria, Libya and Afghanistan this notion [of 'state'] is under threat as warlords and insurgents vie for local power, ignoring our state boundaries."

Shaw did not explain the "our" in his phrase. It points to another historical agreement among Western European nations: The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement—named after the British and French diplomats who put it together at the end of World War I.

Sykes-Picot emerged from secret negotiations between Britain and France (with Russia's consent) to divide Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire after the War. The negotiations created a map of "state boundaries" for Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan. These boundaries defined "spheres of influence" for British and French colonial projects. From the perspective of the colonists, the boundaries of those countries are "ours."

Ignorance of this colonial history in the Middle East underlies the surprise of observers—including candidates for the American presidency—who cannot comprehend where the Islamic State, the Taliban, and other quasi-governmental "terrorist groups" come from. They come from peoples whose own boundaries were ignored or violated by colonial states.

The participants in the current wars raging in the Mid-East have been fighting for a long time, among themselves, and with western colonial invaders and "patrons." The battle lines in the Mid-East are not new, only newly inflamed. But to understand this, one needs to know history. Therein lies the rub.

In America, people are legally entitled to voice an opinion about anything, without necessarily knowing anything. In fact, knowing something may actually get in the way of stating an opinion. This includes not only "foreign affairs," but also "domestic issues."

For example, listening to the presidential primary campaigns, one might believe Christianity was crucial to the oath of office.

The Constitution actually says religion has no role as a qualification for office. Here's Article Six: "The Senators and Representatives…and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

What does the existence of widespread, complete misunderstanding of the Constitution and religion say about the prospects for American society? How can democracy function when gross ignorance of history and law masquerades as legitimate political discourse? It doesn't look promising.

The presidential primaries provide a window into the ongoing struggle for political dominance in the American state. With the exception of Bernie Sanders, the campaigns have so far provided little help for understanding domination itself.

By asking questions about the histories that shape our present circumstances, we may come to appreciate the value of studying history at all. Seeing the "contingent nature" of government helps us see the "fragility" of human society. Appreciating contingency and fragility can help us make skillful choices as we lay down a past for the future—for our children and grandchildren.

Shaw urges us to pay attention to "cultural soil." He says the "relevant portrayal" of Afghanistan today might be to see the Afghans "sorting out their own future, as they always were going to once we had stopped imposing ourselves; the Afghan soil reasserting itself."

Those words remind me of Luther Standing Bear, who said, "The American Indian is of the soil, whether it be the region of forests, plains, pueblos, or mesas. He fits into the landscape, for the hand that fashioned the continent also fashioned the man for his surroundings. He once grew as naturally as the wild sunflowers, he belongs just as the buffalo belonged...."

We can conclude as Shaw did, that the legacy of colonial violence "should, at least, not surprise us. At best, [it] should not happen again."

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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WinterWindTeacher's picture
Hear, hear! A good thought filled article. There has been much intervention throughout the America's, Asia's, Africa's and the Caribbean Island's, and they are also real hotbeds of conflagrations of violence that had not been so prior to intervention. I risk an opinion, not because I am so studied, but because I survived the educational system that had little to teach but much to learn about military boot camp for kids and how your expected to think, do, act, and be exactly like everyone else. One would have to be beyond blind, even the non-sighted can read, an empire or kingdom had to ever expand for more resources to feed their massive conquering armies and the lavish lifestyles of those at the top and their immediate intimate relations along with a party of admirers who if not placated would have your head on a platter if no reciprocating was advancing their fortunes also. The kingdom or empire campaigns were so many Columbus poking and prodding to see what there was of value to steal. Their hierarchical structures supported with privileges and laws for the people strengthen with armies of violence kept order and control and that they imposed on peoples of other lands, foreign concepts and constructs that made absolutely no sense. Their adventures found them all sorts of resources to enrich themselves but they needed to safeguard it by imposing their own system - gifting the few who would hold the post for them. The lands were not held together in this way but through long and complicated relationships, agreements, understandings based on cultural tradition and responsibilities. Where there was peace and stability - the imposition of empire and kingdom renewed old grievances and caused all kinds of rifts and antagonisms they thought they could control but can not. They now have faction against faction, religion against religion, minority against majority, forcing a people to abandon their traditional lands for an others and building rage, resentment, revenge, radically rearranging the people and the area into so many protagonists for this faction or that one supplied with the latest military technology to obliterate each other. It is what was commented on during the Iran - Iraq war. The U.S. had supplied both sides of the conflict with military equipment, and as I recall the commenter said in effect that 'the U.S. hoped they would obliterate each other.' They are both oil rich states and that oil the U.S. can not live without. It has been pretty much the same over a great period of time. There were few if any homogeneous cultures. Most cultures have a diversity of relations distant and near, some of them highly complicated that has been worked through cultural tradition and respect over long periods of time, these were shredded when invaded and attacked as so much of the culture was splintered in so many different ways. It is clear how fragmenting to cultures it is when they are interfered and arranged in some favorable way to an outside force. There is violence, fanaticism, a radical rearranging of cultural values, adoption of the invading armies system of hierarchical authority by imposing it themselves which has no support. The great good lesson in it is: cultures are not simple groupings of individuals speaking a common language, but are highly complex and like a fabric are woven through individual histories, experiences and relations to each other, the land, a way of life, and traditions. When these cultures are interfered with, when they are cleft with outside forces causing rifts and factions within - it cause fracturing, disintegration, violence, disrespect for tradition and values. It can take a very long time for those cultures to heal, recover, to collect the parts of the whole and reclaim self and culture to be whole again. My guess is that an intelligent individual would see the harm that is done when forcing or conscripting a people into a similar fashioned state; the known effects are noted but it is unknown how long it takes to recover being that most threatened cultures are still in a state of recovery, and the latest numbers of lost cultures, those that could not recover or genocide was complete have not made those facts clear yet. The whole of creation is complex and truthfully observable as the Indigenous people have made clear - 'we are but a mere strand in the web of life and what we do to it will have an effect on all of us'. I defer to the chiefs who were wise and said it best. They understood life well and knew how to live with life. Those who came in deceitful ambition still can not hear their words nor see the truth and they have a hell of a mess on their hands they are responsible for. Can they eat money? They may have to. What is global warming but a global warning that the earth can not be exploited for personal wealth and ambition. The earth was meant for all of us, people, plants, animals, water and mountains to live and share; if the people remembered their history and taught it, they would not want to return to those cruel times and would be more human and kind to others. There would not be the poverty in the world. If they had listened to the Indigenous people on a good way to live than the environment would not be polluted and people would not be sick with cancers. The vast resources would not have been spent on destroying others but used to uplift others who had temporary setbacks, poor crops or flooding conditions. A foolish people squander away what they can not afford but find themselves as poor and hungry as their starving relatives were that they wanted to forget about, but for whom they were to fulfill a dream of free and well being, the worst betrayal. They succeeded in denying their own suffering peace.
hesutu's picture
Many believe the so-called US Constitution, the so-called US government, and the so-called US are valid and legitimately constructed institutes that hold the rights they claim over my people and my lands.
hesutu's picture
"He once grew as naturally as the wild sunflowers, he belongs just as the buffalo belonged" So we thus have the same rights as plants and animals have. I can see this through an indigenous framework as true, but I know that through the western framework that the article is written from will use this claim to dehumanize us.