Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Biological Warfare: "1491" by Charles C. Mann

An amazing read! Charles C. Mann's book "1491" describes the possibility that native American contact with European traders may have depopulated the continent in advance of the arrival of colonists via spread of disease. Hence, when the colonists arrived, they found a relatively sparsely populated countryside. This context then gives rise our cultural imagination of the native population as 'primitives' living in a relatively uncultured and somewhat 'ecologically harmonious' and naive state.

Biological relativism is also debunked in Appendix C. European disease obliterated native American cultures, and the natural question arises--what diseases originated on this continent that had the same effect on Europeans? One oft-repeated answer: syphilis. The first recorded European outbreak of syphilis occurred around 1494-1495, brought back by mercenaries working for Charles VIII of France's armies in their conquest of Naples. As Charles' army fled a counter attack, mercenaries split off from the main retreating body, spreading syphilis as they went via their habit of rape and pillage. Within a year, European cities were banishing people who suffered from syphilis. It's not clear whether the disease came from American with Columbus' returning voyage, as suggested, with an equal number of arguments for and against. Hence any positive assertion of biological symmetry is sketchy at best. Mann makes the point that while smallpox toppled empires, syphilis did not, even if it did come from the Americas.

This book is interesting beyond the war-health perspective and will debunk many myths built up from years of TV, Hollywood movies, childhood fiction, and junior high text books.

The Battle of Towton: Human remains tell the story of a battle fought 500 years ago

The December 18th-31st issue of The Economist has an interesting article about archaeological excavations of the Battle of Towton which occurred March 29, 1461 in England. By examining the bones found in a mass grave site, archaeologists found that the fighters (for they were not professional soldiers) were taller than the popular imagination makes them--just 4 cm shorter than current Englishmen. Poor nutrition and disease caused stunting later-- in the Victorian era. The longbow was the primary weapon, and evidence shows thickening of the upper right arm bone near the shoulder and the left arm near the elbow, in response to the bow's use. Also, the battle was the scene of the earliest use of gunpowder, and archaeologists think they may have found a fragment of a handgun. The stress of the battle was so enormous that the fighters clenched their teeth together hard enough to cause splintering.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The history of foreign aid: "Samaritan Diplomacy"?

Not only am I back from Afghanistan, where I had extremely limited access to the internet both in terms of time and actual connectivity, but I am also back from a 2 month long "victory lap," as a friend called it, of the U.S. I got to see great America, and it was great! Starting at the Statue of Liberty and heading west (with a northerly detour to Niagara falls) I got to see all those iconic US spots that I hadn't previously seen (the corn palace in Mitchell, SD; Mount Rushmore; Grand Canyon; Petrified Forest and the Painted get the idea).

Now that Christmas is done and I can start to settle in, I am doing some reading. In my travels I found the third book of Daniel J. Boorstin's series called "The Americans", the third book is called "The Democractic Experience" published in 1974. At the end of the book he discusses "Samaritan Diplomacy" and the changes in US perspective from pre-Marshall plan when aid to other nations was considered unconstitutional, to post-Marshall plan when US aid was expanded beyond war reparations and European nations to under developed nations. (It was first expanded by Truman in his "fourth point".)

Boorstin starts this section off: "For most of the nation's history, the United States remained uncomfortable, inept and on the whole unsuccessful in diplomacy." (p 568) Interestingly, one of the first acts using the military for aid came in 1880 during one of the Irish potato famines. Congress passed a joint resolution that allowed the Secretary of the navy to use a naval vessel to carry volutary (privately donated) relief to the Irish. Later, this was regarded as a regrettable stretching of the Constitution to appease the Irish-American vote.

According to Boorstin, not until the Marshall plan was there enough political justification to use American tax money to assist other nations. The confusion of motives for the aid stems from this time: "The American institution of foreign aid was a by-product of World War II. It marked a new stage in American foreign policy in which charitable, fiscal, political, ideological, and military motives would be more confused than ever before. Incidentally, too, foreign aid would newly confuse the techniques, attitudes, and institutions of peace with those of war, and so would help open an era in American foreign relations when the American people were neither at war nor at peace." (p 574) Boorstin claims that "except in religious missions, the nation had no substantial precendent for a world-wide program of foreign aid....foreign aid now expressed faith that American wealth could raise the standard of living of people anywhere. A people with a higher, more nearly American standard of living, it was assumed, would be more apt to be democratic, and hence more apt to be peace-loving and friendly to the United States. Implied, also was the complementary assumption that poverty, misery and industrial backwardness would make any people less peaceful and less democratic, hence more prone to communism, and therefore more inclined to join the enemies of the United States." Of course, the assumptions have not always born out.

In fact, this discussion gave me pause, particularly in light of the steady drum beat of the Millenium Development Goals, the political and military discourse about globalization and "haves" versus "have nots", and the confusion over the common use of the term "humanitarian aid" (for purely humanitarian reasons? or for political motives?)

Also relevant, the theory of counter insurgency calls for massive development expenditures in dangerous areas in order to create sympathies for the legitimate government, in order to assist people attain their basic life needs--water food shelter--so they feel better about their government and 'buy in' to it's legitimacy, lay down arms and stop harboring terrorists. But, as pointed out in the Washington Post front page yesterday, it's not that easy. USAID and the US State Department in Afghanistan, for example, only want the military to provide "security" so they can provide development assistance. Yet their vision of security and the military version are disparate. And sometimes discussions about where to deliver development assistance veer toward the absurd when geographical areas are deemed "too safe" for development assistance and other areas not safe enough. USAID doesn't want to deliver aid where it's unsafe, and they don't want to waste their aid on places where it's too safe. And they damn sure don't want the military to meddle in their humanitarian space (as they call the battlefield) by delivering aid or creating development projects.

Boorstin had it right. It's a confusion that is not about to go away. Are we confusing the world with our own confusion? Is "smart power" truly smart?