boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
H.D.S. Greenway

National stress in Iraq

WITH THE 60th anniversary of India and Pakistan's independence last week, I was reminded of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, his epic tale of the last days of British rule. The final novel of the quartet, "A Division of the Spoils," takes place in 1947. A homeland for Muslims is about to be wrenched from the body of India by a partition that will cause at least a million deaths in deadly communal killing and displace more than 18 million people. It was a time when trains arrived at stations with carriages full of slaughtered people, and fires from shops and whole villages burned bright into the night.

One of Scott's characters writes, on the eve of independence, that the British have opened "Pandora's box, letting out all the evils that have afflicted this country probably since time began but which have been imprisoned, under a lid shut and locked by the single rule of British power and British law; evils which have not died of asphyxiation, but multiplied."

And those evils did multiply. India and Pakistan fought a series of wars over the division of the spoils, and today, 60 years after independence, both remain hostile neighbors, armed with nuclear weapons.

Communal violence between India's Hindus and Muslims erupts periodically even to this day.

It is a familiar pattern in the breakup of empires and countries when the lid of controlling power is lifted. "Everywhere there is a clear loss of authority, loss of legitimacy of existing authority," political scientist Andre Markovits once told me. "When national structure and empires collapse, people will turn inwards to find security and a sense of identity within the old kin group, clan, tribe, nationality, or whatever else defines the ethnic survival group." In India then, as in Arab parts of Iraq now, the survival group is defined by religion.

The age-old questions of who is to inherit what, who will own the land, and who will have power are as pertinent for broken countries as for broken marriages, or for siblings whose parents have died leaving an untidy estate. What will be the division of the spoils?

Markovits was talking about the Balkans, where religion also helped define the survival group. The dominant group, the Serbs, wanted to preserve their power that once controlled all of Yugoslavia. But after considerable bloodshed and civil wars, what was once Yugoslavia is now divided into six independent fragments, with the fate of a seventh, Kosovo, still to be decided.

In Yugoslavia even the parts are divided, with Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats living together in suspicion and separation in Bosnia.

Whether it is by race, nationality, language, class custom, or religion, mankind seems to find ways and reasons to separate himself from and to hate his neighbor -- especially under conditions of national stress.

National stress has come to Iraq in spades. The chaos and mutual hatreds that America has unleashed cannot be stuffed back into Pandora's box with a David Petraeus surge, no matter how the Bush administration might wish it.

Throughout Iraq's brief history as a united country, neither Kurds nor the Shia have been given a reason why it is better to be Iraqi first and Kurdish or Shi'ite second.

The Kurds retain the fiction of a united Iraq to suit their purposes of the moment, but no one believes for a second that the Kurds will ever again be willingly controlled by Arabs.

The Shia want the power they have always been denied, and which the Americans handed to them in a free election. Now the Americans are unhappy with what they have wrought, and want to blame Iranians for arming their coreligionists.

In the meantime the Sunni Arab states, some of them our allies, arm their Iraqi coreligionists. And all are destined to disagree on the division of the Iraqi spoils.

Into this emotional and highly charged mix, Americans are still hoping to bring back the order they lost in the first moments of their occupation by a pathetically feeble escalation.

They seem to have no conception of the forces they have unleashed, or that throwing a few thousand more soldiers into the breach will not make up for the damage already done. Neither the Sunnis, the Shia nor the Kurds really want them around, and the evils which were once imprisoned but not asphyxiated will continue to multiply. If General Petraeus is honest, his upcoming report will reflect that.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES