Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kaplan Paints in a Monsoon

by Bill Doughty

Robert Kaplan paints words from a palatte of nearly forgotten colors and memories.

In “Monsoon” -- a top pick on the CNO’s Professional Reading Program, Kaplan literally (and littorally) travels the breadth of the Indian Ocean and, like an artist, reveals the people, places and history of the dynamic and vital IO Rim.

His words evoke sights, smells, tastes, dimensions and sensations for the reader.

Case in point:

“A few minutes from the Shah Jahan Mosque is the necropolis on Makli Hill: tombs from the Samma, Arghun, Tarkhan, and Mughal periods, made of sandstone and glazed bricks.  These, too, were dynasties with both Turkic and Mongol blood.  And yet the tombs remind one of so many similar buildings in India, demonstrating that what we think of as Indian is itself a mélange of Near Eastern cultures.  Everywhere there are brick plinths, rectangular pillars, imposing ramparts, and cracked bulbous domes.  The buckling, glazed brick is peeled away in layers, like old mascara, with faint touches of milky blue.  These lonely monuments appear to soar into the clouds, each occupying its own little hill.  Some, with their intricate fretwork, have an almost Byzantine stateliness.  Others bear the proportions and complexity of the pharaonic buildings at Karnak.  All stand in majestic separation from one another amid a destitute wasteland, with garbage everywhere, like at so many historical and cultural sites in Pakistan. It is as though in the last sixty years -- unlike during the dynastic centuries recounted by these tombs -- there has been no state here; nothing but marauders.”

This is beautifully constructed prose, and there is a lot of it.  Kaplan’s words frame the abstract into the tangible and help us understand people and situations in Oman, Baluchistan, Bangladesh, several regions of India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Zanzibar and along the Indus River. 

Several diverse and sometimes unexpected themes link his narrative.  These include the voyages of Zheng He and Vasco de Gama; the poem “The Lusiads”  (“Os Lusíadas”) by Luís Vaz de Camões; environmental and seismic issues, including climate change, tsunami; the influence of world religions; and, of course, the drift of monsoon seasons and winds.

“The southwest monsoon that arrives in the Bay of Bengal in early summer provides a new dimension to rain.  This is the time of tropical cyclones, and it is as though the ocean was continually emptying itself upon you.  For days at a time, the sky is a low, claustrophobic vault of angry clouds.  Absent sunlight, the landscape -- however intrinsically rich in color, with mountains of hibiscus and bright orange mangoes, and the flowing saris of women -- becomes scrubbed over in a grainy mist.  Mud is the primary color, but it is not depressing.  It is the coolness that you notice first, not the leaden darkness.  You are filled with energy.  No longer are your clothes dissolving in sweat or your knees hollow from the heat.  No longer is the air something thick and oppressive that your body needs to push against.”

Kaplan notes that a million ships pass through the Indian Ocean straits each year.  Countries like India and China are building more ships, competing for resources and influence as they develop various cooperative relationships.

Kaplan’s canvas is wide.  He combines long and deep descriptions with sudden flashes of pinpoint insights expressed in just one or two sentences.  Some examples:

  • “The Indian Ocean is small in a cultural sense but too vast even in the jet age for one power to gain real sway over it.”
  • “History is as much a series of accidents and ruined schemes as of great plans.”
  • “The Indus signals the western edge of the Subcontinent, from where its political unity was frequently breached by invaders coming out of the plateau and deserts of Afghanistan, Iran, and Baluchistan.  It is thus a lesson in the feebleness of borders.”
  • Regarding India’s democratic spirit: “A spirit that is truly breathtaking in terms of what it can overcome. That is india’s ultimate strength.”
  • “Strategic, romantic, and a moral catastrophe, Burma is a place that tends to consume people.”
  • “The future of American power is related directly to how it communicates its concern about issues like climate change to Bangladeshis and others.”
Jakarta, Indonesia
As a book of thoughtful influence and reflection, “Monsoon” is an important read on the two-year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami March 11 and U.S. Navy’s humanitarian response.  Next year will be the ten-year anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami which slammed Indonesia at the end of 2004.  The U.S. Navy’s humanitarian response was a milestone cultural and historical event that, according to Kaplan, made a difference for the littoral nations throughout the region.

“Monsoon: the Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power” is presented in three parts, with the third predominantly focused on China and filled with naval power insights -- from Alfred Thayer Mahan in the late 1800s to current scholars from the U.S. Naval War College today, including James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara.

Robert D. Kaplan
Kaplan’s analysis in Chapter 15 -- “China’s Two-Ocean Strategy?” -- is especially important to the U.S. Navy especially since Kaplan presciently touches on budgetary challenges, which he wrote two years before the threat of the Sequester, starting to bite this month. 

Respected thinkers Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Pankaj Mishra of India and Great Britain (author of the insightful “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia”), both referenced in Monsoon, warn Americans about seeing Asia (and China, in particular) through an American prism that assumes people in the region want to be just like us.  Many people in and around the Indian Ocean hunger for freedom and democracy, but we would be best served if we see their region through their eyes.  Kaplan helps make that happen.  He helps us see the big picture.

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