Michener’s Afghanistan Lessons

Don Chapman
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February 24, 2010
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Just finished reading James Michener’s novel Caravans, and both my immediate and lingering impression is that it is a book every American who goes to Afghanistan would do well to read, whether soldier, diplomat or NGO worker. Likewise for anyone who has any voice in creating American policy there, starting with the president and congressional leaders of both parties.

Originally published in 1963 and set in 1946 following the end of World War II, Caravans is written in the first person, in the voice of a young American diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. His work, adventurous spirit and growing affection for the country and its people take him on a journey criss-crossing rivers, deserts and mountains. Foreshadowing future wars, the Soviets (Russia), English and Americans have a foothold in Afghanistan.


Page after page, I had one recurring thought: Almost nothing has changed since 1946! Then as now, modern, often Western-educated Afghans attempting to build a functional government that provides security, clean water, roads and jobs are in a constant battle against the medieval influences of imams with a strict Sharia law view of Islam. Then as now, Afghanistan is largely caught in the Iron Age, with tribal loyalties outweighing national interests. Then as now, there is great pressure on women to live beneath a chador, the full-body gown that covers the face. Then as now, there is a great mistrust of foreigners - which may have something to do with having a million people slaughtered just by Genghis Khan, among other invaders who swept through from one direction or another.

Without commenting on U.S. policy and strategies in Afghanistan, I will say that most of the Americans and British in Michener’s tale seem as clueless about this harsh land, its people and its history as the current Americans there I read about in the news magazines. And like the protagonist, that young diplomat, I wonder if any war there is winnable in any way that we normally associate with victory - short of the Genghis Khan approach.

Caravans is Michener at his best, mixing stellar historical research and remarkable personal travels throughout the country, while creating a captivating plot and characters you care about.

It does not end in a way I had hoped. Instead, it ends in the only way it could.

Another Michener book has been on my mind for, oh, the past year and a half or so: Poland. It is, in fact, the story of Europe and how it developed from primitive societies to modern times.

A recurrent theme is how little the ruling families and dynasties that warred for power on the continent cared for the people they ruled, and how personal interest repeatedly trumped national loyalties, even national borders.

In fact, it reminds me very much of current U.S. politics, especially in Washington, as well as the attitude of Wall Street bankers - only personal interest, profit and power matter, not the health and welfare of the nation and its people. Instead, it’s all about getting yours while the getting is good, and to hell with the serfs and peons who do all the productive work.

I highly recommend both books.

Mr. Michener, by the way, appeared on MidWeek‘s cover in January 1986. Our columnist Dan Boylan, a historian, didn’t write that one, but did visit Michener in the early 1980s while he was working on Texas. Recalls Dan: “I was researching a book on Gov. Burns. Michener had an office at the University of Texas in Austin, and I was visiting the LBJ Presidential Library there to read files on Hawaii state-hood. He granted me an interview over lunch at a cafeteria near the UT campus. He was very gracious and talked with total recall about his time in Hawaii in the late ‘50s. A lifelong Democrat, he was particularly interested in the formation of the post-war Democratic Party in Hawaii and the first statehood election. His novel Hawaii contained a composite character based on Burns and labor leader Jack Hall.

“Michener did voluminous research for his novels, and while historians have been heard to fault his knowledge of history, Michener did label them historical fiction. And, in my opinion, they were historical fiction of a very high order.”

three star

Talk about brazen. Just when you think you’ve heard it all - especially after MidWeek‘s Most Wanted cover story that focused on scams, forgery and identity theft - the FBI’s Honolulu office has sent out an alert warning about “fraudulent e-mails coming into Hawaii that purport to be originating from the FBI. These e-mails often seek personal information or payments from unsuspecting recipients.The fraudulent e-mails give the appearance of legitimacy through the usage of pictures of the FBI Director, seal, letterhead and/or banners. Schemes utilizing the FBI name are typically notifications of cash prizes or inheritance proceeds that do not exist. Other e-mails purport to be the FBI levying fines via e-mail.”

“This a practice that does not exist in reality,” says FBI special-agent-in-charge Char-lene Thornton (another recent MidWeek cover subject). “The FBI does not send out e-mails soliciting personal information from citizens.”

By the way, thanks to tips from alert MidWeek readers, nine of the 12 criminals on our Feb. 3 cover had been apprehended as of last Friday. Good work, folks!


three star

Finally, a salute to Gen.

Fred Weyand who died Feb. 10 at age 93. I was honored to write his MidWeek cover story in July 1997, and honored more that while he chose never to write a book, he shared so much of his remarkable career with me.

As I told his daughters last week, I was never in the military, but would have followed Gen. Weyand into any battle. Active in our community to the end, this old soldier did not just fade away. Aloha, sir.

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