THE BLOG

Return to Bangladesh

It was the black hole of the second half of the 20th century. The most forgotten of its forgotten wars.

It was one act in a three-act tragedy that, from Bosnia to Kosovo, and from Libya and Syria, unfolded according to the same invariable scenario.

And it was a non-subject for scholars, a no man's land for knowledge. It was, in fact, little more than a name -- "the Bangladesh war," as exotic as it was distant -- that was in the process of being erased from the collective memory of the West.

Until the arrival of a memorable book by Princeton University professor Gary Bass. The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide (Knopf) returns to this story and, while doing justice to the war's victims, also, for the first time, draws out for us its lessons.

We discover right off the bat that genocide (the war in Bangladesh was indeed an attempt at genocide) could occur so soon after Auschwitz without capturing the attention of the world at large or even, with rare exceptions such as André Malraux, any of its prominent individual consciences. That fact became overwhelmingly evident in Bangladesh.

We witness the origins of the terms of a debate that has continued, practically unaltered, for 40 years: intervention or noninterference? Humanity: singular or plural? Is there an established natural right -- is there an international law -- that can be cited against a dictator who slaughters his own people, or do rights and laws exist only within the borders of nations, and too bad about those who have the misfortune to have been born in Jessore or Dacca? Does the idea of a universal conscience and, related to it, an international community, have any meaning, or must we settle for Goebbels's sadly famous theorem that a man's home is his castle?

Bass shows us how small causes (Kissinger's liking for the Pakistani dictator, Yahya Khan, a drunken brute) can have large and horrifying effects: a terrible war that lasted nearly a year and exacted a death toll still unknown (300,000? 500,000? A million or more?), but which, as Bass shows, followed the same pattern as the ongoing war in Syria, where the escalation to extremes can be explained, at least in part, by the manner in which Vladimir Putin has poured in weapons and advisers. The Bangladesh war lasted as long as it did only because the Putin of that era, a man by the name of Richard Nixon, was stubbornly persistent in his support of someone whom he saw as an Asian reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln.

The book also shows, conversely, how lone individuals can stand in the way of the killing machine and, after a long, agonizingly long period of crying out in the wilderness, finish by being heard. In this case, that individual was not a war reporter running the blockade on pictures from the front; nor was it an intellectual forcing the world, in the manner later adopted in the United States by the late and much-lamented Christopher Hitchens, to see that which it would prefer not to see -- no, in this case, the individuals in question were a handful of "petty" diplomats, such as the American consul general in Dacca, the aptly named Archer Blood, who, after dozens of cables warning the administration of the responsibility it was incurring through its support of the bloodbath, joined 19 of his colleagues in making public a "blood telegram" that cut short his career but pricked the world's conscience and led to India's intervention.

And finally Bass shows us how a strong political will -- at the time, that of Indira Gandhi -- can, when it is harnessed to morality and law, put an end to temporizing. Except for the cast, it's the same movie that we watched 20 years later in Bosnia and 40 years later in Libya and Mali. Without succumbing to otherworldliness or to the idealization of an Indian prime minister who had her dark side (and how!), the book is also a tribute to politics in its true sense, to a politics that is not afraid to turn history away from subservience to the supposedly inexorable facts, or, better, to stage a coup against history.

Many readers will not be aware of my deep attachment to beautiful Bangladesh, whose war of liberation I covered more than 40 years ago for the newspaper Combat (founded by Albert Camus), where I met and mixed with the nation's liberator, Mujibur Rahman (father of the current, courageous prime minister), and of which I chronicled the tragic and noble birth in my very first book, Les Indes rouges.

But I do want readers to be aware of the appearance of Gary Bass' book, which I hope will be widely read (and translated into French!) because it places a spotlight on one of the most terribly neglected corners of the world. (The cities of the Ganges delta are so poor and powerless that, like Nineveh, Canopus, Heraklion and Meroë, they live under the constant threat of being swallowed up by supposedly natural catastrophes that the world now has all of the necessary technical means to prevent should it choose to do so.) And because it tells a modern story that we have seen repeated so many times: To understand the recurrent cowardice of the West, its blindness, and the sonorous vacuum that envelopes even the theory of the international community today, a return to Bangladesh is required reading.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy

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