South Asian Madness

By Raywat Deonandan | February 1, 2002

On the Indo-Pakistani border, atop a valueless glacier named Siachen, Canadian journalist Eric Margolis finds himself caught in a modern war: “‘It’s madness. Total madness,’ a Pakistani commando officer told me one night in Peshawar. ‘Siachen is Hell on Earth. We’re fighting the bloody Indians to prevent them from grabbing what we say is our rightful part of Hell. That’s how much we hate each other.’” Related by Margolis in War At The Top Of The World, this most poignant anecdote suggests the emotional core of the escalating conflicts between South Asian nations. Countries of heartbreaking and pervasive poverty, they nonetheless expend billions of dollars to eradicate each other.

Margolis’ treatise is more than a collection of personal observations and experiences. A columnist for the Toronto Sun, he draws a straight line from the Soviet-Afghani war, through the current Indo-Pakistani conflict, to an eventual nuclear showdown between Asia’s true superpowers, India and China. For this alone, he deserves respect; few other Western journalists have taken the time to place this region’s insecurities in a global context.

War At The Top Of The World is an amalgam of various non-fiction genres: sociopolitical text, historical summary, adventure monograph and futurist tract. At times, Margolis seems unsure of whether to portray himself as a lesser Asian T.E. Lawrence or as an invisible pseudo-objective political observer. In both incarnations, the text is readable and will draw Western eyes to the neglected Asian scene.

Tainted at times by Margolis’ seeming pro-Islam bias, War At The Top Of The World nevertheless draws one’s attention to alliances and conflicts that a more casual, less invested observer would omit. Military aid agreements between Israel and India, China and Pakistan, and between Russia (“that mutant democracy”) and India are but a few that serve to further complicate this soup. He even predicts a future conflict between India and Iran.

He is most concerned, however, by the nuclear arms race between India and China. Providing a historical summary of these nations’ competing claims, Margolis identifies two flashpoints to watch in coming decades: Tibet and Burma (Myanmar). Both of these unstable zones, he contends, will be informed by the conflicts in Kashmir, which typify the guttural enmity between peoples: “No hatred I have ever encountered . . . equalled the vitriolic detestation between Indians and Pakistanis, two related peoples who to most outsiders are virtually indistinguishable from one another. The fiercest form of hatred, it seems, is that between brothers and cousins.”

War At The Top Of The World offers a useful personal assessment of these distant conflicts, and provides a vision both of hope and terror. It is also an unjudgmental treatise on the rational evil within human beings and their societies under pressure. In Margolis’ words, “For men of profound ill will, to know your enemy is to truly distrust (sic) him.”


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