It seems to me that the central distinction in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest offering – Bomber Mafia – is that between theorists and empiricists. To boil it down to a binary choice is of course an oversimplification, but it is one that helps frame the difference between Hansell and Le May, the two figures from either camp who loom large in the book. At stake here, as it turns out, were the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who met a fiery fate in the aftermath of extensive fire bombings, topped off by the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Hansell, we have the theorist who believed against the evidence – or bad luck – that precision bombing was the way to execute a war that limited deaths. Le May on the other hand comes across as an empiricist who allowed the evidence lead him down the paths it did, albeit with disastrous outcomes for those concerned.
Outcomes and motivations differ for the theorist and the empiricist. The theorist is wholly concerned with what might be possible – subject to the constraints of his/her field (eg Theoretical Physicists who come up with all sorts of currently unfalsifiable claims ) – as opposed to the empiricist or experimentalist who is concerned with finding evidence to prove or disprove the grand, elegant notions of the theorist.
If one accepts that the empiricist follows the evidence down a path that leads to a real world impact and desirable outcomes, there looms the question of what constitutes a good outcome. Is the loss of thousands of lives a good outcome if they are the lives of the enemy/ the other rather than ours? Is a good outcome measured in monetary terms, or is there a way to value non-physical outcomes? These are questions I do not think the theorist worries about too much, existing – at least to me – in that rarefied space of thought.
As I plod along, firmly ensconced in mid-career engineering, these distinctions are ones that weigh heavy on my mind, as they have the potential to inform what steps I take next. I am truly at a cross roads of sort – the question being whether I follow the head into theory or the heart into real world applications.
I am dreaming again
of days gone by,
of nights – heavy
with the weight
of solitude – lightened
by the joy of discovery,
a light born of tumult
in an age of innocence.
This is what the
glow-worms in their
of light a whisper
into the night
to see and be seen.
Hailing, as I do, from a corner of the world in which colonization has left its mark in more ways than one, I cannot help but see the stark similarities between the Afghanistan story and that of my other country. Two podcast episodes from the Rest is History podcast (a general one and one specifically focused on the First Anglo-Afghan War) provided some context to the history of the country, dotted as it has been with inter-tribal frictions and the burden of being prized as a gateway location. The similarities appear to be more than superficial: both countries have had borders drawn on the back of envelopes splitting tribes between countries, have fairly well established Islamic insurgencies and have significant deposits of natural resources. There is also the British (read East India Company / Royal Niger Company) connection too, the tip of the spear by which both regions were economically exploited.
The images coming out of Kabul are stark, and speak to a very desperate situation with the Taliban gaining the ascendancy in very short order after the American withdrawal. Inches of paper and columns of ink have been spent on weighing up the pros and the cons, making moral arguments for remaining and framing the withdrawal as effectively ceding control of Afghanistan’s rare earth metals to China among other takes. Given its reputation for being the graveyard of empires, linked to all the aforementioned interventions which have never really ended well fore the occupiers, it is interesting that the powers that be have never really seemed to learn from history. The human tragedy is huge and, given the attack on the airport, only likely to increase as the Taliban gain ascendancy, which makes for very worrying times for those left behind, the regular folk who do not have the power of being visible working for them. One hopes that the noises being made by the Taliban have some substance, although given their priors, there seems little real hope for that. The question of just why the US and their allies have the right to appoint themselves the policemen of the world is a different one altogether but needs exploration.
The speed at which the Ghani government collapsed would suggest that there is a critical mass that supports the Taliban, for all the noise the public intellectuals make. The irony is that nothing has really changed, not in the last twenty years, and maybe not by much in the last 200 either. Previous Afghan President Hamed Karzai is a direct descendant of the puppet the British installed, Shah Shuja. The Taliban come from the tribe that brought him down. Now and as it was then, deep fissures remain, and only by understanding the history and the local context can these widespread failings be prevented.
One take away from the two podcasts I listened to was that current president Ghani was a very different beast from Karzai, one that was seen as rude and snobbish, failing to keep the tribal leaders onside. That and the manifest corruption (case in point that Instagram post) suggests that in the end, failing to make the country work for everyone perhaps made it unlikely that ordinary folk would stick their necks out and fight. A functioning state that cares for the ordinary person and imbues a sense of ownership in the ordinary citizen has a lot more heft than any outside influences propping it up, it seems to me. Given the state of Nigeria at the moment, and the increasingly disconnected ruling class from the ordinary citizen, I can’t help but have a niggling worry as to what fate might lie ahead.
The difference a few degrees makes never ceases to amaze me, a small mercy I have recently found to my advantage as the morning temperatures, dipping as they have below 30 degrees for the first time since April, have allowed me go for short runs and brisk runs again. Between stress eating in South Yorkshire and not being able to rack up those 10k steps, my weight has ballooned by a cringe worthy amount. In a sudden fit of resolve, I downloaded the NHS Couch to 5k app and have now completed one week. Hopefully, that along with some portion control, gets me back headed in the right direction. Frankly though, I would settle for being able to complete a sub 24 minute 5k again, seeing as the chap who ran Parkruns for fun in the ‘Deen seems like a whole different person now.
Another small mercy, or delight really, was making a pit stop at a tea spot a few days ago in the middle of a long journey up north. Between the very short notice to grab my gear and head out – the call came during the morning meeting and I had all of twenty minutes to grab a coffee, defer some other stuff and head out – and the long drive (over three hours and then some of 120km/hr driving each way), making a pit stop to drink in the distinctive flavours and grab some much needed caffeine from a cup of Yemeni tea was a blessing in disguise. Thankfully I didn’t do any of the driving, though I did feel for the guy who did. It must have been shattering to do all those miles!
The other thing that came from being cooped up for so long was a deep dive into some conspiracy theories: 9/11, ISIS and the West’s complicity in the travails of the region all came up. Politics and religion are two things I steer well clear of out here, given the different notions of liberty and freedoms that rule the roost out here, so I did most of the listening, throwing in a few questions here and there to appear interested. I am not sure what to make of the Afghanistan debacle, with the Taliban making great gains in the aftermath of the US withdrawal, though the parallels with Northern Nigeria/Chad/ Niger are not lost on me. Sadly hope, which seems to be all we can do for the Nigerian situation, is hardly a recipe for stability or a solution there.
On a brighter note, our little adventure up north has nudged me closer towards being open to explore the vast expanse of this country. I do have to buy a car first, but with my first year behind me and a semblance of slowly settling in, I am finally mentally able to see myself out here for more than a year.
When the rain comes
breathe in the clarity it brings-
savour the stillness you remember
from the times it came before,
the delights the memories of
past days and gone weeks
and seasons long disappeared,
bring you. Cherish the muscle memory
of the steps that draw you along this path
to the days of innocence, because
drop by drop, the sorrows
of the far country are dissolving
in the rain.
It struck me the other day that even after a year out here, there are still work colleagues whose faces I have not seen without masks on. Arriving in the middle of the pandemic, masks were required in all public spaces – and rigorously enforced – with more than a few people cited for either having theirs pulled down or not wearing one as they approached the security gates and barriers that dot the landscape. Only when I then see a face without a mask does it register that I have made up the hidden contours, seeing the mask as an integral part of these faces. This brings with it a mild sense of discomfort, stemming from – I think – the fact that even though I have built relationships and friendships with these people, their uncovered faces scream unknown rather than familiar.
The question of God’s sovereignty has a different heft when what lies at stake is the health of one’s nears and dears as opposed to the navel gazing satisfaction of an academic exercise. Not to say that academic exercises have no point – being able to dispassionately assess a subject on its merits without the cloud of emotion and peril has its place – but when the stakes relate to matters of life and death, hope and desire sometimes trump cold hard facts. Implicit here is the assumption that God exists, that he is reasonably well depicted by the Bible and that some objective truth about his character can be deduced from that book. The orthodox Christian (Calvinist?) position is that God is Sovereign and in control, and that he “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass“, to quote the Westminster Confession of Faith. Tim Gombis, Professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, offers a rebuttal of that position in a four part series [Part 1, 2, 3 & 4] from last year, one that I read in the middle of my season of rethinking. L’s arrival and the ICU trips which followed have afforded me the opportunity to re-read the arguments from the perspective of someone with skin in the game. As I understand it, the core of Dr Gombis’ argument is that there is a distinction between God’s identity as sovereign and the manifestation of that in the world today. What guarantees there are, if any therefore, relate to a final transformation of this broken world not control over the minute details of our lives. Until then pain, sorrow, chaos and the likes are part and parcel of our experience this side of the divide.
It is not the concept of God being in control that Dr Gombis’ has a problem with per se, I don’t think, but rather the wrong responses, actions/ inaction and decisions it can engender in our lives. The second part of his essay identifies five such responses:
Inaction, in which we fail to consider ways in which we can positively affect outcomes, instead folding our hands waiting for God to act,
False hope, in which we conclude that if God is in control then the reality of the pain/ undesired outcome that stares us in the face is somehow not real and that things will work out
Discerning a divine logic, ie if God is in control and something manifestly wrong has occurred then there must be a meaning to it
A refusal to engage grief and lament, instead focusing on trying to learn the lessons in the pain ‘God’ has sent our way
Speculating on God’s purposes in the pain
The problems articulated in the article and summarised above are ones I recognise, several of them being core beliefs of the American brand of Charismatic Christianity exported to my native Nigeria many moons ago. In that worldview, if you sow seeds, name things and claim them, life will be all honky-dory with nary a cloud on the horizon. That this is a manifestly warped view of the world is not in doubt – even the most cursory of glances reveals the falsity of that. What we have to hold in tension with this on the other hand though is the question of prayer, and what we hope to achieve by prayer.
If God is not in control, then what does prayer seek to achieve? Is it merely preparing and changing us to accept whatever outcomes come our way or does it/ can it materially affect outcomes? Fortunately or unfortunately, I have more questions than answers, a consistent theme I see in these musings of mine.
They say that fiery flames
beget cold ash, the certainty of beliefs
passed down petering out into the lukewarm
ambivalence of doubt and questioning.
These roots are the things that hold us still
each tendril like a link tethering us
to the ones who went before.