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The Book of the Week is “The Vortex, A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation” by Scott Carney and Jason Miklian, published in 2022. This multi-faceted story involved a massive number of deaths due to (cue the dramatic music): the Great Bhola cyclone (what would be called a hurricane in the Western Hemisphere), a cholera epidemic, dictatorial political shenanigans, atrocities and genocide; plus heroic international aid workers who were horribly hindered in their disaster-relief efforts. Sorry, no romantic subplot– this wasn’t a movie; all of this actually happened within the space of about three years. But at the end, there was the founding of a new nation, called Bangladesh.
Even decades after geographic separation of various religious and ethnic groups into: A) India, and B) a sovereignty of two discrete land masses (East and West) that comprised newly formed Pakistan in 1947– hostility still reigned. In Pakistan, anger and resentment simmered between the Muslim Punjabis in West Pakistan who spoke Urdu, and the Hindu Bengalis in East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh), who spoke their own language.
In the mid-1960’s, general Ayub (“Yahya”) Khan, who became Pakistan’s leader in 1969 [For more information, see this blog’s post, “The Rape of Bangla Desh”], ordered Pakistan’s military to attack India. The United States imposed economic sanctions on both Pakistan and India for childishly fighting. Pakistan allied with China. India allied with the then-USSR.
In August 1969, American president Richard Nixon tapped Yahya to be the contact to introduce him to China’s leader Mao Tse Tung. In exchange, Yahya wanted to purchase arms for Pakistan. Nixon violated the then-arms embargo against Pakistan to sell it armored personnel carriers and B-57 bombers.
In 1970, there occurred a quantum leap in hurricane-forecasting technology what with a new satellite called ITOS 1 that gathered real-time data on the Northern Hemisphere for the National Hurricane Center. Nevertheless, because they had no clue a storm was coming (the new forecasting technology had yet to reach Central Asia), almost all local residents drowned when the Great Bhola cyclone hit the delta near Manpura island in November 1970. A month later, fifty million Pakistanis were voting for the first time in their lives.
A few months later, American weapons were killing the Bengali people. Nixon was supporting Yahya. The latter’s military leader whipped up a Nazi-level frenzy of hatred against the Hindus, massacring them with .50 caliber machine guns and destroying– via American M-24 Chaffee tanks, jeeps and F-86 jets– key communication, political, educational and law enforcement structures in the city of Dacca in East Pakistan.
Unsurprisingly, all of the above was accompanied by a boatload of radio propaganda put out by Yahya’s side. But later, radio broadcasts helped the Bengalis. Anyway, Nixon aided and abetted Yahya in various additional ways to achieve his own political aims. Refugees fled to India, and where, counterintuitively, military camps trained Bengalis (technically Pakistanis) to resist the Pakistan Army. Indians had always been sworn enemies of Pakistanis. Still, it was in India’s best interest to see the Bengalis win the war and break up Pakistan.
There have occurred countless historical tapestries such as the aforementioned in which a complex bunch of circumstances resulted in millions of deaths; one thing led to another. The authors argued that the especially severe cyclone played a major role in giving scheming politicians an excuse to abuse their power even more. They asserted that more severe storms are occurring due to the earth’s changing atmosphere, and such natural disasters in turn trigger a series of events that increase global conflicts.
BUT, arguably, global conflicts have waxed and waned throughout history, regardless of natural disasters. There are four major causes of global conflicts (that are present in different combinations):
- fighting over limited (and /or exploited) resources;
- tribal hatreds;
- religious hatreds; and
- territorial disputes.
Present-day events (!) have shown that humanity is making slow, slow, slow progress towards a total net amount of good versus evil on earth– even with all the advances in early-warning systems for disasters and the striving for more widespread humanitarian activities. Cases in point: once-Communist countries have changed for the better in certain ways in the last thirty years, and there is less colonialism in the world than there used to be.
Unfortunately, advances in technology and charitable aid still trigger profiteering and political exploitation with their attendant propaganda. Alpha males with hubris syndrome with their greed and power-hunger still rule most of the world. Bottom line: human nature doesn’t change, but globally, human beings overall, are evolving.
Anyway, read the book to learn many more story-details, involving: how Nixon (and his evil sidekick Kissinger) came extremely close to instigating a nuclear war against the USSR in the Bay of Bengal; the fates of various political and military leaders; and the hapless common people of Pakistan, and the aid workers who passionately tried to help them.