Hyenas are one of the oldest species of canine on Earth. Indigenous to Africa and more closely related to felines, they exist in four subspecies: spotted, brown, striped and aardwolf. Despite these slight differences, hyenas are carnivorous creatures. They’re also basically scavengers; waiting until a larger animal dies or is severely incapacitated before ripping it to pieces. And – depending on the victim – they leave little behind, except horns, hooves and tails. All subgroups of hyena boast another attribute – they can’t be tamed. They’re not like domesticated dogs, which have become one of humanity’s truest non-human companions. The hyena mindset is too rudimentary to allow it to sit and stay. They’re just too savage and wild to conform to human-induced pleasantries and commands. You really don’t want one as a pet. Hyenas just need to be left alone.
Afghanistan is a hyena. It’s savage and wild. We really don’t need it as an ally. Unlike a domesticated dog, it doesn’t return the love. We just need to leave it alone.
This landlocked pocket of mountains sits at the crossroads of Asia and the Middle East; languishing in another realm, a universe unto itself. Its current borders were established in the 19th century, but Afghanistan bears an ancient history. Its geographic location made it a principal feature of the storied Silk Road, which carried travelers and traders between Southern Europe and China. Excavations throughout Afghanistan prove that humans populated the region as far back as 52,000 years ago; when Neanderthals were the dominant bipedals. Archaeologists have shown that more stable, urbanized societies began developing by 3000 BCE. With its history closely tied to neighboring countries, such as Iran and Pakistan, the Afghanistan of millennia ago was part of two of the earliest and largest civilizations on Earth – Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is notable for evolution of one of the first writing systems in the world.
For almost as long as its relatively modern existence, Afghanistan has been subjected to one barbarous onslaught after another. It fell to the Achamenid Empire, after Darius I conquered it around 515 BCE. Alexander the Great stormed into the region around 330 BCE and defeated Darius III. The Maurya Empire took control of most of the region where it further entrenched Hinduism and introduced Buddhism. A variety of successive conquerors and empires descended upon Afghanistan and surrounding areas. Islam arrived in the 7th century CE via Rashidun Arabs coming from the Byzantine Empire. In 1221 CE, Mongols invaded Afghanistan under their founder Genghis Khan who oversaw unbridled destruction of towns and villages.
All of these invaders had to battle a common enemy: Afghan tribesmen, gangs of nomadic and uncultured warriors who had little more than determination and grit as guiding forces. Even when the British first arrived in the 1830s – hoping to annex Afghanistan and protect the latter’s position as a vital trade route from the Russian Empire – they were confronted with bands of ruthless fighters. Great Britain tried three more times to conquer Afghanistan, resulting in a 1921 treaty to…well, leave them alone!
The most recent invasion attempt came with the former Soviet Union in 1979. While the Soviets had been able to swallow up much of Eastern Europe throughout the 20th century, the seeming backwater of Afghanistan proved to be more formidable than others. The Soviets may have easily overrun such nations as Hungary, but Afghanistan tribesmen fought harder than even the great Russian bear anticipated. The United States likes to claim it helped Afghans defeat the Soviets and drive them out before they could mark a full decade of their presence. But one thing remained certain. Afghanistan just couldn’t be tamed; that is, it couldn’t be conquered.
U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is only recent; dating to the 1980s. Before then, most Americans couldn’t point it out on a globe of the world. Many probably still can’t.
But in the modern schemes of geopolitical events, the fact the U.S. promised to help Afghanistan rebuild after defeating the Soviets and then failed to do it gets lost in translation. It’s this failure that led to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. The Taliban rejuvenated antiquated views of how the world should function, including a more brutal version of Islam – which is akin to evangelical Christianity: narrow-minded and filled with more hate than love. What infrastructure remained in Afghanistan collapsed, and women became relegated to a status one step above cattle, driven from schools and forced to walk around dressed like beekeepers. It was this bloodthirsty atmosphere that spawned the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which in turn, culminated in a 20-year occupation of this ragged bunch of mountains and its disoriented tribal factions by the U.S.
And, as of August 31, we’re gone. The U.S. has left the region; exiting as a construction company forgoes building a skyscraper in quicksand. It’s not that America is wimping out and giving up. We’re tired of this place. Just as some people can’t pinpoint Afghanistan on a map, some Americans were surprised to know we were still there.
And now, we’re gone. Good riddance!
I have no qualms about leaving. Afghanistan wasn’t worth the trouble. The U.S. couldn’t maintain its place over there. We can’t always be the ones to protect people from themselves. We’ve spent trillions of U.S. dollars (taxpayer dollars) and have nothing much to show for it. The Afghan Army, for example, surrendered to the reborn Taliban as soon as the Americans started leaving. All that time, effort and money spent to train the locals to fight against the more brutal elements of their own society evaporated. It’s like training nurses to work in the emergency room and then watch them pass out at the first sight of blood.
So what now? Nothing! Once we beat back the Taliban and helped move Afghanistan into the 21st century, the Afghan people should have been able to take control at that point. Instead tribalism and that vehement version of Islam swarmed over the country.
Afghanistan donned the hyena mentality once again. But that seems to be its true nature. It’s wild and can’t be tamed.
The recent scandal involving Meghan Markle and Prince Harry has overwhelmed the national media both here in the U.S. and in the U.K. I still don’t care what goes on with the British royal family and maintain that American media still hasn’t figured out most Americans just don’t give a shit what that band of over-glorified miscreants do or say. The Windsors are among the handful of Europe’s royal clans that survived the carnage of two global conflicts within a half century. And, like the other families, they don’t wield any real political power. They’re merely figureheads. They may be an institution, but their extravagant lifestyles are supported by taxpayers.
In the U.S. the closest we’ve ever had to a true royal family is from the Kingdom of Hawaii, which still exists – at least in name. Their power was squashed when the United States formally annexed Hawaii in 1897; a process that began with the usual cadre of White Christian missionaries who thought then – as now – that they knew what was best for the locals.
The interview Meghan and Harry had with Oprah Winfrey about Meghan’s apparently unpleasant experiences with the Windsors proved eye-opening to many – mainly the Windsors and their ardent supporters. You know – people who aren’t too aware of the world around them.
The only member of the British royal family I liked was the late Princess Diana. She exuded a sense of class and grace unmatched by any of the Windsor clan. While she held the formal title of princess, she did more than just look glamorous. She used her position to raise awareness about the AIDS crisis (a very taboo subject in the 1980s) and landmines in Africa; the result of unfettered wars and European colonialism. Her boldness with these matters shocked the staid and cloistered Windsors. Her death traumatized so many. I think the Windsors were overwhelmed by the amount of love and compassion people across the globe had for Diana and startled by the fact so many Britons would rather have her back than have the British royal family. In other words, people would much rather see Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles drop dead. How’s that for public opinion?!
I feel that Diana’s class and grace live on in her sons, William and Harry. Both served in the British military and have engaged in a number of civic activities to further the cause of humanity. Meghan Markle adds to that sense of grace. But, as unsurprising as her allegations are, I’m still upset by her treatment at the hands of her in-laws. It hints at the disrespect heaped onto non-Whites in the upper echelons of regal European societies. Like most Europe’s royal families, the British royal clan is at the historical heart of European colonialism, genocide and racist oppression. The British Crown stormed through Africa, Asia and the Western Hemisphere for centuries, resulting in the deaths of millions and the plundering of cultural treasures. Two of the United Kingdom’s greatest losses came in the 20th century: Canada and India. And they still haven’t figured out the sun has set on their empire.
I’m impressed with Harry’s response though. Instead of trying to defend or explain his family’s supposed attitude towards Meghan, he did what literally millions have men have done since the beginning of time: he came to the defense of his wife, the mother of his child. He also expressed love for his father, which I don’t doubt. But it’s obvious Harry is a much different type of royal – whatever that’s supposed to entail.
I have a unique and tenuous connection to the British royal family – emphasis on tenuous. In September of 1951 King George VI had his entire left lung removed. A chronic smoker, George had already suffered health scares related to his habit. My paternal grandfather, Epimenio De La Garza, was also a chronic smoker. By his own admission he’d begun smoking around the age of 6, which would be 1899 for him. By 1951 he was in dire straits. Around the exact same time King George had his lung surgery, my grandfather had his in a hospital in Dallas, Texas. The connection? Some of the doctors who worked on King George attended medical school with some of the doctors who worked on my grandfather. George died the following February. My grandfather died 17 years later. Shortly after George’s death, one of my grandfather’s brothers told my father and his 2 brothers that money, power and the best medical care it can provide can’t save anyone if the “main doctor” – meaning God – wants them.
Whatever becomes of the British royal family after this latest fiasco lingers in a strained future. I just want Meghan Markle to know she doesn’t need their approval for any aspect of her life. She’s better than that.
The current COVID-19 crisis has been compared to the “Black Plague”, which ravaged much of Eurasia in the middle of the 14th century C.E. Historians and scientists now believe the scourge first appeared in Western Asia in the 1330s, before storming into India and the Middle East via the legendary “Silk Road” and then into Europe and Northern Africa. It even reached the Danish outpost of Iceland. It’s a wonder, I believe, it didn’t make it to North America, as Viking explorers had already reached what is now Newfoundland. Europe was the hardest hit region, with some 50 million estimated fatalities. Overall, it killed roughly 350- 375 million people. But, since they had no accurate population counting system at the time, the death rate very well could have been several times worst.
There are some chilling similarities to the COVID-19 debacle. It began in Asia and seems to have struck Italy first. Back then religious leaders convinced their ignorant, illiterate followers that the pestilence was God’s condemnation for whatever sins they’d committed. On top of that, national commanders initially didn’t realize the severity of the pandemic and concocted whatever excuses sounded plausible.
Politics aside, one other element remains relatively unchanged: the love of music and dance. We’ve seen people across the globe cope with isolation and mandatory quarantines by singing and dancing; playing music on their doorsteps or balconies for neighbors to hear; connecting with family and friends through cyberspace to share melodies. Again, there are similarities with the “Black Plague”.
Medieval Europeans also often used music and song to celebrate life’s various events. I find music from this time and place beautifully intriguing and even somewhat familiar to current musical trends. As usual, Italians always rose to the occasion; creating a number of songs and dances to express the beauty of life. The saltarello is a perfect example. An Italian dance style dating to the 14th century, it involved leaping and skipping and was performed to music done in a triple meter tempo; usually accompanied by tambourines, guitars, and singing. Saltarello survived into the 18th century and, by then, had become a popular folk dance. Saltarello rhythm and energy bears similarities to tarantella; another popular Italian folk dance also often performed at weddings and dating to medieval times. A well-known contemporary model appears in the final movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ symphony.
Shortly after Donald Trump was sworn into office as the 45th President of the United States, I referred to various photographs of the Trump family in their multi-million-dollar New York penthouse residence. “The Donald” is, of course, featured prominently front and center, with his (third) glamorous, trophy wife perched nearby; along with their son, Baron, and the real estate magnate’s adult children. Almost as prominent are the slew of plush, gilded furnishings spread throughout the abode. I kept thinking I’d seen similar photographs before; various pictures from newspapers and magazine, as well as recollections of a TV show that truly embodied 1980s-era chic and gluttony: “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” (Trump was featured in the very first episode and made recurring appearances.)
At one point, though, I turned to my massive collection of books and spotted one that displayed an even more accurate depiction of the Trump family; another clan who lived long ago in similar plush surroundings, perched high above the lowly masses. Lindsey Hughes’ “The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613 – 1917” describes the life and times of Russia’s last monarchal family. For more than 300 years, the Romanovs directly impacted world politics with their wealth and power; creating a massive empire that – even in today’s watered-down version – stretches across two continents. From Tsar Michael to Tsar Nicholas II, the Romanovs maintained a steady grip on the region; impressing their subjects and striking fear in their enemies.
But, by the time the dynasty marked its tercentenary in 1913, that grip had begun to weaken. Like the rest of Europe’s royal families, the Romanovs remained encapsulated in their heavily-fortified palatial environs; far removed from the sundry plights tormenting their own people and oblivious to the real world lurking outside those jewel-encrusted walls. Nicholas II was the first of the European monarchs to be ousted from power, as World War I intruded into Russian territory, and a growing internal revolution stalked the Romanov family.
While the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia, essentially marked the start of World War I, the death of the Romanovs signified the end – not just to the war, but also to the long-held concept that power and wealth are best held in the hands and pockets of a blessed few and that those few are part of the same bloodline that is never to be disturbed or questioned. It was shocking enough to international onlookers that a single gunman was able to kill Franz and Sophia with a few shots from a pistol; even as many outside of Europe initially wondered where was this place called Austria-Hungary. But, as news of the Romanovs’ demise trickled out, the anger and frustration of an oppressed people became brutally apparent. Nicholas and his immediate family, along with a handful of servants, were peppered with bullets in a basement far removed from their stately home; their bodies burned beyond recognition and dumped in neighboring woods.
The Trump family in their New York penthouse abode.
World War I was actually the culmination of the growing anarchist movement, which had its genesis in the heated anger of economic and social inequality among Europe’s working classes, before spreading westward across the Atlantic to plant itself in the U.S. and Canada. Even México had succumbed to the wrath of the peasant masses; with outlaws Francisco “Pancho” Diaz and Emiliano Zapata joining forces to lead a revolt against a semi-monarchal dynasty of wealthy landowners and bankers.
This was the dawn of the 20th century; where ordinary people – the one who really keep a nation moving – finally stood up and collectively announced, “Enough!” The rampages continued, as Europe began losing their colonial holdings in Africa and elsewhere, and Latin American nations saw military dictatorships crumble in the face of concerted human rights’ campaigns. One of the 20th century’s last acts of peasant anarchy came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Romania, the chaos became lethal when leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were dragged before a court trial staged by their otherwise lowly subjects, found guilty and lynched in public. That something so horrific could happen in 1989 shocked the world. But, for the oppressed peoples of staunchly communist Romania, it was perhaps the best Christmas present they’d ever had.
In 1900, China’s Boxer Rebellion was a desperate attempt by commoners to boot out European interlopers, which included assaults on Christian missionaries and converts. Some 100,000 people lost their lives in the various battles that summer. But a growing dissatisfaction towards the Qing Dynasty and the family of Emperor Puyi (sometimes spelled P’u-i) compelled the working classes to descend upon the sacred and mysterious “Forbidden City.” Puyi was only 3 years old when he ascended to the throne in 1908; less than four years later he was forced to abdicate and lived out the rest of his life as an undistinguished commoner. At the start of the 20th century, it seemed that China was poised to endure the same experience as the African continent: be carved up by European colonialists. But, if the Chinese people no longer wanted single family rule, did anyone believe they’d let bands of foreigners from the other side of the globe do the same? By the 1930s, China had evicted the Europeans.
World War II fractured Europe. A few royal families managed to survive; most notably in Great Britain. But they were all financially and morally exhausted. This culminated in the U.K. losing their colonial hold on India and Pakistan in 1947. Next came the vast continent of Africa, where European decolonialization occurred over the ensuing four decades; a massive undertaking that involved millions of people on a scale the world had never experienced before.
Imprisoned by the British in 1953 following the Mau Mau uprising and exiled in 1959, Jomo Kenyatta later emerged as one of the best-known African leaders. He served as Kenya’s first president from 1967 – 1978 and founded various pan-African nationalist movements.
In the Middle East, anarchism produced schizophrenic results. Anti-royal sentiments led to the 1973 deposition of the Barakzai, Afghanistan’s royal family. That may have set the stage for the Soviet Union’s bloody but futile attempt to annex that country in 1979. However, the U.S. became unexpectedly mired in the antagonism of the Iranian populace towards their own royal family, the Pahlavis. Shah Reza Pahlavi had crowned himself emperor in 1967 and led a brutal regime where dissidence was punished with unprecedented violence and oppression – tools common among wicked oligarchs. Pahlavi’s 1978 ouster led to the notorious Iran Hostage Crisis, which caught both the U.S. and the world completely off-guard. Concerned more with the Soviet threat and the oddly-christened “Cold War,” the U.S. government unwittingly experienced its first battle with Islamic extremism.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, royal families held on in Jordan and Syria. The discovery of oil on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1930s allowed the region’s ruling families and their subjects to be pulled up from the doldrums of a tribal / fiefdom-style existence and dropped into the vats of unimaginable wealth. No one seemed to care that women couldn’t drive cars, much less vote.
Average Mexican citizens rose up in 1910 to depose President Porfirio Diaz who ruled over them off and on for nearly four decades.
While anarchist anger dominated the 20th century, does the same hold true now? Studying the Trump clan, I can’t help but conjure up images of the Romanovs. Economic inequality is just as great now as it was a hundred years ago. We’ve returned to that “Gilded Age” period where the bulk of the world’s wealth and power sit in the grubby hands of a privileged few. The recent “Great Recession” was the worst economic downturn the U.S. had experienced since the “Great Depression.” Both debacles were the result of greed and political incompetence; the former mess instigated by the verbally-challenged scion of another monarchal-type dynasty: the Bush family. Aside from producing two of the worst presidencies within a generation, the Bush clan’s close ties to the Saudi royal family essentially allowed planning for and execution of the 9/11 events to go unnoticed; thus culminating in one misguided war and another illegitimate one, as the economy glided atop a housing bubble that didn’t just pop – it exploded. If regulations and measures a liberal president had established some eight decades ago hadn’t been in place, both the U.S. economy and the U.S. populace would have sunk into chaotic and murderous oblivion.
Power and wealth usually go together; conjoined twins that sometimes have no mercy for the commoners squirming beneath them. The leftist “Occupy Wall Street” movement didn’t gain as much traction as the right-wing “Tea Party,” which claimed passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 as the seeds of their founding; when, in fact, it was the election of the nation’s first biracial president that pissed them off. If they were so upset about undue taxation, they would have put blame for the economic downturn where it belonged: on the backs of their own Washington leaders who keep propagating the myth of “trickle-down economics.”
But the rise of a foul-mouthed, thrice-married bombastic businessman to the highest office in the land has lit another fire beneath millions of ordinary Americans frustrated with a “jobless recovery”; no one going to jail for causing the recent banking / home loan debacle; and endless conflicts in the Middle East. The illegitimacy of Donald Trump’s placement in the White House makes a mockery of the American democratic experience. Our 18th century predecessors carefully designed a unique concept of governing and valiantly fought against the very people who brought them here. The United States was an outlandish experiment that could have gone seriously wrong if so many people hadn’t realized its true value and potential over the ensuing centuries. As a nation, we didn’t want a group of self-righteous elitists – families riddled with colorblindness, hemophilia and unbridled arrogance – to rule over us and not be questioned. Our American forbears understood that humanity must work as a unit to achieve the best possible society. The various civil rights actions of the past 200 years – from abolitionism to gay/lesbian rights – have helped to refine this strange idea known as democracy.
Looking again at the Trump clan, I still can’t help but think of the Romanovs and realize how much they all have in common. However, I don’t wish the same fate upon the Trumps. As brutal as we often seem to the international community, that’s not what Americans do or who we are.
Either way, we didn’t want or need a royal family 240 years ago to impose its fickle will upon our lives – and we don’t want or need one now.
Film footage of Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation in May 1896. It’s one of the earliest known (and one of the fewest surviving) motion pictures and the first known example of the new medium utilized to capture a major news event.