What’s worse is that many of us don’t care very much about other places and peoples. In that respect, we are similar to the British before the Second World War. Everybody remembers Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s blithe characterization of the dispute between Germany and Czechoslovakia as a “quarrel in a far-away country between peoples of whom we know nothing.”
What he overlooked was that the leader of one of those people wasn’t that far away and wanted to destroy much of the world. His failure to get it nearly led to the end of western civilization.
Since then, geographical know-nothingism has been unfashionable. So far as major military powers go, anyway. Trouble is, it is usually the minor league states that make trouble these days. I was in geography class in the eighth grade when the teacher said, “let’s pull down the big map and find this nation that’s now in the news, a place called Vietnam.” At least one boy in that class later died in that far-away country.
Growing up in Michigan, I do not recall ever meeting someone from the Indian subcontinent as a boy. I was astonished when I learned that literally millions had died in violent clashes in 1947, when they partitioned the former British Raj into India and Pakistan.
Today, it is much harder to ignore both countries, though we are still pretty good at failing to understand them. There are parts of suburban Detroit with heavy Indian and Pakistani populations
My classes at Wayne State now frequently have students from both nations. A few years ago, I had one young Pakistani woman in class who was actually from Kashmir. It would be fair to say that she didn’t quite have a balanced view of the dispute. As she saw it, Kashmir rightfully belonged to Pakistan, period. Not surprisingly, I’ve since had an Indian student or two who saw things slightly differently.
What’s important is that we make some attempt to understand them at all. That doesn’t mean the United States should try to sail in diplomatically, or, heaven help us, with our military.
After all, we’ve just gone through more than five years of trying to set things right in a couple Asian countries we don’t understand very well. Whatever your politics, our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been less than a complete success.
The situation in Kashmir is fairly delicate. There have been large demonstrations against Indian rule in recent weeks, and dozens have been killed. India and Pakistan both have the bomb now, and came close to a nuclear confrontation a few years ago.
Americans seem capable of paying attention to only one foreign crisis at a time. We need to do a whole lot better at trying to understand the world. And now would be an ideal time to start.