The Leveeathan Approach

“He told me what (his plan) was, and I see in a minute it was worth fifteen of mine for style, and would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides.”

–Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn

Patient: Doctor, I have a cold.

Doctor: Go home, and stand under a cold shower for 10 minutes.

Patient (a little confused): In this cold weather? What…would that do, doctor…?

Doctor: You would catch pneumonia. I know how to cure pneumonia.
–Author Unknown

[Circa Aug 30, 2005]

Aide: Mr. President, the levees have fallen.

Bush: Ain’t that great? Ah hate levies. Ah campaigned aginst ’em! Ah’m for tax cuts.

–From Sore Throat, our inside source at the White House

Conventional wisdom used to be that the United States was impregnable on account of having oceans on two sides.

This should have been even truer for historical India. Prior to the advent of the warplane, India should have been a defending general’s dream. Surrounded by oceans on not two but three sides, with the remaining side, unlike the flat Canadian or Mexican borders, guarded by the tallest mountain range in the world, India should have been the most secure nation on the planet. With just a few Himalayan passes to guard, that too only when the snows eased for a few months each year, it would be obvous that a strategic deployment of troops and equipment at the right spots would have been enough to secure the country’s defense.

Alas, history proved otherwise. Probably no nation in the world was invaded and looted more frequently. Though India, like the US, has a long coastline, it experienced no significant sea blockades a la the War of 1812. But on land, it was far less favored by events than the United States. For over fifteen centuries, it was subject to a succession of armed invasions across its northern border, all through the same handful of well-hewn mountain passes in the Himalayas, the most famous of which was the Khyber.

In wave after wave, marauders (including some future Indian emperors) periodically broke through the Himalayan ranges. They came from lands as far flung as Central Asia, Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan and Arabia. One single brigand from Afghanistan, Mohammad of Ghazni, made 17 such sorties, carrying away large amounts of booty each time and leaving destruction and desecration in his wake.

The defenders were unable to accomplish the simple task of securing the handful of mountain passes.

Fast forward a thousand years and move the lens west by ten thousand miles. Replace ” breach of the Himalayan defenses” with “breach of the Mississippi levees”.

I never did understand why the city was allowed to drown. There was nothing inevitable about the flooding. It was not the rain that put New Orleans under six feet of water. It was not as though the river or the lake overflowed their banks (in which case the damage would have been far less). The entire flooding was caused by a few levee breaches. Which brings up the simple question: why were these not dammed right away (Wrong answer: Because the Bush administration is averse to profanity)? Some early talk of sandbags being dropped by helicopters soon petered out with vague mentions of pulleys being unavailable, and soon a mood of resignation descended over the country as we watched water inundating New Orleans. If these breaches had been plugged, the damage, material and human, would have been nowhere near its current scale.

It was not a lack of resources that occasioned the rout, either in India (circa 1000 AD) or in America (2005 AD). Like America of our time, India of old was known as the richest country in the world (hence the invasions!). And like America today, Indian rulers, though all they needed to do was the rather well-defined task of safeguarding a small number of passages, fell prey to identical patterns of disaster over the centuries. Just as ancient and medieval India (or even modern India, considering the Chinese aggression of 1962, or the Kargil infiltration of 1999) was somehow unable to grasp the simple expedient of plugging a few border gaps to prevent incursions, the United States was unable to block a couple of openings in a levee system this summer and lost one of its most important cities. This is the real lesson of New Orleans, and has therefore received almost no attention. The politicians, who have even shorter attention spans than the public, have moved on after the initial grandstanding, while the press is lost in an ecstasy of self-congratulation, partially in shock at its own unaccustomed (and short-lived) boldness in the wake of Katrina.

An on-the-ball president would have taken personal command of the control room instead of hanging out strumming guitars; a stronger president would have comandeered whatever resources were needed to resolve problems, and a smarter president might have anticipated the well-known threats to the country and skirted such disasters long before they happened. All this is true enough.

But it would be delusional to pretend that our levee problems begin and end with George W. Bush and his crony culture. In fact, the unattended breach seems the perfect metaphor for the state of our wider social contract. We have forgotten the old adage, “A stitch in time saves nine”. Our mode is to begrudge a few million dollars to prevent a problem, only to end up spending billions with incanations of the American spirit, generosity, and other familiar bromides. It is reminiscent of a software colleague who used to joke that he got a lot farther once he started calling his bugs, ‘features’.

How often in the recent past has America disdained the simple, on-the-spot, solution, opting instead for a convoluted response! And in the process, how badly has it that has ended up gutting our entire “way of life” without solving the problem, where the simple response would have both solved the problem and preserved the Republic?

Take 9-11. When all is said and done, securing the cockpit door in the aircraft was all that was needed to foil the hijackers. And even after the hijackers took over, the next logical step was to scramble planes, for which we had almost an hour, and for which we had ‘prepared’ for decades. It was not done. Instead, we changed our entire system of arrest and seizure, surveillance, created a new national security bureaucracy, and bid goodbye to many of our freedoms.

Take Tora Bora. All we had to do was cut off Osama Bin Laden’s escape route (those same Himalayan passes again) through the mountains. We let him go.

Take childhood vaccinations. A simple injection costing a few dollars could save tens of thousands down the road. Our preventive health care system is dissolving rapidly.

Take armor. Even if one is opposed to the Iraq war, it should concern us all that American soldiers have to scavenge junkyards for their protective armor.

Take the border. Stopping unauthorized entry is a must for any country that wants to survive, but in the face of a wave of illegal immigration, our leaders can only talk of amnesty, and go back to pretending the problem doesn’t exist.

Take the budget. The nation which invented the profession of credit counselor has itself forgotten the first rule of fiscal sanity, laid down by the Fool in King Lear, “Spend less than you owest”.

Finally, take liberty, the very foundation of the country. For two hundred years, Americans have reacted viscerally to the government taking away liberties. It is a simple principle — you cannot deprive people of their freedom (of speech or otherwise) without the due process of law. The First Amendment is America’s greatest invention. Yet, when government hides the carnage in Iraq and bans photographs of soldiers’ coffins, or detains people without trial or tortures prisoners in far-away cells, there is little outrage. The defense of this one principle, liberty, which is the real basis for ‘our way of life’, is being forfeited by default.

Like Old India, where the elite played chess and argued over the nuances of poetry while attackers ravished the land, the buzz in America today when a new judge is nominated is over his views on Roe Vs. Wade, not on the Bill of Rights. This says as much about our preoccupations as it does about Bush’s.

The problem in Old India was not that it was lacking in money, intelligence or resourcefulness. It was that the members of a small elite defined their welfare as their country’s, not the other way about. In her stultified society, people identified more with their caste than with their country. A long list of Quislings enabled invaders from Alexander on to thunder down the passes (though Alexander himself is said to have followed the Kabul river rather than the Khyber pass) and plunder the land.

The traditional American genius lay in its pragmatism, the ability to find simple solutions, heading off problems before they arose, and in recognizing the merit of investment in its people. Over the last quarter century, the American state has been breached by a succession of politicians, experts at running for office while campaigning on the futility of government! Old India, in Ram Manohar Lohia’s words, “did not have a state for 1000 years”. That is to say, private interest prevailed over public interest. What this systematic dismantling of the state has done to America is there for all to see. The state exists now not as a guardian of public interest and people’s rights, but as a protector of tax cuts and promoter of business. The Kelo decision is the exemplar of this paradox, where in the name of public interest, the expropriation of private property is sanctioned for transfer to a corporation.
For all we know, the ‘K’ in K-Street might stand for Khyber.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, meet John D. Rockefeller.


Even after a millenium of attacks, land invaders never once colonized India. The real servitude and looting would have to await the arrival of the Europeans, especially the English in the Seventeenth Century, and a different kind of invasion, from the sea. What the overland freebooters could not manage over fifteen hundred years, this coastal invasion accomplished in a mere hundred and fifty. India lost her freedom. At its beginning, at least, this invasion involved no battles. It began with a familar concept called. It was called, ‘Free Trade’……

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His articles can be found on http://www.indogram.com/gramsabha/articles.











We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005


More articles by:

/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

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