Lessons from Another Civilization
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A few weeks ago, I was gifted Wilbur Smith’s popular novel “River God” by a friend who shares my interest in history and culture. Much to my embarrassment, I realized I hadn’t even heard of the author or his books until the day I was gifted the book. I began reading the book in real earnest sometime last week after a breathless month.

The book, besides serving as a crash course in Egyptian history, is eminently readable thanks to Smith’s eye for detail and his superlative command over the language. What makes the book all the more “useful” are the lessons in history and Realpolitik it has to offer to those who are interested in drawing them.

Of the few things that the book has compelled me to think about, one which broadly relates to this forum is ways of dealing with a nation which uses raw savagery as a tool of coercing its neighbours into doing its bidding.

The story in the book is set around 18 centuries before Christ; the 3 leading protagonists not only have a ringside view of Egyptian power politics, but also take active part to protect interests and people that are dear to them.

Their lives, which are largely successful despite the tumultuous political upheavals, are turned topsy-turvy when Egypt is invaded by a violent savage horde from the middle-east called the Hyksos. Egypt, which takes immense pride in its military capabilities, is reduced to the status of a hapless quarry in a day, in the face of a merciless barbaric invasion on its civilization by a tribe whose primary objective behind the invasion is capture of wealth/resources.

After being driven out of their lands, Egyptians mull over the reasons for their humiliation at the hands of a sub-human tribe, despite Egypt’s perceived superior deterrent capabilities. Egyptians discover that although they had a defence mechanism in place, their culture was largely one of scholars and traders. This called for a fundamental shift in world-view.

Their inherent proclivity towards knowledge and commerce apart, lack of a collective national consciousness had dulled their protective instincts as a nation, despite heightened individual survival impulses.

This mellow core, a fractious polity and pervasive apathy to the nation’s collective destiny had left the Egyptians completely naked to murderous assaults from a tribe which was driven by plain hunger for resources and power. This hunger was so rapacious in its intensity that even disciplined military might was no match to its malevolence and ferocity.

What could Egyptians have done to avoid being driven out of their own nation? What could have they done to preserve their way of life which they had assiduously cultivated and preserved over millennia? What could have they done to protect their women and symbols of their culture, from unimaginable outrage and irreverent desecration (respectively)?

I think the answer is fairly straightforward and is best captured in a nutshell by this thought from General Douglas MacArthur“No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.” I’d probably replace freedom with civilization…

Instead of giving a direct answer to what Egypt could have done in the interest of self-preservation, I’d like to explore the thoughts corollarial to MacArthur’s pearl of wisdom.

It is important to realize that nations are real and they exist in the realm of practicality. It is not my belief that altruism has no meaning or space in international politics, but an untrammelled altruistic world view could lead a nation to delude itself into believing that maintaining a standing army for its defence is antithetical to its non-violent ideals… Balance of power ought to take precedence when the lives and dignities of an entire nation are at stake.

Balance of power, first of all, requires a clear cut foreign policy whose goalposts are immutable, but the path to which is guided by firmness and dynamism. That said, foreign policy does not exist in isolation. The condition precedent for a clear projection of the self is identification and consolidation of the self.

Applying this proposition to a nation like Egypt, which in the book has a natural affinity for pursuit of knowledge and commerce, would it be beyond the obvious to state that both knowledge and commerce are largely peaceful pursuits which inevitably lead to creation of wealth (and hence unwanted attention)? Such being the case, shouldn’t de minimis militarisation of the society be a priority to ensure that it is capable of offering resistance to, and warding off, any attack on its way of life?

When I speak of “militarisation”, I use it in the popular sense of the word. A society which is inherently docile or has become docile over a long period has to imbue itself with a martial spirit if it has to survive extinction. The Israelites learnt it the hard way after being driven from land to land, country to country and after surviving the equivalent of a “near-death” experience for a community. Closer home, the best example is that of the birth of the Khalsa- A peace-loving community of peasants was forced to militarize and arm itself to protect its right to faith.

Militarization also has the desired effect of bringing people together in the interest of a common cause, which is both social and personal.

But is militarization the silver bullet? I think context plays a huge role in calibrating our responses to situations. “Militarization” is probably the instinctive reaction to the fear of being annihilated (not all instinctive reactions are misplaced or knee-jerk…). It is necessary to prepare a society for the worst- an all-out confrontation. However, work-a-day politics requires simultaneous application of other “soft” and pragmatic options.

If paucity of resources and abject backwardness are the reasons for a neighbour’s constant needling, militarization alone cannot be an answer. Not just that, militarization may also escalate the cost of survival beyond sustainable limits, besides creating a high-strung reactionary society.

Further, in the event of a final conflict, the economically backward and belligerent neighbour would have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. A crude simile could be the carpet-bombing of an under-developed nation by a military hyper-power, I don’t see what an under-developed country has to lose in a carpet-bombing…

What then, is the solution? Sharing prosperity with the poorer neighbour could be an option worth exploring. Giving the neighbour something to lose in the event of a conflict has fewer downsides to it. It might force the neighbour’s “moderates” and the “civil society” to rein in the hawks. It might get the neighbour addicted to sustained prosperity.

But how does one ensure that this new-found prosperity does not arm the neighbour with greater resources to needle its benefactor? Would sharing prosperity be interpreted as a sign of weakness?

All these apart, can prosperity be attractive an incentive to a neighbour who is driven by religious fanaticism? If the reason for the schismatic pathology is metaphysical, and not material, how can one hope to dangle the carrot of prosperity with even a modicum of success? If all material conflicts are mere cloaks and veneers to a much more fundamental gulf, would it be sensible to share prosperity with the neighbour in the first place?…If so, is a permanent solution the answer?

And by the way, in the book, the Egyptians realize that a war-like tribe deserves a war-like response.