Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Travels with Tiziano Terzani

Tiziano Terzani (1938-2004)

2011 is coming to a close and, as usual, we tend to look back at the major events and developments, both personal and global, of the last year. Among the many things that one could place into these categories, I will mention but two here: this year we were told about the unexpected assassination of America’s greatest terrorist nemesis, as well as the conclusion of the American presence in Iraq. Afghanistan has long been regarded by public opinion as the ‘good’ or ‘necessary’ war, while Iraq is mostly called (quite rightly) a war of ‘choice’ or even ‘American adventurism’, etc. Osama bin Laden and his rogue al-Qaeda network were based out of Afghanistan (after relocating from other less-than-desirable places such as Somalia and Sudan), which provided the rationale for a long bombing campaign (what is there to bomb there, anyway?) followed by a seemingly interminable occupation of that unfortunate country. Here are the agreeable euphemisms: “Operation Iraqi Freedom” lasted from 2003-2011 (a mere 9 years), while “Operation Enduring Freedom” began in late 2001, and will apparently continue until at least 2014. This last one, ‘OEF’, is already America’s longest war at 10 years and counting. Any sense of “progress” cannot be measured except by often-misleading statistics, and, as usual, civilians have suffered the most (while, as usual, arms producers have benefitted the most). It didn’t have to be like this. 

During my career as a US Army Officer, I spent two years in Afghanistan (between 2005-2008) as a part of ‘OEF VI’ and ‘OEF VIII’ (the Roman numerals signifying the change of command from one Army unit to another). On my second tour, I discovered and read a book by Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani called Letters Against the War. It is no understatement to say that it began to open my eyes to the nature of the conflict I was personally (and voluntarily) involved in, since it had long been a taboo subject to criticize the war in Afghanistan (once again, the ‘good’ war). In fact, it wasn’t until 2008 or so, after years of neglect (by the media) and mismanagement (by the Bush administration), that public attention began to change and people began to question why we are still sending money and soldiers to kill and be killed in Afghanistan. Terzani wrote his letters in the months immediately after September 11, 2001, and he died less than 3 years later in 2004 at the age of 65. I find that even now, 10 years after their first publication in those heated moments followed 9/11, they still remain relevant and are well worth reading by anyone with even a passing interest in world affairs. They are short, and here you can read a free English online edition.

Terzani was never well-known in Italy until his last years. He left Italy to study Chinese in America, and for the rest of his career worked as a journalist for the German magazine Der Spiegel and traveled around every part of Asia. He was often a war correspondent and reported on all the important conflicts in Asia from the ’70’s until after 9/11. He witnessed both the fall of Saigon to the Vietcong, and the fall of Phnom Pehn to the Khmer Rouge. Obviously, he was no stranger to bloodshed. That is exactly why he was a pacifist who spoke so strongly against war.

This is the context that underlies Letters Against the War. Rather than being swept up by the emotion of 9/11 like most of the West (including most of the media), and passively accepting blanket dichotomies such as “with us or against us”, he appealed to reason and understanding. He argued that the solution to violence is not to create more violence. Especially when much of that violence is bombs being dropped from almost invisible airplanes onto mostly civilian populations who have no idea what the Twin Towers were or what happened there. The letters were originally published in the newspaper Corriere della Sera as Terzani’s rebuttal of a hateful and violent anti-Muslim invective by journalist and fellow Florentine Oriana Fallaci. Terzani traveled through Pakistan and into Afghanistan in the weeks after 9/11, and reports firsthand the mood of the people there and the situation on the ground. He demonstrates his encyclopedic knowledge of Asian history and politics to explain how things work in a society that is so different from our own, and how we can trace the historical evolution behind radical Islam. While I may not agree with every opinion in the book, it is written with wisdom and I would recommend everyone to read it.

At the very least, the point of reading and pondering such opinions is an important step for each citizen of a free society for any political action, but especially in the case of imminent war. We only vote for politicians, but cannot vote for each policy they enact after elected, and certainly not for wars or bombings or secret defense expenditures. Politicians will use every tool at their disposal to start a war if that is in their interest, regardless of the cost to the country as a whole, not to mention human life. They also use the methods to manipulate the public discourse as much as possible, with propaganda and misinformation, in order to justify decisions that the electorate might not otherwise support (and cannot vote on). Would people still unquestioningly advocate the path towards war in the days after 9/11 if they knew the full costs that would be borne 10 years (and counting) later? How many lives of Afghans and Iraqs (and others) is it worth to “avenge” the nearly 3000 mostly American lives lost on 9/11 (the true number is unknown, but is surely at least 2 orders of magnitude higher)? How much money are we willing to spend on a decade of war-making (an unthinkable percentage of which is for defense contractors, corrupt officials, or is still “unaccounted for”), when there are plenty of people in our own country and around the world who need food, medical care, and a chance to get an education? I think there are occasions in which war is either necessary or inevitable, but this is not very often, and should always be debated beforehand and entered into with caution and great reluctance (and not with emotion or bloodlust– the cheers following the death of Osama bin Laden attest to the latter). According to Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, conflict and violence are gradually decreasing in the human species. I think and hope that this is generally correct, and gives us especially extra reason to question the need and circumstances of any new potential war (the neo-conservative hawks are already making the case against Iran…let us not make the same mistakes). We should always be, by default, in the opposition to any political scheme that attempts to entangle us in wars, which are by nature destructive and unpredictable. Terzani made the case for peace (and still does so through his writings), and I think with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that he was one of the few voices of reason.

Recent TED talk of Alberto Cairo, an Italian doctor who has helped war wounded in Afghanistan for 21 years and who Terzani met and wrote about in Letters Against the War

On a lighter note, my favorite book by Terzani is probably his most popular, A Fortune-Teller Told Me (Un indovino mi disse). This 1995 book tells about how in 1976 in Hong Kong, a Chinese fortune-teller told Terzani that he would face mortal danger in 1993 and should not use airplanes in that year. Terzani didn’t pay much attention (as none of us would for a prediction 17 years in the future), but at the end of 1992 he remembered it once again and, either out of fear or as a game, he decided to travel around Asia that year only by ground (or sea) transportation. Over the course of trains, boats, donkeys, and other means, he makes his way around Laos, Thailand, Burma, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia, Russia, and India recounting local history and legends, and testing each type of fortune-teller everywhere he goes. He is not a believer in superstition, and discusses in detail the many types of tricks of the trade of various astrologers, palm readers, etc (which are quite popular in Asia). Most of all, he writes convincingly of the benefits of slow travel by ground, and how much deeper one feels a place with this method as opposed to hurried hops from one sterile airport to another. I have not succeeded in totally making all of my travels so ideally slow and plane-free, but I have tried it on occasion when I can (such as a recent bus trip from Wales to Italy), and it is a richer experience (not to mention avoiding the annoyances of the post-9/11 airport security). Terzani is an expert in all matters of Asia, and this book is worth reading for his anecdotes and unique perspective alone.

Last days of Tiziano talking to Folco in his terrace in Orsigna

I recently had occasion to visit a place called Orsigna in the beautiful hills of northern Tuscany which was the setting for a film. The film was a German production based on the memoirs of Terzani, La fine è il mio inizio (The End is My Beginning) (co-written and published posthumously by his son, Folco, in 2006). Terzani was born in Orsigna, and returned there from meditation in his Himalayan mountain hut shortly before his death (his stomach cancer caused his health to deteriorate rapidly). It is a very nice book, and the setting of the film itself is inspiring.

Happy New Year, let’s hope for a better 2012, and war really is over if we want it to be. To put a hopeful adaption on a quotation of George Santayana (which is often falsely attributed to Plato): “Only the future has seen the end of war.”

(please watch John Lennon’s video below for a look at the true face of war)

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6 thoughts on “Travels with Tiziano Terzani

  1. “… because I’m more and more sure that violence brutalizes not just its victims but also those who perpetrate it.”

    This idea forms the imperative behind my current attitude toward war, and torture, and bombing Iran back to the stone age, and the rest of it. The war-hawks (most of whom have gone and continue to go out of their way to avoid participating when they’ve had the opportunity) would have us believe that there is no choice–the alternative to going to war is some much worse scenario than war, that results in unthinkable death and destruction for us–but if one were to do the math, one would realize that the greatest risk to America is not getting bombed by an enemy, or failing to exert our will in the world. The great threat to us is ourselves; turning into the very enemy we sought to counter.

    In days past, the Army would have served as a periodic tonic for bellicosity, but we’ve cracked the code on that, too–so few people serve, and so few of those serving see combat, that there is no equitable distribution of knowledge about why one should avoid the process in the first place. It’s worth recalling how Barry Goldwater’s fear-mongering message during the 1964 political campaign led not to fear he’d hoped, but ridicule–the male population of America, which must have been around 20-25% veterans of World War I, II, and Korea at that time, soundly rejected the idea of a politician who they felt might provoke war with the Soviet Union. Only Lyndon Johnson’s undeclared war in Vietnam allowed the democracy of America to slide into violence and conflict, until a critical mass of opposition was achieved, at which point the people rightly pulled us back out.

    That critical mass of anti-war protesters cannot accumulate under the current arrangement of .1% serving (and .01% serving in combat), leaving the population prey to self-interested politicians and their wars of unprovoked aggression until we’ve bankrupted the country or China figures out a way to take us down (or both).

    It is immoral to entertain ideas of war or aggression as a tool of foreign policy.


  2. Adrian, I am happy to see you join the venerable tradition of veteran qua anti-war advocate. Great point about LBJ’s undeclared escalation of war, which set an unfortunate precedent that every president now loves to abuse. Nixon and Reagan supported who knows how many secret wars, assassinations, coups, etc.– we all know about the miserable Bush doctrine as well. Probably the scariest of all is the new unmanned ‘Drone warfare’ gospel preached by Obama. It was Eisenhower, who was by no coincidence a commanding general and witness to much bloodshed, who warned us against the military-industrial complex, and whose proudest achievement as president was 8 years without starting a war. We need a more educated and involved populace to always be critical of any ‘foreign entanglements’, as George Washington phrased it. We need more voices in the media making the case for peace and diplomacy, rather than beating the drums of war in pursuit of a good story line. More public intellectuals need to assert themselves, in the tradition of the philosopher and long-time anti-war activist Bertrand Russell, who continued to denounce war crimes in Israel and Vietnam, among many others, until his death at the age of 97. Regular people like you and I can definitely contribute to this ‘fight’ by making rational arguments against war and trying to gradually influence at least the people around us. The first step is obviously debunking the ‘casus belli’ against Iran.
    As for the diminishing participation of citizens in their own republic, I am strongly in favor of some type of mandatory public service project after high school. Something along the lines of an expanded and obligatory peace corps/americorps/volunteer corps.


  3. Giulio on said:

    “A che servono queste rivoluzioni? Tutti questi sacrifici veri, che tanti hanno fatto con grande onestà, a che servono? Se avessero vinto gli altri, la Cina avrebbe sofferto molto di meno e sarebbe comunque diventata quello che è oggi e forse prima. Lo stesso è vero per il Vietnam, se avesse vinto Thieu invece dei comunisti. I comunisti vietnamiti oggi cosa fanno?! Saigon è una città occidentale, con tutto quello che l’Occidente ha di peggio, i bordelli, l’interesse, i ricchi e i poveri, lo sfruttamento. […]
    C’è un altro aspetto della rivoluzione che io continuo a ripetere. E’ vero, potevano vincere gli altri e il risultato poteva essere uguale. Ma in fondo la rivoluzione vietnamita era giusta, era giusta! I vietnamiti dovevano riunificare il loro paese, non potevano permettere la continuazione della situazione coloniale.
    E anche tutti gli orrori che sono seguiti non bastano per dire che le idee con le quali i rivoluzionari erano partiti di per sé erano sbagliate. […]
    La mia conclusione è che non serve. […] e da qui il mio passo verso l’unica rivoluzione che serve, quella dentro di te. Le altre le vedi. Le altre si ripetono, si ripetono in maniera costante, perchè al fondo c’è la natura dell’uomo. E se l’uomo non cambia, se l’uomo non fa questo salto di qualità, se l’uomo non rinuncia alla violenza al dominio della materia, al profitto, all’interesse, tutto si ripete, si ripete, si ripete…”

    (T.Terzani, La fine è il mio inizio, 2006)


  4. Giulio on said:

    “Nessuno sembra farcela: dalla Cina di Mao all’India di Ghandi e alla Cambogia di Pol Pot, tutti gli esperimenti di autarchia di sviluppo non capitalista, con caratteristiche nazionali sono falliti. I più per giunta facendo milioni di vittime…
    …oggi un paese al bivio fra la modernizzazione-distruzione e un isolamento che conservi la sua identità è in realtà senza scelta: gli altri hanno già scelto per lui.
    Gli uomini d’affari, i banchieri, gli esperti delle organizzazioni internazionali, i funzionari dell’ONU e quelli dei governi di mezzo mondo sono ormai tutti convinti profeti dello “sviluppo” a ogni costo; tutti credono i una sorta di missione, per tanti versi simile a quella del generale americano che in Vietnam dopo aver raso al suolo un villaggio occupato dai Vietcong, disse, con l’orgoglio di chi è convinto d’aver compiuto un’opera meritoria: “Abbiamo dovuto distruggerlo per salvarlo””

    (T.Terzani – Un indovino mi disse,1995)


  5. Giulio,
    Grazie per queste citazioni. La prima conclusione e’ un pensiero molto filosofico, un po’ buddista, ma potrebbe essere anche solipsismo. Penso che Terzani ha ragione di credere che il miglioramento del mondo dipende da una rivoluzione individuale per ogni singola persona, e certamente funzionarebbe per chi e’ gia’ riflessivo. Dopotutto, dobbiamo ricordare l’aforismo greco “conosci te stesso.” Ma per chi non crede questo l’ottimismo, forse puo’ cercare di cambiare il mondo anche fuori se’ stesso, con un impegno di politica, attivismo, insegnamento, o qualsiasi cosa che diminuisce la sofferenza degli altri e diminuisce l’ingiustizia. Forse la tua seconda citazione illustra un esempio dei mali e barbarismi del mondo contro cui si puo’ lottare attivamente, invece di fuggire dentro se’ stessi. Ho letto di recente una frase di Wittgenstein: “solo migliorati, questo e’ tutto cio’ che puoi fare per migliorare il mondo.” Un bel sentimento, forse, ma non sono sicuro che questo tipo di solipsismo conduce verso un mondo piu’ bello e pacifico. Forse ci vuole anche attivismo e coinvolgimento. I also want to say that maybe self-improvement is more than an individual process, since we are connected with everyone and everything around us, so that, for me, self-improvement means helping improve the world.


    • Giulio on said:

      I agree with your last sentence. Personally, I do not try to improve myself in order to improve the world (that’s not the main aim, I’d be a hypocrite if I said such a thing); however I strongly believe that if everyone started to become aware of themselves and then tried to improve themselves, little by little, maybe things could change. I also think that is quite utopistic, but this should be what Terzani meant for “rivoluzione dentro di te” and why he called it “rivoluzione”.


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