2014 is ending on several upnotes:
The nation's unemployment rate is down to 5.8%, the lowests its been since July 2008;
- The latest quarterly data on real gross domestic product shows the nation's economy growing at an annual rate of 5%; it is the highest third-quarter rate in the last 11 years.
- As of this past Sunday, December 28, the NATO mission in Kabul closed, meaning that America's longest war has ended . . . sort of . . .
Which leads us to this week's topic, The Battle of the Hexes:
Hexes and curses are the stuff of history -- as well as of sports, swag, the theatre, politics, warfare and even diamonds (that's the storied Hope Diamond on the left). When one delves into the subject of hexes and curses with any rigor, it simply amazes how many of the beastly whammies, spells and jinxes there are. Most have enough adherents to warrant dozens upon dozens of essays, books and websites. And even when the hexes and curses defy ration or reason, there often remains an eerie feeling which Shakespeare had Hamlet speak of in a brief, memorably Delphic line:
There are more things under heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in [y]our philosophy.
Speaking of Shakespeare, the theatre world has one wiz-bang of a hex or curse surrounding Macbeth, without question, the Bard's bloodiest play. One simply does not mention the play's name in the theatre; rather, cast and crew simply refer to it as The Scottish play. The play's curse goes back to its first performance in 1611. There is a theory that Shakespeare used an authentic ritual when his witches create their magical brew. This so displeased a group of real witches that they put a curse on the play, which exists to this day.
Laurence Olivier's legendary 1937 production of the play fell victim to the curse on no less than four occasions:
The theatre manager had a heart attack and died on his way to the dress rehearsal.
Olivier just missed death or serious injury when a stage weight fell from above and narrowly missed him.
The director and an actress ended up in hospital one night when they were involved in a car crash on their way to the theatre.
On another evening Olivier’s sword broke during one of the fight scenes, flew into the audience and hit a man, who died of a heart attack.
But wait . . . there's more:
- In sports there is pro football's "The Madden Curse," the Chicago Cubs' "Curse of the Billy Goat" and, up until 2004, the Boston Red Sox's "Curse of the Bambino.
- In rock music, there's the so-called "27 Club," a "curse" which affected such legendary talents are Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones -- all of whom died at age 27. Then there's:
- The Curse of the Hope Diamond," (Just for starters, two of its "owners" -- Princess de Lamballie and Marie Antoinette -- were beheaded;
- "The Curse of the Kennedys;
- "The Curse of King Tutankhamun": Archaeologist Howard Carter found King Tut’s tomb and its treasure in 1922. A few months later, his financial backer Lord Carnarvon died due to an infection from an insect bite. By 1929, eleven people associated with the tomb had died of unexpected causes.
And then there's Afghanistan. It's historically verifiable hex or curse is that its "The place where empires go to die."
Over the past 2,500 years, Afghanistan has been invaded and occupied by a lot of different empires, including:
- The Medes, Persians, Indians and the Greeks under the leadership of Alexander the Great;
The Mongols of Genghis Kahn;
The British Empire (who's overarching goal in three different wars was limiting Russian influence in the country);
The Soviet Union (who, as a backer of the Afghan government, sent in their 40th Army in an attempt to quell a violent civil war) and, most recently
The United States and her allies (Operation "Enduring Freedom," which was originally launched with the express purpose of removing the Taliban from power and capturing Osama bin Laden).
That so many countries, nations and empires would invade Afghanistan is, to me, one of history's minor mysteries. It is a mountainous, landlocked country made up of more than a half-dozen indigenous cultures, 4 major (and more than 30 minor) languages, and more tribes than you can shake a stick at. Its natural resources are largely undeveloped. What it has lacked in available wealth it has always possessed in strategic geo-political importance; controlling Afghanistan has always been vital in controlling the rest of Southern Asia, or getting a passage through Central Asia. Historically, the conquest of Afghanistan has also played an important role in the invasion of India from the west through the Khyber Pass.
Because of its geography, topography and demographics, Afghanistan has long been a quagmire for foreign militaries; a difficult place in which to succeed -- or leave. Creating military supply lines has always been extremely costly and difficult. Figuring out who to trust is next to impossible. As noted above, Afghanistan is both mountainous and landlocked. Alexander the Great launched an invasion of Afghanistan in 330 B.C.E. And although he successfully conquered what are today the cities of Herat and Kandahar (roughly equivalent to "Alexander" in Pashto), he got bogged down there long enough to lose his grip on power at home; his empire would not last.
The British Empire fought three wars in Afghanistan lasting from 1838-1842, 1878-1880, and for 3 months in 1919. The first and second Anglo-Afghan wars were largely derided at home (Disraeli termed it "rash and insensate") and did little to halt Russian expansion in the region. By the time of their third war, the Empire was already rocking on its heels.
The Soviet Union fought in Afghanistan for more than 9 years and accomplished next to nothing. Most observers are of the opinion that this costly military folly so overextended the Soviets that it played a major role in their collapse.
And just yesterday, the United States' 13 year war in Afghanistan ended . . . sort of. This past Sunday, President Obama said that from a war-time peak of more than 100,000 troops (in 2010), only 9,800 would remain, and that these men and women would only be there to further train Afghani troops. The day after the president's announcement, Taliban insurgents, who have been waging a brutal campaign across Afghanistan in the run up to the end of the war, declared victory. The group also promised to continue its campaign against the Afghan government until the departure of the remaining 13,000 foreign troops, including 9,800 from the United States. How long will American and NATO forces wind up staying in the land where empires go to die? No one knows. Will President Obama -- or his successor(s) -- have to add troops once the Taliban take back Afghanistan? Again, no one knows.
What we do know is that our war in Afghanistan, which started with a limited objective wound up dragging on longer than this country's involvement in the two World Wars and Korea combined. To date the cost has included 2,356 American troops killed, tens of thousands wounded, an unknowable number of men and women suffering from PTSD and upwards of $1 trillion -- not to mention the undying enmity of millions upon millions of people in the region. And mind you, all this was done on a credit card, which has added immeasurably to America's structural economic woes.
Thirteen years ago there were those -- myself included -- who voiced opposition to the United States going into either Iraq or Afghanistan. For the most part, the argument against invading the former was based on the haunting feeling that the administration was lying about Saddam Hussein possessing "weapons of mass destruction" or being behind 9/11. In the case of the latter, some of us warned about the "curse" or "hex" of Afghanistan; of how history had proven that it was indeed, "the place where empires go to die." It happened to the Medes and the Persians, the Greeks and the Mongols, the Brits and the Soviets. History has shown that regardless of the military might, the wealth or stategy of an invading force, Afghanistan remains a magnet for sucking the lifeblood out of empires; of forcing them into logistical and financial dead ends. Once an empire invades Afghanistan, things take a decided downturn on the home turf. While there may not be a complete causal connection, the historic record is far too eerie to slough off as mere coincidence.
In the end, the battle of the bullets is no match for the battle of the hexes. If indeed, America is teetering atop the precipice of greatness, we likely have no one to blame but ourselves. For in failing to learn the lessons of history, we are likely doomed to repeat them. In the long run, it is probably better to stay the hell away from hexes and curses.
Is it any wonder then that just before going on stage to perform Macbeth, Olivier -- like all actors before and ever since -- have uttered three ironic "de-hexing" words:
Break a leg . . .
Copyright©2014 Kurt F. Stone