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Power, books, and the ego

  • Published at 01:54 am May 31st, 2018
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Not all men of erstwhile power write well BIGSTOCK

When powerful people write books

It is often a good thing when someone in the corridors of power, or one who has enjoyed being in power, comes forth with a book. 

The general feeling, though, is that when men who no more happen to be in power or around it get down to the business of writing books, they arouse our genuine pleasure in reading what they have to tell us. 

But let’s correct ourselves. Not all men of erstwhile power write well. Apart from the fact that their works are generally a means for them to speak of their own days of glory, there is the truth that the language they often use in a recapitulation of their time in office may quite put us off, because of their banality or pomposity or both. 

Think here of George W Bush. You wonder: What would he be telling us to offset all the negative impressions we have of him as a politician?

Books usually generate a good deal of controversy, especially if they deal with politics. Think here of the firestorm raised by The Spy Chronicles: RAW ISI and the Illusion of Peace, a joint work by two former spooks, one the Pakistani Asad Durrani and the other the Indian AS Dulat. 

Controversy around certain books is incredibly intense if those who produce such books do so without first having relinquished the power they have exercised for a rather long period of time. 

The point should not be missed, which is that it is always a healthy idea for an individual to write a book once he has taken himself out of a position of influence and has spent a reasonably good length of time reflecting on the events and incidents which once shaped his place in the scheme of things. 

These reflections take us back to the 1960s, when Field Marshal Ayub Khan foisted on the people of Pakistan an autobiographical work he called Friends Not Masters. The cynics will of course tell you it was ghostwritten, the handiwork of the influential bureaucrat Altaf Gauhar. 

Let that be.

The point here is that Friends Not Masters ought not to have appeared before Ayub Khan left office. He was still in power and so was not expected to write on the events that had shaped his life and career in a dispassionate manner. He was close to everything of significant note in his times. 

And so, when the book came to us, it did not exactly inspire in us that zeal you need in order to plunge into a reading of published material.

Remember, though, that Ayub Khan is not the only individual we know who has, being in power or being powerful, given us thoughts to mull over. 

There is General Pervez Musharraf as well. His In The Line of Fire was a panegyric to himself. It made good reading, only because we were all interested in plumbing the depths of his ego. Naturally, we came away unimpressed, if not exactly appalled.

For men of power or historical influence, it is therefore crucial that they opt for the intellectual (if the theme concerns them) once they have walked away into the twilight. No one is about to suggest that at a distance from the events that they have been part of, they will exude wisdom. 

No, they will not. You only have to study the horrendous book which General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi wrote a good many years before his death to explain away his role in the Bangladesh war of 1971. He was positively asinine during the war. 

His book only re-emphasized the buffoonery that had always been part of his character. But yes, there are people who help to shape events, even cause tragedy before moving off into the shadows and then wait for years before emerging in the sunlight to tell their version of the tale. 

Robert McNamara, he of the so-called club of the best and the brightest in 1960s America, remains known as a man who made a mess of things in Vietnam. He left the Johnson administration in 1968 and went over to the World Bank, where he served as president for 13 years. 

And then he decided, from a pure sense of conscience, to reflect on Vietnam. The result was his mea culpa, In Retrospect. It is more than a book. It is a confession. 

McNamara admits he and his colleagues in government were wrong about Vietnam.

You can be certain he would have caused moral outrage had he written his book in his days as secretary of defense under Kennedy or Johnson. 

Sit back, listen to the rhythm of the rain -- before you pick up two new books which, steeped in ideas, have reached your desk. Yanis Varoufakis in Adults in the Room and Ronan Farrow in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence give you good food for thought.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.