Tuesday, March 06, 2012


"Only the dead have seen the end of war."

The image most people have of Somalia now is of gun trucks and warlords, something straight out of Blackhawk Down. The stark poverty, misery, and almost total breakdown of civilization was actually worse than portrayed in that film. Although you could still buy and sell goods, you had to travel with a bodyguard or die, and tribes simply killed each other in the streets.

But it wasn't always that way, and its slightly better these days. If you go back to the 70's and even 80's you can see a typical market downtown, television antennas on the rooftops, kids playing in the streets of Mogadishu. The country looks like a typical North African land, with Moorish architecture mixed with colonial influences. Palm trees sway by whitewashed buildings and cars.

In just a few years the nation went from that to a scene out of a Road Warrior movie, down to the costuming. To this day, Somalia is still torn apart, struggling with violence, and one of the most corrupt nations on earth. What the hell happened? How did everything go so horribly wrong? And more importantly, what can we learn from that?

In 1960, Somaliland became independent from Great Britain, and almost immediately troubles started. The Prime Minister was assassinated. Corruption and violence followed him in a string of dictators. In 1969 the military took over and a "Supreme Revolutionary Council" was set up, with a blend of Socialism and Islam (the Soviet Union worked very hard with Muslims and in Africa in particular to promote revolution and pretend the two ideologies could conceivably blend).

After a war that took over another section of the region to add to Somali, eventually the dictator died, and a civil war erupted over who'd run the place next. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country wasn't able to prop its self up on subsidies from Russia, and the people had gotten plenty sick of the lousy government and corruption. Everything broke down as fighting exploded on the streets. There was no central government any longer, and small bands of warlords, each competing to take over, fought in the streets of the towns and cities.

Unable to rely on the usual social structures, people split into tribal groups, close family knots tied by blood and marriage. They defended themselves, and tried to destroy other tribes who were viewed as rivals to resources, dangers to their people, and the source of long standing grudges over the years. The entire place collapsed and went into chaos in a matter of months.

So what can we take from that? Something author Louis L'Amour often noted in his books: how thin the line between civilization and barbarism is. We're always just a few steps away from it all falling apart. The natural state of man is chaos and fighting, not civilization. We only maintain that culture and the safety, prosperity, and cohesion of civilization through effort and will, and a general agreement of all involved.

Civilization is only possible when the bulk of the people involved agree to give up some of their self interest and freedom to benefit everyone. In other words: you can't live for yourself, to your personal gain, and for your pleasure and comfort exclusively. You have to give up some of the things you could do which would likely bring you happiness and pleasure in the short term, so that everyone enjoys the benefits of civilization. Yes, bashing that guy's head in or just taking his goods because you're stronger would benefit you - but it damages us all. Yes, thinking only of yourself is very easy and appealing, but you have to think of others.

You have to have a shared culture, you have to have a shared ethic, you have to have a shared concept of truth and beauty. If that is all shattered, if those shared concepts are taken away, it begins to fall to pieces and we lose civilization and all of its benefits.

To be certain there are drawbacks. You can't be as free as you want, you have to worry about your neighbor, and you have to put up with people you'd rather not. To maintain cohesion, you have to have a certain level of unanimity in idea and behavior - within a wide range of variation, but still a certain level.

Make no mistake, we're losing that. Its not some deliberate effort by a sinister cabal of evil shadowy people, but it is the result of a lot of stupid and unwise, calculated small acts and efforts by a lot of people and movements who are related. No one is trying to splinter society into collapse, but that's the end result of their various policies and efforts.

So how long will we hold on? How much longer can a society and civilization survive without a shared ethic, without a shared culture? How much longer can a civilization continue without common ground and common sacrifice?

If history teaches us anything, the end can take a long time coming, but is almost always very sudden when it finally occurs. And the people who suffer the most are always the ones that were meant to be protected and helped by the very ones who caused the collapse.

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