Review of Eric Margolis’s book,
WAR AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD: The Struggle For Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet
May 12, 2000
On the Indo-Pakistani border, atop a valueless glacier named Siachen, Canadian journalist Eric Margolis finds himself caught in a modern war literally at the top of the world:
"It's madness. Total madness," a Pakistani commando officer told me one night in Peshawar. "Siachen is Hell on Earth. We're fighting the bloody Indians to prevent them from grabbing what we say is our rightful part of Hell. That's how much we hate each other."
Perhaps the most poignant of anecdotes related by Margolis in War at the Top of the World, the above quote reveals the emotional core of the escalating conflicts between the two South Asian nations. Countries of heartbreaking pervasive poverty, they nonetheless persist in expending billions of dollars to eradicate each other. Margolis’s treatise is more than a collection of personal observations and experiences. A ubiquitous media gadabout, Margolis draws a straight line from the Soviet-Afghani war, through the current Indo-Pakistani conflict, to an eventual nuclear showdown between Asia’s true superpowers, India and China. For this feat alone, Margolis deserves respect; few other Western journalists have taken the time to place this region’s insecurities in a global context of importance.
Beautifully written, War at the Top of the World shuffles between non-fiction genres: socio-political text, historical summary, adventure monograph, and futurist evocations. An accessible description of the very complex Himalayan powder keg, the book suffers only for its diversity. Margolis seems unsure of whether to portray himself as a lesser Asian T.E. Lawrence, or as an invisible pseudo-objective political observer. In both incarnations, the text is eminently readable, drawing Western eyes to the Asian scene with renewed fascination, excitement and dread. Tainted at times by Margolis’s seeming pro-Islam bias, “War at the Top of the World” nevertheless draws one’s attention to alliances and conflicts that a more casual, less invested observer would omit. Military aid agreements between Israel and India, China, and Pakistan, and between Russia (“that mutant democracy”) and India are but a few that serve to further complicate this soup. Margolis even proposes a future conflict between India and Iran.
However, his true concern is with the nuclear arms race between India and China. Providing a neat historical summary of these nations’ competing claims, Margolis identifies two flashpoints to watch in coming decades: Tibet and Burma (Myanmar). Both of these unstable zones, he contends, will be informed by the current actions in Kashmir, a conflict which typifies the guttural enmity between peoples: “No hatred I have ever encountered … equaled the vitriolic detestation between Indians and Pakistanis, two related peoples who to most outsiders are virtually indistinguishable from one another. The fiercest form of hatred, it seems, is that between brothers and cousins.”
“War at the Top of the World” excellently summarizes and personalizes these distant conflicts, providing both hope and horror. It is, in many ways, an unjudging treatise on the rational evil within stressed men. In Margolis’s words, “For men of profound ill will, to know your enemy is to truly distrust him.”