Thursday, October 08, 2009

Afghanistan in my mind

I'm no expert on Afghanistan. Which probably means you're like me. What to do?

Afghanistan for me begins as a word. Then it takes a shape I've learned from maps.

In the newspaper, the maps are often the size of an envelope. In my atlas, the country is still a manageable size. Afghanistan is a page. Entirely conquerable, some might think.

So that’s “my” Afghanistan — a name and the after-image of a map.

To review my knowledge, I may even point to the map and say, “Ah, that’s Afghanistan.”

Who would argue? (Someone should!)

We can scan the map and “see” where various places are, Kabul, Kandahar, Mehtar Lam. But do we see them? Do we understand them?

Our exploration is a study of delusion. Afghanistan, the map, is pure deception. All maps are.

Afghanistan, the country, is something else. (I use the word “country” advisedly, especially if I equate it with other “countries” I have known, including our own.) It’s hard enough to comprehend any place even when we are there. Do I really understand Portland, Oregon?

As President Obama weighs his options in Afghanistan, and as we, as citizens, respond, we would do well to free ourselves of the Afghanistan in our minds.

Afghanistan in physical reality becomes a bit more clear when we superimpose its image on a map of the Pacific Northwest. Place Afghanistan’s western border (that would be the one with Iran) on the Willamette River. Then see where Afghanistan’s eastern border falls on our own map. (It reaches out like a finger to touch China at its eastern-most point.)

Any idea where the distance would take us here in the Northwest?

It turns out to be Billings, Montana, more or less. Billings is a long, long day’s drive from here — in the best of weather. Afghanistan has no equivalent to the interstate highway system. Traveling across the country is measured not in hours but days. And it's all up-hill, and I do mean up hill. Think the Himalayas as your destination.

So there’s the matter of topography. On our drive to Billings we climb mountains and admire the feats of engineering needed to build four-lane highways through them.

Yet on the maps, the Afghans' and ours, we can run our finger over mountains with equal ease. Theirs and ours are paper smooth.

As it turns out, Afghanistan's highest mountain, at 24,557 feet, is more than twice as high as our highest, Mount Hood, at 11,239 feet. (In terms of land mass, you could fit two and a half Oregons inside Afghanistan.)

No, the Afghanistan in my mind is of little help. Understanding begins by recognizing the inherent distortions of map and word. They are, after all, symbols.

We confuse symbols with reality at our peril.

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