The prevalence of these damaging storms has triggered discussion among some researchers: Do weather catastrophes, which these days are often blamed on climate change, cause war and other human conflicts?
Scott Carney and Jason Miklian offer a convincing answer in the affirmative in a fast-paced work of narrative nonfiction, “The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation.” The book reaches back to the 1970s — the decade when the term “global warming” was popularized — to resurface the story of an atrocious, yet often forgotten episode in history: the Great Bhola Cyclone and its bloody aftermath.
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The cyclone, which screamed into East Pakistan — now known as Bangladesh — with winds topping out at about 130 mph and a 35-foot storm surges in November 1970, was the deadliest in recorded history, claiming somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 lives, according to estimates. But the storm was just a starting point for a weird and brutal saga featuring a stolen election, a civil war, an unfathomable genocide, a lecherous despot who was best buds with President Richard Nixon, a Henry Kissinger body double and, ultimately, the birth of a new country—Bangladesh.
Carney and Miklian write vividly in the fashion of a cinematic disaster flick, introducing a string of real-life characters — including a Pakistani soccer star and a heroic American expat couple — in the months and years before the storm, then following their travails as the cyclone ravaged the region. The most arresting is Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, a heavy-drinking lout with legendarily twisted and peaked eyebrows, whose ineptitude as a military commander did not prevent his rise to the presidency of Pakistan.
For those who are not familiar with the history of Pakistan, “The Vortex” provides a digestible primer on its strange evolution. At the time of the Bhola cyclone, the country — once part of the British Empire — was divided in two chunks, the result of a redrawing of the region that was dubbed “partition.” West Pakistan, the predominantly Muslim locus of the country’s political power, was wedged between India and Afghanistan. East Pakistan, a small but heavily populated area with a large Hindu population, sat on the other side of India, along the Bay of Bengal.
In Carney and Miklian’s telling, Yahya essentially ignored the devastating impact of the cyclone, delaying his government’s response through inattention and lack of compassion. In an echo of President George W. Bush’s infamous flyover above Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in 2005, Yahya gazed down from a propeller plane, 3,000 feet above the cyclone’s destructive path.
“It doesn’t look so bad,” he said.
When Yahya was pressed about reports of military troops ignoring the devastation around them, trading food for sex and committing other atrocities, he responded that “my government is not made up of angels.”
The cyclone hit a month before parliamentary elections. Yahya, according to Carney and Miklian, was attempting on delivering “real democracy” to Pakistan and resisted efforts by his favored candidate, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to stuff ballot boxes or restrict voting by closing polling places in East Pakistan, where the populace was entranced. by a charismatic leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
But when it became clear that the sheikh’s party had won stunning election victories, making him Pakistan’s first democratically elected prime minister, Yahya was furious. He settled on a plan, Carney and Miklian write: “Kill three million, and the rest will eat out of our hands.”
Employing American-made weapons, Yahya unleashed a genocidal massacre of Bengalis aimed, in part, at eradicating “Hindu” influence. Estimates place the death toll anywhere from several hundred thousand to 3 million, along with the rape of at least 250,000 women. One of the men he chose to lead the genocide had “a reputation as a sex-crazed, arrogant, dirty-joke-telling, socially awkward idiot. In other words, he was the perfect man for the job,” Carney and Miklian write.
With international media access heavily blocked, Nixon abetted the genocide by pledging support for Yahya and endorsing the lie that the Pakistani leader was fighting Bengali terrorists, Carney and Miklian write.
Yahya’s malevolent forces were repelled only when the Indian army joined with resistance fighters in East Pakistan, thus giving rise to an independent Bangladesh.
While the atrocities were taking place Nixon dismissed on-the-ground alerts from his own diplomats, most notably US Consul General Archer Blood, whose dispatch back to Washington about the massacres and efforts to spur the US government to take action were chronicled in startling detail. in the much-praised book “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide” by historian Gary J. Bass, a seminal work cited in “The Vortex.”
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Nixon was furious that Blood was drawing attention to the horrors. “Genocide was a hard thing to defend,” Carney and Miklian write drolly.
But Nixon’s debt to Yahya was significant, and the men seemed to have a genuine friendship. Nixon was relying on Yahya as a back channel to the Chinese. Yahya facilitated sneaking Kissinger into China to negotiate Nixon’s eventual opening of relations with the communist power. Yahya had Kissinger’s body double spirited to his presidential retreat to recover from an alleged stomach ailment while the real Kissinger went to China.
Carney, the author of the bestseller “What Doesn’t Kill Us,” and Miklian, an assistant professor at the University of Oslo, conducted more than 200 interviews over four years, and their mastery of documentary sources and previous scholarship is evident. Their transparency in disclosing that they “make assumptions at times about motivations and states of mind,” extrapolate dialogue and condense timelines is laudable, but it does somewhat undermine the book’s credibility as a definitive account of historical events. They’re also not well-served by publishers who should have intervened to limit the occasional overuse of cliches in an otherwise highly readable book. “Cherry on top” and “stacking the deck” in back-to-back sentences should never have made it to the printer.
But the core argument underlying “The Vortex” doesn’t seem like a tired phrase — it sounds like a blaring alarm: “Bhola won’t remain just a lesson from the distant past,” the authors write. “It’s a harbinger of our future.”
Manuel Roig-Franzia, a Washington Post staff writer and former bureau chief in Miami and Mexico City, has covered more than a dozen hurricanes.
A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation
By Scott Carney and Jason Miklian