Government Forces, by Hari Kunzru

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As a small child, I would sometimes sit with my parents in our suburban London living room and watch the six o’clock news on the BBC. One evening, I saw images of African soldiers carrying rifles along city streets. A reporter said something like “government forces are entering the capital.” I don’t remember why they were entering the capital, or whether—as seems more likely—they were actually trying to stop someone else from entering it, but the phrase “government forces” stuck in my mind. A government, I concluded, was a kind of army.

Some days later I opened the door to a man collecting money for the Salvation Army. He was wearing a uniform: a tunic with shiny buttons, pressed trousers, polished boots, and a peaked cap. I knew that the Salvation Army was something to do with God (another semantic gray area for me) and didn’t involve guns. This made them less interesting than the paratroops, the Desert Rats, or the Foreign Legion, but I was keen to find out more about government, so I leaned against the doorframe and, in what I thought was a worldly, conversational tone, asked how he liked being in the military. Before I could work my way round to what I really wanted to know—his exact role in government, and what governing actually involved—my mother bustled forward and began to explain that he was only a metaphorical soldier.

The government was not, I would come to learn, an army, unless you lived under a military junta, such as the one that tried to take over the Falkland Islands when I was twelve. The government was what “sent in” the army to get the Falklands back from the Argies. Sometimes it would “send in” the army elsewhere, mostly to Northern Ireland. The police were also sometimes “sent in” to urban neighborhoods such as Brixton and Toxteth and Notting Hill, where the locals did not seem happy to see them. The government had to send in soldiers and police because its job was to maintain order, and the opposite of order was anarchy, which had something to do with firebombs and the kind of rock music my parents switched off when it came on the radio. Though peace was a highly desirable condition, frequently represented on the children’s TV programs that ran before the news, it was also abstract and very possibly fictional. From six o’clock onward, the reality of the world was war.

I might have found war exciting had it meant parachute jumps and frogmen, like it did in the comics I collected, which had names like Commando and Battle Picture Weekly. But war had somehow changed since the halcyon days of Tommy and Fritz. Individual aggression, the kind we were encouraged to display on the rugby field, had been replaced by vast impersonal doom. Nuclear weapons would probably annihilate the world before I grew up, which made most things seem hollow and pointless, just a way of passing the time until the three-minute warning sounded.

Our family subscribed to the Sunday Times. In this period—the late Seventies—their “colour supplement” was an important outlet for photojournalism, publishing dramatic pictures by figures such as Don McCullin, Eve Arnold, and Mary Ellen Mark. Leafing through it, often wedged behind the sofa where I could get some privacy, I saw things that disturbed and perplexed me. I vividly remember a picture of an elderly Spanish man looking through the barred window of an old house. A caption described him as a “mole,” someone who had hidden in the attic from an evil dictator for almost thirty years. There was sexual imagery, such as an inexplicably naked woman standing next to a clothed man drinking at a bar, an image I think was part of a William Klein photo essay on Soho strip clubs. There was a terrible photo from a story about Cambodia that I haven’t been able to track down, and which I feel I must have misinterpreted. In the center of a deserted street was a pile of something that looked like ground meat. I understood it to have once been a person. The idea that the Khmer Rouge (whoever or whatever that was) could transform humans into pink slime suggested a level of horror I had not previously imagined.

Through these magazine pictures I learned that the world was violent and dangerous. They joined the TV news clips—of the SAS raiding the Iranian Embassy in London, of the grainy faces of those killed by the Yorkshire Ripper—in infusing my world with a sense of threat, and a feeling that something more ought to be done to protect people from harm. However, they didn’t “politicize” me in any straightforward way. I hedged against my incipient feelings of depression with various forms of escapism, mostly involving fantasy fiction, where I found worlds with simpler moral lines than those of the tangled, rather hopeless place into which I’d apparently been born.

My true entry into politics was through a wildlife show. Once again, I was with my family in front of the TV. I was enjoying the lions and zebras and giraffes, and said to my parents that we ought to go and see them. My dad replied that we couldn’t, because they were in a country called South Africa, where we wouldn’t be allowed to stay together as a family. My father is Indian. He had emigrated to the United Kingdom to work as a doctor in the National Health Service, where he met my white English mother, a nurse and later a midwife. In the face of opposition (strong enough on the Indian side that my mother only met her in-laws when I was two years old), they had married. Sitting there in our living room, I had yet to realize that my family was atypical in any way. The idea that there was a place where we were actually illegal was profoundly unsettling. It represented a convergence between what I thought was right (families being allowed to stay together) and my own interests (that my family should be allowed to stay together) that I now identify as my first political experience—something more than an abstract sense of right and wrong, a situation in which I could not afford to be neutral.

On the internet, people share simple matrices that purport to map our political allegiances like Dungeons & Dragons alignments, along axes of authoritarian to libertarian, left to right. More sophisticated social psychology projects describe politics in terms of the relative weight we give to such desiderata as care, fairness, loyalty, and respect. Evolutionary psychologists even suggest that there are innate moral circuits in the brain, simple foundations on which we build our complex social movements and institutions. The idea that one’s politics are related to one’s psychological predispositions seems logical enough—a risk-averse person is unlikely to become a violent revolutionary—but it doesn’t account for the material interests that drive people to take political action. The risk-averse person may also be starving, or her circumstances may be otherwise so miserable that it makes sense to guillotine aristocrats and burn down the palace. Then there are the events, the personal inflection points, that send individuals down particular channels, that crystallize their relationships to power and the status quo.

I was not, I think, particularly predisposed to opposition. I was a child who was eager to please, and who enjoyed the praise of authority figures. I was socialized to compete and succeed, to compare myself with other boys and try to beat them—both at games and at schoolwork, which was always given a numerical mark, totted up at the end of term and published as a sort of league table that was then pinned to the classroom wall. My family background was conservative, though my parents, through their transgressive choice to love each other, had thrown a shimmer of unconventionality over what was in most ways a typical upper-middle-class English suburban life.

Fueled by my diet of fantasy novels and Amar Chitra Katha comics—Indian tales of historical and mythological heroism—I became earnest and high-minded. Another child might have turned to religion, but with faithful Anglican Protestants on one side of the family and equally convinced Hindus on the other, I was never inducted into either faith, for fear of further alienating relatives. My parents always framed the question of belief as a personal choice, something that reinforced my sense of myself as an observer, slightly removed from the commitments of those around me. I dutifully waited for religious feelings to appear in my heart, or wherever they were supposed to arise, but they never did. At that point, I could have become anything. I would have died for almost any cause, for revolution, for king and country, for love, for the United Federation of Planets, for the Shire.

I attended an old-fashioned prep school, where I wore a cap and a blazer with a crest on the pocket and studied Latin from a textbook whose title was always altered with a few pen strokes to read The Shorter Eating Primer. For a while, my nickname was “Inky,” after Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, a supporting character in the Billy Bunter books, comic tales by Frank Richards about boys at an Edwardian boarding school. Written half a century previously, these stories seemed to me more or less contemporary, reflecting my daily life.

In 1979, when I was nine years old, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. By the time she stepped down, to be succeeded by another Conservative politician, I would be twenty. The period in which my political consciousness formed was dominated by the policies of the Iron Lady—and, perhaps more importantly, by her affect. I found something terrifying about her blandness, her intransigence, her emotional limitation. I don’t remember hearing her famous interview about how Britain was being “swamped” by “people with a different culture” who were threatening the “British character” that had “done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world,” but similar sentiments were often expressed by politicians on the evening news, and I was becoming increasingly aware that these sentiments had something to do with me—that I was, in some sense, the swamping.

I was learning not to trust the motives of authority figures, mainly due to the pedophilic advances of one of the men we boys referred to as “masters,” his unwanted attentions in showers and changing rooms, his enthusiastic use of corporal punishment—the slipper and the cane—to chastise us. Then I transferred to a co-educational institution with a more modern outlook, jumping from the Thirties to the Eighties. Suddenly there were girls, and eighteen-year-olds with opinions about the little “Paki” who ought to “go home.” Leaving school, I was hypervigilant, always looking out for the skinheads who hung around outside the local tube station. I became dimly aware that I was angry, but I buried it, retreating into my fictional utopias. In the real world, I was still trying to get along, to be one of the good ones, one of the ones who knew how to take a joke.

It was, once again, the issue of apartheid that cemented my alienation. Not only was the Thatcher government not “sending in” troops to end the system, but they seemed to be actively supporting it. They opposed sanctions on South Africa, and Thatcher even received the Afrikaner prime minister P. W. Botha on an official visit. The sympathetic account is that Thatcher loathed apartheid but had her hands tied by the geopolitical realities of the Cold War. Surrounded as I was by people who mourned the end of empire and feared non-white people as carriers of chaos and degradation, I found it self-evident that there was a sort of freemasonry of whiteness, an unspoken identification with the ruling white minority. The failure to fight apartheid confirmed that whomever my government was protecting, it wasn’t me.

By my late teens, I was groping my way toward a left politics, but my feelings were unformed and, in retrospect, comically incoherent. I wanted to burn everything down, but was also fascinated by history and tradition, which meant I didn’t want to burn everything down. I would go to fundraising concerts for left-wing causes—Sandinistas, striking miners, and, of course, the anti-apartheid movement—then go home and study for the Oxford University entrance exam, striving to join the elite. For a while, I had an absurd plan to go to Heidelberg, where I intended to join a dueling society and get a scar. Somehow it never occurred to me that I might not be welcome in a right-wing German fraternity.

Like most schools, mine occasionally invited guest lecturers to speak. I don’t remember many of them. There was a former pupil who told us what it was like to work on a trading floor. There was a retired judge. And there was the man from the South African Embassy, who came to tell us why apartheid was good, actually. There must have been another lecture, the week before or after, offering the anti-apartheid position, but try as I might, I can’t remember it. Perhaps the school didn’t even bother to both-sides the issue. As we filed into the hall, I was told to remove the sanctions now button from my lapel, and I meekly complied. The speaker was charming. He said the issues were overblown. In South Africa, the races were separate but equal. He deflected our questions with ease. Back in the common room afterward, as people discussed his presentation, many persuaded by his case, I felt obscurely ashamed, as if I’d let myself down.

I never forgot that feeling. As I moved on, leaving home and going to university, my ideas developed, and some of the more egregious contradictions fell away. I no longer remembered the childhood experiences that had seeded my politics. Certain things just seemed intuitively true, no longer open to question.


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