Book Review: The Vortex

Carney, Scott and Jason Miklian. The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation. (New York: Ecco Books, 2022) Kindle edition.

The short version – this account of the 1970 Bay of Bengal cyclone and the war between East and West Pakistan is well written, makes good use of sources, and is painful to read because of the topic.

Scott Carney and Jason Miklian tell the story of a natural disaster that became the catalyst for war, including attempted genocide (their term). Hurricane forecasting was just starting to move into the realm of science, and in 1970, different countries used different ways to predict storms and warn of their intensity. Sattelite imagery too lagged behind time of need, and the National Hurricane Center in the US didn’t get images quickly. When trying to warn people on the other side of the globe, that lag became lethal, as did the confusion in intensity scales. A US Category 4 sounded mild on the older 1-10 scale. It wasn’t.

The book follows five people – two young men from East Pakistan, an American woman and her husband who work in Dakka, East Pakistan, President Yahya Khan of Pakistan, and a Pakistani officer. President Richard Nixon and a few others appear at times. The way the authors use those characters can make the story a little confusing, because each chapter focuses on one person in turn. I found the American woman and the young man on the island to be the most intriguing. They tried to stay outside of politics, and for various reasons got pulled in: she organized international aid and distribution, and he became a guerilla fighter.

The story quickly turns ugly. The cyclone, which caused an estimated 250,000 deaths (possibly as many as 500,000) led to unrest in East Pakistan. This caused the government of West Pakistan to act against those who had been calling for more political rights for the flat, ethnically Bengali half of the country. The solution was to eliminate anyone in leadership and anyone who did not speak the languages of western Pakistan. The resulting “Operation Searchlight” led to the deaths of millions, either through execution through or disease and hunger as refugees fled to India, or tried to. That in turn galvanized East Pakistani units in the larger army to mutiny, and individuals in East Pakistan to turn to irregular warfare.

There are clear villains in the story as told. Yaha Khan, the president of the country, Richard Nixon (who gave Khan a blank check and arms in exchange for helping facilitate the opening up of China), the West Pakistani military commanders who encouraged murder, rapine, torture, and other things. Heroes include those who tried to help, and those who fought for the freedom of what became Bangladesh. Missing is India, for the most part.

The book is well written but painful to read. Genocide is not pleasant. I’d read about Operation Searchlight in general, but not the horrible details and how it was organized and carried out. The results of the 1970 cyclone – bodies, death, emotional pain, starvation – are also hard to read, although perhaps more familiar. I got tired of the Anthropogenic Climate Change drum being beaten, especially in the final chapter. The disjointed nature of the story, hopping from person to person, could also get confusing. Having a map in hand helps.

I’d recommend the book for those interested in the history of South Asia in general and Bangladesh in particular and those looking at the interplay of natural disasters and politics. I’m not comfortable with the amount of blame the US gets in the book for Operation Searchlight, but I’m not a diplomatic historian and don’t have enough background to be able to tell if the authors overplay the importance of the US’s reaction or lack there of to the West Pakistani actions.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the authors or publisher for this review.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Vortex

  1. Haven’t read the book, and I have no independent knowledge or opinions, but I knew someone in college (born a US citizen) who as a pre-teen child was evacuated out of the middle of the war. He had nothing but scorn for the US State Department, which was pretending there was no war and refusing to help Americans escape. He and most of his family got out on a “women and children only” flight organized by a “non-aligned” country, and then had to fight the State Department again to be allowed back into the USA because of where the plane had landed. His father was left behind, of course, and spent the rest of the war in hiding, nursing innocent victims.
    My friend’s memories of the casual brutality of martial law were terrifying. Bored troops shot and killed his beloved neighbors, civilians who were in their own front yard, sprinting for their own front door, when the curfew bell rang. I suppose that sort of thing happens in almost every war, but in his mind, the people whom the US State Department thought were “good guys” clearly weren’t. Again, I have no independent knowledge or opinions on this, just passing along someone else’s experience.

  2. Sounds like a hard read for many reasons. But it does bring up a lot of questions. Adding it to the TBR list.

  3. I spent some time reading wiki pages on India’s security organizations.

    One of them was credited with some activities wrt the seperation of East from West Pakistan.

    Truth? I dunno. I really dunno.

    • I suspect/fear that this book comes as close as possible, albeit from a limited point of view. Since the West Pakistanis didn’t check papers, just went after anyone who spoke Bengali, I suspect India got involved beyond “just” sheltering refugees.

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