succumbing to peer pressure

Monday, May 14, 2007

Emergency Sex (and other desperate measures)

I haven't had a book crawl under my skin and stay like this since the heady emotional days of my adolescence (when everything hit a nerve). After the first night of reading before bed I had nightmares about being in a Somali prison with Ken.

Re-cap - the book is the true story/memoir of three friends who spend the 90s working as UN peacekeepers in Cambodia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, and Liberia. It's also a damning indictment of UN and US incompetence, but I'll get to that.

It's the first book in a long time that I haven't had the willpower to put down; it's been keeping me up nights. So tonight I sat down to finish it, and dragged myself as quickly as possible toward the end, needing the three authors to find hope so that I could find it too, and surfaced again an hour later as if emerging from a deep sleep. I had no idea so much time had passed and very nearly read completely through a meeting.

I was really afraid this book would break my heart, and it almost did. I'm not sure if it's because I recognize my friends and students and classmates or because I'm dreaming of applying to the UN and WHO after graduation (hopefully next year) but the evolution of these three people, watching their growing disillusion, it nearly undid me.

(Andrew, October 14, 1993) We just showed Haitians that our lives are more valuable than theirs. The logic of the mission was ours, not theirs, and so is the logic of our retreat. "Tell us the truth and we will seek justice" was our idea. "It's too dangerous and we must evacuate" is our privilege. Neither applies to the Haitians. A ship with soldiers arrives at the dock and exits the dock. Haitians have no exit.
The most basic principle they teach you at medical school, years before you even get to touch your first patient, is "First, do no ham." But harm is exactly what we've done, identifying the next victims for the assassins running Haiti. It was a vicious setup from the beginning.
(Ken, October 19, 1993) Dee Dee's taking questions from reporters now. I have a question, Dee Dee. Aidid was to be arrested for killing twenty-four Pakistanis in June, and then was pardoned for the crime and resurrected as a credible negotiating partner after killing eighteen Americans in October. What's the message if the policy of accountability for the crime of attacking peacekeepers is abandoned after a successful repetition of the same crime? How can the policy our soldiers died for reverse the next day, because of their death?
(Ken, 1996, Liberia) There is an area in the south where a Nigerian ECOMOG contingent was deployed for several months this summer. They were in the habit of encouraging very young Liberian girls from the nearby displaced persons camp to visit and "seducing" them with rice and a little money. The girls were nine or ten. Then a Ghanaian ECOMOG contingent established a camp nearby. The Ghanaians were more gentle and generous with the girls. They would give them a whole can full of rice as opposed to the more paltry handful from the Nigerians. So the girls started frequenting the Ghanaian camp more than the Nigerian. One day dead little girls started appearing on the path from the displaced persons camp to the Ghanaian camp - but not on the path to the Nigerians. The girls had been decapitated and their heads inserted inside their nine-year-old genitals. In the opinion of the investigating officer, this was a message to the girls from the Nigerians that it wouldn't be worth it to frequent the Ghanaians for the sake of a little extra rice.
And these are the peacekeepers.
(Ken, April 2003, NY) Maybe it's not me, maybe I'm done volunteering. Perhaps I should just admit that I now understand the world is corrupt and brutal, that most nations look out only for their own interests, and people seldom rush to dangerous acts of selfless sacrifice. No shit. Where did I get the idea I would find otherwise?
We actually set out to save the world. That is what was insane - not ten-year-old warlords with bad breath and voodoo fetishes in Liberia, not Matt's assassin, not the boss in Somalia who set us up for an ambush in exchange for a fifteen percent kickback on the judges' salaries, not the Hutu militias who butchered a minority who had repressed them or the Tutsi survivors who executed the suspects - but me, for thinking I could enter a war and personally restore order.
So that's the easy answer: forswear idealism; resign myself to a sad maturity, put away the things of youth; be thankful I survived and move on.
But that's horseshit too, a craven capitulation...If everyone resigns themselves to cynicism, isn't that exactly how vulnerable millions end up dead?
One million civilians we promised to protect died on our watch. There are many competing versions of this story - U.S., UN, NATO, EU. But we were there, and capital letters always lie and our version has no meaning if no one renders it.


Liberals are too skittish critiquing the UN: if anyone's values have been betrayed over the past decade it is those of us who believe most deeply in the organization's ideals. It's similar to the Catholic Church's scandals: church hierarchy thinks it's more important to protect the esteem in which the institution is held than to protect the humans the institution exists to serve. We disagree. Passionately.


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