Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Possibly the luckiest man still alive

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, war, journalism

It is amazing that I can read two books, very similar in size, but I finish one in two days and the other takes a week or more. I usually get through fiction faster than nonfiction, but not always. The current two-day marvel is In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars by Kevin Sites. The book comes with a 90-minute DVD that covers about half the wars, and the videography and editing make it even more compelling. I managed to survive watching it while eating lunch; not a practice I recommend...

A summary of the wars, not in the order presented:
  • Hot shooting wars ongoing [9]: Afghanistan, Colombia (50+ years, continuing), Iraq (& West), Kashmir, Israel (& Palestinians + allies), Chechnya, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda
  • Unstable but not currently active [1]: Haiti
  • Cease-Fire or under negotiation [5]: Congo, Lebanon (Hezbollah & Israel), Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka
  • Conflicts of the somewhat recent past [3]: Cambodia, Lebanon (& Syria), Vietnam (& West)
  • Potential [2]: Iran (& West), Syria (& West)
The author's relentless focus is not on the military operations themselves, but on their effects on the populations. I once invented an epigram for a college paper: "History is made by the rich, suffered by the poor, and forgotten by their grandchildren". As the four current African wars reported here make clear, I was wrong, or at least one-third wrong. Not all history is forgotten when it involves atrocities between ethnic groups. The northern Iraqis, the Kurds, do not forget.

With the exception of a very few of the very rich, war makes all into paupers. It may seem that the fighters, at least on the stronger side, are able to live relatively well, but they suffer a relentlessly growing poverty of spirit. Nobody really wins a war.

The book is full of personal stories. A dying old man in Iraq whom the author could have at least comforted a little, but did not. He accuses himself for that, and is much comforted when he is able to render help to another, though he must break the journalist's code of noninvolvement to do so. As the segment in the DVD makes clear, all the journalists got involved that time, carrying people out of the rubble on doors made into stretchers. A child bride in Afghanistan, who suffered more tortures in six years with her "future father-in-law" than nearly any abused prisoner of war. This woman or that one, a victim of "rape as a weapon of war". Terrorism isn't just bombings.

In fact, since the old rules of gentlemanly engagement (which were honored mostly in the breach anyway) were swept aside in favor of "total war" just over ninety years ago, every war has been carried out primarily by terrorist methods. The "shock and awe" campaign that began the most recent Iraq war was intended to terrorize. I have read that the 21st Century American "battlespace" is a defined zone in which no opposing force can survive more than a few minutes.

Yes, indeed, we're getting better at war. At least during the two Great Wars of the 20th Century, slightly more than half the total casualties were military forces, for most countries involved (no, I'm not forgetting the Holocaust, and there were actually three of those). These days, a civilian population needs to count itself lucky to "only" have ten to one hundred civilians killed per military casualty.

Kevin Sites must count himself very fortunate to be among the living. To spend ten to twenty days in each of the war zones mentioned above, and survive, is so stunningly against the odds, I'd have to say God had something to do with it. This book is full of stories that need to be told. I am thankful that the Kevin Sites blog and Hot Zone web site are presenting them to anyone with an internet connection.

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