Sunday, July 24, 2005

Book Review: Shake Hands with the Devil

This post is going to go wrong from the very start. Initially I planned it as a review of Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire’s book SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL, which is his account of the time he spent as the Force Commander for UNAMIR (UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda), however I think you will find I wander fairly far afield from a mere book review in this post. Also, I did not plan on completing the book as quickly as I did, and therefore I had intended to put a couple of more humorous entries between my book reviews. However, as Von Moltke said, no plan survives contact with the enemy, especially if the enemy is a good book.
I was initially interested in this book when it first came out in hardback, less because I was getting involved in the spate of Rwanda band-wagoneering accompanying the release of HOTEL RWANDA, and more because I was interested to see what Lt. Gen. Dallaire had to say about his experiences there. I was also intrigued because the biographical blurb pointed out that he is the highest-ranking military office to ever openly suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and I was very interested to see why he might be suffering from this where other leaders of other UN operations that had failed did not. I was sure that some of it was due to the fact that they did a better job of covering up their problems, but I also wanted to know what was different about Rwanda. What had caused this man, whose entire life was defined by military and national service, to break down?
Once I was reading the book it did not take me long to understand what had happened to Dallaire. Through his writing it became clear to me that he is a deeply thoughtful and emotional man who wears his heart on his sleeve. Perhaps the worst sort of man to deal with the events that eventually over took him. I do not mean to belittle Gen. Dallaire by saying this, in fact I hold him in very high regard. What he was able to accomplish in Rwanda, despite having to deal with the entrenched UN bureaucracy and the obstructionist efforts of the United States and other nations on the Security Council, is nothing short of miraculous. That he was able to save anyone, particularly after Belgium abandoned their commitment to the UNAMIR mission and recalled their troops, is a testament to Gen. Dallaire’s ability as a leader of men.
He pulls no punches in this book, describing his slow descent into fatigue with the same blunt language that he describes the beauty of Rwanda and the horror that engulfs that small nation shortly after his arrival. Throughout the pages the reader is offered the rare chance to see the inside operations of a UN peace-keeping mission and through the book we begin to understand why so many of them fail in their objectives. While Gen. Dallaire states in his conclusion that we need to worry more about how to prevent events like this from happening rather than worry about assigning blame, you can certainly tell he feels the bulk of the blame for this tragedy sits squarely on the shoulders of the governments of the United States and other first-world nations who had the opportunity to fully support the UNAMIR, but rather chose to field a toothless force whose most advanced detachment was withdrawn the moment they were most needed.
I am very patriotic however some of my faith in this country has been shaken recently. I cannot help but conclude that Gen. Dallaire is right, we are willing to sacrifice upwards of 800,000 Rwandans because we fear the loss of one man. What is the worth of one life when compared to almost a million people? In America we are proud of our freedoms and we often viciously fight amongst ourselves to figure them out, but if we are so proud of our freedoms why are we so unwilling to share them with the world? So what if it costs us a few lives and a few million dollars. I can guarantee each one of you reading this that if there were more countries in the world that enjoyed our level of freedom we wouldn’t be engaged in our current war on terror. London would not have suffered the recent bomb attacks. There would not be the almost daily cycle of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Desperation and injustice breeds terrorists, not comfortable middle-class living.
In my government class in high school we read Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE and then asked if the tactics outlined in this treatise could co-exist with our democratic principals. I was the only one in the class who argued that they could since the government’s duty was to ensure our freedoms, and that to do so the government may have to violate those principals in its dealing with the rest of the world. This was the M.O. of the government during the Cold War. I believe this manner of dealing with the world worked where there were two or more major power blocks, however the past decades have seen a paradigm shift in the world while our fundamental way of dealing with the world has not changed. Now we should be striving to export liberty and justice for all to every corner of the world, and we should not be doing it under the flimsy guise of searching for weapons of mass destruction. All of the dictators of the world should be put on notice by the democracies of the world. We will no longer tolerate disenfranchised masses and one party systems. Ethnic and religious cleansing will be relegated to the history books. We intend to live in a prosperous, educated, free, and secure world and you can either stand with us or be relegated to the scrap heap of history.
I know doing this will cost us lives and money, however I ask you again, what is the worth of one American life? I am more worthy to live to old age than any other thirty-one year old in the world? I know my mom would say I am, however if by sacrificing my life I could prevent a death, I hope I would have the courage to do so. I believe that we, as humans, have an incredible capacity for caring for one another. If you doubt me look at the outpouring of aid that occurs after almost every natural disaster. I am frustrated by our inability to behave like adults and concentrate on problems we can fix. I am sure we could eliminate world hunger if we took a moment to think about it. Currently we have farmers who are paid to not farm. Why not buy their crops from them and distribute them to the hungry? Why not put the Ukraine and other nations that formed the breadbasket of the Soviet Union into full farming production? I believe we could change the world. We could be certain that no child was going to bed hungry.
The problem is that the majority of us are not willing to look beyond the walls of our own lives. The questions we are most likely to ask, even though it goes against our inherent goodness, are why should I care, or how much is this going to cost. You should care because all humans should care when one of us is not being treated with the basic human dignity we all expect. Cost is irrelevant. Look at the famous picture of the Chinese man stopping the tanks on their way to Tiananmen square. He did not consider the cost of his actions. He had the courage to realize he could make a difference in this world, if even only for a few hours, and he acted. True leadership takes courage. The courage to stand up for what you believe. The courage to say, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead! A courage which has been sadly lacking from American leadership for a long, long time.
Finally I come back to Gen. Dallaire’s conclusion:

Too many parties have focused on pointing the finger at others, beyond the perpetrators, as the scapegoats for our common failure in Rwanda. Some say that the example of Rwanda proves the UN is an irrelevant, corrupt, decadent institution that has outlived its usefulness or even its ability to conduct conflict resolution [which is what Gen. Dallaire believes the post-modern peace-keeping missions are]. Other have blamed the Permanent Five of the Security Council, especially the United States and France, for failing to see beyond their own national self-interest to lead or even support international intervention to stop the genocide. Some have blamed the media for not telling the story, the NGOs for not reacting quickly and effectively enough, the peacekeepers for not showing more resolve, and myself for failing in my mission. When I began this book, I was tempted to make it an anatomy of my person failures, which I was finally persuaded would be missing the point.

I have witnessed and also suffered my share of recriminations and accusations, politically motivated “investigations” and courts martial, Monday-morning quarterbacking, revisionism and outright lies since I got back to Canada in September 1994-none of that will bring back the dead or point the way forward to a peaceful future. Instead, we need to study how the genocide happened not from the perspective of assigning blame-there is too much to go around-but from the perspective of how we are going to take concrete steps to prevent such a thing from happening again. To properly mourn the dead and respect the potential of the living, we need accountability, not blame. We need to eliminate from this earth the impunity with which the genocidaires were able to act, and re-emphasizing the principle of justice for all, so that no one for even a moment will make the ethical and moral mistake of ranking some humans as more human than others, a mistake that the international community endorsed by its indifference in 1994.
A mistake we continue to endorse with our indifference to this day.

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