As you may have seen in the forums, I was out of town last week and having a bit of a hard time with masses of bureaucratic red tape. I won't bore you all with the gory details but I ended up spending a lot of time sitting around on my ass waiting for others to get off theirs. This was also partly caused by the fact that I managed to hurt my foot to the point where I was barely able to hobble over to the bar to get myself a beer. The horror!
So I crawled down to the local bookstore and picked up a few books which made for a nice change since I've been so busy of late, I've hardly had the time to do much reading.
The first was The Quality of Mercy by William Shawcross. While there have been many books that talk about the horrors that happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (including Shawcross's own Sideshow), this one is a little different in that it examines the aid and redevelopment effort that happened afterwards. Not only were governments from around the globe in there trying to manipulate the situation for their own political gain, aid agencies were fighting amongst themselves over the best (read: highest-profile, easiest-to-sell-to-the-public-for-donations) projects while the local politicians and military were creaming off the aid money and supplies as fast as it arrived.
However, something that really caught my attention was what he wrote in the book's introduction (and this was published in 1984):
The flood of instant information in the world today - at least in the Western industrialized world - sometimes seems not to further, but to retard, education; not to excite, but to dampen, curiosity; not to enlighten, but to merely dismay. Archibald MacLeish once noted, "We are deluged with facts but we have lost or are losing our human ability to feel them."
MacLeish compared the speed and plethora of modern communications with the way in which the world learned of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. The news was brought to New York by MacLeish's grandfather, months after the event. The story was carried on the front page, but its effectiveness derived from the one man's telling of it.
Today the battle of the Nile or the retreat from Moscow might have been covered live or at least endlessly commented upon as it took place - or it might have been almost ignored. Either way, covered or uncovered, it would soon have been superseded. The exiled Czech writer Milan Kundera pointed out, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, that "the bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia; the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh; the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende; the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai; and so on and so forth, until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten."
I've always been somewhat bemused by the headline ticker that goes across the bottom of 24-hour news channels and nowadays, even the daily six o'clock news. Stock prices are one thing but headlines from other unrelated stories are just something else. People tell me that it's a more efficient way of getting your news; "multi-tasking" they tell me to which I have a one-word response: "bollocks." Are our attention spans now so short that we can't even focus on the story that the news reader is presenting right that very second without getting bored and reading what's on the ticker? Good grief
And it's not like all this endless analysis and talking heads are making us better informed. As often happens, we mistake quantity for quality and think that we are that more knowledgeable about what's happening in Iraq, for example, because of it. Yet all the hours and hours of coverage simply serve as filler until the next cause célèbre but until that happens (and especially in the runup to the US elections), what hope for the people of Darfur or North Korea or Tibet?
The next book was Air America by Christopher Robbins. First published in 1979, it takes a look at the "secret" air services provided by CIA-backed companies in South-East Asia during the 60's and 70's. The book served as the basis for the Mel Gibson/Robert Downey Jr. movie of the same name but while there may have been some collaboration between the author and the film producers in the early days of the project, Robbins devotes a chapter of the latest edition disassociating himself and the Air America pilots from the film
It's a very entertaining read, mostly anecdotal but some of the stories are amazing, from having to clear runways of tigers by releasing chickens with live grenades strapped to their bodies to learning how to keep a plane trimmed while cows wandered around inside to having to land planes on runways so short that they had to run the engines at full reverse except that the only way to do that was to have a guy sitting at the back of the plane and on a signal from the pilot, cross some wires over!
Of course, Air America is best known for running drugs and while Robbins doesn't go so far as to say that such a thing never happened, one feels that he lets them off somewhat lightly. Still, it's hard to imagine how he could have said anything else without losing access to the pilots (and getting the crap kicked out of him by the same). Opium has been an integral part of the region for a long time and the primary source of income for the Meo hilltribes who were fighting for the Americans; without it, the war in Laos would have been over very quickly. But in a deliciously ironical twist, a rising official interest in drug activities in the region during the early 70's led to Air America ferrying anti-drug agents around the country
The last book was Another Quiet American by Brett Dakin. In 1997, Brett was 22 and not even out of college when he took a Princeton-In-Asia position at the Lao National Tourism Authority advising them on tourism development, something that Laos had only just started experimenting with. He starts off completely in the dark about Laos and what he is supposed to be doing there and the book takes us through his journey of learning about the country and people (and even a bit about tourism).
Dakin raises an interesting question that is not often asked: why are the aid agencies even in there at all? Yes, the country is extremely poor, infrastructure terrible and life hard but it's their life and it's amazingly arrogant for the western aid agencies to roll into town in their trademark white 4WD's with huge amounts of money (that has a very destabilizing effect on the local economy), starting "major infrastructure projects" left, right and centre that often prove to be totally unsuitable because no-one bothered to take the time to ask the locals what they actually needed.
And of course, the aid workers themselves are well-taken care of. Dakin writes of one UN consultant who was shipped in at a rate of USD $10,000 per month (average annual income in Laos: around USD $300) and another agency that was instructed to buy more vehicles and computers for itself but to reduce wages paid to the local staff!
UPDATE: And just in case you were thinking that this is all of historical interest only, thirty years later there are still thousands of Lao hilltribe people living in what are essentially refugee camps in Thailand, looking for somewhere to go.
So I spent a few pleasant days with my nose buried in a book with a cold beer at hand. Lovely! I didn't choose these books with any particular theme in mind but together they gave a fascinating look at the recent history of that part of the world from three different perspectives, from the men who helped fight a war that had such a devastating effect, the efforts to rebuild a country after it had self-destructed and that of a small country's attempt to open itself up to a world that knew almost nothing about it.