Monday, October 30, 2017

It's "Heart of Darkness" all over again as U.S. war in Africa heats up

From CNN Online on Oct. 23:
Americans should anticipate more military operations in Africa as the war on terrorism continues to morph, Sen. Lindsey Graham warned Friday.
"This war is getting hot in places that it's been cool, and we've got to go where the enemy takes us," Graham told reporters on Capitol Hill.
We are embarked on another military spree. It's best to bone up on the literature of Africa, lest we make the same ignorant mistakes we made in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Saharan Africa, Southwest Asia, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Dakota Territory, and so on.

My first thought was "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad. While a tad racist, it’s a magnificent cautionary tale for overseas adventurers with a terminal case of hubris. You know, Marlow and Kurtz, Willard and Kurtz. Francis Ford Coppola used the 1899 novel (and Michael Herr’s nonfiction “Dispatches”) as a blueprint for “Apocalypse Now.”

Four American Special Forces troops were killed in an ambush in Niger two weeks ago. Most of us didn’t know that the U.S. had troops in Niger. We had to look up the country on a map and practice our spelling and pronunciation of the country so as not to sound as stupid as Trump. It’s not Nigeria. Nijz-AIR, is as close as I can get. It’s near Chad and is poorer than that country, which is saying something. According to the Africa Guide, two-thirds of the country is desert and the northeastern part of the country is "mostly uninhabitable." Most Nigeriens live in the southern third of the country described as "savannah." That is where the U.S. has a base and where our troops were killed. 

We've got to go where the enemy takes us. 

Any Vietnam War novel should be instructive as Africa’s cold war gets hot. “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene is a good primer as it was written way back in 1955, long before our misadventure in French Indochina heated up in the 1960s. While Ken Burns PBS Vietnam War series has its flaws, special screenings should be held for Sen. Graham, President “My heel hurts and I can’t go to Vietnam” Trump, Mr. Tillerson, Gen, Mattis, and any other member of this passel of fools who hasn’t seen it. The PBS does an excellent job of following our descent into madness or, if you prefer, our own very special heart of darkness. Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam: A History” is also an excellent historical account of the war.

Novels and poetry may be the best route into understanding how quagmires happen, and what the effects are on countries.

But Vietnam isn’t the only useful example. I have been researching World War I as background for a novel I am writing about the post-war years of 1919-1920 in my home state of Colorado. In the summer of 1914, the entire world lost its mind. Except for the U.S. – we waited until spring of 1917 to do so. A few nights ago, I watched most of the 1971 Brit film “Nicholas and Alexandra.” Nicky thought that dashing off vaguely friendly letters to his wife’s German relatives would keep Russia out of the war. Not only did Russia suffer millions of casualties, but the czar’s repressive policies fed right into the hands of the Bolsheviks. Decades of terror followed. And then the Soviets suffered their own Vietnam in Afghanistan. I have yet a read a novel about this war – I’m sure there are some good ones. We have our own novels coming out of the Afghan misadventures. It doesn’t end.

The best novel I’ve read to come out of the American Wars of the New Millennium is “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain. The juxtaposition of Billy Lynn’s shattered soul with the spectacle of the NFL Super Bowl took my breath away. It seems especially relevant now as we watch African-American players take a knee to bring attention to injustices wrought on the streets of the USA. And the critics say “Don’t mix politics with football.” Too late. America is all about these things: war and football and prejudice and spectacle and greed and cheerleaders in skimpy outfits.

I am woefully lacking in reading books by the writers of Africa. This is not a surprise, as English majors are woefully lacking in books outside those written in native English. I have read novels set in Africa by U.S. and British writers. Time to read a novel by an African author. A dedicated Ghanaian/American reader/blogger Darkowaa hosts a blog called African Book Addict! Go to her reading list at It would help if you also read French, German, or a selection of African dialects. 

We've been in Africa before. "Black Hawk Down" by Mark Bowden shows what happens when a country's military ventures into a place such as Mogadishu that it doesn't understand. The Horn of Africa can be a dangerous place. The U.S., once had military and naval bases in Ethiopia. Until it didn't. The Soviets moved in and Haile Salassie was a dead man. 

Maybe that’s the lesson of all of these works of art about wars past. It never ends. Humankind keeps making the same mistakes. We never learn.

We can keep reading. We will always have that. I hope we will.

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