War—What Is It Good For?

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate MeasuresWhile I’m rarely able to pick a ‘favourite’ book, nor even do more than draw a blank when I’m asked to recommend something, one of my hands-down favourites and one that I regularly buy as a gift for friends or thrust upon them as a loaner is Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures). Written by three United Nations (UN) workers—lawyer Kenneth Cain, social worker Heidi Postlewait, and almost-Aussie New Zealand-born doctor Andrew Thomson—it gives a warts-and-all insight not only into war but the international organisation tasked with managing its fallout.

The three were stationed in the likes of Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Somalia, the latter of which included them being there during the awfulness of Black Hawk Down. The revelations aren’t pretty and offer some fairly despairing examples of why the UN is referred to as a ‘toothless tiger’, but the book’s strangely inspiring too. In fact, despite cataloguing its flaws, the authors still work at the UN and still work to improve the world we live in. I’ve never more wanted to join the UN than I did after reading the book and apparently am not alone in my thinking.

I’m not going to dish details of the origins of the ‘emergency sex’ of the title—I recommend you read it to find out for yourself—but I will say that while it might be the gimmick that attracts you, there’s much more to the book than that. UN officials as high up as Kofi Annan tried to prevent the book from being published, but it was such in-text statements as the fact that if blue-helmeted UN officials turn up in your village purporting to be there to help you, you should run that were much more thought-provoking.

An Imperfect OfferingKeen to know more and to fill the post-good-book reading void after finishing Emergency Sex, I stumbled across Medecins Sans Frontieres president James Orbinski’s An Imperfect Offering: Dispatches from the Medical Frontline. Orbinski has spent years working in some pretty harrowing hotspots, but for me the most compelling aspect of the book was his account of his time spent in Rwanda. As one of the few foreigners who stayed in the country and who witnessed first-hand the atrocities of the genocide, which the world (including the UN) effectively watched unfold without intervening, his stories are harrowing and haunting.

By demonstrating the human cost of war, both books resoundingly show that war is much messier and less effective than the obfuscating ‘shock and awe’ and ‘smart bomb’ jargon would have us believe. They also demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit against the odds and give some very human insight into (for those of us who’ve grown up in safe environments) a very foreign experience. And while I’ve re-read and will continue to return to both books, the question I’m now faced with is, now that I’m again facing the good-book reading void, which insight-into-war book(s) should I read next?