Monday, August 07, 2006

The World's Most Dangerous Book

The World's Most Dangerous Places (5th ed.) by Robert Young Pelton (Collins 2003) (www.comebackalive).

It took about five months, but I read all thousand pages of The World's Most Dangerous Places, known to its fans as DP. The book is a breezily written cyclopedia of what can go wrong and where as you travel the world.

Presented in a gazetteer format, DP first devotes several chapters to the different ways you can die or wish you had (stepping on a land mine, being kidnapped, intestinal flukes). The heart of the book is the 24 following chapters devoted to different dangerous places.

Pelton and his contributors write in a jokey, jaded style. Congolese president Joseph Kabila Junior is judged to be more sane than his father and "hasn't been quite so bad so far, but, to be fair, it might just be that he hasn't had the time -- what with his country hosting an eight-way war, and all." The authors note the dangers of being an American. "You don't have to go to a war zone to get killed. Sometimes belligerents will track you down and kill you without your leaving the hotel." The security situation in northern Algeria: "Death comes at random if you're a local, and by special delivery if you're a foreigner. You might be safer jogging around downtown Mogadishu wearing 10 gold Rolexes and a stars-and-stripes cape."

Humorous tone aside, Pelton and his reporters -- two of whom died between editions, one being shot in the face by a Russian soldier -- accurately summarize the history and the players in many of the world's hot spots. For example, Pelton explains the differences among al-Fateh, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and the three separate groups that call themselves the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Pelton, who conducted the first media interview of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh on the evening of Lindh's re-capture, is particularly informative regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pelton explains how the United States had a hand in creating the madrassas which churn out anti-American jihadis because, during the 1980s, they churned out anti-Soviet mujahideen.

If anything, the book's breadth of knowledge can be disorienting. When discussing the conflict in the Caucuses, Pelton makes the offhand observation that one of the now-dead Chechyan warlords led troops who "were veterens of the war in Abkhazia."

Of course! The war in Abkhazia! If anything gets my undies bunched, it's the way the U.S. media is constantly yapping about the war in Abkhazia! WTF? (Abkhazia, it turns out, is a coastal province of Georgia which, with no small Russian prodding, declared itself an independent nation. Abkhazian separatists are fighting the Georgians, and Chechyan irregulars, apparently insufficiently challenged waging war against the Red Army in their homeland, crossed the border to fight against the Russians and the Georgians. WTF?)

What it is to view the world through such mordant eyes. DP's most ascerbic criticisms are directed at the African kleptocrats. Former Zaire strongman Mobutu Sese Seko owned 25 villas across the world and "his numerous offspring will live well on the boulevards of Paris." A correspondent at De Gaulle Airport describes "men in expensive suits with huge tribal scars [and] mountains of luggage in bursting cardboard boxes and metal 'caisses,' or coffin-sized steel boxes with large, brass, Chinese-made locks" filed with scotch, perfumes and other luxury goods.

Not that Pelton is a knee-jerk cynic; praise is given where it is due. "Maybe some of the press hailing [Nelson Mandela] as a secular saint can get to be a bit much, but it's really not much more than he deserves," Pelton writes. "He was the principal reason that postapartheid South Africa didn't drown in a sea of blood . . . . One needs only look north to Zimbabwe to see how badly it could have turned out."

Zimbabwe is possibly the most dangerous place on earth, especially if you live there. Almost half of the population is HIV+, with a life expectancy of 34 years for women and 37 years for men, and those numbers are getting worse, according to the WHO. Madman dictator Robert Mugabe blames the crisis on his two favorite bogeymen, homosexuals and the British government, and also, in a charming act of synthesis, on homosexuals in the British government. The country was racked by famine, and Mugabe's response was to order the white farmers to stop growing food and leave. Mugabe capitulated to extortion from marauding thugs claiming to be war veterens and got the payoff money by turning on the printing presses, causing hyper-inflation. "He seems to have gone bonkers in a big way," admitted Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Faced with such appalling facts, DP tries to find the humor. Zim warlord Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi selected his own nickname, which "pretty much renders any other biographical data redundant." And has there ever been a politician with a name as preposterous as the late Reverend Canaan Banana? (A 1982 law prohibited the making of jokes about his name, according to the Telegraph. Luckily, the law only applied within Zim.)

There is one significant surprise tucked away in DP's thick binding. For all the camo and gun talk and machismo, Pelton is a bit of a bleeding heart. "Anyone who chooses to die for something should be listened to very carefully, and possibly corrective action should be taken," Pelton writes about terrorism. "Whether you agree with these groups or not, you do need to pay close attention to what they are saying and why they are being so damned obnoxious about reminding us about it on a regular basis."

"A few angry people can change the course of history."

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Blogger Dave Williams said...

I applaod your finishing of DP. I find the text to be annoyingly familiar (read: conversational). After having bought it in Vancouver last year (not a dangerous place at all) I only got through about 60 pages before raising the white flag. I'll rejoin the battle at some future date. I'll also suggest the tome "War Reporting for Cowards" by Chris Ayres as a good read. His blog:

11:17 AM  
Blogger Dave Williams said...

Hmm, after reviewing my missive, I'll refrain from drunken posting in the future...

11:18 AM  

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