Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

We Did Nothing: Why the Truth Doesn’t Always Come Out When the UN Goes In, by Linda Polman (trans. Rob Bland)

Article by Gwilym John

Dutch radio and newspaper journalist Linda Polman reported from some of the most notorious conflicts that defined the early to mid 1990s. This book is constructed from her reports at the time, interspersed with other media cuttings from the frontlines. Polman sees the stories of the UN and its peacekeepers – the so called “blue helmets” –buddying up with them in theatre to see the troubles from their unique perspective. Moving from Somalia and then onto Haiti, concluding her stories in Rwanda, it is not indistinct from a travel memoir; albeit one with a difference. Black humour carries the narrative forward, an apt way of conveying the tragedy and farce that seems to plague all UN peacekeeping missions. In Somalia the naivety of a fellow “journalist” named John is revealed: John is actually a backpacker visiting Mogadishu for extra cash, somehow roped in to report from the place no-one else wants to go. In a ruined city they see no peacekeepers, however; they are all holed up in camps at the nearby airport, too wary of violence in Mogadishu to venture outside. It transpires that rendering Mogadishu secure is a pipe dream: the UN trained police force can’t be paid owing to the consistent budget shortages that seem to define peacekeeping operations. Polman wastes no time in explaining why: only 19 of the 185 UN member states have made their contributions, nearly all of the rich Westernised nations notable by their absence. The hypocrisy of the rich countries is summarised by a jocular Indian peacekeeper:

“but of course there’s something like solidarity between peoples […] Western states are quite prepared to fight the rebels here down to the last Third World soldier!”

The reality of a divide based on wealth is a recurring theme that Polman is keen to show us: nearly all of the peacekeepers who are given to operations are provided by third world nations. The UN pays third world governments the salaries of Western troops to put their soldiers into a blue helmet. It is enough cash to attract poor countries to supply their men, but the drawback is obvious: soldiers of the poorest nations do not have the equipment or expertise of Western troops, so even simple engineering tasks such as fixing drainage systems is beyond them. Of course, the chance that Western soldiers will be deployed is minimal: domestic political capital is just too risky to be spent amongst the poor and needy. Her writing is never actually a polemic, thought it is within her rights to forge one. Instead Polman aims the criticism with her cutting use of facts and soundbites from the supporting cast to the tragedy. A Dutch diplomat has this to offer:

“no white troops in black Africa… I am ashamed to be representing my country”

Departing from Somalia, Polman follows the crowd of journalists on the hot new scent of human suffering to Haiti – human misery is shown to sell just as well as sex in terms of thirst for the best story. The operation there is shaping up to be another “blue rinsing” as was seen in Somalia. Initial operations in Haiti to oust a military regime are a US lone wolf operation, in the mould of installing and spreading democracy. Polman, though she never states as much, suggests that these quick successes are undertaken for moral PR purposes: all the achievement with none of the tough slog. The “blue rinsing” happens when the day to day operations are handed over to the blue helmets of the UN: building infrastructure, stabilising the economy and so forth. The tasks are difficult, and no doubt rich countries have no political stomach to stay amongst the detritus of the poor, so leave it to the underfunded, understaffed, and under-resourced UN. When the mission inevitably fails, as it does in both Somalia and Haiti, the world’s leaders can point the finger of blame at the UN. That is of course, the very same UN the rich countries force into untenable operations, on its meagre budget; still short of mandatory contributions from the economic powerhouses who call the shots. Polman herself feels this shame for her position vis-a-vis the suffering of the poor and displaced, eating well while the Port-au-Prince residents starve. The dark humour rings again here: dining with her fellow journalists, they all watch in horror as a colleague tucks into some pork. Was it the same pig that they had earlier seen eating a baby?

The book ends in Rwanda, an apogee of the calamitous approach to peacekeeping that Polman so skilfully exposes. There is redemption here, though, for the idea of peacekeeping. Even if in practice it has so often gone so terribly wrong, the story of the eighty ZamBat (Zambian army) blue helmets and 150,000 refugees is a doubly tragic and inspiring episode, one which throws Polman into the deep waters of living in a warzone, demonstrating how difficult bringing order to chaos can be. The peacekeepers are once again impotent in the face of evil and suffering: mission restrictions means that the murder of refugees by a vengeful Tutsi army is left unchecked. All that Polman and the ZamBat commander can do is plead desperately to allow a single truck of water in for the mass of people, squeezed into an area no bigger than three football fields. The water reaches maybe a thousand people, and the same is true of the medical help they can offer. Médécins Sans Frontiers arrive at one point in the week long siege, though they are just as soon leaving again on the same day; it is, of course, too dangerous to stay beyond 4 o’ clock. Polman tries in vain with the ZamBat blue helmets to distribute the abandoned MSF medical supplies, but again it seems to be an exercise in futility. Nonetheless, that they do try and succeed in sorts is restorative after the journey the book has taken us on. Indeed, it is a journey that should be mandatory for all the policy makers of the west. The epilogue is made up of public criticisms levelled at the UN by governments and NGOs, typifying the shameless hypocrisy that continues even today. Polman has done much to show that the UN peacekeepers can do great work in difficult circumstances, and her engaging work also shows that the unity in our United Nations is shamefully scuppered by those states that have the most to give.

Penguin, 2004 (Originally published 1997)
ISBN 0-141-01290-0

9 comments on “We Did Nothing: Why the Truth Doesn’t Always Come Out When the UN Goes In, by Linda Polman (trans. Rob Bland)

  1. Jackie
    March 17, 2010

    Wow, excellent review of a book that deserves so much more attention than it has gotten.It sounds quite eye-opening. I thought the UN forces were more effective, though I knew in some places their mission was restricted. I also knew & cringe at the fact that the U.S. is one of the countries that does not hold up its financial end of the deal. We can find the money to pay “independent contractors” but not the U.N.?
    Thanks for bringing this book to our attention & doing your part to wake us up. It’s a frustrating, depressing situation & more people need to know what is really going on.

  2. Gwilym
    March 17, 2010

    Thanks for your words Jackie – despite the subject matter I do feel good to share a book that was so important for me and I hope can be for others.

    As to the industrial side of war, that’s the doubly depressing side to the operations: money seems to pour forth from national governments for industrial giants such as Kellogg, Brown & Root. Certainly firms such as that giant and QinetiQ (UK) have plenty of profit to seek in war and suffering. Conflict is a lucrative business when executed “correctly”.

    Though much of the fire here is directed at the US government they are by no means alone in their manipulations of the United Nations. Let it also be said (and there’s another time for this!) that the UN as an organisation is by no means perfect. Polman’s book is definitely worth a read and given the length of time that has passed between her reports then and the world now, I am curious to see how some of the characters are faring – particularly in Haiti, a state which seems unable to escape from the mire of economic and political ruin that has so far defined its miserable life.

    And for those who may be hesitating on reading Polman, there is ample coverage of the power for good in this book too, a small glimmer of hope in the darkness. Let’s hope that fine journalism like this can motivate our political overlords into shaping policies founded in respect for our shared humanity.

  3. kirstyjane
    March 17, 2010

    Thanks Gwilym for a bold and brilliant review. I also wonder about how things will shape up in Haiti given the past record with UN involvement. It’s really good to find that there’s a source of insider information, and a well written one too.

  4. The Literary Omnivore
    March 18, 2010

    Wow. This sounds very affecting- I know the image of a pig eating a baby is going to be my nightmare fuel for the next few weeks. Thanks for this wonderful review.

  5. Michael Ng
    March 19, 2010

    Gwilym, this brings back shades of ‘Collective Security’ and other such talk from my MA War Studies degree. This sounds like a fascinating book which I must add to my book shelf.

  6. Hilary
    March 19, 2010

    What a moving review of a truly important book. Your review is eye-opening enough, Gwilym, so the book itself must be essential reading. A huge challenge from now on to the assumptions I make when I see blue helmets on the news. I am glad that there is a thread of hope in the marginal balance that has been struck to enable the UN to keep a toe-hold in the conscience of the world, but I can’t help asking – why does it have to be this way? I hope this book is widely read, and very influential.

  7. Vladimir
    March 23, 2010

    I am not surprised that there is no more publicity for such a book. Thanks for bringing it to our attention with this review.

  8. Tom
    April 19, 2010

    I a veteran of the US Marines (who has a white face) and served in Somalia in 92-93. Did many patrols in the Mog and did not spend much time “holed up” in a tent. However, I will say that I wish Bill Clinton had a little more resolve and did not pull out so abruptly from Somalia. Also, I agree that the US (and the UN) should have gone in to stop the genocide in Rwanda. I would have been willing to go…800K murdered is too much to ignore.

  9. Junnifah
    June 2, 2022

    Get the inside story – “Last waltz of the Tyrants – Amazon

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This entry was posted on March 17, 2010 by in Non-fiction: current affairs, Non-fiction: history and tagged , , , , , , .

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