September Books 1) Emergency Sex

1) Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures), by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlethwait, and Andrew Thomson

The title here is pretty misleading, in that there’s not a lot of sex in it. But it’s a very interesting book nonetheless, as three UN workers, two American and one New Zealander, one a doctor, one a lawyer and one a former social worker, reflect in intense narrative form what it was actually like on a human level to participate in the UN peacekeeping missions of the mid 1990s – success (as it seemed at the time) in Cambodia; humiliation in Somalia; failure in Rwanda; intervention too late in Bosnia, Haiti and Liberia. For all three, their initial sense of idealism and optimism about the mission of the international community in general and the UN and US in particular faded once confronted by the brutal realities of life in the field and incompetent, uncomprehending superiors. There are grim, horrible, memorable descriptions of prisons and mass graves, and honest descriptions of the hedonistic methods of relaxation (security situation permitting) once out of the office at the end of the day.

A very interesting book. Doesn’t speak completely to my own experience – I’ve never actually served in a war zone (growing up in Belfast is pretty small beer compared to the situations described here), or worked in any official government or intergovernmental capacity, or (thank God) had particularly incompetent or uncomprehending bosses to deal with. Also, I have always had an instinctive cynicism about international interventions – it never comes as a surprise to me when national or institutional interests, rather than the actual conditions on the ground, take over the agenda, whereas for Cain, Postlethwait and Thomson it seems to erode the very core of their raisons d’être. It is, of course, deeply frustrating when that happens, and one of the things I love about my job is that we are funnelling information about the situation on the ground directly to the people at the top so as to try and distract them from their national or institutional agendas. And sometimes we succeed.

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