Giving War Another Chance

 

Not really – this is just my way of saying I am rereading P.J. O’Rourke’s 1992 book Give War A Chance: Eyewitness Accounts of Mankind’s Struggle Against Tyranny, Injustice, and Alcohol-Free Beer. I read it shortly after it came out, and found it excellent. Almost a third of a century later, I am pleased to report that it still is. There are, however, quite a few details that have become dated. (It also has entire themes which have disappeared. Lee Iacocca?)

Since O’Rourke made it clear that these pieces were journalism, and since he more than most journalists would admit that such product is perishable, it may be unfair of me to point out how much of his “news” got old. Of course it did. Still, his observations at the end of the Cold War are as good a place as any to begin a review of the world we find ourselves in now. 1992 wasn’t that long ago.

Nor was 1989, which is when the Berlin Wall was triumphantly breached. O’Rourke got there almost as soon as it happened. He was exactly correct to heap scorn on Communists. It was good and just to vanquish our enemies, and so sweetly in this way: not in a horrific battlefield clash, but just standing back and watching their ramparts crumble, almost spontaneously. He was also correct not to overstate the rightness of the Cold War, or what really ensured its success. What did that was: nobody wanted to buy Bulgarian shoes anymore.

But one thing O’Rourke may have got wrong was about the Bush administration’s reaction to these rapid events. He mocked the President for not really understanding their greatness – being mostly puzzled by them, treating the whole affair as if it was a dance craze. Well, with three decades in the books now, I’d say the fall of the U.S.S.R. really was that; or Communism’s was. Maybe Communism’s RISE was too. You might say Russia is still Russia; I might say the Eastern Hemisphere is still the Eastern Hemisphere; either way, whatever mean-spirited and/or fashionable ideology currently in force yonder is unimportant. That half of the planet was and is primitive.

And O’Rourke is at his very considerable best when he focuses on that. Again, he was making no great vaulting predictions, and my own experiences are themselves dated, but I can confirm that at least in 2010 in Sofiya, Communism had a lingering look – not just derelict chemical plants and gulag-ready switching yards, but the toilet-paper dispenser in my hotel room’s bathroom being INSIDE the shower stall. And Communism had a smell too. It emanated from things like payphones, and it was highly variable, 10% less fecal, 10% more rancid-porkal depending on a sensory geography far more complex than Eastern Europe’s physical one is. I’m going into greater detail than O’Rourke did but I think he would agree. Move your nose five degrees, you’re totally off a stink vector. Move it another five, though…be careful!

Not everything in this book relates directly to Communism or the part of the planet it came from. About Paraguay, O’Rourke remained puzzled how it connected to anything. I myself am unsure it ever did. He was there for a post-dictatorship election, and reviewed the country’s history well enough, not that this was very instructive. He toured more extensively than I would do decades later, and I certainly didn’t see anything to dispute the idea that Paraguay is tranquilo. He did have the excellent idea of looking up Martin Bormann in a Paraguayan phonebook. Me, I looked up MYSELF in foreign phonebooks, with a similar lack of success! But those things don’t exist anymore. O’Rourke wisely notes that such Nazis as ever got here would be terribly old. Impossibly old, now. He muses on clipping playing cards close to the spokes of their wheelchair wheels so wherever they go, the noise will give them away to the Mossad.

O’Rourke’s chapter on Nicaragua and one of its own elections likewise resists dating, though not because, at least until 2018, Daniel Ortega was STILL hoping to get or keep political power. Again, while Latin America certainly paid attention to Communism, even this place resisted its charms, and whatever the region’s passions and accomplishments, Central America pretty much does things its own way. Only occasionally does something there tether itself to something here, or vice versa. O’Rourke speaks extensively of a class of visitor I have never seen at all, even in Costa Rica: the sandalistas. These were well-off American lefties, generally Birkenstock-shod, who had come to this country to…well, help. (The ellipsis was O’Rourke’s. He also applied pleading italics to the verb.) I don’t doubt that there were many such ambiguous well-wishers – O’Rourke begins his chapter with a description of Bianca Jagger, looking every inch the discarded wife of a rock star, earnestly applying whatever celebrity she had left to whatever outlet it could find here – but I am certain that Central America is now empty of such people.

So much has changed since the early 1990s that this book is pretty full of period pieces. One chapter is about, of all places, Ireland. North or Central – I have already forgotten which. Many of us may recall that whichever one it was, it used to have lots of bombings and assassinations. O’Rourke has little to teach, or I remain unable to learn, what the heck any of that was ever about. He interviews a lot of sensible-sounding people who must have, as soon as he left the room, gone back to being maniacs. He does hoot at the British for striving for, as they themselves called it, an “acceptable level of violence.” So, was that achieved? Was that policy, in retrospect, a shrewd and successful one? In the absence of any modern information at all about a place I have never planned to visit, I just don’t know.

One thing I do know, and this chapter isn’t about a visit to it but about benefit concerts given elsewhere for it, is that we DON’T need to talk about Africa. O’Rourke says – maybe he was just being polite – that we do. Nope.

But Africa remains, in its unripenable-fruit way, evergreen. Is that a good word for it? Another place to which it may apply, not that anyone there would want it to, is the Ukraine. O’Rourke came to it and found it still entangled, if not precisely with the ex-U.S.S.R. or Russia, with its past, mostly but not exclusively the Communist past. Its early attempts at a free-market environment, or even a half-good-looking one, were not going well, and I wonder if anything really has improved. O’Rourke speaks of rural houses which drew their water from wells and whose cesspits were even shallower than those. This chapter has one of my favorite passages, a conversation between O’Rourke and his Intourist guide, a young woman who is stumped:

Even Soweto has indoor plumbing. A septic tank is nothing but a concrete box, and, to judge by Soviet architecture, the locals were plenty capable of making one. The Dnieper river was only a few miles away. A couple cartloads of riverbed gravel, some shovel work and a tractor or an ox or the kids pulling a log drag would make for weatherproof roads.

“We need some economist to give us a plan,” said Marina.

“You had that already,” I said.

Published in Journalism
This post was promoted to the Main Feed at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 8 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    O’Rourke described an East German border guard reaching his hand through a hole in the Wall that the Westies were attacking with hammers, picks, chunks of rebar, whatever they had. The guard wanted a piece of the Wall as a keepsake.

    I looked at that and I began to cry.

    I really didn’t understand before that moment, I didn’t realize until just then–we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against life-hating, soul-denying, slavish communism–which had shaped the world’s politics this whole wretched century–was over.

    And the best thing about our victory was the way we did it–not just with ICBMs and Green Berets and aid to the contras. Those things were important, but in the end we beat them with Levi 501 jeans. Seventy-two years of communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman. A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps and secret police had been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes.

    Not even the Bulgarians.

    A very good book. It ought to be required reading at Columbia.

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    John H.: I might say the Eastern Hemisphere is still the Eastern Hemisphere; either way, whatever mean-spirited and/or fashionable ideology currently in force yonder is unimportant. That half of the planet was and is primitive.

    The Eastern Hemisphere starts in Greenwich and encompasses most of London, France and Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, etc. Yes, I agree with you. Primitives.

    • #2
  3. Bill Berg Coolidge
    Bill Berg
    @Bill Berg

    Have to break my copy out again, and I’m going to post up a review of PJ’s “Driving Like Crazy”. I may even try to figure out linking to other people’s posts … but not to be counted on. 

    Thank you.!

    • #3
  4. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Percival (View Comment):

    O’Rourke described an East German border guard reaching his hand through a hole in the Wall that the Westies were attacking with hammers, picks, chunks of rebar, whatever they had. The guard wanted a piece of the Wall as a keepsake.

    I looked at that and I began to cry.

    I really didn’t understand before that moment, I didn’t realize until just then–we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against life-hating, soul-denying, slavish communism–which had shaped the world’s politics this whole wretched century–was over.

    And the best thing about our victory was the way we did it–not just with ICBMs and Green Berets and aid to the contras. Those things were important, but in the end we beat them with Levi 501 jeans. Seventy-two years of communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman. A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps and secret police had been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes.

    Not even the Bulgarians.

    A very good book. It ought to be required reading at Columbia.

    I have a piece of the Berlin Wall.  I have a Roman coin too. 

    • #4
  5. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    I have that book sitting a few feet away from me next to Eat the Rich, both unread. That would make some good summer reading. 

    • #5
  6. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    I am so embarrassed: Guinea-Bissau is in the WESTERN Hemisphere! Thought I’d checked that before. I can tell you its longitude is not plainly marked, on the ground I mean. I don’t think Ricochet ever had a geography group. If it did, maybe not anymore! Well, whatever that particular country’s, uh, situation, I am not (much) backing off my sweeping assessments of the planet’s halves. In my lifetime, Central America has risen up from real awfulness and shown itself to be teachable, and the Middle East hasn’t. Somebody over there – say, somebody who after 75 years still considers himself and everyone he knows “refugees” – should be appalled by the comparison. To quote from another O’Rourke book, “Most modern horrors are optional.” 

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    kylez (View Comment):

    I have that book sitting a few feet away from me next to Eat the Rich, both unread. That would make some good summer reading.

    Parliament of Whores, Holidays in Hell, All the Trouble in the World, Republican Party Reptile … I enjoyed all those and more.

    • #7
  8. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    Percival (View Comment):

    kylez (View Comment):

    I have that book sitting a few feet away from me next to Eat the Rich, both unread. That would make some good summer reading.

    Parliament of Whores, Holidays in Hell, All the Trouble in the World, Republican Party Reptile … I enjoyed all those and more.

    I’ve read the first 2 and much of Trouble. I remember his comment on the famine in Somalia during which he said he was never anywhere where there wasn’t food.

    • #8
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.