The Game of Nations
October 08, 2007, 08:53 PM
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Here`s an interesting story in Esquire from last summer about the big plans the Pentagon has for Africa. See, we`re going to go to Africa and kill people and break things at the same time we paint their schools! Pretty innovative, huh? What could possibly go wrong?

The Americans Have Landed

A few years ago, with little fanfare, the United States opened a base in the horn of Africa to kill or capture Al Qaeda fighters. By 2012, the Pentagon will have two dozen such forts. The story of Africa Command, the American military`s new frontier outpost. By Thomas P.M. Barnett

The reality has been that not much happens in Africa that affects the outside world. Is that going to change? Maybe. Barnett has a complicated demographic theory about why Africa will soon transform from the rather lackadaisical place described by Modern Drunkard magazine as "a drinker`s paradise" into a seething inferno of Al Qaeda-led suicide bombers out to destroy America. See, in Barnett`s theory, all the countries that are "connected" to each other via trade and communications always get along, but the unconnected ones off on their own are trouble. (I guess that`s why isolated Paraguay caused the world so much more trouble in the 20th Century than centrally-located Germany.)

Okay, maybe, although I suspect that even though we assume that Somalians are obsessed with America, the reality is that life in Somalia is full of interest, thank you very much, and they don`t really think much about us except when we get in their faces. But, maybe I`m wrong.

Still, will painting their schools really make them like us more? If they care so much about having painted schools, wouldn`t they paint them themselves? Didn`t Ben Franklin explain that doing people favors just makes them resent that you can do them favors? (Instead, have them do you favors, which will make them like you more.)

Will having our soldiers roar around African locales in Black Hawks pointing .50 caliber machine guns at the locals — in between the school painting — really win the hearts and minds of the local youths? Aren`t they instead going to resent the fact that we get to roar around their neighborhood but they don`t get to roar around ours? Maybe that will plant the idea in their young men`s heads that they should come to America and do some roaring here just to show us we`re not so tough after all?

Wouldn`t it be easier for all concerned just to not let them through Customs at JFK?

Sorry, I forgot. Since our leaders have invited the world, we have to invade the world. It`s that simple.

One interesting point Barnett raises without quite making it is that when it comes to charity work, American soldiers tend to be better liked by the Third World locals than dweeby NGO volunteers (except when our soldiers kill their kin, which they remember unto the seventh generation):

Team leader of Team B/413th Civil Affairs Battalion, McKnight is an instantly likable fellow. He`s a balding bear of a guy whose uniform is a Cubs cap and a bike-messenger bag, and he comes off like a good high school football coach. And he did coach at a school in an unglamorous part of Miami. "Suburban kids didn`t need me because they`ve already got parents," he says. ...

Civil affairs promised him the most remote locations with the neediest clients. Now sitting across from me at a seedy Internet caf?© located in the sweltering waterfront of Lamu, Kenya, an ancient seafaring port, McKnight downs a huge beer in a single gulp and leans back, flashing his gap-tooth grin like Vince Lombardi. He`s been in country for almost six months now and has put in repeated requests to extend his tour of duty, to no avail. "I`ll probably get me something deep in South America next," he says.

McKnight in his element is a superb intelligence gatherer (or what they call in spycraft "human intelligence"). We took a long tour of Lamu`s labyrinthine back alleys, where the carved wooden doors mark the homes of some of the world`s oldest slave traders, and the open sewers reek. I`m holding my nose while McKnight presses the flesh of every shopkeeper we pass, most of whom warmly yell out his name in greeting. He`s like some muzungu running for office on Lamu`s south side: exchanging gossip, asking how business has been lately, needling them for details about this or that local issue.

Most of the Third World, especially the Horn of Africa, is a man`s world, and they like a man`s man better than a more sensitive soul.

That`s why some of the best anthropologists have been two-fisted brawlers, like Napoleon Chagnon and Carleton Coon. The latter`s autobiography recounts a lot more fistfights, some of them quite brutal, than is common in the memoirs of Ivy League professors. Coon`s specialty when wearing his cultural anthropologist hat was "the wilder whites" — mountain tribes in Northwest Africa and the Balkans. They thought Coon was a helluva guy. In fact, in the OSS in WWII in the Mahgreb, Coon`s highest priority was to be ready to become "Lawrence of Morocco." If Franco had let the Nazis came down through Spain and wipe out from the rear the Anglo-American army that was fighting Rommel, Coon`s assignment was to disappear into the Rif Mountains and rally the tribes to fight the Germans.