Thursday, May 24, 2007

Book review: I didn't do it for you by Michela Wrong

I Didn't Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation (P.S.)I recently finished reading I Didn't Do It for You: How the world betrayed a small African nation by Michela Wrong.

When I started reading the book it was with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. I was curious to learn about the history of Kagnew Station and of Eritrea, where I had lived for two years of my childhood. I was skeptical because of the subtitle; I did not know whether this book was going to be simply another exercise in America-bashing, and I was wondering wherein lay the betrayal to which it referred.

My journey toward understanding the meaning of the subtitle required me first to come to understand the meaning of the title itself. This is a book about the interaction of many nations with the land and people of Eritrea from the end of the 19th Century to 2005. Ms. Wrong tells the story through descriptions of major historical events, but also through her conversations and interviews with people who lived in various periods, or otherwise shed light on how the world related to Eritrea.

The phrase "I didn't do it for you" refers to an anecdote she tells (pages 98-99) about an event after the strategic 1941 battle of Keren, the key - and costly - battle after which the British were able to move on to Asmara and ultimately Addis Ababa where they would restore Haile Selassie to the Ethiopian throne.
Popular legend has it that a British captain leading his weary men on the march from Keren into Asmara was met on the road by an old Eritrean woman, wrapped in the ghostly white shroud of the highlands. She was ululating in traditional greeting, celebrating her country's liberation from Italian Fascist rule and the start of a new era of hoped-for prosperity. Perhaps that high-pitched shrilling irritated the captain, extenuated by a campaign he thought he might not survive. In any case, he is said to have stopped her in mid-flow with one throwaway line designed to crush any illusions about why he and his men were fighting in Eritrea. 'I didn't do it for you, n----r,' he said, before striding on towards Asmara.
The main idea Ms. Wrong develops in each chapter of this book is that the impressive, costly, and even heroic acts done by outsiders in Eritrea did not spring from a sense of altruistic concern for the people of Eritrea. This lack of altruism took many forms. The extravagant Italian infrastructure was not intended to benefit the Eritreans but to establish a self-sustaining colony for Italians. The 50,000 lives taken in the battle of Keren were expended by the British not to accomplish anything for Eritrea, but as a necessary initial step toward defeating Italy and eventually Germany in WWII. The post-WWII negotiations over the status of Eritrea had little to do with what would be good for Eritreans, but everything to do with realigning world power. The expensive U.S. presence at Kagnew Station was not intended to accomplish anything specifically for the Eritreans, but to maintain a prime location for electronic spying on the U.S.S.R. The massive quantities of military aid the U.S., and then the U.S.S.R., sent to Ethiopia had nothing to do with the well-being of Eritreans (and in fact were being used to oppose their struggle for independence), but had everything to do with playing out the Cold War.

Ms. Wrong develops this theme of the lack of altruism well, but the theme of betrayal is the second theme she develops. Acting in one's self-interest does not alone constitute betrayal, but there were numerous times when other countries took advantage of special positions of trust and the world did nothing.

For example, during the British administration of Eritrea after WWII, Britain stole massive amounts of the infrastructure the Italians had transported and built in Eritrea, but the United Nations never called Britain to account for this theft. Or, when the U.N. federated Eritrea with Ethiopia, the Eritreans were told that any change in the relationship would come straight back to the United Nations; but when Ethiopia ended the federation the United Nations stood by and did nothing about this violation of international law.

The history of betrayals sheds some light on the intense Eritrean frustration with the failure of the United Nations to demarcate the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. After a horrendous border war with Ethiopia, both Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace treaty and submitted their border dispute to final and binding arbitration. Ethiopia does not like the result and has not accepted it. It is a no-brainer that the result is correct, and that Ethiopia should immediately have acted consistently with its submission of the dispute to the commission. Meanwhile, the world, the United Nations, or the United States, have not taken actions to enforce the outcome of the arbitration.

I must warn that Chapter 10 concerning the Kagnew Station period is not for reading by young people. Susan Rice of the Washington Post writes:
But Wrong takes her storytelling off on a bizarre tangent when recounting the perversions of "the Gross Guys," a band of Americans based at Kagnew Station in Eritrea, a massive Cold War listening post from 1953 through 1977. Her chapter -- whose title cannot be printed in a family newspaper -- delves in lurid and gratuitous detail into the drunken sexual exploits of these servicemen. Indeed, this chapter seems misplaced -- however accurate its depiction of some Americans' lewd behavior may be.
That being said, I would recommend this book to any adults who want to start filling in the gaps in their knowledge about Eritrea, a young African nation that is celebrating sixteen years of independence today. It is far short of a complete history of Eritrea, but it illuminates part of Eritrea's history that people in the rest of the world need to hear.

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