Where Soldiers Fear to Tread

October 19, 2007

Any journalist who spends time in disaster zones comes away with at least a grudging admiration for aid workers. While some are self-righteous, others self-serving, a few simply naïve and more than a few exasperating,  almost all of them earn our admiration. A few, perhaps, win a small touch of envy for having actually “done something.”

Where Soldiers Fear to Tread, John  Burnett’s account of his few months employed by the World Food Programme during the 1998 floods in Somalia, is a no-holds-barred, honest and relentlessly gripping tale of the world of disaster relief.

It is also an object lesson for journalists that focusing on the victims of disasters, without covering their would-be saviours, means missing a piece of the story. The aid angle can be every bit as human and compelling as the “big picture.” Aid workers, Burnett’s experience shows, have much in common with foreign correspondents.

Like us, their motives for putting themselves   in  dangerous  and uncomfortable places are based on a mixture of ego, a desire for adventure, a need to escape (be it from ourselves, a leaky roof or a leaky marriage), decent  financial  reward  and a hazy definition of altruism.

The aid worker telling himself his primary motivation is to help others is a version of the reporter claiming to serve the greater good of “the public’s right to know.”

What is striking about Burnett’s narrative is the honesty with which he confronts his own motivation and reactions. When he hands a small boy a fig bar, the child is brutally beaten, to death as it turns out, by older and stronger children.

Burnett is left with confusion, guilt and remorse. His candid soul-baring is rare in any narrative, but it suits this chronicle of lost innocence.

The book also takes an insightful look at the larger issues of UN bureaucracy, ethnic violence, African democracy and whether humanitarian aid is efficacious or merely conscience-salving in a mode so acutely described by Kipling.

“The savage wars of peace,” Burnett discovers, are savage indeed. Having been as far out on the ragged edge as one can get, he captures the helplessness of being confronted by a well-armed child soldier and the pointless violence “between hundreds of factions with little cause and limited purpose.”

It’s a mental and physical space many correspondents visit, but few chronicle as well as Burnett. He has given the vagabonds of the world of disaster relief their due for doing the best they can,  for  whatever reason, to help those who either cannot or will not help themselves.

Reviewer:  Allen Pizzey is the Rome-based International Correspondent for CBS News.