Dark Threats and White Knights

by Sherene Razack
ISBN: 0802086632

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Dark Threats & White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism
by Eric Miller

Perhaps eighty soldiers heard Shidane Abukar Arone's screams on the night of 16 March 1993-a night in the course of which the sixteen-year-old Somalian died of torture inflicted at Belet Huen by Canadian peacekeepers. This fact substantiates Sherene H. Razack's claim, in her Dark Threats & White Knights, that violence, like racism, was routine at the Canadian camp and that we commit an error when we seek overmuch to individualize it in the persons of Master Corporal Clayton Matchee and Private Kyle Brown, who bear the primary responsibility for Arone's death. In effect, Razack's book implicates not only the scores of soldiers who allegedly failed to halt the torture of Arone, but also everyone who has an investment in certain prevalent ideas of Canada. She notes "peacekeeping today is a kind of war, a race war." This statement contradicts the received image of peacekeeping among a proportion of middle-class Canadians, usually of European descent, who cherish a vision of their country as a middle power of modest virtue, bringing the balm of northern civilization to the bloody and benighted of the intractably troubled south. Razack quotes Jean-Paul Sartre's warning "You are no better" (counsel to the smug among his fellow Frenchmen at the time of the Algerian war): this could be Razack's motto. She wants her readership to take it to heart.
Razack points out that many Canadians do not acknowledge the kind and degree of racial feeling that goes to constitute such identity as Canada possesses. What identity does she intend? Canada, she demonstrates, often imagines itself to be a country of nice people, civil people, compassionate and vulnerable people easily traumatized by their encounters with those whose presumed national characteristics do not include an innate tropism toward democracy, peacekeeping and sweet diffidence. Razack emphasizes how Canadian encounters with foreign horror work to consolidate the nation as exempt from history, forever innocent and appalled-a self-oblivious settler colony recoiling from a brutality that it does not identify in the deeds of its own past or in its present domestic and global entanglements. With a degree, perhaps, of recklessness or of bravery, Razack chooses the case of Romo Dallaire to illustrate the way in which Canadian media and other forces frequently make heroes of Canadian witnesses to suffering, rather than focusing on the reality and fate of those who suffered and keep on suffering-in this case, the Rwandans themselves. She cites Charlotte Delbo's concept of "useless knowledge."
Delbo conceived of "useless knowledge" through her experiences at Auschwitz. Razack implicitly credits some of those, whose peace Canada ambiguously keeps, with possessing such knowledge. What many Rwandans experienced in the course of conflict between Hutus and Tutsis is something no observer, however principled or kind, can lay claim to. Delbo, and Razack after her, want us to realize that there is a "kind of knowledge that destroys. No good can come of it Those who did not suffer cannot know in the same way and will be tempted to sentimentalize suffering." The actuality-the dignity, the fullness-of the other disappears in the tempting contemplation of one's own distress. Like the U.S. critic Christopher Lasch, Razack opposes the drawing of "lessons" from inordinate pain inflicted on human beings by human beings.
Razack's book brings home the realization that Canada extorts some sense of its own existence from encounters with extremity: "the pleasure of flinching" (Susan Sontag's phrase) verifies the goodness of the nation. One strength of Razack's book is its aptitude for recounting atrocious events circumstantially, without much overt pathos. She convincingly links Master Corporal Countway's point-blank shooting of the already injured Somalian Ahmad Aruush on 4 March,1993 with the torture of Shidane Arone on 16 March, as manifestations of a cultural climate in which violence supports the precarious and interminable project of securing a masculine self. Though military in character, this self is, in important respects, a microcosm of the country that it represents. With considerable success, Razack rebukes the high-school textbook propaganda that extols too simplemindedly the decency of Canadian military involvements abroad: the peacekeeping mission to Somalia included among its personnel white supremacists. Yet she is careful, at most times, to bear in mind the influence, among soldiers, of class as well as of race, in the election of such allegiances and the expression of such passions. Some Canadian soldiers displayed a Confederate flag.
Certain striking themes emerge in Razack's book. The idea of the "Indian" recurs. Somalia was referred to as "Indian country"-a trope arguably drawn from the repertoire of U.S. historical experience more than from Canadian, despite the massive derelictions of which Canada remains guilty in respect to aboriginal peoples. "Indian country" implies unremitting threat from "savages" whose right to their lands will become null and void. In differing measures, Cree heritage belongs to Shidane Arone's primary killers, Master Corporal Clayton Matchee and Private Kyle Brown. Razack implicitly reveals how the events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in North America-for example, the Seven Years' War-still determine, covertly though in palpable degree, the Canadian imagination, which is both colonial and colonizing. She expressly wishes that "we" (her implied audience is Canadian) "put ourselves back in history," while showing that we never left it. Having absorbed Dark Threats & White Knights, a reader may return with renewed interest to novels such as Douglas Glover's Life & Times of Captain N. In this novel, set during the American revolutionary war, the ambiguous Oskar Nellis writes a letter to George Washington:

"...this is what I think-the War has taught me a Grammar of Love. We-Rebels & Tories & Whites & Indians-are having a violent Debate, whose Subject is the Human Heart, its constituent Elements & Humors, its hidden Paths. This is a Mystery. The Effect of the Argument, the Structure of its Thought, is a curious Splitting or Splintering."

Nellis welcomes the splintering, the disintegration, the dissolution of self that Razack considers most soldiers fear terribly. Perhaps Nellis remains culpably masculine in discovering his penchant for such dissolution in the travails of war. But e pluribus unum is not his motto.
Sometimes the information Razack supplies complicates matters beyond her dominant schema's capacity to subordinate it. Razack remarks: "Black American soldiers reported feeling ashamed whenever Somalis acted in a barbaric' manner in front of whites, but they also reported feeling manipulated by Somalis because they had the same colour of skin and were ridiculed by Somalis who called them n- and expressed contempt for their broader facial features." These words suggest how difficult it will remain (to paraphrase the title of Razack's last chapter) to act morally in the New World Order.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us