Rubber Bullets:
Power & Conscience in Modern Israel

by Yaron Ezrahi,
320 pages,
ISBN: 0374252793

Anatomy of a Miracle:
The End of Apartheid & the Birth of the New South Africa

by Patti Waldmeir,
384 pages,
ISBN: 0393039978

The Remnants of War

by Donovan Webster,
280 pages,
ISBN: 0614061830

Coffee & Power:
Revolution & the Rise of Democracy in Central America

by Jeffery M. Paige,
432 pages,
ISBN: 0674136489

The Landscape of War

by Donovan Webster,
288 pages,
ISBN: 0679431950

Death So Noble:
Memory, Meaning, & the First World War

by Jonathan F. Vance,
336 pages,
ISBN: 077480601X

Post Your Opinion
A Cosmopolitan Quintet
by Gerald Owen

We live in an era of de-globalization. Print and broadcast media are reporting less than they used to about countries outside their own, not knowing what matters in the world at large-except for sporadic spurts of horror. There is no great conflict of powers, and no emerging order.

By the time this piece appears, there will be a new shortlist of books nominated for the Gelber Prize, a Canadian award for the year's best book on international affairs. On and off over the past twelve months, I've been reading the previous list of five. Each is worth reading in itself, but I tried to see some patterns in the group. This piece is made up of some remarks on links and contrasts among these books; it is not a multiple review.

The late Lionel Gelber, the prize's eponymous hero, wrote about international affairs in a precise sense: about relations among the nations. But of these five books, three are about single nations. One is a comparison among three small neighbouring nations, and though the fifth-the winner-takes us to five countries far from one another, it is not about politics, and not exactly about that famous "extension of politics with other means".

One of the two most readable is Anatomy of a Miracle, by Patti Waldmeir, an American who reported on South Africa for the Financial Times during the events in the book. Much of it is about the diplomacy that ended a conflict within one country, and so it is the richest of the five in characters-quite a few of whom are still important in South African politics. This is a realistic story of heroes. In a few, less realistic moments of rejoicing, Waldmeir proclaims the end of history, though she does not import the full baggage of Francis Fukuyama's argument that conflicts of principle ceased with the end of the Cold War.

It's true that the South African settlement was assisted by the end of the American-Soviet rivalry. It's also true that South Africa and Russia both show us how hard it is to move from policing for political and military purposes to the humdrum kind of policing we're used to. Waldmeir notes the troubles of the aftermath, but they're outside the scope of her book.

Yaron Ezrahi's book is about Israel, a country that also made a post-Cold-War peace-a shakier one, alas. Rubber Bullets deals with an "end of history", too, a different one on the face of it, but maybe the same in substance. The title expresses Israel's ambivalence towards its own strength in arms. Ezrahi is not just giving us a familiar critique of Revisionist and religious nationalisms: he is also arguing-from the Left-against the socialist, collectivist foundations of the State of Israel. His main theme is that liberal democracy needs a culture that allows "selfhood" to develop; he believes that this is only recently emerging in his country.

The book is a mixture of memoir and political thought. His recollections and observations are often vivid and valuable. But though the later chapters are more balanced, Ezrahi preaches against public-spiritedness itself. His first section is called "From History to Autobiography". When, for example, he welcomed the advent in Israel of truly personal birthday parties, I recalled unkindly that the full title of Fukuyama's book is The End of History & the Last Man. He rightly connects individualism with romanticism, and then praises the United States as a country where one can admire nature without thinking of history. Yet he well describes how the North American landscape has a new layer: as when a tour guide presents a magnificent rock as the place "where the famous GM television commercial was made." Even with liberation from historical memory, the prospects for selfhood are not so good.

Jeffrey Paige's book is a work of academic social science, and is excellent in its genre. Though rejecting "the end of history", it reports on a convergence into "neo-liberalism" by three similar countries with very different political histories: El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. (Guatemala is discussed too, but not in detail.) Paige interviewed many people high up in the coffee agri-business, and gives us a lot of convincing and often absorbing historical analysis, too. The book follows, but significantly develops, the argument of Barrington Moore's classic The Social Origins of Dictatorship & Democracy: Lord & Peasant in the Modern World. Though Paige's book is the freshest in my memory, an adequate summary of his complex three-country comparison would distend the proportions of this article. While in effect he vindicates the economic interpretation of history, he argues that politics-armed and Leftist-was the necessary catalyst for the victory of a renovated bourgeoisie in Central America

For the time being, anyhow. Some disparities between his interviewees' narratives and more rigorous accounts are part of the basis for his arguing that there are still "contradictions". Neo-liberalism is not the last regime. But we are left with few clues for the future.

The other two books are not about the end of history. They are reminders that there is an abyss willing to swallow us.

The one Canadian book of the five is a work of academic history. It is about the memory of the First World War in Canada-before the Second-and is rich in well-researched lore about many aspects of popular culture. Vance's main point is to show how people distanced themselves from horrors in the very act of remembering them with some fondness and reverence. They were not, he says, the dupes of official propaganda. Vance is responding to such books as Paul Fussell's The Great War & Modern Memory: if we look only at good, serious literature, we may think that the war taught us despair. In fact, our recent ancestors convalesced with mild self-deception, easing the way into the next great war, as it turned out.

But then, maybe it takes a few generations for nihilism to trickle down and become mass culture. Canadians lived far from the battlefields, and the shock technological warfare did not yet destroy our faith in progress; there was a lot of industrializing still to be done. Even After They'd Seen Paree and the Somme, there was still a farm to keep 'em down on.

Donovan Webster shows us that the wars of this century have left a legacy waiting to explode under our feet, or else to poison us through the air. This is a book of reportage, in the mode of the William Shawn New Yorker: detailed, vivid, well-written and well-researched, neither scholarly nor philosophic. Emotionally, it is the most powerful of the five-all the more interesting that it won the Gelber Prize. Webster takes us to France, Stalingrad, Nevada (for the nuclear bomb test sites), Vietnam, and Kuwait. An epilogue shows us the "peace dividend": the great difficulties of disposing of nuclear weapons, an army surplus that can't be sold at discount stores. Webster rightly refrains from taking sides on past wars; that would be beside his point here. One unexpected virtue of this book is in the portrayal of the peculiar work cultures that grow up on and around the remnants of wars.

Trade agreements and human rights campaigns, which are so much the stuff of foreign affairs these days, are inconspicuous in these books. Is this a deficiency in the fivesome, or in the concerns of foreign ministries? However that may be, three of the five suggest there's a convergence in the world: an uncertainty as to what there is to disagree about, more than a grand reconciliation. The other two take on added resonance from the Indian and Pakistani bombs. 


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