Tuesday, 1 February 2005

Chris Verrill: Is For Good Men to Do Nothing (2004)

Edition: XLibris, 2004
Review number: 1286

What was your initial reaction to the September 11th atrocity? Watching it in California at a communal breakfast with other Americans (as Chris Verrill did) is likely to have had a very different feel from the experience I had of seeing it happen in mid-afternoon. To many, it was shock and grief (with perhaps a tinge of guilty thrill at the drama of the collapsing towers - I remember some comments at the time that the news coverage had something of the air of a Hollywood film stunt) or a desire for revenge; in other circles, it was glee at the humbling of American power. For me, too, my reaction was somewhat conditioned by previous near involvement with a terrorist attack: I was within earshot of an IRA bomb in the City of London, and it damaged the church I was attending at the time. As an aside, something that has irritated me since 9/11 is the way that Americans seem to suggest it was the only terrorist attack that ever happened. For Chris Verrill, the first reaction of shock was quickly followed by a burning desire to do something constructive; Is For Good Men to Do Nothing is the story of what he did.

There were two sides to what he did: first, he travelled the world to try to understand how people who were not Americans thought about the attack and the wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq; at the same time, he worked to get a Rotary Club sponsored educational project under way in Afghanistan. There is a shared motive for both: the idea that ignorance is one of the main issues which led to the attack and which helped define the American response and the way in which the rest of the world percieved it. Verrill readily admits that education on both sides is necessary; there are still many Americans who have never been outside the forty eight continental states and who live in appalling ignorance of the rest of the world.

Now, Chris Verrill is also happy to acknowledge that Americans have made mistakes, most notably in their flauting of international law (in company with the UK) in the attack on Iraq which was unsanctioned by the United Nations. My feeling is that he perhaps doesn't go far enough in this, though he meets many people who are willing to tell him so far more forcefully than I would. This feeling is partly one that I have in response to George W. Bush, who comes across as the epitome of the stereotypical American: arrogant, dumb, ignorant, loud, and under the thumb of the interests of cynical businessmen. A recurrent theme of the discussions in the book is argument over just how much sincerity there has been in the stated US war aims in Iraq, as opposed to how much the conflict is over control of oil reserves.

A lot of reviews of this book are likely, I suspect, to do what I have started doing: put together a review which is really an essay entitled "What I think about 9/11 and the war in Iraq". While such thoughts may be of interest (and it is important to set out how the reviewer's perspective differs from the authors, if readers are going to be able to evaluate the review), the purpose of a review is not to make a political speech but to help a potential reader decide whether they will like a book. I suspect that there are many people who will be put off by the subject and would not even consider picking up Is For Good Men to Do Nothing, either because they just aren't interested in politics or because they feel that there is nothing more worth reading about 9/11. In fact, this is a really interesting story, mainly because Verrill comes across as genuinely interested in the opinions he hears, even when they are very different from his own. More than that, this book gives hope that there are Americans not caught up in mindless jingoism and above all shows that determination to make a difference is important.

In one way, this is a book which has changed my opinions. Not about Bush or Bin Laden, but about the Rotarians. The Rotary Club is not an organisation I knew much about, but the impression I had was that it was sort of like the Freemasons, but for those who couldn't be bothered about stupid rituals. I thought it was a mutual aid organisation for members of the establishment, the kind of place where the behind the scenes machinations of minor right wing politicians might occur. But now I know more, and it turns out that it is a worldwide charitable organisation full of people who want to make a difference.

There is one thing I feel I need to mention, even though it is rather pedantic. The quotation that supplies the title (in case anyone doesn't know, the rest of it basically says that this is the way for evil to triumph) is popularly attributed to eighteenth century British statesman Edmund Burke (perhaps best known for his protests against the restrictions placed on the American colonies which led to independence), and Verrill follows this. However, if you look it up in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, this is listed under "Misquotations", and turns out to be a popular version of a less memorable statement made by Burke.

This may be just a little piece of pedantry, but there's something else I didn't like much, which comes near the end. It is not that a speech made by George W. Bush is praised; given the quotations, I too thought it admirable. But then Verrill uses the speech as the basis of a patriotic appeal: not only does it make him proud to be an American (fair enough), but it should make the reader proud to be an American. This jarred - because I'm not an American; and it felt as though Chris Verrill was committing the very kind of unthinking chauvinism that he is writing the book to combat. I was unfortunately left feeling uncomfortable for the final twenty or so pages.

Despite this, I enjoyed Is For Good Men to Do Nothing, which is an excellent piece of journalistic writing. It makes the reader think, and in the current climate that can never be a bad thing.

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