Saturday, November 26, 2011

Shake Hands with the Devil, by Romeo Dallaire

Shake Hands with the Devil is a controversial read in my home.  My Dad, who is proudly army, has been against this book since it first came out while I, who has a softer heart than is probably good for me, has been a staunch defender of Roméo Dallaire since he first started speaking publicly about Rwanda.  While I still support Dallaire as a human being, I’ve been slowly coming around to my Dad’s point of view of this book.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here….

Shake Hands with the Devil begins with Roméo Dallaire’s account of his career leading up to his command of the UN mission into Rwanda at the end of the country’s civil war in the 90’s.  But, the meat of the work is his telling of his time leading that UN mission.  To be perfectly honest, I didn’t finish this book.  I’m got about a third of the way through it and lost all desire to finish it.  Coming home from work and using my free time to read about a bureaucratic nightmare, a county imploding because of its own factions, and the guilt Dallaire is willing to heap on everyone for the situation bumed me out – I didn’t want to read any more.  

This is my major sticking-point with this book: the blame Dallaire is willing to dole it out to everyone.  The West is racist because it preferred to throw resources at the war in Bosnia; Canada fell down on the job by not committing enough resources to Rwanda (he makes a point about how hard he had to fight to get a support staff from DND); he blames the UN for being a red-tape loving, head-up-their-own-asses institution that was unable to respond quickly enough to mission demands (and, okay, he called that one right); and he blamed the UN-field staff that was unwilling to step outside their comfy 9-5 existence in what was clearly a deteriorating situation.  

Some of these people/organizations did fall down on the job – no doubt – but the part that made me uncomfortable reading this book (and the dynamic that set my Dad against it so early and quickly) is that you simply don’t speak about your chain of command like that (publicly) in the army.  There is an ethos amongst Forces personnel that is almost inviolate – you do the job they’ve given you, you work with the resources they’ve given you, and you shut up and get on with it.  While reading SHWD it felt like Dallaire, whose own account of his early career paints him as working hard to get into this old-school mentality, completely stepped outside what was/is acceptable for army personnel to speak about.

Now, I know what you’re going to say – as a historian, I should know better: History is written by the victors.  Dallaire gets to write his account and throw as many people under the bus as he’d like because he survived Rwanda (and his own personal conflicts), and he secured a book deal.  True.  But Dallaire’s bias does a disservice to the topic – the Rwandans are not best served by having an emotional account of their horror as one of the main publications on the lead up to the genocide.  What needs to be out there is an un-biased (okay, I’ll say it, historian’s) account of the events – Dallaire’s polarizing work doesn’t do the topic justice.

Before you get your dander up, I’d like to stress that I’m not a monster – I have the utmost respect for Dallair’s because he stepped into a situation in Rwanda that I wouldn’t have gone near with a 100-foot poll.  I used to see him every so often at the mall in Orleans where I was working, and it was clear that he’s a broken man.  There’s no happiness in him that I could ever see and, saddest of all, the one time I saw him with his kids, they had the same vibe to them.  Rwanda destroyed many families, and Dallaire’s was one.

So where to go from here?  Do I recommend this book or not?  I’m not sure.  I personally didn’t enjoy it, but not passionately enough to waive anyone else off either.  The writing style of solid, the book includes a glossary of names and terms that is easy to consult if you forget who someone is or what an acronym stands for, and you do get an interesting look at how international bureaucracy functions.  But for all the points that make it easy to read, countered against the points I had a problem with, the simple fact is that this is a depressing read; I fizzled out because I just couldn’t bring myself to welcome the negativity into my down-time.  While the victims of Rwanda need to be remembered and honoured, I’m not sure this is the book with which to do it.

1 comment:

  1. What nice, positive thing would you have Dallaire say? The military ethos is no doubt a fine thing but surely the need for justice and prevention must overrule decorum. Could you watch a million die and write something "objective"? Whether or not Dallaire's book should be the definitive word on the genocide, I do know that it was probably the first word for many readers. That must be worth something.