The Good American (book review)
Imagine if I told you a story about a high school drop-out without any formal credentials who moved into a career with more humanitarian front line work and foreign policy impact than entire NGOs have-chances are that you think that the pandemic got the better of me or that I am talking about the humanitarian Jurassic period of the first half of the 20th century perhaps…
But in fact, it is the real story of The Good American-The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, The U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian.
I have reviewed a fair share of aid worker memoirs and (auto)biographies during my blogging and Robert Kaplan is a real master in weaving together the life story of Bob Gersony with broader narratives of American foreign policy from the 1970s well into the 2010s with a focus on key humanitarian responses and the institutional politics behind it.
It is difficult not to be taken in by the “American dream” that Gersony has built throughout his career: the son of Jewish immigrants who stumbles into humanitarian work by-way of running a language school in Guatemala in the 1970s and dedicates his life to humble service, interviewing thousands of people across the crises of the second half of the 20th century and reporting back their stories to inform the foreign policy establishment to make better decisions. All of this while the cold war was active, but “realistic” Democrats and “liberal” Republicans (as opposed to today’s “ideological crusaders” as Kaplan calls them) maintained some sort of value-based foreign policy, interested in promoting US interests through aid work, diplomacy and human rights. But before we get too cynical about American foreign policy that perhaps never was that benevolent, Bob Gersony deserves our attention and respect.
A time when “missions" and “the field” conveyed a different meaning
For more than three decades Gersony traveled to crisis hot spots, Uganda, Sudan or Mozambique in the 1980s, Rwanda, Bosnia and Colombia in the 1990s and North Korea, Nepal and Mexico in the early 2000s-to highlight a few places.
In textbook “mission” style he travels to the capitals, talks to the international circle of diplomats, aid workers and government officials and then quickly disappears into the “field”. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of long interviews with refugees, farmers and local citizens later, often hours-long conversations on a one-meal-a-day routine, he has filled notebooks that turn into reports that turn into powerfully detailed briefings to Washington’s decisions makers. If some readers now think “well, I did one of those missions to Haiti, Afghanistan or Bangladesh and Robert Kaplan is not writing a book about me” I can assure them that their “cold beers in hot places” mission is not what Gersony’s work was about. Here is how he worked in Mozambique in 1988 for example:
He would conduct lengthy interviews with 196 refugees and displaced persons in all, throughout his travels in Mozambique and the border areas of neighboring countries. As in so many other places where he had worked and would still work, his documentation and analysis was deeper than that provided by almost any journalist. It is possible that no journalist or relief worker ever equaled his output (p.188). (...) The forty-page report begins and ends with statistics. The author states that he visited 42 locations in 5 countries, which included 25 refugee camps separated by as much as 1,500 miles. The 196 refugees and displaced persons interviewed came from 48 different districts of Mozambique, each of which Gersony names (p.198). (...) On October 2, 1992, the government of Mozambique and RENAMO signed a formal peace treaty. One of the two chief negotiators, the Italian diplomat Mario Rafaelli, called the Gersony report a “fundamental turning point in the peace process.” Because of Gersony, “Mozambique remained an internal conflict and did not become internationalized” (p.205).It really takes an expert chronicler like Kaplan to not just pull off such a life trajectory, but also keeping it interesting for the general reader.
Unlike most UN biographies, Gersony never pursued a linear “career” and the vignettes of shaking hands with heads of state, safaris in Africa, surviving organizational restructuring or running a community organization back home are noticeably absent from the book. Bob Gersony traveled to the “field” and interviewed “real” people-lots and lots of them!
“All these people were experts about what they knew. We depend on them to learn about the world”
It is tempting to romanticize his approach, thinking “all we need are several Bob Gersonys on the ground and they will do the job for us”.
His approached worked well during a time when the foreign policy and aid community was still a very white, male & Ivy-league educated club-postcolonial in some ways, but certainly not decolonized.
As meticulous as Gersony was, his workaholic work-style with severe impact on his health and mental well-being are exactly the kind of issues why today’s humanitarian organizations do not simply send someone into a conflict zone and let them report back atrocities, war crimes and human suffering. And his old-school, non-digital approach also reminded me-and to some extent Kaplan as well who had met Gersony briefly during some of his foreign correspondence work-of a different time before fake news, outsourced consultancy and security firms and hybrid terrorist groups.
In some ways, we have many Bob Gersonys today: From satellite images to local journalists and aid workers or local citizens telling stories via digital media we are able to understand the situations in Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar or Ethiopia quicker, more comprehensively and with an abundance of reports and visual content than ever before. At the same time, this professionalization of the what Severine Autesserre criticizes as “Peace, Inc.” in her new book may not necessarily enhance situational understanding:
“We need a CAT scan of the Maoists. Few go into their area of influence and few come out. We have no real information, even though Kathmandu is inundated with Western PhD folks specializing in conflict resolution mitigation.”The fundamental shift from “we need eyes on the ground” to “we have eyes and ears on the ground but we cannot or do not want to act” would probably disappoint Gersony if he walked into a USAID briefing room today. The political establishment in the US has also fundamentally changed in the last 20 or so years and as messy and ideological many of the wars during the cold war were, I would just be worried that today’s Bob Gersony simply gets kidnapped, denied access or even worse…
“What have you learned from them?” Gersony asked (USAID Joe) Williams.
In his mild Tennessee accent, Williams replied: "I can't make sense out of a bunch of horseshit” (p.429).
As you can imagine, this is a book you should add to your non-fiction summer reading list!
Kaplan’s superb prose and Gersony’s attention to detailed records form a unique symbioses that really helps for many places to come alive without losing sight of the people behind the stories, the State Department, USAID and foreign policy community and some of their excellent programs despite the usual caveats about the imperfect offering that aid has always been. Gersony remains in the background, a role he always preferred, and Kaplan provides the rich tapestry of people, places and projects that make this an excellent book to engage with the history of development through a biographical lens.
I want to end with a long quote from Gersony, because it captures so many timeless and timely aspects of all humanitarian and development work, including academic research, so well:
For the most part, I interviewed very busy people. They were people busy collecting firewood in order to survive. They were people on line for water. They were people selling corn and beans for basic sustenance. They were people waiting patiently in a local mayor’s office where everyone was sweating profusely because there was no air conditioner. They were nurses in the middle of a cholera epidemic, getting only a few hours of sleep a night. They were all gracious enough to talk to me. All these people were experts about what they knew. We depend on them to learn about the world.Kaplan, Robert D.: The Good American. The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest Humanitarian. ISBN 978-0-525-51230-1, 521pp, USD 30.00, Random House, 2021.
The issue is, how can we turn talking with ordinary people into useful facts rather than a mere collection of anecdotes? One simple way is by constructing a system: interview a large number of people randomly selected, from a variety of towns and villages, and try as a hard as you can to eliminate your own passions and biases. For what we can learn from ordinary people is much more than the human rights situation, as absolutely critical as that is, but the political and military situation, too, as it exists in conflict zones. What you learn from refugees and displaced persons you often cannot learn from satellite photos and wire intercepts-you learn they very nuances and texture of situations. And what your learn in the field should be integral to policy formulation (p.465).