Contributors to Africa’s plight

The Betrayal of Africa
Gerald Caplan Groundwood Books, 2008
$11.00, 144 pages

An antidote to the simplistic pronouncements of politicians and pundits on the complex topic of “Africa,” this slender volume proves a difficult pill to swallow. Africa’s ills, argues Gerald Caplan, are the creation of European civilization. “Rather than being the solution to Africa’s plight, we Westerners are a substantial part of the problem, and have been for centuries.”

In fact, the mentality that spawned Canada’s “residential” schools is reflected in the past century of African history, whether in European complicity in the Rwandan genocide or in the lengthy tenure of South African apartheid.

“Africa is at the bottom of the world heap with the distance between it and all the other regions growing every day,” Caplan posits. Even our First Nations reserves don’t appear in such desperate straits as the Africa depicted in the pages of The Betrayal of Africa.

His chapter, “The Great Conspiracy,” will undoubtedly make most readers uncomfortable. “Hardly a single Big Man would have been able to attain power, or remain in office, without the active support of one or another Western government,” he argues. Government spin doctors will counter that the substantiation for this accusation is sketchy in a book of this size. Maybe true. However, unlike so much information provided by governments, Caplan refers to open source material, including four websites that Canadian military deploying on Operations Crocodile, Sculpture, Safari or Augural may wish to consult.

Western policies and the appearance of China on the African scene receive due attention, but it is his own experience in Mozambique – and its tiny civil service that spent their days traveling to and from the airport to welcome and see off endless parades of delegations from competing NGOs – that proves most poignant.

Caplan attempts to set guideposts to answer the question: what will expedite change in the right direction? There are “no magic bullets,” of course, but we Westerners must make our political and business leaders understand that our present policies are part of the problem, not the solution. “Recognizing the source of the crisis is a critical step along the road to reversing it.”

Art & War
Laura Brandon
I.B.Tauris, 2007
$30.50, 179 pages

Although the Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artist Program (CAFCAP) was eliminated in 1995 after commissioning 300 works since its inception in 1968, National Defence has operated a smaller Canadian Forces Artists Program since 2001, capturing among other events, our participation in the Afghan conflict. In fact, the hanging of two Gertrude Kearns’ works on the 1993 events in Somalia sparked much controversy and raised the issue of “ownership of remembrance.”

As the Canadian War Museum art curator and a prolific writer on war art and its place as memorial, Laura Brandon is admirably situated to put this debate in the wider context of world history.

The meaning of war art is as much about viewer reaction as about the work itself, Brandon argues. As she demonstrates – and my own experience supports – Joe Sacco’s hardcover comic, Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-95, tells the story much better than official reports during the 1994 Serb assault or for that matter BBC coverage at the time. Brandon supplies an excellent bibliography, including most of her outstanding work, to support further study.

If, as she suggests, neither war nor art related to war will disappear, then perhaps those with an interest in warfare need cast their eye to the visual terrain mapped out in Art & War.

The Deep
Mary Swan
The Porcupine’s Quill, 2002
91 pages, $16.95

The opening of five Operational Trauma and Stress Support Centres in bases across Canada to address psychological and emotional stresses arising from military operations came too late for the survivors the First World War. In The Deep, Mary Swan captures the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to use the nomenclature today, on not only participants of combat but also on their family and friends.

The author’s award-winning short story style weaves together psychiatrist note-sized chapters with clinical precision to tell the tale of twins serving as nurses’ aides in Canadian medical facilities in France.

– by Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA(RMC), whose experience includes a training job in Zimbabwe

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