Review: War Games by Linda Polman

War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times

by Linda Polman

There is this idea of a pre-9/11, pre-internet, pre-twenty four-hour rolling news where the world existed in clear terms, in simplistic black and white, good and evil, west and east. There was a story, a narrative to how our lives progressed and with it came a sense of certainty. Call it what you like, a nostalgia for the old Cold War binary or simply rose tinted glasses but we all know it was never really that simple. The problem is we like to make these stories because they’re clear and comforting, they draw a line and we know on which side of history we stand. Worse still, we beg for it, it’s how we demand to be fed information. So in a world where information comes at us faster than we can possible digest it and formulate our own opinions on the matter how do we deal with the shades of grey?

Linda Polman’s latest book would seem to suggest that we don’t. While the nature of war and disaster hasn’t changed all that much, how we perceive it and deal with it has. What has been dubbed the CNN effect, the highlighting of an issue by television that results in political and humanitarian action, has changed how humanitarians, journalists and the victims of such human tragedies interact with one another. The web linking them all together was always convoluted but now it resembles something of a Gordian knot.  One that should we attempt to cut it would do untold damage to those we are trying to help while leaving it intact does much the same.

War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times is the story of how the divide that separated Florence Nightingale and Henri Dunant has grown from its vast beginnings into an even greater chasm. The question that divided the two of these great figures; is help really help when it prolongs the suffering of those involved and drives it to continue on unabated? Nightingale could not see how one could call it help when it prolonged a war, while Durant could not stand aside and not offer help, even if it resulted in prolonging the cause of the suffering.

War Games charts the current state of the humanitarian system, the media and those who dole out the violence and suffering humanitarians seek to reduce. War Lords, journalists and aid workers all locked into a convoluted cycle of mutual support. Tracing a path from Goma to Afghanistan while shedding light on the side of humanitarian work that doesn’t make BBC News 24 or CNN.

This is a book that casts a revealing eye on an area of charity that could sorely use it. What it reveals is a situation that lacks an easy answer, but seeks to question it nonetheless.

This is what I like about this book, aside from the fact that it well written, engaging and all the things one might expect from such a well regarded journalist, it doesn’t seek safe ground or profess to know the right answer.  Indeed, when every other person in the media professes to know the answers, it’s best to seek out those who are still looking for the right question.      

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