Book review: A thoroughly post-modern war

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The Independent Culture
THE UNITED States has now perfected the art of waging low-intensity warfare with every third-world nation on the planet. First, the US sends in the universally-respected former president, Jimmy Carter, to soften everybody up with a lot of New Age hokum. (Even bloodthirsty tyrants want to wake up in the morning feeling good about themselves.)

Then, after repeatedly broadcasting the usual generalities about free enterprise and self-government, it dispatches the so-called "International Peacekeepers" - a few thousand American troops, with the occasional French or British spokesperson thrown in for good measure. Once things have stabilised (in other words, the various gangs, politicos and CIA-sponsored terrorists have been cordoned off from one another), America's elite force of special agents arrives, bearing both the latest ammunition and the trendiest lingo.

For example, there are the psy-ops (psychological operators), who drive around town in well-amplified Humvees, drowning out any competitive rhythms with good old-fashioned rock'n'roll. Or the Green Berets, who "infill" principal towns and neighbourhoods, culling the local troops until they resemble (ideologically, if not materially) a somewhat shabbier version of themselves. After all, low-intensity warfare does not mean that things are going to be pretty. It just means that you're never too sure who you are really fighting - or why.

Bob Shacochis is best known as a short-story writer and novelist, but his book of reportage about the US invasion of Haiti in 1994 is solid, densely researched and darkly imagined. It successfully makes its central point: that war may be the biggest and best-bought fiction for sale in our weird modern world. Beginning with a confident survey of Haitian history since Columbus (not only the first European to "discover" the New World, but the first to establish slavery there), Shacochis depicts a nation that has never recovered from its too-violent dreams of liberation.

In fact, Haiti has suffered from so many divisions of class and race over the centuries that even the slightest suggestion of freedom often erupts in uncontainable violence. While the surface of Haitian society may seem well-mannered and diffident, it can never quite keep the lid on the many thousands of people - from deep-dwelling shanty-towns to mountain- perched, ruling-class estates - who have been quietly keeping score.

The Immaculate Invasion focuses on the period from when Haiti's elected president, the radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, fled a coup in 1991, until the first pull-out of American troops four years later. The conflict it records is thoroughly post-modern and post-colonial - if not just downright messy. In the early days, bands were hired by military thugs to present a well-tuned image of free expression at state-sponsored carnivals. Throughout the occupation, US forces contended with a lot more than bullets and bombs. Dead bodies were continually turning up in rivers and on doorsteps, testifying that any faith in the democratic Aristide was misplaced.

Soldiers were regularly enlisted by villagers to defend them from werewolves and vampires. And when troops weren't being sent into half-remembered prisons to liberate skeletons from their torture chambers, they were ritually assaulted by vodou powders and incantations.

At the end of the day, the owl-eyed US media did nothing but comb daily footage for anything that promised higher ratings than the pervasive coverage of the OJ Simpson case. War isn't just about body-counts; it's about what people know. Eventually, it grew impossible in Haiti to decide who was taking over whose culture. Even the highest-ranking US officials were steadily co-opted by forces that they could not quite control.

"In the Oval Office," writes Shacochis, "there's a perceptible whoosh, the claw-like swipe of Jonaissant's mojo coming within inches of the President's celebrated groin, and without further delay, Clinton summons his inner circle, the head priests, the Zombi of State, the mambo empress, the National Security nihilists in need of better, stronger, blacker magic than has so far been provided by the increasingly enfeebled oracles and squeaky- voiced guardians of his pacific youth. However Clinton achieves this end - sacrifices a goat? enlists the services of an exiled Cuban santero? - his administration manages to break free of Jonaissant's crude enchantment and counterattack with some potent hocus-pocus of its own."

By summoning up such magical riffs, Shacochis will inevitably suffer obvious comparisons with the reportage of Norman Mailer, but he is in fact a smarter prose-writer and does not waste time dwelling on his own self-image.

While The Immaculate Invasion does not entirely succeed (since none of its characters is convincing enough to turn the noisy chaos of history into a proper story), it demonstrates on every page that Shacochis writes with both clarity and conviction. This is an always-surprising and memorable book.

Scott Bradfield