Book Reviews

Book Cover

Book Cover - Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid

Damned Nations:
Guns, Greed, Armies and Aid

by Samantha Nutt.

Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2011
xii and 228 pages. $29.99

Reviewed by Peter Denton

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

Writing is therapeutic.  At some level, writers put words in a row to make sense of themselves, their world, or both together.  Sam Nutt’s Damned Nations, with its ironic volley subtitle of Guns, Greed, Armies and Aid, sharpens and deepens the critique with which she has persistently confronted audiences across Canada, in particular, for the last ten years.

In standard book ‘review-ese,’ she should be referred to as Samantha Nutt, M.D. (as her publisher notes on the book cover), Doctor Nutt for her varied honourary doctorates, then Order of Canada, Order of Ontario, and whatever else deservedly has been awarded out of her work with Warchild Canada and other agencies providing humanitarian aid. Yet meet her, talk to her, and the encounter quickly becomes a conversation with Sam.

It is that sense of personal engagement, that conversational encounter, which her book manages to convey. The dogged persistence that leads Raine Maida in the book notes to describe her as “a force of nature” has produced a first book whose tone is engagingly authentic. She could have written a sanitized, loftier and a more cerebral book with perhaps a wider commercial appeal, but thankfully she did not. In comparison to another famous Canadian’s efforts to make sense of himself and his world, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, Sam’s book resembles more They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children than Shake Hands with the Devil.

Everything in Damned Nations in some way has become personal. Read the memorial dedication to Margaret Hassan and Aquila al-Hashimi, whose stories figure prominently in Sam’s oral presentations and now in the book, and you are left with the sense of a survivor’s guilt. In the stories she recounts of her experiences in war zones, it is how she feels at the time, as much as what she has thought about it later on, that emerges most clearly. Even the writing of the book is personal, given the effusion of thanks and appreciation to her family, friends, and colleagues for their support.

Perhaps, in the midst of incisive commentary and candid observation, in the end, it is this stubborn refusal to separate the personal from the social, to dissociate the events and feelings of one life from the mass of those many lives shattered by war, which makes Damned Nations a compelling book. Sam grieves the loss of her friends, the babies who die in their mothers’ arms, the individual children whose lives are contorted or ruined by the cruelty of adults, and conveys this grief in a way that remains vivid once the book has been closed.

To call it personal, even emotional, is in no way to discount the unsettling character of the argument she presents. She knows how to wring pathos from the stories she tells, but takes the more difficult path of using the inevitable emotional response to challenge her readers to thought, rather than merely to reduce them to tears.

The world needs to be transformed from the ground up. Aid is one means by which local people and agencies can be empowered to make the changes and lay the foundations for long-term development and stability. And yet, Sam argues that the last thing we need is the bureaucracy of ‘Big Aid’ to match in both structure and inefficiency the problems inherent in the operations of ‘Big Government’ and ‘Big Business.’ This is where her book fits the form of an essay in the classical sense – it is an effort, an attempt, to articulate an answer to the problems of generating and delivering aid on the scale required to the myriad places where it is needed, without falling into the traps posed by large-scale endeavours.

She challenges the shrinking humanitarian space, as aid is increasingly delivered by foreign militaries in places where the interests of security outweigh any trust in local populations to support long-term development. Nor is this process working, as we might hope or intend. She challenges the moral bankruptcy reflected in military discussions of humanitarian aid as a weapon of war.  Such an attitude reflects just how far we are from understanding the people and places we are attempting to help, whatever banalities are offered about “winning hearts and minds.”

The book moves from analytical commentary, to philosophical reflection, to personal story and anecdotal conversation, then to numbers and facts, and back again, in another round.  Magisterial in tone one minute, offering self-deprecating comments about her circumstances the next, Sam keeps your attention like a jungle cat pacing its cage with latent ferocity. Interspersed within the book are polished diamonds from her journals, no doubt worn to brilliance in the back of a Land Rover crossing rugged terrain, or in airport waiting rooms, or on long flights after what she has seen has made sleep uneasy. These short reflections cut to the heart of problems faced by people trying to deal with the heart-wrenching realities of delivering humanitarian aid today in the “damned nations,” or the failed states where need is the greatest.

The brief opening epigraph to Damned Nations, from the preface to George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1919), needs its original context accurately to set the scene for what follows: “In truth, it is, as Byron said, ‘not difficult to die,’ and enormously difficult to live: that explains why, at bottom, peace is not only better than war, but infinitely more arduous.”

She provides examples of just how easy it is to die, in too many places. Such casual indifference to the value of life is then linked to the casual indifference with which Canadian teachers’ pension plans invest money in companies producing the armaments that use children to kill children elsewhere in the world. To live, even with guilt, is the more difficult path for any survivor.  For us to find ourselves cast in the role of villain or perpetrator in these circumstances is perhaps even more difficult to accept. Sam drives this point home with a multiplicity of examples of how responsibility for war and violence in the 21st Century is reflected in the mirror of our daily lives, and how inadequate our responses to the needs of others, in reality, turns out to be.

If Sam’s own work becomes more arduous because of this book, she has only herself to blame. She has the moral courage to challenge the dimensions of aid agencies and their efforts that do not work on the ground, while at the same time arguing for the absolute necessity of such aid to create a more just and sustainable global society, one place, one person, at a time. It is a delicate balancing act.

For those who have experienced its horrors first-hand, no book is needed to explain the circumstances of war. For the rest of us, no number of books can do more than offer a glimmer of what remains unspeakable, even for the most eloquent of authors.  Sam Nutt’s Damned Nations, however,makes her experience of “greed, guns, armies and aid” as personal for her readers as it is for her. It should be required reading for anyone involved in humanitarian operations, and its challenges should be considered by those involved in providing ‘whole of government’ foreign aid and development.

Peter H. Denton, PhD, is an Associate Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada.