Home > Etext > review of Peace Kills by P. J. O'Rourke

The Lighter Side of Hegemony
by Terrence Berres

Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism
by P. J. O'Rourke
New York: Grove/Atlantic, Inc. 2004, 197 pp., 0871139197

P. J. O'Rourke parleyed a stint writing for and editing National Lampoon into positions as Foreign Affairs Editor for Rolling Stone, as a correspondent for The Atlantic, and as the Mencken Research Fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. Along the way, he has written a number of books. As you might expect from O'Rourke's background, his books present a conservative to libertarian viewpoint with a satiric tone. The latest is Peace Kills

While O'Rourke can be subtle when he wants to, he usually doesn't. Americans, he says, hate foreign policy because we hate foreigners. Americans hate foreigners because we were foreigners, and if we wanted to deal with the governments of the nations we emigrated from, we would have stayed there. While Americans would rather not deal with foreign policy at all, it can't be avoided.

A solitary bad person sitting alone, harboring genocidal thoughts, and wishing he ruled the world is not a problem unless he lives next to you in the trailer park. In the big geopolitical trailer park that is the world today, he does.
There's more to foreign policy than dealing with wars or the threat of wars in or from far-off lands. But this book is not about international finance or trade. In the context of war and peace, O'Rourke sees no alternative to an American foreign policy that will draw criticism as hegemonistic or unilateral.

To support his case, O'Rourke first recounts his visit to Kosovo. The wars (or war) from the disintegration of Yugoslavia are often cited when arguing for less great power reluctance to use military force. O'Rourke agrees, and has a target-rich environment for examples.

The locals explained how to tell the difference between the piles of rubble. When the destruction was general, it was Serbian. Serbs surrounded Albainian villages and shelled them. When the destruction was specific, it was Albanian. Albanians set fire to Serb homes and businesses. And when the destruction was pointless--involving a bridge to nowhere, an empty oil storage tank, an evacuated Serb police headquarters, and the like--it was NATO trying to fight a war without hurting anybody.
It shouldn't surprise that someone holding a research fellowship named after H. L. Mencken has a less that rosy view of human nature. O'Rourke finds much confirmation of human cussedness in a visit to Israel. Not only is there the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, there are fights among Christians over their holiest sites.
It's left to the Muslims to keep the peace at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, just as it's left to the Jews to keep a similar peace a the likewise divided Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Who will be a Muslim and a Jew to the Muslims and the Jews? Hindus, maybe.
Or maybe not. O'Rourke is not just Menckenian, he is a research fellow, and he goes on to note that ancient Hindu epics are far from pacifist.

In Egypt, O'Rourke shows how a journalist on a brief assignment can be something of a tourist. He talks to Egyptians on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians or Islamicist terror; their opinions are colored by how bad these are for the tourist trade. The Egypt he sees is the tourist destinations and everyday Egyptian life along the way. He's not there to seek interviews with underground terrorist leaders.

Hatred between the Palestinians and Israelis abides. Arab-led Islamic fundamentalism destabilizes nations from Algeria to the Philippines. The threat of terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda continues. Also our cars need gas. It is important to understand Arab culture.
Like the Egyptians, Americans motivation to learn about events is proportional to the effect of those events on them. Between the Barbary Pirates and the discovery of oil around the Persian Gulf, what difference did the Arab world make to us?

When a group of Nobel Prize winners publish an joint statement on international conflict, O'Rourke is unimpressed. Expertise and intelligence are not the same as wisdom.

Maybe the Nobel laureates are speaking more powerfully than they realize, for radical democratization and perfect egalitarianism. Nothing in their statement indicates the opinions of common men are worse or more foolish than the opinions of Nobel Prize winners.

O'Rourke's description of the effect of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the national capital, included this.

That day, for the first time in thirteen years in Washington, I saw no protestors.
It was a temporary phenomenon.

Not long after, he wrote on the Palestinian Solidarity March. One reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unresolved it that it is hard to discern the disputants' ultimate demands. O'Rourke found this even more so among the demonstrators.

Are we supposed to invade the region and sort things out? We did in 1991 and were soon to do it again. Support a Palestinian state? We've done that. Maybe we'd better continue to apply combinations of diplomatic pressure and aid incentives, keep formulating Oslo plans that settle everything (in Oslo), and go on folding and refolding that darned Road Map to Peace until if finally fits into the glove compartment of amity.
See if you can now avoid that image when you next hear or see a reference to The Road Map.

O'Rourke is humorous but seldom frivolous, and he concludes with a more serious tone. Young Marines who perform especially well in training are rewarded by the Corps with a trip. A trip to Iwo Jima, where a Marine Sergeant takes them on a tour of the island, accompanied by a Japanese Sergeant. The sergeants stand by while the Marines gather souvenirs.

They had brought pocketsful of small Ziploc bags and were filling these with the sands of Iwo Jima.
Here O'Rourke segues into discussing the John Wayne film Sands of Iwo Jima, and uses it to make his final points about Americans and foreign policy. It reminded me of a Second World War anecdote. A war correspondent was interviewing some G.I.'s during a lull in combat. He asked them what they were fighting for. After a moment, one of them said, "A slice of blueberry pie would be real nice right now." The point, it was said, is that we fight not for liberty, but for "the blessings of liberty," as the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution says. As a protest theme, "No blood for blueberry pie" might lack impact, but better illuminate the view opposite O'Rourke's.

Revised January 8, 2005.