When I won the opportunity to review this book, it was known that I would write both late and long. Despite this, it was felt, I think, that some old hellhounds of mine shades of Biafra Lost might be exorcised in the writing. We will see. But as social work on my behalf is always welcome, I said hello to this book War Stories by John Sherman and read the hell out of it. So shall you, because I subscribe to the old Whole Earth Catalog notion that a book review should also let the book speak for itself, in its own best words. But first some needed background.
In May 1967, after years of religious and cultural turmoil, the Eastern Region of Nigeria seceded from the federal republic and war soon broke out. With a romantic but short-lived existence (about 20 months), Biafra was filled with hope, competent leadership, appropriate technologies like two-seater airplanes outfitted with rockets, and a practical vision for the future. Unfortunately for the future of Africa where a model for dismantling colonial empires along cultural lines was and is a desperate requirement, Biafras dominant image to the world was not a political one, but one set by the competing relief agencies: starving, pot-bellied children, dying it was said, by the millions. Which wasnt true: hundreds of thousands only.
Shermans book comes from a nine months-long journal kept by this former Nigeria PCV author while he was a member of a food/medical team operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in several contested areas. Here on page 18 he talks about his introduction to 1960s-era international NGOs involved with war famine and refugees. (Are NGOS better now, I ask?)
I met with a Dr. Bulle, an American [conservative Lutheran] with a thick accent of some kind, and he hired me in less than five minutes. He was most impressed that I had been here before. There are too many greenhorns here, he said in disgust. Youll find out for yourself. I looked puzzled. He laid his pipe on the desk. The Swiss! Ha! He narrowed his eyes. They are escaping dull work, dull marriages and the staleness of Switzerland. He seemed to spit out the words, as if they themselves were guilty of staleness. And, he said, many of them do not even speak English! How can they expect to deal with Nigerians, I ask you? What he said about the Swiss is true, only he didnt even mention their racism. I am convinced the lack of planning of the ICRC is an extension of their racism.
Later on page 60:
If most of ones children and grandchildren have died or disappeared and one is continually hungry, is there any reason one wouldnt cheat to get a little more for those are left? Then, in moments of anger, I lash out at the injustice of anyone taking more than ones share when so many around us can barely survive from week to week on what we can spare for them. I want to be somewhere where my values arent tested quite so sharply, where morals arent strung out like a tight rubber band while we all wait for it to snap. Sometimes I look out from the table where we are dispensing feverishly and see Olive trying to make her way through the noisy crowds and then spy a child in someones arms bobbing around with that too-familiar look of kwashiorkor [famine syndrome] and I suddenly want, if only for a day, a ranch-style house in a complacent suburb where ones social problems consist of who to invite over for steak this Saturday. Just one day, God. I threaten to send one woman out if she will not keep quiet and stop trying to get ahead of the others in the line . . . . Col. Henshaw, who is in charge of the troops in the Elele area, has a brother fighting for Biafra. Its a perfect civil war.
Now I have to say that John Sherman got into the war zone with no small bit of courage and now he has written it up. But describing Shermans book in a recent email to an old friend a former partner in the Committee for Nigeria/Biafra Relief, I wrote: Good writing, but with little perspective on anything outside a 50' radius of the author, about which he writes well.
The problem central to Shermans book is that all of it, I mean all, comes from his journal and prodigious memory of those distant times. I bet he had this file material kicking around on his New Years Resolutions for decades: Write Biafra Journal this year. Cant let that good stuff go to waste. While it didnt go to waste, exactly, I wonder if he didnt have his own small publishing house in Indianapolis Mesa Verde Press, would we be reading this, as is? Because an editor would have seen the manuscript and surely said, John, this is full of memories, but despite your subtitle, it is not yet a memoir.
Here I will let an expert explain the true nature of memoir. I use as my text, Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington (The Eighth Mountain Press, Portland, 1997) In her early reading,
. . . famous-person memoirs rarely stuck to one theme or selected out one aspect of a life to explore in depth, as the memoir does . . . . Now that I am writing my own stories, I have come to realize that the modern memoir belongs to the same family as essays. Phillip Lopate, in his illuminating writings about the essay, includes the memoir under the general heading of the informal or familiar essay. It is not any particular form, he says, that distinguishes this kind of essay, but the author's voice.
The great essayist Montaigne understood that, in an essay, the track of a person's thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a problem is the plot, is the adventure. Rather than simply telling a story from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge. Still, even without the direct address, modern memoirs aim to speak intimately to their readers, and those readers like to experience them as if they were sitting in a comfortable chair listening to a series of confidences.
Although the roots of the memoir lie in the realm of personal essay, the modern literary memoir also has many of the characteristics of fiction. Moving both backward and forward in time, re-creating believable dialogue, switching back and forth between scene and summary, and controlling the pace and tension of the story, the memoirist keeps her reader engaged by being an adept storyteller. So, memoir is really a kind of hybrid form with elements of both fiction and essay, in which the author's voice, musing conversationally on a true story, is all important.
While Shermans book has zip and zero essay or even musing to it, the book itself is a handsome production, with a signature of his own good photographs from that period, some really well-done maps as well as a useful chronology of the Biafran War. The book is all there, kind of waiting for Sherman to tell us what it is all about, now that like the rest of us, he is in his sixties and ready to get down and honest, per the above description of a true memoir. A memoirist goes there, does it, and then returns and tells us the story of what it all means.
I mean, how can John transcribe and/or write 119 pages about a time with direct links to todays Nigeria (and Afghanistan) without referring to anything beyond the sixties? Beyond any meaning, Sherman even refused to ponder upon the structure of his notes to the point that he had a story to tell, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end beyond the wheels-up of the plane flying back home. I mean, the young Sherman boy went out there and had himself one fine adventure but apparently didnt live to tell the tale. The table of contents is only a list of dates and places where the events unravel, and then he ends the book gratuitously I think with a 1968 poem of his own but one which nicely enough ends with the words, . . . the day Biafra died. There goes a better book, right there, I think.
Gearing up to write this review, in the middle of December, I went to my cold and musty storage unit and pulled out yellowing files of my Biafra experience. Reading them for the first time in generations, I see I damn sure learned my chops to the point that I could read Shermans book knowledgeably and more or less objectively (I admit to some envy, yes). For example, in my files I found the following, dated October 24th, 1968:
Biafran Special Representative
Biafra House, Sao Tomé.
Today we are informed that Mr. Heberts clearance for Biafra has been obtained. Mr. Hebert would like to go in tonight to report to Dr. Middlecoop.
Axel V. Duch, Captain,
Chief of Operations, NORDCHURCHAID
Then this TELEX, sent about a week later from an RPCV relief co-worker in Sao Tomé (the tiny colonial Portuguese island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, whose airfield was the only port into Biafra) to UNICEF at the United Nations in New York:
HEBERT DEPORTED LISBON YESTERDAY STOP REMAINING VOLUNTEERS REQUEST RETURN TICKERTS IMMEDIATELY PLUS INFORMATION REGARDING POSSIBILITY TRANSFER LAGOS OPERATION STOP REPEAT STOP NEED OFFICIAL UNICEF INVOVLEMENT BIAFRA URGENTLY SIGNED DISGUSTED DAVIS.
Finally, this November 4 TELEX to George Orrick, UNICEF New York, from Mona Mollerup, NORDCHURCHAID [Danish NGO]:
DUCH INFORMS US THAT HEBERT WAS DEPORTED BY THE PORTUGUESE AUTHORITIES DUE TO DEMONSTATIVE, INSULTING BEHAVIOR AND AN UNCOOPERATIVE ATTITUDE. THE OTHER FIVE ARE DOING AN EXCELLENT JOB ON THE WAREHOUSES AND THE GOVERNOR HAS EXPRESSED HIS APPRECIATION FOR THEIR EFFORTS. GREETINGS.
The last is not all that Ms. Mollerup said. From my previously unpublished notes: Tom Hebert is a mass murderer of children!
Well, thats a load off.
Looking back, my particular Biafra became the place my adult life really began. But for Nigeria, except as yet another failure, it has never meant much. On a 1978 visit to Nigerias eastern region with a State Department team, I met with a state governor who had been a high Biafran official during the war. Letting the others leave the room, I said, Hail Biafra! Stunned, looking to see if we were alone, he returned the salute, Hail Biafra! As we talked that afternoon, for us Biafra had become a melancholy thing, with little remaining impact few bad effects and no heritage. Just a slight perturbation a wobble in Nigerias orbit, the one degrading to a Brechtian (nihilistic expressive) 2002 Miss World finale, shortly before the federation of Nigeria crashes into the sun.
However poorly, in this Afterword I was writing memoir.
Tom Hebert, a writer and policy consultant, is the co-author with John Coyne of three books on innovative American training and education.
For several years, he was a training consultant and advisor to the U.S. Department of State and the government of Nigeria, he later wrote policy papers for a candidate for governor of California, and developed strategic plans for the Palouse region on the Washington-Idaho border. For most of the 80s, he was director of TVAs center for innovation. He was with the USO in Vietnam, and 1992-3 was director of USO Bahrain and mentioned in Navy Dispatches. In 1997-8, he was managing consultant to Chattanoogas Bessie Smith Hall.
Hebert is currently living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation just outside Pendleton, Oregon where he is consultant to the Confederated Tribes (the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla) on tribal horse programs. He can be reached at; firstname.lastname@example.org