Peace Corps Writers

Priority One

Priority One
by Bryant Wieneke (Niger 1974–76)
May 2005
220 pages

Reviewed by David Gurr (Ethiopia 1962–64)

IN 1965, PRESIDENT JOHNSON ASKED Secretary of State Dean Rusk to pull the Peace Corps out of Santa Domingo because the Marines were going in toPrinter friendly version protect American lives and property. Rusk responded in essence by saying that the United State has more than one foreign policy and he would not comply with the president’s request. As it turned out, Peace Corps nurses treated wounded Santa Domingons. The idea of having more than one US foreign policy comes to the forefront in Priority One with the caveat that it is post 9/11.
One prominent character in the book is a USAID worker who worked at the State Department, but left that position to become an AID worker following 9/11. He is assigned to a Northwestern African country to study and improve the availability of potable water, given the long term impact of the drought in the Sahel. Once there he agonizes extensively over whether his mission will ultimately improve the lives of the residents of the country.
Another character is a former colleague of the AID worker who also left State following 9/11. But he has become a CIA operative in the same Northwestern African country. His mission is to illuminate a weapons factory so that a B-2 Stealth Bomber can destroy the factory because U.S. intelligence believes that terrorists are using it to produce weapons-grade uranium.
Among the other characters is a Russian woman who is overtly trying to harvest water and grow crops using an underground trickle system in this parched land. As the story develops it is revealed that she is a KGB agent in on the scheme to destroy the factory. The factory was originally developed by the Russians, but was sold to some local terrorists, and the Russians are embarrassed that they did not take more care in disposing of the factory and let it fall into the hands of the terrorists. Thus, Russia is now working with the Americans to destroy the factory.
And, finally, there are two disaffected young men from the country itself. For them, the United States has replaced the former French colonists as the object of their hatred because of its economic and cultural dominance, and they are recruited by the terrorists and ultimately end up guarding the factory.
     All of these people’s lives intertwine when the AID worker is coerced by the CIA operative to take him to the factory to check it out. That evening the AID worker has a one-night fling with the KBG agent — not knowing her true reason for being in the country.
The CIA operative sustains a crippling fall, and he and the KBG agent coerce the AID worker into illuminating the target for the B-2 bomber crew. During this time the AID worker and the CIA operative each address the pros and cons of their respective missions. This becomes the stuff of the overseas experience of having to consider the greater good following 9/11.
Finally, like the two former State Department colleagues, the bomber crew also has a difference of opinion in their approach to combat. The pilot, who would be considered a “hot dog” in military flying parlance, and has made a vocation of reading military history and thinks that war should be avoided at all cost, chokes at the first pass at the illuminated target and does not release his bomb. His co-pilot, an older “by the book” pilot, takes over the mission and makes a second run at the target, hoping that it is still being illuminated. The AID worker continues to illuminate the target hoping that the bomber would return after failing to drop its ordinance on the first pass.
Following the destruction of the factory, the AID worker and the KBG agent narrowly escape being confronted by the two terrorist guards.
The final kicker is that, after failing to waylay the AID worker and the KGB agent, the two terrorists contact their base camp and learn that while one factory was destroyed there is another that was not. This leaves the reader with a feeling that another drama could unfold in a sequel — Priority One, Number Two? Two such books would be good candidates for a series of two films. In fact, Morocco has been the host to a number of desert films and most theater audiences enjoy watching things blow up as part of a twisty human drama.
     Priority One successfully explores how things have changed in the post 9/11 world. The continuing failure of nations to address long term programs such as education and health results in the recruitment of terrorists from among the billion people in the world who are poor. The lack of opportunity for many to earn a decent living is also the result of the short-term self-serving nature of the developed world. Special interests conspire with their governments to retard development in lesser developed countries by protecting their agricultural subsidies for such commodities as cotton, fish and grain. These subsidies result in artificially lower prices compared to those for the same products in developing companies. This also results in nations like the United States and France dumping surpluses on the world markets further depressing prices for those same commodities.
In the early ’80s legislators in the US Congress had to choose between foreign aid to lesser developed countries and antipoverty programs in their districts. They had to plunk for the latter in order to “deliver” Federal funds back home. This was the inception of the loss of long-term resolve to make the world a better place to live. In addition, the long-term needs of people in developing nations have been replaced by short-term anti-terror goals that ironically have arisen for the absence of the former.
     A good example is the war in Iraq which has become a recruiting ground for disaffected youth around the world. And it is not just Al Qaeda, but a host of similar independent organizations without any affiliation. Before the invasion of Iraq, it was estimated that there were about 70 such organizations and as we have recently seen, Al Qaeda and other groups are even warring among themselves over strategies for resistance in Iraq.
The book offers an interesting review of this less than “brave new world” and besides being a good read, it is thought provoking.

David Gurr has trained Peace Corps Trainees for Brazil and Turkey, served as a social science researcher in Viet Nam, studied anti-policy poverty and economic growth policy, and for the past 40 years has worked with anti-poverty programs at the federal and the city level, overseeing anti-poverty grants. Also, for the past 11 years, he has served as a project officer with AmeriCorps/VISTA.
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