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The War Nerd May 28, 2008
War Nerd Summer Reading Guide
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 3 of 4

The battle developed when the word came from Constantinople, from the hated emperor Valens, that local forces should admit the Goths, ferry them across the river and put them in camps to be resettled somewhere else. They were ferried across by Roman boats and then, after starving in camps for months while the local officials siphoned off all the food relief they were supposed to be getting, they realized that they were dealing with inferior garrison troops and rioted. The Romans tried to deal with it Mafia style, by killing the leaders at a banquet (why did anybody in the ancient world ever go to a banquet? It was like signing your death warrant!)—messed up, killed the bodyguards but not the tribal leaders, and that was that.

I don’t have the space to tell the story of the battle itself, and Barbero does a pretty good job of that anyway. I’ll just say that no emperor ever deserved to die on the battlefield more than this idiot. They couldn’t even identify his body, the Goths had hacked it up so efficiently. He had it coming, every bit of it.

The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur

By Daoud Hari

First of all, this is one of those “as told to” books, so I have no idea how much of it is really by this Darfur refugee Daoud Hari. Some of the jokes—and there really are a lot of great jokes—sound African to me, meaning they’re brave enough to joke about serious bloody stuff. But then the “co-authors” are these two Irish people and the Irish used to have the same thing going, like the line, “A man can get used to anything, even being hanged.” That joke would fit right in in this book. At one point Hari laughs when the correspondent he’s escorting through Darfur falls on a 500-pound bomb. Hari laughs, and later explains over a beer that, “If I had fallen on it, you would have laughed.” The correspondent, a Brit and therefore not all dull and serious, says, “If YOU had fallen on the bomb it WOULD have been funny!” It’s that kind of book, way funnier and cheerfuller than you’d ever expect. See, Africans live with so much misery and blood that it’s boring to them. They want to laugh, they want a little variety.

Hari had plenty of the boring stuff, the blood and tears, because he’s a Zaghawa, from Northern Darfur. He left home early to go to school, learning English and Arabic, then migrating to Libya, Egypt and Israel to find work. He was only in Israel for one night; they found him after he snuck in and deported him to Egypt where he ended up in one of those prisons you hope you’ll never see except in Midnight Express type movies.

He gets out by pure luck—or so he says. I have the feeling there are a few details he left out of his big adventure. Africans are great with stories and they try to spare you the painful bits, so I kind of think ol’ Hari is fudging just a little bit about what went on in his youth. Like his father says in that great, dry African way when he comes home, “We have learned much of the world’s prisons from following your travels.” By the time he gets back to Darfur, he’s 30 years old and he’s just in time for the Sudanese Army attack helicopters to start strafing his village, by way of warm-up act for the Janjaweed militia to follow.

There’s a great chapter describing the exact sequence of a Sudanese attack on a Darfur village, starting with the attack choppers flushing out the defenders, who run to prearranged ambush sites, then the Land Rovers stopping to fire their heavy Soviet machine guns at extreme range, “…from far enough away that attackers could only spray the area and hope to kill people without seeing them.” What amazed me was the traditional Zaghawa defense system, organized in a simple top-down structure: Sultan, Omda, Shiekh, Elders. They actually seem like decent people, but they just don’t have the heavy weaponry to fight the army. (Although they do have the good ol’ RPG, and Hari describes an RPG attack on an army jeep he and other local kids were forced to guide. When the locals hit the convoy with RPGs, body-pieces fly through the air and he goes deaf for a week.)

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Gary Brecher
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