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eXile Classic / The War Nerd / May 20, 2008

When he’s not being an asshole, Barbero tells a good story. It was cool to hear that for the Romans, the Goths’ looks—tall, white skin, red or yellow hair—was just another sign that they were uncivilized and dirty and poor. Of course when a Euro professor says that you have to wonder, is he really channeling the ancient Romans or just showboating to sound PC? I hope the fucker’s telling the truth, because it’s cool to think of these short thick oily Caesars sneering at the genetic traits that that fool Hitler was going to make into signs of superiority 1600 years later.

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.)

When Hari’s village is sacked, he flees to Chad, starts hiring himself out as translator to correspondents heading into Darfur, and meets my old pal Nicholas Kristof, the man who stole my line about Cheney being an Iranian agent. Watch out, Daoud! That fucker’ll steal all your best material and leave you to the Arab militias!

Well, Hari survives his Nicking only to guide a National Geographic reporter into Sudan and get captured by a rebel group that’s sold out. It’s back to prison, torture and mock executions for Hari, the Hawalya (white) reporter, and their driver Ali.

I have to say, Ali is the best character in the book. He’s hilarious: a cowardly, sullen, totally un-heroic chauffeur who got into this mess Gilligan’s Island style, convinced he’d make two days’ pay for taking the crazy foreigners into Sudan for a three hour tour. Ali only cheers up when the Sudanese helicopter carrying them to prison comes under rebel fire. Seriously, Ali is delighted that they’re all going to die–but they live, and he’s totally bummed out. Hari describes Ali’s time in prison in his usual great deadpan style: “Ali was very certain that we would be taken away and hung or shot at every minute, and he looked at each new day as an opportunity for this.” Even when Bill Richardson finally flies in to get them released, Ali is convinced that Richardson’s Learjet will only take them back to prison for more interrogation sessions with the whips, jumper cables and such. I love the way Hari describes Ali’s reaction: “He threw up several times near Governor Richardson, who was fine with it.”

OK, I’m running out of space, so that should do it. I’ve been reading this Herodotus guy also, and he’s way better than I thought he’d be, but I’ll save it. Vacation time’s too short anyway. So many wars, so few billionaires willing to pay me to sit around reading about them all day.

Speaking of summer books, Gary Brecher’s first book The War Nerd is now available.

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