The Volunteer Who is One of the Most Thought-provoking Analysts of Our Time — George Packer (Togo)
by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia, 1963-65)
Since serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, 1982-83, George Packer went on to write for The Atlantic Monthly where he wrote the article “We Are Living in a Failed State,” and two books: Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, and Last Best Hope: America in Decline and Renewal, both reviewed below. Taken together, the overriding themes constituted a refrain to Mark Twain’s famous comment: “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century
George Packer has a thoroughly beguiling style of writing in which the reader is being told a story rather than reading one, as with the opening line in Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” With George in Our Man “you have heard that he [Holbrooke] is a monstrous egotist. It’s true. It’s even worse than you’ve heard — I’ll explain as we go on.”
In reading onward, Packer describes Holbrooke’s vigorous self-promotion for a Nobel Peace Prize, his shameless and constant positioning with incoming Administrations to be appointed Secretary of State, his Gatsby-like “vast carelessness,” and sometimes tendency to show up late for a meeting with the Secretary of State at the NSC [National Security Council] meeting with the President — disheveled in person and his hauteur matching that of General MacArthur. Upon entering a meeting room, Holbrooke’s waiting staff would whisper: “the ego has landed.”
Still, before we descend into a “what have you done for me lately” disposition, let us count some of the ways in which our country has benefited the global community. Was Holbrooke “our man” for the American Century? Others come to mind, such as Harry Truman, a man who learned about life from 12 years on the south end of a mule, plowing up rich Missouri top soil, then went on as President with a single stroke of the pen to inaugurate the Atomic Age in 1945, and to desegregate the military in 1948. Or, there is Eleanor Roosevelt, sole author of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights Agenda; or George C. Marshall, who after the depredations of WW II, set in place a plan that brought, in three years, an entire continent, then in rags, back into the community of nations. Or, there was Jonas Salk who gave a polio vaccine to the world and never took out a patent. Or, a former president who established the Carter Center in Atlanta, and went on to the near eradication of a vile disease, Guinea Worm, in Africa. Or, President Lyndon B. Johnson, though burdened with the dead weight anchor of Vietnam, who still managed to give us the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare in 1965 and Medicaid in 1966. And then there is Norman Borlaugh, an agronomist who after other noted scientists of the era lamented the then-received wisdom that there would be mass starvation if the world of 3.3 billion didn’t control population growth, gave us the Green Revolution which now feeds 7.8 billion people.
Yet, let’s give Our Man his due. He ended a war in the Balkans and as George writes: “Without Holbrooke, I don’t know who would have stepped forward to cajole and bully and outlast the Balkan War Lords until they sat down together [for the Dayton Peace Accords]”.
“We Are Living in a Failed State”
In Packer’s “We Are Living in a Failed State,” he writes that “coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.” There is much in the way of facts in his following commentary, e.g., “the crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational and collective. The U. S. reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus — like a country with a shoddy infrastructure and whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.” His coverage of contemporary political issues would have been more robust if it referenced a democratic principle that carried us to the stage in our national life from that time in the 1789 Constitutional Convention when perpetual voice was given to “We the People”.
Down through our country’s brief time on the global stage, we’ve had other surprises from those who were duly elected. One was by that same man, Harry Truman, who in the midst of post-World War II ushered in the UN, the World Bank, the WHO, the IFC, UNICEF, the World Court, the FAO, and enacted the GI Bill which provided a platform for returning service men and women to obtain higher degrees in education — a dividend that keeps on giving to our society, though he himself had no college education. Via these international institutions, such as WHO, the U. S. led the global campaign to eradicate Small Pox, a disease that had ravaged the human family since the dawn of recorded history.
Our free enterprise system allowed the emergence of Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) to combat childhood diarrheal diseases, reducing mortality from 5 million per annum to less than 500,000 today, according to UNICEF. ORT is known in the developed world as Pedialyte.
A U. S. for-profit firm developed ivermectin to treat river blindness in Africa and South America, though there was no market for it in the developed world. Once proven effective for human use by WHO, this firm then offered it in whatever quantities needed, wherever it was needed, free of charge—into perpetuity. Prior to its development, entire riverine villages had to be abandoned due to mass blindness. Now, millions of hectares of arable land have been returned to agricultural production., and millions of children were saved from blindness. In neither case did the manufacturer seek a patent on these products, removing any legal obstacle to their production in poor countries.
More recently, a U. S. manufacturer developed the only vaccine against a cancer, in this case, cervical cancer.
In studies conducted by the University of Indiana’s school of philanthropy, the US is the world’s leading supporter of financial assistance to the developing world. In 2020, total development assistance from the U. S. was just under $500 billion, of which only 9% was from Official Development Assistance (ODA). The remainder is from corporations, foundations, religious organizations, and universities.
We are now in the period that George covers so well, one foretold by the late Senator Patrick Moynihan: “a relentless emphasis on what is wrong, what is worsening, what is threatening can lead a people to underestimate its capacity to control events. Politics comes increasingly to resemble what Lenin called an ‘infantile disorder’. Society regresses to a state of complaining helplessness and threatened hysteria”.
George has clearly exposed—and necessarily so, the warts on our body politic. The global burden we carry may lead us to stumble at times along that road to a more perfect union. Still, let’s be sustained by what we have done for the benefit of our global family wherein millions of children will never experience the miseries of smallpox or blindness, where women can be immunized against Cervical Cancer; where over ten years we turned India from a net importer of grain products to a net exporter; where polio can be declared by WHO to be near eradication; and for the first time since the Pharaonic era, Bilharzia in Egypt is now officially controlled, thanks to USAID.
So, let us every now and again lift a glass to what the U. S. has done for the benefit of our human family, and extend our appreciation to George Packer for his exemplary adherence to Peace Corps’ 3rd Goal by provoking us to undertake a ‘renewal’ for what remains to be done, earning him a Profile in Citizenship.
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