Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism by P.J. O'Rourke

Nikki Tranter

O'Rourke does more than simply visit these places, he goes out of his way to finding understanding in them, to find common ground. It's a commitment few understand and are willing to indulge in.

Peace Kills

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (US); Picador (AU)
Length: 320
Subtitle: America's Fun New Imperialism
Price: $23 (US)
Author: P.J. O'Rourke
US publication date: 2004-04

Peace Kills isn't the first political commentary on the war in Iraq, but it's one of the most insightful. Instead of using tattle-tale tactics and conspiracy theories and I'm-smarter-than-you and look-how-witty-I-am rhetoric to rehash the same old boring Bush-bashing cliches, O'Rourke's collection of essays uses personal experience and keen observation to examine the war from the points of view of those living through it and those judging it from afar.

O'Rourke's latest is not as comedic as his previous efforts. It doesn't feel the need to finish every paragraph with joke. While it does shoot a few zingers at Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and confused war protestors, it also chooses not to rely on the public's apparent thirst for behind the lines bitchery to make it's point. Here, O'Rourke describes life inside the destructive television images. He keeps his personal political preferences under his hat for the most part to instead concentrate on giving the reader a real sense of place inside war-affected nations like Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq and Kosovo. He asks everyday Egyptians what they think of the war and of George Bush, reporting on life's normal moments in these places that we don't see on TV. It's the kind of truth that doesn't need political spins to be of interest.

O'Rourke's focus here is on the little things. He discusses the effects Waiting for Godot has had on students at the University of Baghdad and describes billboards on the backs of Kuwaiti buses depicting a Kuwaiti hugging an American soldier during the 1991 liberation with the words "We Never Forget" printed beneath. It's not about spotting corruption, or joking about the failures of political representatives that makes this book fiercely readable; it's O'Rourke's eye for detail as a travel writer and logician.

Through impassioned and entertaining discussions on 9/11 protesters in Washington, D.C., the freakishly ridiculous statement of intent to change the world signed by 103 Nobel laureates, everyday life in Egypt and Iraq, and a particularly engaging return to the island of Iwo Jima to reflect on lessons not learned, O'Rourke reiterates the confounding nature of the world and its conflicting notions of peace and acceptance.

O'Rourke clearly and concisely gives context to the numerous sound bites heard on TV and printed in the newspaper. His commitment to his job, to his interest ("Reporters," he notes in his introduction," would rather be interested than comfortable") beyond the theorizing and rhetoric gives a kind of weight to his musings that more famous anecdotes from the likes of Michael Moore and Al Franken don't. Moore, though often reliable, has a particular bullseye to hit with every word he writes, so much so that he feels the need to saturate the media to rightly aim and fire his conspiracy arrows, while Franken sometimes seems unable to reveal any insight into the state of world-dwellers beyond enemy aggravation and well-constructed punchlines.

O'Rourke has his punchlines and his arrows, but somehow his word carries a weight that only comes with experiences like that of his waking in Kuwait to the ringing of the phone to hear the voice of the wife he hasn't seen for weeks tell him missiles have struck Baghdad. O'Rourke does more than simply visit these places, he goes out of his way to finding understanding in them, to find common ground. It's a commitment few understand and are willing to indulge in. So is his objectivity, come to think of it, regarding America and its past political failures and successes.

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