Book Review: Seeing for Myself: A Political Traveler's Memoir

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The title of this book is totally appropriate. Some people who travel go to the beach, visit museums, birdwatch, or sample the local cuisine. Ginny NiCarthy, who lives in Seattle, got into traveling later on in life, and started doing a special type of “adventure travel”; visiting places that are in the news, talking with the local people, and trying to find out what's really going on.

A particular emphasis is the victims of the “collateral damage” that you hear about in the news stories. NiCarthy makes it clear that bombing by the US is doing far more human damage than most people realize, and is not winning any friends. Her credentials as an opponent of the US government are very good. She served two months in prison for a protest at a Trident base, and later refused to pay taxes to support the invasion of Iraq.

She visited Iraq in October, 2002, five months before the invasion. When you listen to discussions of foreign policy, you'll often hear the phrase, “sanctions don't work.” NiCarthy didn't mention what effect (if any) the sanctions in Iraq had on any policies of the Iraqi government, but the effect on Iraq's people was devastating; schools without electricity, hospitals with no phones, water, or medical instruments. This chapter also discussed the long and short-term effects of the 1991 Operation Desert Storm. One of them was the US Army's use of depleted uranium to make artillery shells more effective, and tanks less vulnerable. Eleven years later, there were areas of Iraq where the radiation level was more than one thousand times normal. One of the consequences is, the rate children born with birth defects went from 11 per 100,000 to 116 per 100,000.

Other chapters of this book are about Kenya (1985), South Africa (1985), Mexico (1990), Guatemala, Colombia (2001), and Afghanistan (2005). I thought the chapters about Guatemala were the best ones. She spent a couple of weeks in Quetzaltenango (Xela) and visited a women's co-op. She then went to Todos Santos Cuchamatán, where she studied Spanish and stayed with a local family, in a one-room house with eight other people. Her observations about their lifestyle were insightful and touching.

NiCarthy is a harsh critic of US foreign policy in most of this book. I felt there was a lack of balance, however, in the section on Afghanistan. She pointed out that the chief justice of the supreme court at the time was definitely the wrong man for the job. However, she passed along the usual Muslim fundamentalist apologia for requiring women to wear burqas. There was a discussion of the punishment for adultery, which, for women, is being stoned to death. The spokeswoman that NiCarthy was listening to made a convoluted explanation of whether an individual case of adultery was a civil or a criminal case. Actually, it makes no difference; the penalty for adultery for women is being stoned to death. Excuse me, but we're not talking about giving tickets for jaywalking here.

Books like this are important, and we need more of them. We can't expect CNN and the rest of the US media to tell us what's going on at the human level in the rest of the world. And it doesn't matter that books like this one aren't going to be read by huge numbers of people. The important thing is to make this sort of first-hand information available to activists, so that they can ask more pointed questions of the politicians and the media.