War in Slow Motion
Sunday, October 30, 2005, 07:45 AM - A Postcolonial Military History?
In 1858 the abolitionist John Brown was an extended guest at Frederick Douglass' home in Rochester, New York. Already well embarked on his plans for the Harpers Ferry raid, Brown's imagination extended to the creation of an independent, interracial state in the American southeast. The idea gripped him so tightly that he spent three weeks writing a provisional constitution for the government of such a state. Its preamble begins:
Whereas, Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is nothing other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion . . .
I ran across this quote a few weeks ago when the students in my graduate readings course read a recent biography of Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton. (Like Douglass, Tubman was acquainted with Brown and his plans for the Harpers Ferry raid. Brown, in turn, referred to her, in complete seriousness, as "General Tubman.")

No one happened to remark upon the quote during our discussion, which was understandable given that our focus was on Tubman. Still, I was struck by Brown's equation of slavery with war. Most of us are conditioned to regard that as rhetoric, but Brown meant it quite literally. Gandhi made a similar point when he insisted, "Poverty is the worst form of violence."

Indeed, slavery, colonization/neocolonization, apartheid, and so on, can all be seen as examples of war in slow motion. This premise is, indeed, a basic concept underlying the planned War for the American South conference.

Of course, the idea that they are conducting a slow motion war is alien to those in positions of dominance, because they have a vested interest in considering the existing order of things to be normal and in convincing others of that idea, most especially the groups they oppress. But for those alive to the fact of oppression the notion that a war is underway has greater resonance.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from an essay published in 2004 by the black scholar and activist Manning Marable:
The political economy of the "New Racial Domain" . . . is driven and largely determined by the forces of transnational capitalism, and the public policies of state neoliberalism. From the vantagepoint of the most oppressed U.S. populations, the New Racial Domain rests on an unholy trinity, or deadly triad, of structural barriers to a decent life. These oppressive structures are mass unemployment, mass incarceration, and mass disfranchisement. Each factor directly feeds and accelerates the others, creating an ever-widening circle of social disadvantage, poverty, and civil death, touching the lives of tens of millions of U.S. people.
Though Marable never uses the term outright, his portrayal of developments abroad and at home is redolent of the idea of an ongoing war in slow motion.

For the full text of the essay, see Globalization and Racialization: Building New Sites of Resistance to the New Racial Domain.

The War for the American South, 1865-1965
Friday, October 28, 2005, 05:51 AM - A Postcolonial Military History?

From Deacons for Defense, a 2003 film about a black paramilitary group--the Deacons for Defense and Justice--organized in Jonesboro, Louisiana, in 1965, to combat Ku Klux Klan violence. Much of its membership was composed of Korean War and World War II veterans.
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My colleague Hasan Jeffries and I are considering a conference focusing on "The War for the American South, 1865-1965." It's a second cut at the History of War in Global Perspective theme but from a different tack.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Hasan is a student of the modern civil rights movement; I do military history. But in conversation we've been struck by the artificiality of the divide--that simply because one side largely eschewed violence in trying to overthrow the status quo and that the other side used paramilitary as well as formal instruments of coercion does not make the conflict any less relevant to military history.

We would like, therefore, to look at the civil rights struggle from 1865-1965 through the lens of an extended war of decolonization or, if you like, insurgency/counterinsurgency.

Back in January I submitted a grant proposal to the Mershon Center. At the time I was interested in building it around a discussion of Tom Barnett's The Pentagon's New Map. But over time I became less interested in Barnett's ideas. Besides, I came to realize more clearly that I've got to make all my scholarly undertakings more or less congruent, so that I don't go down a variety of paths--if I do that there's no telling when I'll complete my "promotion book" and move into the exalted realm of the full professor.

I didn't feel too concerned about the shift in focus. The Mershon Center funded my conference proposal less from an interest in Barnett than because of the proposal's emphasis on globalization. Colonization and decolonization are major aspects of globalization and nearly always occur through violence; hence the shift. I also know that Mershon is trying to find ways to collaborate with Ohio State's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and this seemed a good topic from that standpoint, especially as Hasan has a half-time appointment at the Kirwan Institute.

The real challenge is finding the right mix of participants. There is no dearth of civil rights historians. Hasan's task is to find a cohort willing and able to explore the dynamics from this angle. Similarly, my task is to find military historians willing and able to do the same, particularly among twentieth-century specialists. It may be that historians who have dealt with Vietnam and similar conflicts could adapt their insights to consider the civil rights movement; my main concern is to find military historians willing to make the imaginative leap. I have a few ideas and have been making inquiries among a number of senior historians to get their suggestions. Stay tuned.
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The Dark Soul of Colonel Mathieu
Tuesday, September 27, 2005, 08:23 AM - A Postcolonial Military History?
Robert Farley, a post-doctoral fellow at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky, reflects on one of the key characters in Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (hat tip to Arms and Influence):

The first time I saw Battle of Algiers was during a security studies retreat at Cornell University. In the discussion following the film, one of the political science faculty surprised the room by suggesting that Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu was one of the most evil characters that he had seen portrayed on film. There was considerable disagreement on this point, and I was completely unconvinced. Mathieu appeared to me to be the picture of a professional military officer; on the wrong side of history, perhaps, but concerned primarily with his duty and by no means evil. That Mathieu clearly respected his opponents made him even more appealing. Later, we dismissed the professor’s argument as simply a re-assertion of the banality of evil hypothesis. I've probably seen Battle of Algiers 15 times since then, and each time I've had opportunity to rethink the argument. I have come to believe that the professor (Peter Katzenstein) was correct, that Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu is one of the most vile characters ever portrayed in film, and that it has nothing to do with the banality of evil. . . .

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Ballot and Bullet
Sunday, September 4, 2005, 07:24 AM - A Postcolonial Military History?

Prof. Hasan Kwame Jeffries

My colleague Hasan Jeffries is an historian of the modern Civil Rights movement. I'm a military historian. At first blush the two fields don't seem to intersect, but in conversations during the past year Hasan and I have been repeatedly struck by the artificiality of the divide. In fact the two fields have much to say to one another.

In conventional terms, the Civil Rights movement might seem of concern to military historians only to the extent that military organizations were directly involved, as when in 1957 President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. But the proper concern of military history is much broader. John L. Brooke, another of my colleagues, has suggested that it might aptly be described as "political crisis."

At most times in most societies power relations operate in routine ways that everyone within the society overtly or tacitly accepts. But once in a while the normal order breaks down. One group or another rejects the status quo. Exclusion from the formal political process, or a marginal place within it, is no longer tolerable. The very legitimacy of a given election--or the absence of elections--is questioned. The privileged place of an internal power elite, or a colonial relationship to a foreign country, is openly challenged.

At such times the disaffected groups reach for extraordinary tools by which to reshape the control and flow of power. Sometimes these tools are recognized as quite obviously the concern of military history: armed insurgencies, people's war, etc. But many times the significance is missed because the struggle is principally understood in terms of political or social history. Such is the case with the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly because it is strongly associated with nonviolent tactics. These tactics should nevertheless be understood as part of a strategy consciously chosen as the most promising means by which to defeat an entrenched power elite that did not itself hesitate to employ violence.

But nonviolence was not the only strategy chosen by southern Blacks to assert their claim to political equality. As Hasan demonstrates in a paper given at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Blacks in Lowndes County, Alabama, adopted a strategy predicated on armed self-defense. Here the only excuse for military historians to overlook them would be their status as non-state actors. And in the post 9/11 world I think even the most hidebound military historian would be quick to reject such an excuse as untenable.

You can access Hasan's paper via this link:

"The Ballot and the Bullet": Armed Self-Defense in the Alabama Black Belt, 1965-1966

(You'll need Adobe Reader to open the file.)
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Heart of Darkness - Pt 7
Sunday, August 21, 2005, 01:42 PM - A Postcolonial Military History?


We have arrived at San Pedro Sula, gone through customs, and boarded the chartered van that will take us on the two-hour drive to La Ceiba, where Hands to Honduras, one of many American NGO's [Non-Government Organizations] in this country, maintains a compound with dining facilities and dormitories for its volunteers. As we leave the airport and head for the main highway, CA 13, we pass an old F-86 fighter jet with the markings of the Honduran air force. Even by Honduran standards the aircraft is a relic, but it has been placed on display in what I suppose must be a gesture of pride. I wonder idly if Honduran pilots have ever heard of Douhet, Seversky, Mitchell, or any of the other air power theorists. If they have, I can't imagine why. Pretty much everything I've ever learned about military history and strategic theory has no relevance here.

On a sticky June night, the slow, hot salsa on the jukebox at the Toucan Club urges the American troops and Honduran women to dance closer. The loud music and the language gap makes heavy petting the only communication available, and dozens of locking bodies take full advantage. "You like? You like?" a dainty young Honduran woman wearing high heels and a sheer white blouse asks her muscular dance partner, gasping for air. The young soldier responds in a thick, Southern twang: "Bueno, Bueno, B-u-e-n-o!" (177)

That's a quote from Clifford Krauss, Inside Central America: Its People, Politics, and History (1991). Krauss used to cover Central America for the Wall Street Journal, UPI, and the Atlanta Constitution. I was reading his book the last time I made the trip from San Pedro Sula to La Ceiba. For the sake of this post, let's say I'm reading it in July 2005. I'm certainly thinking about it as the green countryside slides by.

The Toucan Club is located on the Soto Caño Air Base, which is officially a Honduran military facility but is run by and for the United States. Soto Caño is the headquarters for an ongoing series of U.S. military maneuvers that were designed to intimidate Honduras's southern neighbor, Nicaragua. It is also the launching site for top-secret Air Force unmanned, remote-control spy flights that keep track of guerrilla positions to the west, in El Salvador, and to the north, in Guatemala. What little recreation there is for the 1,500 American servicemen stationed at Soto Caño comes from the busloads of perfumed and rouged Honduran señoritas who arrive at the Toucan Club for bingo, pizza, and disco Thursday and Saturday nights. It has been that way since American troops were restricted to the base after an August 1987 bombing of a nearby Chinese restaurant that left six American soldiers wounded. (177-178)

So far as I know it is not like that now. The Sandanista regime ended in 1990, American military aid to Honduras diminished, and the American military presence--once so extensive that the country was dubbed the "USS Honduras"--is minimal. But that's as far as I know. Merely visiting a country does not make you an expert.

The Americans call the ritual "Bimbo Bingo" and "The Leg PX." On benches outside the club, American soldiers were sometimes so sexually aggressive that Honduran soldiers felt obliged to step in. But to hear Honduran women tell it, the American soldiers would make perfect husbands.

"I would like to find an American soldier to take care of me," Cleopatra Guilan, a twenty-seven-year-old secretary from the nearby city of Comayagua, told me as we watched the dance floor fill with couples. Angélica Suezo, thirty, gave birth to a girl fathered by an American soldier who has long since abandoned her, yet she still thinks the Yanks are superior to Honduran men. "Americans are just nice. You see that medical clinic over there?" Angelica asked, to make her point. "American doctors deworm dozens of Honduran children every day. The Americans help us. We are poor and we need them." (178)

We are poor and we need them. Well, here we are. "We" consist of seven midwesterners. Three of us have special expertise: a physician; a dentist; and a retired human resources manager who nowadays organizes and leads such trips. The remaining four of us are just lay people who are along to lend a hand. With one exception, everyone has been to Honduras at least twice before. The dentist has made eight previous trips; the leader, eleven.

For reasons I have never quite learned, such groups are called brigades. Ours is a much smaller brigade than on my two previous trips. Here, for instance, is a group shot of the team who went on the first trip I made in 2002:



But we've been asked to limit the numbers since this year we'll be working in two towns on the Mosquito Coast. It will be expensive to get there and cumbersome to get around, and a large group would be unwieldy. In La Ceiba we'll be joined by a Honduran dentist, a Honduran physican, and the physician's wife. So ten people in all.

Something is wrong at the Toucan Club, and in Honduras itself. The disparity of expectations between the soldiers and their dates is part of what makes the ever-close Honduran-American relationship so unhealthy. While the Honduran people have the highest opinion of the United States of any people in Central America, they have the lowest self-esteem and, ironically, receive the most disrespectful treatment from Washington. (178)

"If you visit Honduras and just drive along the main highway," notes Elvia Alvarado, "you might think Honduras is a rich country. The road is all smooth and paved, and the people who live alongside the main highway look pretty well off." (p. 19) I wouldn't go that far. The view from Highway CA13 reminds me a lot of the more backward parts of the rural South. Even so, you would never guess that Honduras is the second-poorest country (after Haiti) in the western hemisphere. The road is indeed smooth and paved, the gas stations resemble their American counterparts, and if you don't see many houses that would qualify as nice by American standards, you don't see many shanties, either. Instead you see a lot of plantations: sugar, bananas, palm oil. Nearly all of them are owned or controlled by Americans agri-business firms. It is the same in the mountains, where the chief crop for market is coffee.

The deep Honduran feelings of powerlessness, dependency, and self-deprecation are rampant. This is not a new or inexplicable phenomenon. Such feelings of inadequacy are rooted in the fact that Honduras has failed to build a modern state, a unified national economy, or a national identity--three characteristics that U.S. policy unwittingly discourages though all are necessary for healthy political and economic development.(179)

I enjoy my ventures to Honduras. As a professor it's seldom clear if I am helping anyone or not. My impact on others is largely intangible. I have to take it on faith that I am doing any good at all. In Honduras I can help in ways that are unmistakable. Even so, I often have the sense of putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. Who made the wound? What is really needed to heal it?

We reach the compound at last. By American standards it's a modest affair, but here you would have to be very wealthy to afford it. Like every house of substance in the developing world, it is surrounded by a high wall. There is even a guard hired to keep a vigil at night. Even so, it is impossible to build a stockpile of medical, dental, or pharmaceutical supplies. They always disappear during the periods between brigades.

We clamber out of the air-conditioned van. The air is warm but not too humid and it feels pleasant. The afternoon sunlight slants through the lush trees and we can hear the Caribbean Sea just beyond the back wall. I walk over to have a look through the wrought iron bars that form part of the wall. Inexplicably, there are horses feeding on the grass next to the beach. It's in moments like this that I realize how much I like this country. I feel somehow as if I'm home.





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Heart of Darkness - Pt 6
Wednesday, August 17, 2005, 08:25 AM - A Postcolonial Military History?

Artillery range at Camp Grayling, Michigan; U.S. air base near Comayagua, Honduras, both photos ca. 1988

I joined the Ohio Army National Guard in 1983. During my eight years in the Guard, my unit spent each of its 16-day annual training (AT) exercises at Camp Grayling, Michigan, about 70 miles south of the Mackinac straits.

My best friend and one-time roommate Jim ______ joined in 1985. His unit spent its ATs in such places as Corpus Christi, Texas; the Colorado rockies; the Federal Republic of Germany--and Honduras, which in the 1980s received had an American military presence so extensive that wags dubbed it "the USS Honduras." (Click the photo for a larger image of the air base near Comayagua. As for the Camp Grayling artillery range, just rub dirt on yourself and go look at something flat and tedious).

Nowadays Jim lives in the country about an hour east of me. Every few weeks I'll drop by. We'll have a beer, shoot the breeze, and try to decide which of his three young sons is the homeliest--always a tough decision. Since I had just got back from Honduras, we wound up swapping stories about that.

I told him about Elvia Alvarado's observations of the American presence in her country during the 1980s. He said it squared pretty well with what he saw. At one time or another a great many American units, both active duty and reserve, rotated through Honduras for training purposes. Jim's unit, an aviation transport battalion of Huey UH-1s, went there to help a combat engineer battalion construct a road, ostensibly as a sort of selfless gift to the Honduran people. But the roads, Alvarado says, mainly "mainly lead to military bases or to the Nicaraguan border. They're opening up lots of new roads in the south--in Choluteca and El Paraiso and the Mosquitia--because that's where the contras are fighting the Sandanistas. Why don't they build roads in other parts of the country, like in the villages where the poor campesinos live? When you want to get to a campesino village, you might have to walk three or four hours straight uphill on dirt roads. If a road isn't important for the government or the gringos, forget it. It doesn't get paved. (Don't Be Afraid, Gringo, p. 102)

Few of Jim's comrades knew anything about Honduras. They lived and worked mainly on a temporary post of canvas or plywood hootches and an airfield made of perforated steel planking. They did occasionally go "out on the economy"--i.e., to visit town--but if they did they had to go in groups of no fewer than three and no more than six. And they had to wear civilian clothes. And have Honduran military policemen as their body guards. And--oh yes--they had orders urging them to "blend in."

There was a big scandal when the gringos first came, because the level of prostitution shot up something terrible. I won't say there were any prostitutes before, but not like this--with whole streets full of bordellos. The Honduran men got pissed because the prostitutes were only interested in dollars [not limpira, the Honduran currency which is all most Hondurans can readily get], they didn't want to sleep with Hondurans any more. And of course their prices went up too. (p. 110)

Service members did not even have to go to town to have a tryst with the local prostitutes. They could instead play "bimbo bingo." Periodically busloads of young Honduran women, many of them strikingly attractive, would be waved through the post gate and the women would meet with off duty American personnel to play bingo. I asked Jim if he meant they literally played bingo and he said they did. It was a sort of USO smokescreen. But then later the bingo games would break up and the women and some of the military personnel would just sort of amble off together while everyone else turned a blind eye.

And people started talking about a sexual disease called the "flor de Vietnam," the flower of Vietnam. I guess it's named after that country Vietnam, where the United States fought another war. All I know is that it's a disease that's hard to cure.

But the worst thing has been AIDS. There have been six cases of AIDS in Comayagua, and the people are sure it came from the gringos. (p. 110)

That's how the encounter with the American military appeared to the Hondurans. To the Americans, particularly reservists like my friend Jim, the picture seemed more benign. He told me about "bimbo bingo" and other less savory thing, but that was because I specifically asked. But for him they weren't in the foreground of his memories. Instead he tended to recall the physical beauty of the country, the friendship he made with his Honduran body guard, and the amusing, often outlandish incidents that always occur when soldiers spend time together in the field. He's far from alone. See, for example, the album of photos from "Rick's Army Days" on The Adventures of Sashi and Rick, a fun-loving, blobe-trotting American couple.

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Heart of Darkness - Pt 5
Tuesday, August 9, 2005, 06:35 PM - A Postcolonial Military History?

Soto Cano (formerly Palmerola) air base, Honduras

Ever since the Sandinistas came to power, the United States has been building bases all over the country. I live next to Palmerola, the biggest U.S. base. . . . I've never been to Palmerola, so I don't understand why these gringos are here to begin with.

First of all, they kicked a lot of campesino groups off their lands to make room for the bases. Take the Palmerola base--there were two campesino groups there before, and they moved them to another piece of land that isn't as good.

Secondly, the bases only strengthen the Honduran military, and that means more repression for us.

I used to feel hatred towards the gringo soldiers. Why should they be in our country, with all their guns and all their dollars, making life even more difficult for us? But now I know that these poor gringos are just ignorant; they really don't know why they're here or what this struggle is all about. I have friends who've talked to some of them, and they say these guys don't know anything about Central America. They've just been sent here by their government. So it's really not their fault; it's the fault of the people who sent them here.

-- Elvia Alvarado, Don't Be Afraid, Gringo (1987), pp. 109-110.

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Heart of Darkness - Pt 4
Monday, August 8, 2005, 02:35 PM - A Postcolonial Military History?


Alvarado's interest in the "why" of poverty in Honduras eventually led her to become involved in land reform--first the UNC (National Campesino Union) and subsequently the CNTC (National Congress of Rural Workers). Both organizations tried to use the procedures laid down by an agrarian reform law passed in 1972 and finalized in 1975. "The law is very clear," Alvaredo notes. "It says that land has to be fully used, that it has to fulfill a social function. Whether the land is private or state-owned, if it is not being cultivated, it's supposed to be turned over to the campesinos." (68) In theory a government organization, the National Agrarian Institute, administers the law. There are even provisions to make loans and technical assistance available to the campesinos. In practice, however, the legal process is almost completely ineffective. "Either the landowner pays everyone at the INA or the request gets bogged down in so much red tape that a decision is never made. We do all the legal steps first. But when it doesn't get anywhere, the campesinos say 'the hell with it' and simply take over the land." (69)

The photo above depicts such a takeover. I snapped it on my first trip to Honduras in 2002. The landowners and middle class usually call these takeovers "invasions." The explanation I initially heard made no mention of the agrarian reform law. It simply depicted these "invasions" as completely illegal, but said vaguely that sometimes the campesinos won support from a local politician who assisted them in keeping the land and in return pocketed their votes in the next election. (In my admittedly limited experience, this kind of garbled information concerning the political environment is fairly typical of what American volunteers hear when they visit a developing country.)

Alvarado rejects the term "invasion":

No, we call them land recoveries. You read in the paper, 'Campesinos invade such and such a piece of land.' That's not true. We don't invade land, we recover land that belongs to us by law but was invaded by the big landowners or the foreign countries.

They're the invaders. By what right did they take the land from our families to begin with? By what right do they hold onto the land in violation of the law? Just because they have money to bribe corrupt officials or fancy lawyers to forge their papers?" (69)


"Invasions," "recoveries," or whatever you want to call them function essentially as leverage, a fait accompli that sometimes does shift the balance of power from the landowners to the campesinos and have apparently proven almost the only effective way to put land reform into practice. But in the short term they can be very touch-and-go. A landowner who has hitherto neglected the land will suddenly try to give it a "social function," and if that newly inspired productivity takes the form of a herd of cattle or fleet of bulldozers, and the herd or fleet happens to overrun the squatting campesinos, why, that's just how it goes. More directly, landowners can hire thugs to intimidate and, on occasion, kill campesinos engaged in recoveries. Then too, it is very easy to portray campesino leaders as socialists or communists, which some of them actually are. (In much of the western hemisphere, nothing shuts down reason faster than to label somebody a communist.) This helps to array the police and even the military against the organizers.

As I said in a previous post, Alvarado's book came out in 1987, so it is somewhat dated. But not that much. Five peasant leaders were shot to death in 1991, reportedly by the military. Three campesinos were killed during a land recovery in 1995. Two organizers were shot in July 2003; another was assassinated in May of this year.

I wonder: where does this sort of violence fit into the history of war?

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Heart of Darkness - Pt 3
Sunday, August 7, 2005, 11:43 AM - A Postcolonial Military History?


We left Columbus at 6:30 a.m. on July 16 and flew to San Pedro Sula by way of George Bush International Airport in Houston. The trip took seven and a half hours. I spent part of it re-reading Don't Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks From Her Heart. The Honduran woman in question is Elvia Alvarado, a campesina political activist. The book, based on 30 hours of tape-recorded interviews, was translated and edited by Medea Benjamin, the founding director of Global Exchange who has in recent years become an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq. Don't Be Afraid, Gringo was published in 1987, which makes it a bit dated, but is still commonly assigned in a variety of anthropology, sociology, and gender studies courses.

It is a quick read--less than 150 pages of text--and written in an earthy conversational style. Alvaredo became pregnant at 13 and within a few years had three children by as many men. Her political awakening occurred when she joined one of the mother's clubs organized by the Catholic church. "At the meetings we'd talk about our problems and try to help each other out," Alvaredo recalls. "We also did practical things like distribute food to malnourished children, grow gardens, and go to talks about food and nutrition. And we'd pray together, too." (p. 11) Alvaredo enjoyed her involvement, became president of her local group, and eventually was hired to organize mother's groups in other areas. She credits the church with opening her eyes to the importance of women and the importance of becoming organized, but she quickly learned that the church did not welcome the larger questions that women like Alvaredo began to ask:

They wanted to give food out to malnourished mothers and children, but they didn't want us to question why we were malnourished to begin with. They wanted us to grow vegetables on the tiny plots around our houses, but they didn't want us to question why we didn't have enough land to feed ourselves.

But once we started getting together and talking to each other, we started asking these questions.

We came to the conclusion that there were three classes in Honduras: the upper, the middle, and the lower class. The upper class are the rich people--the landowners, the factory owners, the politicians. They're the ones that have the power. The middle class are the workers in the city. They don't have as much money or power,but they're better off than we are. We're at the bottom of the ladder, especially the campesina women. Because not only are we exploited by the other classes, but by men as well.

So we started talking about the need for some changes. And then the very same church that organized us, the same church that opened our eyes, suddenly began to criticize us, calling us communists and Marxists. It was at this point that the church abandoned us. (pp. 16-17)

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Heart of Darkness - Pt 2
Saturday, August 6, 2005, 09:35 AM - A Postcolonial Military History?
To visit another country is usually not the same thing as to understand it. The barriers of language, culture, and history are often great, to say nothing of those of race and, above all, class. It takes a lot of time, effort, and commitment to overcome these barriers even slightly. Some of us succeed. Most, I suspect, do not. We travel with the desire to see new people and climes. Instead we relentlessly encounter ourselves.

I have been pondering this a lot since my most recent journey to Honduras in mid-July. As with my two previous visits, this one lasted eight days, two of them spent mainly in travel to and from the country. As usual I wish the trips had been longer, but I was going not for pleasure but rather to help a team of physicians and dentists, none of whom could afford to leave their regular patients for more than a week at a time. My previous forays had taken me mainly to La Ceiba, a city of 200,00 on the Caribbean coast; and to the modest town of San Isidro in the mountains. On both occasions I was part of a group of at least twenty Americans and Hondurans and we had well established partnerships with the local community leadership. This trip was different. For one thing, the group was much smaller: just seven Americans and three Hondurans. The destination was also different. We spent most of our time on the Mosquito Coast. As I say, I'd been on two previous trips to Honduras, and in earlier years I've visited the Dominican Republic and several countries in central Africa, especially the former Zaire. But I never saw anything like the Mosquito Coast. I'm still tryng to get a handle on what I thought and felt. The disquieting part of it is that in ways I don't entirely grasp, the trip constantly put me in mind of Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella, Heart of Darkness.

I'd read Heart of Darkness only a couple of times in my life, most recently when I assigned it as the point of departure for a graduate readings course on Race and Ideology in the Two World Wars. Given its themes of imperialism, racism, and the breakdown of morality, the novella served very well for that purpose, not least because it is a very subtle exploration that can be (and has been) read as a work overtly critical of these things but covertly redolent with them. The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once insisted that these elements disqualified the book as significant literature. He urged that it not even be read. That much I remembered well. Most of the novella I recalled just dimly--snatches of imagery and dialogue. The part I best recalled was the passage quoted in Part 1 of this post. I didn't like thinking about Heart of Darkness. The comparison seemed not only unhappy but also a stretch. It's certainly not easy to explain in any straightforward way. Consequently I'll just tell the story of this most recent Honduran trip as best I can and then see whether, to what extent, and in what ways it resonates with Heart of Darkness.

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