Q & A: True Stories From Hell on Earth

Q & A: True Stories From Hell on EarthWhen Kenneth Cain ’87 stepped into New York City’s Algonquin hotel for lunch in February, he looked energized. A controversial book he co-authored with two close colleagues at the United Nations, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth, had gained press attention worldwide and a deal with Miramax for a possible mini-series. The book is a diary-style account of several years the authors spent on the front lines of U.N. peacekeeping, replete with vivid details of personal lives.


He seemed most pleased, however, with the news that his good friend and co-author, Andrew Thomson, a doctor at the U.N., had not only won a reprieve from an effort to fire him, but was being promoted. When the book was published without U.N. permission in 2004, top U.N. officials accused the authors of disloyalty for their blistering account of peacekeeping failures in Somalia, Bosnia, and especially in Rwanda. U.N. officials focused their anger on Thomson (Cain had already left the organization, and the third co-author, Heidi Postlewait, was reappointed before the furor reached its peak). At Cain’s urging, Thomson, who was told his contract would not be renewed, turned to a leading whistle-blowing attorney.


“Emergency Sex,” as the New Yorker pointed out in December, “is not a typical whistle-blowing tract.” Yet the book also contains significant allegations of corruption, negligence, and failures of leadership. Whether the allegations rose to whistle-blowing status or not, the U.N. leadership apparently had second thoughts about firing Thomson. The New Yorker noted that the timing of the fracas was opportune for the authors since the U.N. has been under fire for the oil-for-food scandal and for claims of sexual harassment.


The controversy, of course, has been good for the book and stirred the interest of Hollywood. After the authors accepted Miramax’s bid, they were delighted to learn that Randall Wallace, who wrote the screenplays for Braveheart and Pearl Harbor, had been retained as the scriptwriter. They are now waiting to see if Miramax will commission a pilot episode.


Cain signed up with the U.N. as a young Harvard Law grad and left as a disappointed and angry veteran of several operations, who nonetheless still believed deeply in the mission of peacekeeping. He recently spoke to Wesleyan about his efforts to find a resolution to his experiences through writing.


Q: Were you worried that the title of the book would marginalize it?


KEN CAIN ’87: I lost nights of sleep over this question. The publishers did a focus group, and that title was off the scale in allure. At a certain point, it’s hard to argue with your publisher about what’s viable in the market. I’d be more willing to argue now. We also wanted to make sure that this wouldn’t be seen as a policy book. It’s a coming-of-age book. I think younger people are unfazed by the title. Perhaps people from another generation are less impressed. You roll the dice.


Q: You and your co-authors chose to write this book in a very personal voice focused on the immediacy of daily life. Why did you stay away from a more policy-oriented approach?


KC: We had long conversations, drinking sessions, screaming matches on this subject. I had been influenced by literature from the Vietnam War?what it was like for the grunts, the moral ambiguity, the lies. Nothing about what the policy wonks were saying struck me as relevant to what had actually happened to the human beings who died in the missions I joined. I was still young enough that I found that outrageous. The ambition for the book was to capture what it truly feels like on the ground. At one moment you’re thinking about American foreign policy; in the next you’re thinking about how cute the nurse is. That terrain between the intensely personal and intensely political is an interesting one for a writer to inhabit. Everything is magnified. You’re afraid you’re going to die; your buddy just died. Also, there were plenty of people writing policy books. No one was writing in personal terms.


Q: One of your co-authors, Heidi, did not shy away from describing her romantic and sexual life in the field. Why did she focus on that?


KC: The field is a highly emotional environment. You are all jacked up on adrenalin, fear, and anger. You have a great need to reach out to the person next to you and celebrate life together. The barriers between human beings crumble. You can very quickly become intimate, and I don’t mean just sexually. That level of intimacy would take months in other situations where the boundaries are back up. As I said, we were trying to tell what it’s really like.


Q: Did you approach your work for the U.N. as an idealist?


KC: I’m Jewish and grew up thinking about the Holocaust, thinking that the world was implicated in its passivity. Right at the end of the Cold War, when I graduated from law school, there was this notion that the U.N., which was founded explicitly to prevent genocide, was finally going to be able to intervene in these awful civil wars because the Soviet Union had disappeared. I jumped on that train. Initially, it was fun and we were effective. When you save someone with your bare hands, that’s what you want to do forever. It’s selfish, but it’s an enormous high. Those grandiose self-images ultimately were quite destructive. I learned that if you get three prisoners released in exchange for providing food and medicine to the prison (which the guards steal), they understand that you are willing to negotiate, so they go out and arrest six more. As many things turned out badly as turned out well. That’s a hard dichotomy.


Q: Do you still believe in peacekeeping missions?


KC: I believe deeply in the mission. If anything is worth trying to fix, it’s our ability to stop the worst things that happen to humans in the world. Those of us who believe in intervention and believe that genocide can be prevented ought to be the most outraged by the U.N.’s failures. How many genocides do you need before you decide the approach is not working?


Q: If you believe in the mission, can you walk away and do something else?


KC: I couldn’t just say I’m done with that and now I’m going to go write about fashion. We didn’t anticipate that the book would blow up into international news. It’s been great for the book, bad for my hairline. We’ve had media appearances all over the world. I did a series of op-eds in the Times and I just did one in the Journal. I get criticized for adding fuel to the fire of the right wing’s critique of the U.N. It doesn’t stop me. The U.N. can be such a better version of itself, and you are not going to stop me just because the Right wants to use this for its own purposes. The people who value the U.N. the most should be the ones with the loudest critique.


Q: Then why did you leave the U.N.?


KC: I was in Liberia, the end of the earth. My boss was the most corrupt, exploitative person I’ve ever come across. He was trying to sleep with every young Liberian woman in the office. I was the human rights lawyer and these girls would come to my office in tears. I wrote memo after memo and I confronted him. Officials at the U.N. literally laughed. Everything else about that mission was a disaster. I quit in disgust. I wasn’t thinking that I could be more effective by blowing the lid on this.


Q: What has been the reaction of U.N. employees to your book?


KC: Junior people who’ve served in the field tend to embrace it. We were invited to an unofficial “lessons learned” session at U.N. headquarters, and it was jammed. I was scared. I thought we were going to be mercilessly attacked. But the critique was that we didn’t go far enough, that we pulled punches. The senior leadership, in contrast, hates my coauthors, who still work for the U.N.


Q: You had a strong legal background, so why did you take up writing?


KC: After witnessing disasters, you can drink yourself to death, which is what a lot of people in the field do. You can become cynical and count your per diem. I started to think I needed to write about this. It was erupting out of me. The Holocaust is iconic because Jews wrote about it. They said we will not forget and neither will you. I witnessed things that are not part of the public discourse, partly because hardly anyone is writing about them, with the notable exception of Philip Gourevitch. The fact that Rwandans died makes it all the more important to write because so few others will. I also absorbed from Wesleyan a way of thinking about my career and my place in the moral universe. I draw strength from that, and it’s motivated me to write.


Q: Would you put your life on the line again?


KC: I was in Iraq a year ago. When I was there, a lot of journalists were getting killed, and for the first time I started to hesitate. Now I’m in less of a rush to get into that convoy. I’m old enough to be afraid, but I think that’s good. Fear makes you smarter.


Download a PDF of the complete article HERE