Nathaniel's Reviews > Small Wars Permitting: Dispatches from Foreign Lands

Small Wars Permitting by Christina Lamb
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's review
Jul 08, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in January, 2011

Successful journalists are allowed to publish books with the word “dispatches” in the title, wherein they simply reprint the most popular of their published journalistic pieces, possibly strung together by a few calculated autobiographical reflections, a prologue, an afterword and decorated, perhaps, with amateur, black and white photographs they have taken on their travels.

“Small Wars Permitting: Dispatches from Foreign Lands” is a desultory anthology with a prevalence of writing about conflicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lamb is most focused and committed when risking her life to approach gunfire in these two countries, where she accumulates enough contacts and strategies to find herself in intriguing positions. Her stories amount to a lively refresher course on the history of that region in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty first.

In contrast, her random assignments around Africa feel superficial and under-thought: here’s a piece about Nigerians sending their skinny girls to specialists who promise to transform them into marriageable heifers; here’s twenty pages meant to summarize the downward trajectory of Zimbabwe; or a jaunt around Ivory Coast hunting the slave drivers of children. These pieces pad Lamb’s book; but seem arbitrary and a bit canned—little snapshots of absurdity or atrocity—especially compared to the more involved and sustained coverage of power plays around the training grounds of Al Qaeda.

The third sort of content available in “Small Wars Permitting” involves Lamb’s courtship, marriage and negotiation of family obligations. These passages feel as if there were demanded by an editor because Lamb doesn’t bring to them even half of her investigative tenacity. She offers a zoomed out scarcely-emotional summary of what must have been a tumultuous and intriguing relationship. And that’s fine; I don’t need her to write an expose about her own vulnerabilities; but if she’s going to include her personal life at all, it would be better to do so whole-heartedly.

Lamb has had some memorable adventures and has unique and sometimes shocking answers to the mainstay, dick-sizing questions of war-mongering journalists: Who did you meet in their youth before they attained a powerful position? What exotic, dangerous or illegal things did people try to sell you? What are your best death-cheating experiences? What are your most outrageous disguises or ruses? How did you talk your way out of prison?

And these sorts of details can propel you through a book of this variety if you’re on an airplane or a subway; but if you’ve got the time and inclination to focus on what you’re reading, I wouldn’t put this book at the front of the line. I like to have my history refreshed now and then by primary source documents and that’s about what this book is good for.


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