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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Journey Into the Heart of Darkness

LOOKING FOR TROUBLE One Woman, Six Wars, and a Revolution by Leslie Cockburn. Anchor Books/Doubleday) $24.95, 273 pages

April 01, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Leslie Cockburn has guts, and she isn't shy about letting you know it.

Cockburn, a documentary news producer (for CBS, ABC and PBS) and writer for Vanity Fair, specializes in reporting on the world's zones of agony: Afghanistan, as it dissolves into fierce anarchy after the Soviet withdrawal and, later, when it is captured by the zealously repressive Taliban; Haiti, just after Baby Doc Duvalier has been overthrown and vengeance is on the agenda; Somalia, as it simultaneously explodes into a sadistic civil war and slowly expires from famine.

She hobnobs with the murderous drug lords of Colombia; has tea in Bangkok with Khmer Rouge officials, whom she regards as the moral equivalent of Nazis; insinuates herself into the wacky, decidedly unlovable family of Saddam Hussein; and asks the rulers of Iran whether they still want to kill Salman Rushdie. (They do.) Often, the particular country she visits is, she assures us, "without question the most dangerous place on earth."

Her adventures could come off as either reckless or exploitative, but they don't. "Looking for Trouble" is a zippy chronicle of Cockburn's worldwide, whirlwind journeys--a throwback, in some ways, to 18th- and 19th-century travelogues. But it is much more.

Cockburn--who describes herself as a "six-foot blonde" with "a taste for danger"--is one of the most thoughtful, committed, politically informed journalists working today. She is undeniably obsessed with getting the story, but she is interested in something else, too. Cockburn knows that the disasters of our time--including "natural" ones like disease and famine--are the result of complex political forces. She knows that at the end of the 20th century, hell is man-made; she wants to explore its specific circles, and explain how they came to be.

Much of the world that Cockburn reports on seems eerie, ravaged, mad. In beautiful, constantly betrayed Kurdistan, she finds fighters "draped with necklaces of amber, silver, and machine-gun bullets." In the children's ward of a shredded hospital in war-stunned Kabul, she notices a poster that proclaims: "What do you want to be when you grow up? Alive!" In an Iranian museum, she gazes at the blood-soaked turbans (carefully preserved under glass) of murdered ayatollahs.

Later, during services in a Qom mosque, Cockburn is caught up in a hysterical crowd of worshipers as it surges toward a holy tomb. "They wailed. The fervor here was suffocating. . . . The faithful gasped, screamed. . . . In this place, I thought, I have finally reached the ends of the earth." In malaria- and bullet-drenched Mogadishu--which she visits when she is six months pregnant--Cockburn watches the child-fighter who has been assigned to protect her: "He hugged his weapon like a sibling. . . . He was a beautiful boy, sweet-natured and loyal. His ambition was to die fighting."

Two distinct impressions emerge from Cockburn's book. The first is that, despite all the talk of global homogenization, the world remains an extremely odd, fascinating, often terrible, occasionally wonderful, highly variegated place: Most of it does not yet look like New Jersey.

Clearly, though, something has gone horribly wrong with the political and moral economy of our planet. Wherever Cockburn goes she finds guns, cigarettes, land mines and drugs in abundance; wherever she goes there is a scarcity of food, medicine and shelter. Cockburn's book does not provide the answers to how this hideous state of affairs came to be, but it does raise questions about the international allocation of resources that demand to be answered if we are to survive the 21st century.

Unless, of course, you agree with Sam Cummings, a cherubic, middle-aged American who is one of the world's largest private munitions dealers. "He wore dark suits and traveled economy-class," Cockburn reports. "War was his business and guns did not make decisions. . . . Sam was determined to teach me how the real world worked. 'Madame Leslie,' he would say patiently, 'it's not a question of morality.' "

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