WASHINGTON — They mean well, mostly, arriving in war-torn capitals with good wishes and strong backs and, sometimes, muddled minds. Some are missionaries toting Bibles, looking for converts. Others are "war tourists" seeking adventure, delighting in the danger. Still others are former notables, eager to recapture the spotlight of world attention.
But like Clark Russell Bowers, the Alabamian whose family said on Tuesday that he had been kidnapped by an Afghan warlord and on Friday that he had been released, those who flock to danger zones are vulnerable to the very pangs of war that drew them in the first place.
"Americans have big hearts that often lead them to want to do good where good is most needed," said one State Department official who asked not to be named for fear of offending any U.S. citizen. "Unfortunately, the places where good is most needed are often the places that are the most dangerous."
"As much as we might want to, we can't expect people to stop behaving as human beings," said Alan Lipman, a psychologist who directs Georgetown University's Center for the Study of Violence. "The wish for change, for excitement--none of these are suspended in a time of war."
War zones tend to attract colorful characters, anyway. In addition to the soldiers, journalists and aid workers who make their living in it, there are their shadows: mercenaries who fight for hire, amateur photographers, solitary Samaritans who offer charity.
During the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s, a journalist named Freddy Forsyth left the British Broadcasting Corp. and joined the Biafran army as a Col. Acheson, an expert on guns--or at least that's how the Biafrans introduced him to former Times foreign correspondent Stanley Meisler. Later, of course, Forsyth became famous as the author of "The Day of the Jackal," in which an expert on guns tries to kill French President Charles de Gaulle.
During the civil strife in Beirut in the late 1970s, a West Point cadet decided to visit Lebanon on his summer vacation, to write a paper on what a real war was like. U.S. Embassy officials, mindful of the bonanza for Hezbollah forces in taking hostage a West Point cadet, quickly squired him out of the country.
More recently, two young men from Pasadena said they made their way to Afghanistan to offer their photographic insights on a Web site. Former UC Santa Barbara students Todd Ruiz and Adam Prentiss, with no professional experience, said they hoped their work would offer a perspective different from the establishment press on "marginalized, forgotten and misunderstood" parts of the world.
"There are a certain set of people who are driven by an idealist bent," said Dr. Frederick Burkle, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University who directs program development for the school's Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies. "They may feel some omnipotence, that bad things won't happen to them. They are driven by adventure. We are always testing out our mortality."
Many are drawn to war zones to be part of history's drama. Like autograph seekers who follow Hollywood celebrities, they hope the excitement of the encounter will add glitter or gravitas to their own lives.
An aid worker recalled a woman who showed up at an airport after the Kosovo war, asking to be directed to the shopping district. She was sent home. But when a contractor showed up offering woodworking services, he was put to work.
Or they are "true thrill seekers, in the most direct sense," Lipman said.
Four American hikers--Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, John Dickey and Jason Smith--ignored State Department warnings against travel to Kyrgyzstan. They were kidnapped in the summer of 2000 by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They escaped six days later.
Still others are, perhaps, a bit eccentric.
A California man bearing a 15-foot cross said he had visited 60 countries and walked 22,000 miles "praying for peace" when he walked into war-torn Beirut with his 11-year-old son in 1982.
These adventurers sometimes have an innocent charm about them. But naive assumptions about war and travel--Bowers told his wife to put his $25,000 ransom on their credit card--can lead to deadly outcomes.
An American missionary couple, Gracia and Martin Burnham, were kidnapped last May by Muslim extremists in the Philippines. They are still in captivity, while another American, Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded by his captors.
And two Christian aid workers, Heather Mercer, of Vienna, Va., and Dayna Curry, of Thompson's Station, Tenn., were arrested by the Taliban in Afghanistan and accused of promoting Christianity in August, before their much-publicized release three months later.
For some, trouble begets trouble. In the case of Bowers, news coverage prompted friends to publicly question his emotional health. It also brought to light discrepancies in his resume: He didn't play basketball for Pepperdine or manage the election campaign of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), as claimed.
Associated Press quoted an FBI spokesman in Alabama on Friday as saying Bowers was in Pakistan.
Professional relief workers, whose numbers have swelled in a decade of strife in Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo and Afghanistan, dread the complications from loose-cannon visitors.
Bob MacPherson, a former Marine colonel who now trains the CARE staff on safety and security, noted that the expanding web of nongovernmental organizations closely coordinates its work to avoid duplication and maximize effectiveness. It's dicey, he said, "to put a wild card in there who may not quite be aware of local sensibilities."
Still, the adventurers come.
Linda Adams was kidnapped by Rwandan rebels in Uganda in 1999. An American couple were killed during the ordeal. Adams escaped by faking an asthma attack. She told the BBC that her father had warned her against the trip but she told him, "It wasn't going to happen to me."
Times staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.