Bob Shacochis is a professional writer who received the 1985 National Book Award for his collection of stories, Easy in the Islands: Stories. His first novel, Swimming in the Volcano, was a finalist for the National Book Award of 1993. An authentic child of the rebellious 1960’s, he examines social problems from a left-wing perspective, and he is highly critical of United States’ imperialism. He is also a passionate student of creative cooking, and his “Dining In” columns for GQ magazine, collected in Domesticity (1994), tell of the cooking ventures shared with Miss F., his common-law wife of eighteen years. Shacochis currently is contributing editor at Harper’s and Outside. Because he had lived in the Caribbean region for several years, he was the logical choice of Harper’s to cover the 1994 invasion.
By employing the adjective “immaculate” to describe the invasion, Shacochis emphasizes the ironies and the absurdities of the situation. Certainly he does not mean to suggest that U.S. policy was faultless or that the intentions of policymakers were entirely altruistic and selfless. From Shacochis’s perspective, moreover, the operation was generally unsuccessful, at least if judged by the standard of whether there was improvement in the lives of the Haitian people. Apparently, his major reason for using the adjective “immaculate” is that the invasion was carried out with a minimal application of American force and with no loss of American life.
Shacochis is especially good at describing the experiences of American soldiers participating in the intervention. Based on personal observations made while living with Special Forces for more than a year, he presents an intimate account of the soldiers deployed in a situation that the military calls “OTW”: operations other than war. The descriptions of the fears and frustrations of U.S. soldiers in The Immaculate Invasion are rightfully compared to those described in Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977). Shacochis confesses that he had never known any soldiers and that his earlier impressions of the Special Forces had been acquired from movies and from critics of the Vietnam War. From his experiences in Haiti, however, he found, to his astonishment, that he liked the soldiers and that the vast majority appeared to be decent people trying to do a very difficult job.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is its description of the ways in which Shacochis and other journalists aggressively went to the locations of the most exciting stories, even when it meant putting their lives at risk. For example, just before the Green Berets entered the troubled northern town of Limbe, Shacochis and two associates managed to enter a barracks to speak to Haitian soldiers who were surrounded by a mob of angry townspeople. When gunfire erupted, the journalists huddled in terror as the Haitian soldiers fled out the back door. This particular incident had a happy ending because the journalists were able to surrender to the Green Berets.
When dealing with Haitian culture, unfortunately, Shacochis is not always convincing. In fact, he himself recognizes that there are definite limits to which a moderately affluent citizen of a developed country can understand the perceptions and motivations of people accustomed to grinding poverty and almost no opportunities. Although sympathetic to their plight, at times Shacochis appears to be somewhat condescending to the Haitians. For some strange reason, for instance, he almost appears to ridicule the Haitian-Creole pronunciation of the word “pwobwem.” He is perhaps overly harsh, moreover, when he characterizes much of Haitian history as “an endless loop of fighting from which there was no escape, no respite, and no glory.”
Shacochis presents a rather standard account of the background leading to the American intervention. Less than a year after the leftist priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected president in 1990, General Raoul Cédras assumed power in a bloody coup followed by a reign of terror. Thousands of Haitians attempted to flee to the United States, often in overcrowded boats. In 1993, President Bill Clinton pressured Cédras to agree to Aristide’s return in exchange for amnesty. When U.S. and Canadian peacekeepers arrived on board the USS Harlan County, however, rioters led by the violent Front for the Advancement and Progess of Haiti (FRAPH), an anti-Aristide paramilitary group, forced a postponement of the intervention.
By the summer of 1994, Clinton was preparing for an armed invasion that almost certainly would...
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