Book Review: Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story of Hell on Earth


by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson

New York: Miramax Books 2004. 308 pages. . Hardcover, $25.95 . ISBN:1401352014

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures is a memoir of UN peacekeeping by three civilians who served in numerous trouble spots in the 1990s, including Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, and others besides. It is also a record of UN failure, corruption, and cynicism, and reading it one can easily understand why the UN tried hard to prevent its publication.

Kenneth Cain and Heidi Postlewait were twentysomething Americans who joined the United Nations in the early 90s full of idealism and a desire to do good. The Cold War was over, the Clinton Administration was in power, and the New World Order was at hand. They were sent to Cambodia in 1993 to monitor elections. There they met Andrew Thomson, a doctor from New Zealand who had already spent a good deal of time in country doing humanitarian work . The three of them struck up an enduring friendship, and together they set about trying to bring democracy to what had been the Killing Fields.

The authors clearly believed in what they were doing, but they frequently come across as shallow and a bit full of themselves. They spend as much time describing the parties they attended and the restaurants they frequented as the problems of the countries in which they served. Postlewait, in particular, is given to recounting her sexual adventures with the locals wherever she was posted. (The book’s title refers to her seeking “emergency sex” from a Saudi interpreter behind a building in Mogadishu.) The social scene in Cambodia was certainly heady enough for the UN staff, who spent a great deal of time drinking mango daiquiris, smoking pot, and partying with attractive twentysomething UN staffers from all over the world. The juxtaposition of the endless partying and stylish living against the background of local tragedy, violence, and squalor is jarring, and recurs throughout the book. At times, Emergency Sex feels like an uneasy hybrid of MTV’s The Real World and Apocalypse Now.

One problem that emerged during the Cambodian elections was the uneven quality of the troops available to the UN for peacekeeping duty. The Bulgarian contingent turned out to be composed of inmates recruited from prisons and mental hospitals because the Bulgarian government needed the money the UN paid for peacekeeping troops, but was unwilling to send its best soldiers. As it turned out, Cambodia had been pacified by years of horror leading to exhaustion and the elections went off fairly well. But soon our intrepid young peacekeepers were redeployed to places where there was no peace to keep, places where they were at best ineffective and at worst part of the problem.

In countries ruled by warlords, such as Somalia, Liberia, and Bosnia, there could be no peace without the sword. And the UN had no sword. The American withdrawal from Mogadishu served notice that it was open season on Americans, the UN, and anyone foolish enough to take their promises seriously. The authors are scathing in their denunciation of the Clinton Administration for retreating in the face of the Somali militia. They recount in detail the consequences for thousands of people who had put their faith in the UN’s protection. These included the Muslims of Srebrenica, who were massacred when Dutch peacekeepers stood aside to let the Serb butchers do their work, Haitian victims of political violence who had given statements against their torturers and were exposed to reprisals when a US Navy warship retreated in the face of a Haitian mob, and many others besides.

In Liberia, the unwillingness of any civilized nation to provide soldiers forced the UN to contract for Nigerian troops to perform peacekeeping duties. These troops paid nine year old Liberian girls a handful of rice for sex, and then began to murder them when they started selling their favors to a Ghanaian contingent that offered more rice. With no disciplined soldiers, the UN was helpless in the face of thugs with nicknames like General War Boss and Gen

Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   

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