Interview with Mark Danner: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Being a Writer: Conversation with Mark Danner, staff writer, The New Yorker; 3/3/99 by Harry Kreisler.

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Writing about History

Do you feel that grappling with the history is the key to getting people to understand a particular place, whether it is Haiti, Bosnia, or El Salvador?

That's a very good and very big question. History is destiny without a doubt when it comes to a lot of these violent situations. I am drawn to these places, I think.

I can quote a Haitian political scientist and one-time president -- he was president for a few months before he was overthrown in a military coup -- named Leslie Maningat, who spoke of violence as "a force that strips the society nude, strips it naked, the better to listen and hear the heartbeat beneath." So I think during violent situations -- quasi-revolutions, coups d'états -- you start to understand how a society works. So that is one dimension, the present. But to then actually follow those bits of information about how this place works -- how the different parts fit together, who has what interests, why people are acting in a certain way that may seem illogical to you -- it's usually very necessary to go back somehow and try to understand where the society came from. Haiti is a particularly good case just because its history is so fascinating, unusual, heavy on its present. Haitians really walk in history and though the country is three-quarters illiterate, they all know the history of their country much more certainly than Americans know the history of theirs.

To me, one of the great challenges writing these stories is trying to implicate the history in the present narrative of events. There is a tendency to place like a big glob the back story -- history -- in the middle of the piece. And this is a classic, what is it called in Washington? -- MEGO, "my eyes glaze over" -- tactic. Because people say: "Haiti was born in 1492 as ... " It's an awful signal! The key, it seems to me, is to try always to break it into small pieces and try to connect it very much to what the present is, almost to atomize history and to try to analyze it according to the present much more.

I think you are right in implying that this comes obviously from my own interest in history. But I do feel very strongly that if you are trying to understand ... Haiti, for example, is a perplexing place. The dictator was overthrown in 1986 -- that's twelve years ago. People thought then that there would be democracy , a transition to democracy. It's been a dozen years. There have been five military coups. The U.S. actually invaded this country -- the U.S. is a hundred times or a thousand times more powerful! Still they are in horrible shape and the government is blocked. And the question is why, why, why is this so? How do we understand that?

As Americans, aren't we often guilty of not looking at the history and hence our policy often fails in these places?

I would certainly say that is true. The point is very well taken. I think I would divide it into two parts. The great body of Americans -- their interest in or lack of interest in the world, and this isn't necessarily meant to criticize -- they have their own lives. You can't learn the history of a place through the newspaper. You can't learn everything about Central America by newspaper accounts. You have to read books and you have to go to other sources.

The other part of the question is, of course, the elites who run foreign policy. I think [what you've said] is true, though they very much have history available to them. They have area specialists, people in the State Department and in the Pentagon; the National Security Council staff -- all the organs of government; the CIA of course -- who are very well informed on historical backgrounds of places. The question is, what is the reason they make policies, and how much do they include history in those reasons?

Certainly during the period of the Cold War, the metro pensee, the overwhelming thinking, had nothing to do with history. It had to do with a larger view of the world in which these other places were simply prizes in a large game. So the historical attributes of these places were interesting only insofar as they started to cause us -- the United States -- problems. For example, Vietnam. There was no lack of awareness of the history of this country in different parts of the government. It is simply that when it came to decision making, the historical details that might have been taken more into account , might have caused different decisions to have been made, were simply not important to policymakers. There were other things that were more important.

Some of those reasons were on the one hand ideological, their notion of how the world was divided; was it also their vision of their domestic political vulnerabilities?

Oh certainly. I think so. You mean Vietnam specifically?

Vietnam specifically, but also these other cases you have looked at. Intervention in Haiti, for example.

Certainly. Those are two very good examples.

Vietnam: of course, you did have this history with the Democratic party of losing China, and it was very difficult to back up in Vietnam when it came to domestic policy, particularly when Johnson took office and had very strong domestic goals that depended on the support of the so-called Southern Bourbon senators -- Democrats, Richard Russell, a number of other people who had great power and great seniority, who were against his programs, but whom he could cajole. But certainly if he had backed up on Vietnam he would have lost them, and he knew that.

Haiti is another question, and a more interesting one, because we are in a different era, and I think you are right in the implication that the invasion probably wouldn't have happened. For example, if there had been a Republican president during that time, there would have been no invasion.

We are talking about the Clinton invasion.

1994.

One of the main reasons for the invasion was the interest of and the power of the Congressional Black Caucus. They were very strong supporters of Clinton. They had stayed with him right along the way, including for healthcare and various things he was most alone on. I am not saying he did it simply for them, but certainly they had strong political weight, I think.

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