I’ve never met Bob Gersony. That probably doesn’t seem strange to you. But it is to me.
Gersony was a humanitarian, and “The Good American” is his story. It is not an epic story, despite the title. There was nothing epic about what Gersony did with his forty years. He did not achieve remarkable feats of policy – no peace deals; no Nobel Prizes; no nighttime marches of the unfortunate. No clandestine airfields at twilight or discoveries of mass graves. He did not spend fifteen years living in the Congolese camps or caring for those with severe mental deficiencies or running an orphanage of war-children. He is not Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela.
Bob Gersony did assessments for USAID; and some for State. That’s what we call them, the trips around the world to talk to residents of a refugee camp in the Sudan or of the slums above Rio in Brazil. There are a lot of assessment-takers; consultants – a cottage industry living in Vienna Virginia or Bethesda Maryland.
I am not trying to denigrate Gersony, or Robert D. Kaplan’s book about him. On the contrary. Kaplan’s representation of Gersony made me think of a line in Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”:
“Time had passed indeed: it had overtaken him and gone ahead. It had left him hopelessly behind with a few poor gifts: the iron-grey hair, the heavy fatigue of the tanned face, two scars, a pair of tarnished shoulder-straps; one of those steady, reliable men who are the raw material of great reputations, one of those uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes.”
As I said I never met Gersony, which is strange. We worked in many of the same places. The difference is the timing; Gersony from the 1970s to the early 2000s – while I started my career in 1999 till now. The sad thing is, as I said, the places are the same. Northern Uganda; Eastern Chad; Honduras; Nigeria; the Balkans. I’ve worked all these places. And I knew so many of the people that fill the pages of Kaplan’s book – but I knew them at the end. Andrew Natsios and Elliott Abrams – people who are the epic characters of the 1980s and 1990s – because that is when Gersony worked.
Now the book itself – as I’ve said before it was not an epic story. But I think that was Kaplan’s point. There are of course those tales – even just these days with the fall of Kabul a thousand new stories were written (and yet to be penned – I was involved in a few). Stories of violence and espionage and terrorism and explosions. Kaplan wanted instead to highlight the importance of the steady goodness of an ordinary man. This is Kaplan’s hidden message in a book which – unlike his other works – drips with contempt and exhaustion at America’s modern State Department and USAID, institutions which no longer serve the purpose which they did a generation ago staffed by people who no longer ‘get it’.
Gersony got it – and his tremendous value added was to take that common sense and help Washington’s elite to also understand. This, during the days when Washington listened – unlike the current crowd, who only lecture.