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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
"Eat all the food on your plate, because children in Cambodia are starving," our parents told us, and for most of us, eating our last bite of food is the most we have ever done to help those children. Fred Cuny, on the other hand, used his life to do all that was humanly possible. As the real-life protagonist of The Man Who Tried to Save the World, Fred Cuny makes a complicated hero. This book, Cuny's life story, chronicles the oddities, frailties, and accomplishments of this singular man and in the process tells the story of the politics amidst the horrors of war in Iraqi Kurdistan, Somalia, Bosnia, and particularly Chechnya. It takes us into "complex disasters" all over the world as if we too were there trying to help.
Scott Anderson tells the story of how Fred Cuny grew from a quiet boy with bad grades and a failed dream to join the Marines into a world-renowned expert in disaster relief with a proud step, a practical approach, and famous cowboy boots. Anderson quotes several of Cuny's diary entries that offer a glimpse of this young man's hunger for great things: "GOALS: 1. To sail a Chinese junk or sampan across the Pacific. 2. To win a major yachting event (as captain). 3. To spend a year sailing the rivers of Europe on a houseboat. 4. To achieve an ATR (?) type rating for: helicopter; four-engine aircraft; glider; jet; gyrocopter; crop-duster; balloon. 5. To visit every country on earth. 6. Learn to speak five languages other than English. 7. Cross Asia overland..." — and the lists go on and on. Amazingly, 22 years after he wrote them, Cuny hadcomeremarkably close to attaining many of his goals, and this in addition to having saved the lives of thousands with his down-to-earth problem-solving techniques.
Despite Cuny's remarkable heroism, this is not the flat and boring story of an angel. We find this man's life peppered with intriguing details — this curious hero was also a grandiose, egotistical liar and a self-proclaimed failure as a father and husband. Nor is the story straightforward. Cuny disappears into the hell of Chechnya, never to return, and the spying, double-crossing, and violence that are uncovered in the search to discover what truly happened to him are mind-boggling.
And that is where the depth of the book lies — in what Scott Anderson tells us about the worlds of human disaster and disaster relief and in what he shows of human carelessness and stubbornness in the face of tragedy. A renowned war correspondent, Anderson knows the terrain and knows his facts. He describes with clarity and precision the politics behind foreign-aid projects and offers viewpoints that feel forthright — in stark contrast to those offered in books by government officials, which sometimes reek of the need to cover people's backsides. He brings to life the men and women who wield the power in each of the war fronts he describes, and captures the sights, sounds, and feelings, nauseating in their truthfulness, of being there. Of Chechnya, "the scariest place on earth," he writes:
Others have likened the sound of an artillery bombardment to the sky being ripped apart. I don't know. What I can say is that after a time it no longer feels like a sound but like something animate. It travels through the ground, and you first feel the ache in your knees, then in your upper chest, and before long you start imagining that it is inside you and will not leave. I wonder if this is why people go mad during bombardments...the sense that the constant thrumming is inflicting violence from within.
He spares no detail in describing the war-ravaged lands that were the setting for Fred Cuny's life.
This book leaves you with a chilling imprint of what man-made disaster looks like from the outside. Yet there is a spark of warmth in that chill, the spark of Fred Cuny in his cowboy boots, one man who succeeded in saving thousands of innocents from some of the horrors of war.