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Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent    by John F. Burnett order for
Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions
by John F. Burnett
Order:  USA  Can
Rodale, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

You know from the title that the author has a way with words and that opinion is reinforced as readers journey around the world with National Public Radio reporter John F. Burnett. He shares his eclectic experiences under an intriguing series of categories: Calamities (Katrina, embedded with the Marines in Iraq, Waco, the 1983 Guatemalan coup d'état); Hacks and Fixers (Kosovo, Pakistan after 9/11, Afghanistan in early 2002); Rogues and Heroes (a Texas death house chaplain in 1994, a famous bullfighter, the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and a leaf player in Mexico City).

In his Introduction, Burnett quotes his father who told him that 'Reporters have a skeleton key to the world.' He then turns that key, opening doors for us to a wide variety of experiences and encounters with individuals, who range from the titular Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions to unknown heroes. He also comments, sometimes negatively, on the media themselves, speaking of the responsibility (as stated by Pete Hamill) to go 'to the back of the cave to find out what's there', and warning that - in an era of spin doctors and media manipulation, 'There has never been a more critical time to take our torches - and microphones - deep into the cave.'

In the early days of Katrina, Burnett tells us that 'no one has any idea that within 48 hours, an inundated city will descend into chaos, more than 1,100 souls will perish, and the tragedy will be deepened by a response from a confederacy of dunces.' (Did I say how much I like his way with words?) Here, and as an embedded journalist with the war machine in Iraq, he speaks of the limitations of 'Journalism through a periscope.' He conveys the impact of weather - that turns desert into peanut butter - in the fog of war, fears of encountering the anticipated weapons of mass destruction, issues involved in the embedding (in bed with?) tradeoff, and villagers 'waiting for the victorious invaders to bring them everything they lacked - water, electricity, jobs, and hope.'

I was fascinated by the reporter's perspective on Showdown at Waco, 'One of the most disastrous episodes in the history of US law enforcement'. Burnett calls it 'a tragic parable that should be told and retold and never repeated', explaining how the media were part of the story, raising the temperature and tension by filing relentlessly - something that unfortunately continues today, when IMHO the media seem to have become more about entertainment than objective reporting. Next, the author summarizes atrocities committed in Guatemala's early 1980s counterinsurgency war - when 'security forces machine-gunned, hacked, bludgeoned, choked, and burned alive an estimated 20,000 people' - with a Mayan villager's scrawl: 'Here, were the demons.' This summary is just as apt for the chapter on Kosovo: Field of Nightmares.

The title is explained in Burnett's account of his time in Peshawar, Pakistan in the (post 9/11) fall of 2001. They were on a sign hoisted by a surprisingly friendly student during an anti-US demonstration - a distinct contrast to the usual 'stereotypes of crazed militants'. Burnett talks of how journalists and photographers invariably distort reality, as when waiting 'two hours through a peaceful demonstration for one car to be burned'; guess what gets shown on the news? He also goes into 'the ancient code of Pashtunwali, impenetrable like the stone canyons where Pashtun tribesmen dwell' and its requirement for honor killings, which will always be difficult for Westerners to comprehend. From Peshawar, he continues to Afghanistan and war-torn Kabul, which he tells us a forensic entomologist might compare 'to a corpse feasted on by successive arrivals of insects.'

Though I found these big stories gripping, the others were just as intriguing, in particular the Spanish/Mexican cult of the bullfighter (the Pashtuns would probably relate to this more easily than most North Americans), the crisis of conscience of a death house chaplain, problems with 'the myth of sustainable development', and the genius and plight of an old Mexican leaf player. The author concludes back at Katrina again, with an apt quote from a witness to disaster: 'Aw, it was an awful thing. You want me to tell you, but no tongue can tell it.' Perhaps no tongue truly can, but Burnett gives it his best in Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions.

Listen to a podcast interview with John F. Burnett at

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