Are Americans Still Ugly?

On November 12, unidentified guerrillas shot and killed a US aid official alongside his Pakistani driver in the Northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. The US embassy in Islamabad was not ready to disclose his name, so for now he remains an anonymous icon of the other effort which garners strikingly little attention in contrast to the war effort; the aid effort. However, it is known that the official worked on US aid projects in Pakistan’s near lawless tribal regions. The media report of this incident reminded me of a yellowed, crumbling book, falling apart at the seams, in my grandmother’s house. It is fully two decades older than I, first published in 1958. However, its sentiments are just as applicable now, as when published in the last days of the Eisenhower administration. The book is “The Ugly American,” a novel that caused a veritable firestorm of admiration and criticism in the media and in Academia. The novel is set in the fictional nation of Sarkhan, a combination of Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Thailand and a host of other Southeast Asian countries, where the US is engaged in a losing struggle with communism, now popularly known as the “hearts and minds” campaign. The novel attributes that loss primarily to the perceived lack of respect for the local culture, unnecessary rudeness, and the complete inability of the Diplomatic Corp to speak local languages.

Sarkhan is portrayed as teetering on the brink, with a full scale communist insurgency boiling away in the hinter lands. American officials are depicted as being too arrogant, rude or incompetent to adequately understand what is happening in a country they earnestly want to save for the West. In marked contrast to the officials, some Americans-ordinary citizens- are committed to making a difference, while being spurned by their government. The title, the Ugly American, is satirical, as the “ugly American” of the novel, is a plain engineer, who lives cheek- to -jowl with the locals, understands and respects their mores, and gives assistance with extremely useful, small-scale irrigation projects, more useful in fact than the large scale hydroelectric plants that had little use in a primarily agrarian country. The “ugliness” that the book truly derides, is that exhibited by the egotistical, heavy-handed officials.

The début of the Ugly American, and the questions it raised, inspired President Kennedy to form the citizen-based Peace Corp, to engage in public works projects throughout the developing world. The recent brutal attack on the US aid workers, amidst successive attacks on humanitarian workers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, shows that serious work is still needed to provide for the conditions of the locals and to improve their attitudes towards the Americans in their midst. Aid workers must be “depoliticized”; the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan are blessed with lifesaving American aid on one hand, and condemned by lethal drone air strikes on the other. However, if we want to truly be successful in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Obama administration would do well to think about committing itself to developing these neglected areas, educationally and economically. The administration should also reflect upon this once-and still- explosive novel. Even though the Ugly American was published exactly sixty years ago, its themes are hauntingly significant today, except South East Asia no longer occupies front page, My Lai and Saigon are barely remembered, now it is names like South Waziristan and Kandahar that slip effortlessly off of tongues. While the locations have changed, the work that remains to be done is the same.


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