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The Ugly American

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Eugene Burdick

Not only important but consistently entertaining. . . . The attack on American policy in Asia this book makes is clothed in sharp characterizations, frequently humorous incident, and perceptive descriptions of the countries and people where the action … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Eugene Burdick
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
1 review about The Ugly American

A "fictional" account of American blunders that still occur

  • Sep 26, 2004
While this is a work of fiction, that is only because, "the names have been changed to protect the innocent (guilty)." As the authors point out, the events described in the book actually happened, there are real people whose deeds were consistent with the "fictional" characters in the book. While there is no nation of Sarkhan, it is clear that it is merely a conglomerate pseudonym for several Asian nations. The book was written in 1958, and it describes a sequence of very competent and incompetent people who are trying to win the cold war for America.
It is both fascinating and sad to read the book and understand how ignorant the decision-makers of that time were. They made almost no attempt to understand the people and determine what their feelings were concerning what was happening. The insular arrogance of most Americans as they entered the nation of Sarkhon, refusing to learn the language and culture, believing only in their innate American superiority, is appalling. These are lessons that continue to hold true nearly a half-century after the book was written. If you ever wonder why America lost the war in Vietnam, read this book and it all will become clear.
Several people who understood the situation and did very real things to improve relations between the common "Sarkhanese" and America are described. Unfortunately, their labors largely went for naught, as their incompetent superiors always managed to get them dismissed as either misguided or worse. The one ambassador who really worked to make a difference and learned how to address the problems was terminated when he attempted to act on his discoveries.
The current events in Iraq prompted me to reread this book. Many parallels between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq are currently being raised, some of which are legitimate and others which are not. However, there is one thing that is indisputable. Those who made the decision to go to war did so without examining the culture and history of Iraq. They believed, like the failures in this book, that the innate superiority of America would easily win the day. As the lessons of Vietnam should have made very clear, being a superpower will never guarantee victory against a determined opponent. Unless of course, you are willing to kill all of your "enemies" in your pursuit of victory.
This is one of those books whose value only grows over time. As I understand it, the book is required reading for many overseas positions, and it should be read by all Americans before they graduate from high school. Furthermore, all Americans planning on going overseas for the first time should reread it. We now truly live in a global society and economy and there is no longer any room to make errors of this magnitude.

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