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Life and Death of a Hero

1.

I had dinner with Fred Cuny his last night in New York City—this was mid-week, mid-March 1995, and, as it subsequently turned out, I wasn’t the only one who did so. At a memorial meeting in Washington some months later, where mourners seemed to vie with one another in their attempts to coin a telling characterization of Cuny—“the Red Adair of Humanitarian Relief,” “a postimperial, postcolonial Lawrence of Arabia,” “the Master of Disaster”—I ran into at least three or four others there who’d had similar meals with him that evening. Indeed, lining up our memories, we were able to puzzle out how he’d loped from one such repast to the next before taking off yet again into the farthest hinterland—or rather his latest, and last, farthest hinterland, for a few weeks later he was killed in Chechnya.

He was a big man, with big appetites. “A mountain of a man,” as Aryeh Neier, the head of George Soros’s Open Society Institute—at whose request Cuny had run a legendary relief effort in Sarajevo1—described him at that memorial commemoration. “He bulked large,” Neier continued, “but not because he was loud (he was quiet), nor because he was boisterous (he was gentle)—rather because of the intelligence and commitment he radiated.”

Intelligence and commitment, yes, and these went along with the wonderfully expansive and savvy humor that characterized him whenever I saw him, not least at that last dinner. I’d asked him something along the lines of what on earth kept him going and he conjured up a story from one of his earliest missions, in Biafra in the early Seventies, where he’d gone to help out as a pilot in the air relief campaign. One day, he recalled, taxiing his ramshackle, fully laden aircraft out onto the mud-rutted runway, he’d radioed the control tower for clearance. “Hold on, Red Cross Three,” came the reply, “till after this next plane lands.” Watching that plane in the distance coming in for its landing, he’d noticed how one of its engines seemed to be expelling smoke. “Then I saw another one catch fire,” he recalled, “and then a third, and finally all four. The plane lurched toward the runway, banked and then came slamming onto the tarmac, breaking up and erupting in flames, a sheet of boiling fire racing right past my idling plane and down the rest of the runway. At which point, over our earphones came the squawking voice of the control tower: ‘All right, Red Cross Three: cleared for take-off.’ Nothing stopped, you just kept going—and that’s pretty much what you do: you just keep going.”

He was just back from his first visit to Chechnya, where he’d been surveying conditions for the Open Society Institute, and as his conversation veered toward those more recent memories, his entire demeanor seemed to change. “Chechnya is the scariest place I have ever been,” he declared flatly—which, given his experience in Biafra, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Cambodia, Somalia, Kurdistan, and Sarajevo (to name just a few), was really saying something. He talked of the appalling carnage, the over-the-top ferocity of the violence, its senseless randomness. He’d just completed a fiercely lucid analysis of the situation to be published in these pages2—a brilliant example of the cool, cogent, masterfully coherent briefing style for which he was celebrated—but that evening, with me, he was more hushed, almost shaken, almost awed, as he recalled the sorts of things he’d encountered on the trip from which he’d recently returned.

He described the three rings of the Russian encirclement of the besieged Chechen capital, Grozny. Into the city’s center the Russian high command had poured in thousands of their rawest recruits, terrified teenagers with no preparation whatever and utterly inadequate training. With no idea of what they were supposed to be doing there, they were ridiculously easy targets for the hardened urban guerrillas of the Chechen liberation forces; as a result, the Russians were panicky, firing in desperation at anything and everything that moved. A few dozen kilometers outside the city was the second ring, a layer of junior and midlevel Russian officers, disgusted by the stupidity of their mission but seemingly incapable of calling it off. And then, a few dozen kilometers beyond that, was a third layer, elite shock troops of the Russian high command, their rifles trained inward—not so much on the Chechen guerrillas as on any of their own colleagues who might be showing the temerity to try to sneak away.

And through this triple encirclement—or so Cuny went on to tell me that evening—was seeping a steady stream of hunched-up old “babushkas,” Russian mothers and grandmothers, each of them come to yank her own boy from out of this insanity and to drag him back home (the shock troops looking on dumbfounded—what were they supposed to do? They couldn’t very well fire, for God’s sake, on wrinkled old Russian grandmothers). Cuny told me how he was present at a meeting of midlevel Russian staff officers (in the second ring) when suddenly one such black-garbed old crone came barging in, made for her lieutenant son, grabbed him scoldingly by the ear, and simply dragged him away. Gee, I said, how embarrassing—what must all the other officers have thought of their colleague? “Oh,” said Cuny, “they were probably all wishing their mothers would come and take them away.”

Somehow, he’d been present there, and he’d likewise managed to accompany a group of Chechen guerrillas through the storm drains and sewers of the central town in order to make an estimate of the needs of the cowering, terrified civilian populace caught in between. His tales of barricades and strafings, of ambushes and roadblocks—one story more hair-raising than the next—were of the sort that would have led anyone else to conclude, “I’m sure as hell never going back there ever again.” But Cuny, being Cuny, concluded his own terrifying litany by saying offhandedly: “So, naturally, I’ve got to be heading back.” He was only fifty years old.

2.

The haunting, agonizingly elusive question of what precisely became of Fred Cuny during the ensuing weeks comes to dominate and almost overwhelm Scott Anderson’s meticulous and absorbing new book, The Man Who Tried to Save the World. Subtitled “The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny,” Anderson’s account is mainly about Cuny’s disappearance; Cuny’s remarkable, inventive life is relegated to little more than one hundred efficient if inevitably cramped pages near the beginning.

It’s an understandable strategy. Anderson is a veteran war correspondent, the coauthor, with his brother Jon Lee Anderson, of the celebrated War Zones, and more recently, by himself, of Triage, last year’s affecting novel about a shell-shocked war photographer. Months after Cuny disappeared Anderson was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine to investigate what had happened to him.

After establishing the extreme risk Cuny had taken in heading back into Chechnya on a venture that nobody in his right mind would ever even have entertained, Anderson himself hesitates for a moment, ponders (“Was there a time like this for Fred Cuny? Did there come a moment when he finally saw the full danger ahead but simply could not bring himself to act, a crucial instant when he lost the courage to say, ‘We can’t do this, we have to go back’?”), and then puts all trepidation aside and plunges ahead.

His reporting on what he found—his evocation of the especially hellish nature of combat in Chechnya, of the quicksand treachery of shifting alliances and the murky indeterminacy of virtually every player’s motives—is among the strongest material in the book. But the author’s gonzo pres-ence gets to be a little distracting—or rather it tends to blur the book’s main question: What in Cuny’s life propelled him toward his doom? Since the author seems intent on literally following in Cuny’s very footsteps, what, we keep asking ourselves, could possibly be driving him?

There are moments in Anderson’s relentlessly detailed account when it begins to seem like an obsessive dream with one false clue after another, and it becomes hard to follow.3 Beyond that, the strategy of concentrating primarily on what may have happened to Fred Cuny in Chechnya turns out to be flawed because we’re likely never to really know. As Anderson himself notes early on, “Of all the bad mistakes you can make about this place [Chechnya], this is the first one: to ever imagine there is a pattern, a logic, to any of it.” Anderson writes that “perhaps the deadliest” of all mis-takes anyone can make about Chechnya, the one Fred Cuny made, is the “awful mistake of imagining you might somehow save it.” Anderson becomes ensnared in his own Saving Private Ryan version of that fantasy—the forlorn hope that even if he couldn’t actually save Cuny himself he might nevertheless find convincing evidence about what actually happened to him. These are all understandable and even commendable aspirations; it’s just that, as Anderson himself suggests at the outset, in this particular instance, they had no chance of success.

And yet Anderson is onto something regarding Cuny’s motives. His ambitions as a disaster relief specialist, especially as a specialist in the relief of the man-made disasters of war, had been growing vaster and vaster across his last five years. To be sure, several of the schemes he seemed intent on advancing when he returned to Chechnya in late March of 1995 were of a kind he had successfully worked out before. He wanted to bring into Grozny tool kits that would allow the remaining residents of the city to repair their own damaged apartments; he wanted to set up an emergency radio station to help in the tracing of missing persons. But it was as if such conventional humanitarian interventions were no longer enough.

At our last dinner in New York, he told me how he’d come to know the military commander of the neighboring Ingushetia region—a good man, he felt, who in the pre-meltdown days of the Soviet empire had run one of the Red Army’s main officers’ training schools and, as such, had been mentor to some of the top midlevel officers on both sides of the conflict. (Through this general’s good offices, the mid-level officers were constantly brokering cease-fires which just as constantly were being upended by savage air attacks ordered from Moscow.) Cuny didn’t say so directly, but I think he was going back there to try to broker a comprehensive settlement of the entire conflict, or at least a cease-fire long enough to evacuate the entire remaining civilian population of Grozny. Anderson’s reporting tends to confirm this impression.

Unfortunately, Cuny was returning to a province even more riddled with suspicions and countersuspicions than the one he’d entered the first time just a few months earlier (suspicions heightened, in his own specific case, by his New York Review article, which had been especially scathing regarding Moscow’s part in the disaster, and which had appeared, to considerable critical notice, in the days immediately preceding his return).

  1. 1

    Which is how I’d first gotten to know him, chronicling his Sarajevo exploits for The New Yorker‘s “Talk of the Town” (November 22, 1993).

  2. 2

    It would run a few weeks later in the April 6, 1995, issue.

  3. 3

    Matters are hardly rendered any easier by the book’s amazingly sloppy and lackadaisical editing, particularly its repetitions. Thus, to take just one example, Fred Cuny’s final words with his assistant in Moscow, spoken “softly” over the telephone before he crosses once more into Chechnya—”Just think about me”—appear the first time on page 23 and then all over again on page 214: “There was a long pause on the line before he answered in a very soft voice: ‘Just think about me”’—and then again “in a hushed, frightened voice” on page 348.

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