As far as I know, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Maria Cross: Imaginative Patterns in a Group of Catholic Writers is the only book of literary criticism ever to be responsible for a war. It was on the basis of this book that Dag Hammarskjöld plucked its author from the Irish delegation at U.N. headquarters and sent him to head up the field office in Katanga, in the Congo, in 1961. “He was given to mysticism about literature,” O’Brien later shrugged, “as many Swedes are.” The job to be done in Katanga was simple: communicate to Moise Tshombe the U.N.’s strenuous request that he expel all Belgian officers and foreign mercenaries from his army, and furthermore inform him that although he had declared Katanga’s independence and reestablished some degree of law and order within its borders, the U.N. by no means regarded the province’s secession as a fait accompli. I have no idea why the Secretary-General thought a writer would be well suited for this. Perhaps he thought O’Brien’s polite letters of protest would be more persuasively worded than the other candidates’.

The choice was a bad one—and, in Hammarskjöld’s case, it was fatal. Without getting into what did or did not happen on that plane before it crashed in Northern Rhodesia, it is safe to say that Hammarskjöld wouldn’t have been on the plane in the first place if his hand-picked representative had not exceeded his mandate and started a war between U.N. forces and the Katangese army essentially on his own initiative. The question of whether that confrontation was necessary given the political realities of the post-independence Congo has been well treated elsewhere, as has the question of whether an independent Katanga would have been good or bad for Africa in the long run. The question that interests me is the extent to which Conor Cruise O’Brien’s literary bent was responsible for his bungling of the situation. Liberal-arts education is justified on the grounds that businessmen will be better businessmen and statesmen better statesmen if they are familiar with the thinking of poets and philosophers. Here we had a man for whom the liberal arts were a passion, and he was put in a position of real power partly on that basis. Did his literary sensibility have any discernible effect on his performance?

Yes, I think it did, but unfortunately the effect was bad. Everyone watching the Katanga crisis unfold at the time, and everyone who has reflected on it since, more or less agrees that the biggest source of trouble was miscommunication between U.N. headquarters and their man on the ground. O’Brien believed that his assignment empowered him to use force if he thought force had become necessary, and once he decided that it had, he believed that his dispatches in the run-up to Operation Morthor had made it clear to his superiors what he intended to do. This turned out not to be true, and headquarters had to scramble to find retroactive justifications for O’Brien’s attack—like the claim in one official report that a fire had been set in a U.N. garage, forcing their troops to retaliate. In his book To Katanga and Back , O’Brien calls bunk on this line:

It is hard to see how he [Hammarskjöld] and Dr. [Sture] Linner [head of the overall Congo operation] can altogether have escaped knowing the essentials . . . especially since the military command knew the military aspects of Operation Morthor. Morthor is a Hindi word. It does not mean ‘Sound the alarm; there is arson in the garage’ or ‘Let us now assist the provincial authorities to maintain order.’ It means ‘Smash.’
The literary man is marveling that the diplomats could have been so deaf to poetic connotation as to miss the symbolism of the name he had chosen. To which the diplomats, like sensible people, would have responded, “These are just names we pick so there’s something to put on the tab of the file folder.”

The irony is that Maria Cross has some very sharp things to say, in its chapter on Graham Greene, about Westerners who use Africa as a playground for their humanitarian impulses—a description that doesn’t quite fit O’Brien himself but certainly fits the Katanga operation. In his discussion of The Heart of the Matter  (which is set in West Africa), O’Brien writes, “Scobie was a mechanism, seeking objects of pity as certain missiles are said to seek heat, and with much the same results.” An excellent line, but it must have seemed a little less clever when the bombs were falling over Elisabethville.

O’Brien once related his Katanga appointment to something Danton supposedly said when Fabre d’Eglantine asked him for a job: “ Vous êtes poète? Alors je vous fais Ministre de la Marine ” (“You are a poet? Then I shall make you secretary of the navy”). Considering how Danton and Fabre ended up, there may be something to the comparison. In any case, there is no proof in either story that poets make good politicians. We might submit one more piece of evidence for the prosecution. After Hammarskjöld’s death, an unfinished memoir was found in his apartment which included, among other things, poetry about his dead pet monkey—and this was not some private diary but a book he intended for publication. It may be that poets do not make good Secretaries-General either.

Articles by Helen Andrews

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