Some find reading Ralph Peters occasionally maddening. He is known to throw everything and the kitchen sink into arguments and debates. Some view him as too pessimistic, others, too optimistic.
Looking For Trouble: Adventures In A Broken World is a different read for most of its 300 odd pages. Its a travelogue of someone who loved to engage in “political tourism” whenever the Army authorized his leave. He travelled widely throughout Europe even before joining the Army, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner who shares a few of his family stories with endearing humility.
Peters journeyed into the Soviet Union in its dying days and the bloody aftermath, witnessing the tensions soon to envelop Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Russian skulduggery egging the fighting on. Georgia, Uzbekistan, Mexico, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Mexico, Pakistan, the Andes nations… he recounts his missions (through Latin America as an emissary of then SOUTHCOM General Barry McCaffrey who wanted to learn more about what was happening in the region that his intel was providing him) and personal travels with a grasp of history and culture favorably similar to Robert Kaplan, ensuring Peters’ accounts of his career, experiences and impressions are that much more interesting.
His commentary throughout is more typical of the Peters known for op-eds. He is unafraid to castigate diplomats, attack policies he disagrees with and offer personal antecdotes that soften the edges but never the wit. He is honest to a fault at times about mistakes and bad choices, and writes with regret of his small role in shaping Bosnia policy at the beginning of that crisis. He was asked to prepare a brief offering an appraisal of US options, and he noted that the Europeans were ready and able to handle the crisis. Of course, they were not, and tens of thousands needlessly died until the Americans finally stepped in.
An engrossing summer read that sparkles with insight.
* Peters include a report of travels in Pakistan he wrote in 1995 that is quite useful in expanding one’s picture of Pakistani politics and their military.
It earns an A- in terms of value and education.
If you are more interested in the topic, Ralph Peters and his fellow Task Force Russia members in uniform fought tooth and nail to keep as much of their documentation and evidence reports declassified. The fruits of their under appreciated labor are available through the Library of Congress:
Earlier, I neglected to mention a prime reason for the opening America had with the Russians was that at the time, it was thought by members of the Russian government that the POW issue was of vital importance to Boris Yeltsin. Once they realized it was of only passing interest to him, the stonewalling began in earnest.
A correction! It was the Bush-era ambassador to Russia, Robert Strauss, whom Peters criticized for not taking the matter seriously and not pressing the Russians. My apologies for writing it was the Clinton-era appointee, Ambassador Pickering.
In Looking For Trouble, Ralph Peters takes the reader through his travels across the Soviet Union, Latin America, Pakistan, SE Asia and the Mexican border while an Army intel officer. More will be written about this book (its a well-written travelogue with compelling insight and a very introspective Peters) later in a review post, but I wanted to share Peters’ thoughts on his time serving on the Task Force Russia group that sought in the aftermath of the Cold War to investigate claims made by Soviet soldiers and civilians that a substantial number of American POWs were held by the Soviets.
Peters was “volun-told” by his superior at the Pentagon as a known Russia hand to go to Moscow and join the working group (created for Russia after Boris Yeltsin told a reporter American POWs had been held in the USSR). In the beginning, Peters was skeptical, critical of hacks who found in the POW cause something to believe in and had passed bitter conspiracies onto POW/MIA families and raising false hopes. Yet over time, he as well as many of the others, became converts in the sense that evidence was too compelling to ignore to dismiss the possibility out of hand.
According to Peters, at least some Americans from the Korean War were possibly taken by the Soviets and held in gulags. He douses cold water on the claims that Vietnam War POWs were taken as well, noting how the Vietnamese tightly controlled access to POWs they held and bilked the Soviets and Chinese for all they could while giving little in return.
He blames Bush-era officials like the ambassador to Russia for focusing too much on keeping the Russians happy and not rocking the boat when early chances at opening fissures among the Russian delegation popped up. By the time evidence and testimonies had amassed to such an extent that even the Ambassador had to admit the Russians needed to be pressured on various fronts, the Russians had clammed up, already understanding how to exploit the hubris of Bill Clinton’s Russia point man, Strobe Talbott.
Peters concludes the Task Force failed, but not for lack of effort.
For a bit more detail, VFW Magazine in 2002 wrote an interesting piece about the 10 year mark of the ongoing effort. Needless to say, the kinds of secret documents that might been procured with firm American pressure in 1992 at a moment of Russian weakness and overriding desire for good relations with America, will likely not see the light of day for years to come.