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Tucson Weekly Shell Shocking

"Sowing The Dragon's Teeth" Is A Dud, But Its Basic Message Drops A Real Bombshell

By James DiGiovanna

Sowing the Dragon's Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War, by Philip C. Winslow (Beacon Press). Cloth, $21.

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  REPORTER PHILIP Winslow tries to put a human face on the problem of land mines by focusing on the civilian victims of these indiscriminate weapons...And by telling the tale of the heroic de-miners who try to clean up the mess that war leaves in its wake...And by explaining the history of the land mine, from its development in the U.S. Civil War to its refinement in 20th century combat...And by detailing the recent (and not-so-recent) efforts to ban land mines...And by analyzing the current, international trade in these weapons. All in 160 pages.

Winslow is perhaps as qualified as any reporter to write on land mines, having served in the Balkans, Angola, Somalia, and Egypt--some of the most heavily mined areas in the world. His 14 years as a television and newspaper correspondent in war zones show clearly in his style: He has mastered both the research methods of investigative reporting and the manipulative style of sound-bite journalism.

Dragon's Teeth switches back and forth rapidly between various narratives, going from human interest to history to adventure with the speed of a network news show. Much of the book has the feel of the "teasers" broadcast news uses to keep viewers tuned in, baiting with half a story and then leaving its resolution for later. For example, the biography of Chisola Jorge Pezo, a Somalian woman who lost a leg to a mine, dominates one chapter, vanishes for the next four, then reappears. In between, Winslow moves to the more fast-paced, action-adventure story of the men who are trying to remove the mines from the farmland and roads of southern Somalia. This narrative dominates three chapters and then leaves off with a cliff-hanger, interrupted by a drier chapter on the mechanics of mine placement and disposal. After this it's back to the story of Chisola, as though this tear-jerker tale of human tragedy is now needed to keep us from tuning out after the "hard news" section.

The story of the de-miners, which has the most space dedicated to it, is probably the most interesting; and since it confronts both the victims of the mines and the technology and economics behind them, it could have served as the center of a more cohesive book.

All of the stories are compelling, but by switching so rapidly between them without ever settling into and developing any one, Winslow's analysis seems a bit like a quick attempt to cash in on the suddenly fashionable anti-land mine bandwagon. Nonetheless, in spite of the obvious flaws that a book of this short length and ambitious scope must have, much of it is engaging, if manipulative, reading; and it's hard to disagree with its basic message. I wonder, though, if this effort will bring more attention to the problem of land mines, or if the problem of land mines is being used to bring more attention to Philip C. Winslow.


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