However many societal, cultural and even familial benefits humans derive from possessing a strong desire to conform, species that self-select leaders for the rest to follow take on a difficult and challenging burden. For in sacrificing a measure of his autonomy and trust to the leader, the follower not only opens himself up to being manipulated by the leader into acting against his own interests, he inadvertently contributes to the deification of the leader by swelling his ranks of compliant followers and making him the person around whom all else revolves. In situations where leaders are relatively grounded individuals, the damage dealt by such a centralization of power is minimal as the leader refuses to indulge the darker side of his nature. However, where the leaders are bellicose and bold, aggressive and tempestuous, then the cult of personality swiftly careens out of control and gives birth to ideology, a living, breathing mentality that is beyond any one person's control.
Ideology, like leadership, can be put to good purposes. It can harness the willingness of the able to be mindful of the unfortunate. It can propagate ideas of mercy through a violent world. It can even accelerate the adoption of new and helpful mores. But when it turns violent, when it is shaped from pain and grief, anger and distrust, it can bring entire nations to their knees, devouring them from within. This excellent piece from Ms. Bruce, Ms. Hayes and Mr. Botero has many virtues, but this is its most enduring and demonstrative lesson.
Arising from decades of social and political chaos in the first half of Colombia's bloody 20th century, the FARC was, for decades, one of the world's most effective revolutionary forces. Staunchly communist, the FARC has, since its inception, devoted itself to the overthrow of the Colombian political order, deploying a toxic blend of murder and mayhem in hopes of actualizing their dream of a future Colombia free of corruption and foreign influence. Backed by a guerilla army which, at its height, numbered over 30,000 well-trained and fervently loyal soldiers, they used a mixture of hostage-taking and cocaine trafficking to feed, clothe and arm themselves, ostensibly in the name of their stated mission.
At the height of their power, in 2003, the FARC would take, as a matter of business, four hostages, holding them for nearly six years in an effort to extort spectacular ransoms from the wealthy nations they called home. The three Americans were pilots and private contractors, working, at the behest of the US government, to destroy drug crops from the sky. The fourth hostage was Ingrid Betancourt, a flamboyant Colombian politician whose marriage to a French citizen made her something of a celebrity in France and, as a result, an object of potential interest to the French government. Four gilded prizes that should have commanded fortunes! As weeks become months and months years, the ransom's never come. Instead, the FARC finds itself beset by a resurgent Colombian army flush with American cash, fickle alliances with mercurial foreign powers and a decaying superstructure corrupted by drug profits and the soul-deep cynicism that naturally flows from men and women born into chaos and despair. For the FARC, the world has never been more dangerous.
Hostage Nation is first-rate journalism. The result of a collaboration between two American journalists (Hayes and Bruce) and a Colombian reporter and film-maker (Botero) who has devoted much of his adult life to the intersection of corruption, the FARC, and Colombian politics, it elucidates the history of the FARC, using the hostage-taking of Betancourt and the three Americans as a lens through which to view their aims and their tactics, their successes and their failures. It faithfully, if cynically, describes the circumstances that lead to the taking of the four hostages and the efforts, botched and otherwise, to see them safely home, delivering, in the process, a sweeping history of a revolutionary organization born in war and sickened by corruption.
But in as much as Hostage Nation is a primer on the FARC and its relationship with Colombia and western powers, it dives deeper to teach us three enduring lessons about life in the modern world:
(1) Governments, though they might wish us to think otherwise, act more in their interests than they do in ours. They are megalithic institutions tasked to serve the general public, not the interests of a few, even if those few are fighting for them.
(2) Elicit drugs must be legalized. For however much they may sicken individuals who come in contact with them in the light of day, forbidding them only sensationalizes them, dramatically inflating their value to the extent that entire private armies can be floated on the back of their ill-gotten gains, armies devoted to nothing more than profit at the expense of society.
And (3) it demonstrates, with painful clarity, the degree to which ideological movements are inevitably corrupted by greed and the pursuit of power. However pure the founders of a movement may have been, they and those who come after them cannot sustain their beliefs in the face of the need to succeed. For having worked so long for a single goal, they will do anything it takes to win, even if it means selling out their own morals.
This is exceptional work that skillfully weaves together the macro history of a movement and the micro histories of men and women who watched years of their lives stripped from them by captivity. It is passionate and unapologetic without being polemical which is quite an achievement in the current cultural climate. (5/5 Stars)