Last of the Texas Heroes

THE MAN WHO TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD:The Dangerous Life and Mysterious

In March of 1995, after several weeks of traveling in Russia, a fifty-year-old man named Fred Cuny returned to his small home in the Dallas suburbs. There he set to work on an article analyzing the war in Chechnya, then a few months old, for the April 6 issue of the New York Review of Books. Within the space of a few pages, Cuny would betray the idiosyncratic brilliance that marked his entire career as an independent disaster relief expert – in particular his ability, in laying out his assessment, to range deftly over matters as disparate as roofing materials in small Chechen towns, the history of the republic, the foibles of the Russian army, and the war’s political fallout in Moscow.

In his article, Cuny criticized the Russian attack on the Chechen capital, Grozny (“Now the Russian army is bogged down in a fruitless combat for an objective that is ultimately meaningless”), and predicted that the fighting would soon spread to the villages south of the city; finally he called for the United States and other Western powers to press for peace. Yet even the strong words of his appeal were direct and matter-of-fact, and as such would not really convey the extent to which Cuny had been affected by the pointless destruction and disregard for life he’d seen in Chechnya. “Upon his return to the United States,” writes Cuny’s biographer Scott Anderson, “…he suddenly seemed a slightly different man, more subdued, even haunted.” Though he had plunged into the thick of different war zones in the past, the man who’d earned the moniker “Master of Disaster” had called Chechnya “the scariest place I have ever been” – and while this might strike the average person as a good reason not to go back, Cuny left Dallas and returned to Chechnya at the end of March. At that point fighting had indeed escalated in the villages south of Grozny. By the time his article was published, Fred Cuny had disappeared somewhere among them.

“He was a hero,” writes Anderson, who spent three years researching Cuny’s life and disappearance. “Fred Cuny was a man who had dedicated his life to saving others, and who had done so: tens of thousands of lives over the course of a twenty-five year career in disaster relief.” That Cuny, who never served in the military, would end up a war hero reflects not simply the unpredictable quality of heroism, but the very nature of modern war and its victims: “Traditional inhabitants of a battlefield – soldiers, or journalists like myself – today represent only a tiny minority, their numbers overwhelmed by the truly innocent,” Anderson writes. While civilian casualties were basically insignificant in the American Civil War, and constituted about 40 percent of all war casualties from 1900 to 1950, “by the 1960s, that percentage had risen to 63, and by the 1980s, to 74.” Cuny made it his purpose to rescue this innocent majority – Iraqi Kurds, Somalians, Bosnians – and achieved some extraordinary successes.

His persona was emphatically Texan; just as he managed to be a kind of war hero in an era that doesn’t quite believe such persons still exist, Cuny, a broadcaster’s son who grew up in Dallas, made himself into an unusual sort of frontiersman. He wore boots and told tall tales and often reminded people he was from Texas; in character he was not unlike the independent Texan whom Lone Star mytho-historian T.R. Fehrenbach declared all but defunct in an old Texas Monthly essay: “that uninhibited or unencumbered spirit who jeers at the hypocrisies and pretensions of over-organized society … who speaks his mind in pungent, sometimes barnyard-flavored phrases, who ignores, outwits, or overcomes the absurdities and humiliations foisted on most of us by this modern mess of pottage, twentieth century civilization.” But Cuny’s cowboy quality went beyond accept-no-bullshit individualism, in that he spent years ranging over the late-millennium frontier, fashioning a life that harks back to the legendary West. What is the plot, after all, of Lonesome Dove, or any number of Westerns, but a series of violent storms, Indian attacks, flash floods, and other disasters? If Larry McMurtry were to collaborate on a novel with Christine Amanpour, they might write about the amazing life of someone like Fred Cuny. Fortunately Cuny was not fictional, and a very talented journalist has written a book about him.

He was born in 1944, and he uttered the word “airplane” before any other, at the age of one. As a kid in east Dallas, he was obsessed with flying and dreamed of becoming a Marine Corps combat pilot. Cuny made it as far as College Station, but poor grades and a reputation as a troublemaker earned him an invitation to leave A&M – the first in a sequence of events that would keep him out of the Marines. His departure was also the first step along the path of his eventual career in humanitarian aid. He enrolled at Texas A&I in Kingsville, where the economic divide separating Hispanics from Anglos was far more immediate and visible than it had been in the insulated Dallas neighborhood of his youth; he volunteered as an organizer for the United Farm Workers and assisted with work projects in the colonias, while studying political science and Latin America. Cuny then moved to Houston to complete a degree program in international development.

After graduating – and conducting a quixotic campaign for the Texas Legislature – he enlisted in the Model Cities program, and spent nine months in Eagle Pass helping to put in water lines and drainage ditches, among other projects. In an interview with Anderson, Cuny’s father would recall this experience as “the big turnaround for him. In Eagle Pass the problems were so great, but also so basic and fixable, that he saw he could have this huge impact.” Throughout his life, Cuny’s humanitarian instinct, his ego, and his inordinate ambition were indivisible. His hubris in his late twenties and early thirties – when he was struggling just to keep Intertect, his young disaster-relief consulting company, afloat – inspired lists of life goals so incredible that, reprinted in Anderson’s book, they read like poetry of overreach, for instance: “PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT GOALS. 1. To sail a Chinese junk or sampan across the Pacific. 2. To win a major yachting event (as captain). 3. To spend a year sailing the rivers of Europe on a houseboat. 4. To achieve an ATP [Airline Transport Pilot] type rating for: helicopter; 4-engine aircraft; glider; jet; gyrocopter; crop duster; balloon. … 8. To develop a floating school for planners. … 12. Cross the Sahara overland. … 15. Learn to play a musical instrument. 16. Become proficient in a competitive sport. 17. Become member of explorers and adventurers clubs.” With their peculiar mix of the dreamy and the mundane, Cuny’s personal goals are those of a man who had little personal life — his marriage to his college girlfriend lasted only two years, and his one son, Craig, lived with Cuny’s parents. Unlike his professional ambitions, which he doggedly followed, his personal goals were apparently not pursued.

By the 1980s Cuny (who, since founding Intertect in 1971, had worked primarily in response to natural disasters) began to focus his attention on what he called “man-made disasters”: those caused by war. The same principle that had guided his efforts in Central American earthquake zones would drive him in assessing refugee programs in El Salvador or coordinating famine relief in Ethiopia and Sudan: that in the chaos brought on by disasters lay the opportunity for achieving social and political changes. And in one of the most chaotic events of the twentieth century – the end of the Cold War – Cuny saw opportunity like never before: “At last freed from the old Cold War ideological constraints, there now could be created a ‘new world order,’ a partnership between governments and militaries and private organizations that might finally tackle the true, underlying problems that afflicted the disaster zones of the world. And, as one of the architects of the new order, Fred might finally reach the height he had always dreamed of, a man recognized and listened to by his peers, a player standing at the vortex of great events.”

Cuny achieved some fantastic results in the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall. His disaster-response team coordinated a 1991 American military operation to rescue hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurdish refugees, who’d been forced into the mountains by Saddam Hussein’s troops after the end of the Gulf War. He spent a year and a half in Sarajevo, with backing from George Soros, living in a two-story white house that became known as the “Embassy of Texas to Bosnia and Herzegovina,” and managing, for instance, to enlist 15,000 Sarajevans to dig trenches for gas lines, even as the Serbs were shelling the city. As a consultant in Somalia, on the other hand, Cuny watched in frustration as the American military ignored his recommendations and failed tragically in Mogadishu.

The Somalia fiasco meant that Cuny would have to scale back his hopes for American military participation in far-flung humanitarian missions. It also suggested the difficulty, in any such mission, of getting “beyond this idea of strict neutrality” in order to save lives – as Cuny had stated was necessary – while making sure that foreign military did not “become identified with one side or the other when they are in a peacekeeping or [relief] delivery role,” which Cuny had also insisted upon.

This is a war waged in eternal twilight,” Anderson writes of the Chechen conflict. “On this eerie, apparitional landscape, nothing is ever quite what it seems, the lines of battle, of who is friend and who is foe, constantly changing in the murk. Yesterday the nearby village was in the ‘liberated zone,’ was safe; today it is dying. Perhaps it is because a regimental commander wanted to impress a general, or a gunship navigator made a mistake, or because a business deal went bad. Or perhaps there is no reason at all…. Of all the bad mistakes you can make in this place, this is the first one: ever to imagine there is a pattern, a logic, to any of it.” The war that Cuny saw in 1995 was horrifyingly absurd, a war of unclear origins which in two years would leave maybe as many as 100,000 Chechens dead, and which might best be explained, Anderson points out, by referring to the likely insanity of both Russian president Boris Yeltsin and self-proclaimed Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev.

On his first trip to Chechnya in February, 1995, Cuny tried to broker an extension of a five-day cease-fire, in order to get 30,000 ethnic Russians out of Grozny before the Russian military resumed shelling the city. He couldn’t do it: “the Russian generals had been asked to choose between life and death… of their own people. For no identifiable reason save indifference, they had chosen death.” After that Cuny came back to the U.S. a changed man – as a colleague would put it, “I think in Chechnya he saw the mask of civilization slip. And it scarred him.” He also saw how grave the risks were in returning there; either side was likely to suspect him of being allied with the other. His leave-takings of friends and family preceding his second trip to Chechnya were atypically reluctant. A few days after his arrival in the Caucasus, Cuny, his interpreter, and two Russian doctors vanished, somewhere near the town of Bamut.

Anderson’s account of the search conducted by members of the Cuny family, and then of his own later efforts to discover what happened to Fred Cuny in Chechnya, is reminiscent of Jennifer Harbury’s story of trying to find her Guatemalan husband (Searching for Everardo), in the way the searches cut treacherous, often surreal, paths through a war-diseased region. As did Harbury, the Cuny searchers go back and forth between foreign officials who traffic in lies and intimations, and U.S. officials who have no information, sorry, but are doing everything they can. Neither the Cuny family nor Anderson is able to determine with certainty what happened to Fred Cuny; Anderson suggests it was probably Dudayev who ordered the killing, so as to keep Cuny from spying on a former Soviet nuclear missile base in Bamut.

The Man Who Tried To Save the World must have been a very hard book to write, including as it does the biography of a complex man, snapshots of multiple war zones, the mystery of Cuny’s disappearance, and the narrative of Anderson’s Chechen journey. It took a good deal of courage, or foolishness, or both, for the author to travel to Chechnya to begin with; Anderson himself came close to death several times. The one question he never really addresses is why he undertook such a dangerous project at all, but this is understandable – because the book is about Fred Cuny, because Anderson did in fact address this question eloquently in a 1997 Harper’s essay, and ultimately because to explain why a man risks his life to travel through a war zone he need not go near, you’d have to tell his whole story, and even then you’re more likely to end up with a great story than an answer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST