BOOK REVIEW : ‘Give War a Chance’: O’Rourke at His Best : GIVE WAR A CHANCE Eyewitness Accounts of Mankind’s Struggle Against Tyranny, Injustice, and Alcohol-Free Beer <i> by P.J. O’Rourke</i> ; Atlantic Monthly Press $20.95; 256 pages


P.J. O’Rourke, foreign affairs desk chief for Rolling Stone and self-proclaimed Republican Party reptile, dedicates his newest collection of magazine pieces to a man he doesn’t know--the poor fool drafted in his place after O’Rourke convinced an Army psychiatrist, in 1970, that extensive drug use made him unfit for military service.

That about sums up O’Rourke’s brand of humor: mocking on the surface but serious beneath, sharply attuned to quotidian hypocrisy and contradiction.

O’Rourke doesn’t always hit the mark in “Give War a Chance”--the title comes from a sign posted at an airfield near Dhahran during the Gulf War--but this book contains some of his best work to date. When it comes to scouting the world for world-class absurdities, O’Rourke is the right man for the job.


“Give War a Chance” gets off on the wrong foot, O’Rourke turning the introduction into a left-baiting, unfunny screed that links, in all apparent seriousness, evil with liberalism. The introduction, thankfully, is not characteristic, for unlike O’Rourke the pundit, O’Rourke the reporter chronicles human foolishness with a fairly even hand.

In Moscow in 1988 he sees glasnost in action: the arrival of litter in the Russian capital’s clean streets, since previously “there was nothing to litter with .” In East Germany a year later he watches capitalism take hold--a gang of American teen-agers removing a 200-pound concrete pipe from the Berlin Wall and yelling, “Yeah! Let’s sell it!”

Belfast proves to be surprisingly charming . . . even at the Avenue Bar, where Protestant militiamen had shot and killed three Catholics the previous Sunday. Was the place closed in mournful respect, the regulars frightened, suspicious, reticent? Hardly.

“Two or three dozen people retold the story of the massacre,” O’Rourke writes, quaffing pints of beer the customers wouldn’t let him buy and watching them all but re-enact the massacre.

“Some things are too awful for words, they agreed.” O’Rourke later notes, incidentally, that “agreement is something the Irish can always overcome.”

A number of the articles collected here are marred by spurts of rah-rah super-patriotism, O’Rourke reveling in his reputation for political incorrectness. “We won,” he writes of the Cold War from Berlin, “And let’s not let anyone forget it. . . . We’re the best! We’re the greatest!”


O’Rourke becomes intemperate, however, mainly when his material is running thin, and fortunately the Gulf War--the subject of by far the best writing in “Give War a Chance”--provided much grist for his mill.

Although O’Rourke soon determined that there were many more newsmen in the Gulf than news--just as in Nicaragua he encountered more fact-finding tours than facts--he came across plenty of stories, despite the absence of that universal lubricant, alcohol. If only, O’Rourke mourns, John Tower had been confirmed as Secretary of Defense.

O’Rourke arrived in Dhahran in January, 1991, on assignment for ABC Radio, and he describes the area as “a bit empty and, at the same time, overpopulated with foreigners--sort of like Paris in August.”

The scene, in O’Rourke’s narrative, is decidedly da-da: searching for missile damage after the first Scud attack, O’Rourke and his producer find nothing but car wrecks--caused, apparently, by drivers keeping their eyes on the sky rather than on the road.

He goes to the local marketplace in search of information, only to discover a self-perpetuating news cycle: locals getting their information from Saudi news broadcasters, who in turn get their information from international reporters, who have gotten their information from locals at the marketplace.

Inside Kuwait, O’Rourke is part of a news pool stopped by the Saudi military on a bureaucratic formality, only to be bypassed by a Ferrari 328 containing “a couple of Kuwaiti refugees determined to get home before the liberation rush. They didn’t even slow down for the gun-pointing soldiers, who jumped like quail to get out of the Ferrari’s way.” Having reached Kuwait City, at long last, O’Rourke watches an Army helicopter land on the roof of the U.S. embassy and sees “the fall of Saigon with the film run backward.”


Two of the occasional pieces in “Give War a Chance” are worth singling out for special mention. In “Fiddling While Africa Starves,” O’Rourke deconstructs “We are the World,” pointing out that the song contains “three palpable untruths, two dubious assertions, nine uses of a first-person pronoun, not a single reference to trouble or anybody in it and no facts.”

In “Second Thoughts About the Sixties,” he claims to have believed everything (except anything said by his parents): that love was all you need, that you should be here now, that long hair would end poverty and injustice, that the “ ‘I Ching’ said to cut classes and take over the dean’s office.”

It’s a very funny, sometimes even moving piece, even if it was written for a conference dedicated to the idea that the ‘60s were a mistake.

O’Rourke’s humor isn’t for everyone, and especially not for those who believe everything they read in the Nation, say, or think Ralph Nader would make a good President. The rest of us, however, will find much amusement here.

War shouldn’t be made light of, to be sure--but I like the idea, nonetheless, of warheads bearing slogans like “My Other Bomb is Atomic” and “If You Can Read This, You’re Dead.”

Next: Carolyn See reviews “Pacific Rift” by Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton).