FRONTLINE Producer Sherry Jones: You were drawn to Fred. Tell me why.
VT: I heard about him just as I was graduating from college and was trying to
figure out what I wanted to do in life. And someone told me about this
disaster consultant who was operating out of Dallas, Texas. He was described as
the "Red Adair of Disasters." I was down in Texas, visiting a friend and
thought, oh, well, I better give this man a call. And I was very lucky,
because he was there. And that was really the beginning of a relationship that
lasted eight or nine. It was very important because Fred was always a mentor
for me and always very, very generous in his support for my sort of
professional development and very prodigal in his advice and always pretty much
spot on in his advice.
FRONTLINE: And he enjoyed the role of mentor, I take it?
VT: Oh, yeah. I think so. I think so very much. I think he believed very
strongly in passing on his experience, which I think is why he insisted so
much, throughout his career, on training, which is often something that
disaster managers, if you want to call them that, are not that much into. He
felt a strong desire to pass on what he had learned. He didn't want his career
to be sort of a stand alone piece, but to be something that would benefit the
profession as a whole and ultimately the people that this profession tries to
work with and work for. It was a way for him to pass on his experience and make
sure that it was multiplied and perhaps that it would live beyond him.
FRONTLINE: Is it possible to describe what his unique talent was?
VT: Two things really struck me and captured Fred. One was his versatility. He
was just very good and very knowledgeable and had a lot of experience in a
number of different fields, some technical, others had to do with policy and
politics. He loved to read history. So he brought all these things together.
And that's a fairly unique trait in our profession where the problems we have
to deal with -- these complex emergencies -- have both
technical aspects to them -- logistics, water and sanitation, engineering --
but also more social science related aspects: how do people cope with disaster?
How do you help them cope? What are the sociological aspects of that and the
political, and the historical issues?
And then the second quality that one always associates with Fred was his
tremendous energy. The man never stopped. The man never stopped until he
basically was stopped. Fred drove himself and others very hard. And if you
spent weeks with him in the field, especially if you were on an assignment that
had a beginning and an end, there wasn't a whole lot of sleep and there was
always a lot of debate. He was always curious and wanted to find out more, talk
to one more person, visit one more village, look at one additional slant.
FRONTLINE: What was his major flaw, his major shortcoming?
VT: On a professional basis or.....?
VT: It seemed to me that he was in pursuit of something. He was in pursuit of
a position. He was in pursuit of a certain amount of publicity. I think he
wanted to be a deal broker. On the one hand, there was this very real
humanitarian commitment. Fred was very committed to trying and helping victims
of disasters out, and especially what he called, the little guys, the people
who are hurt most in these emergencies. But he was also ambitious.
And he was after something. And I think that that's in a way the ultimate flaw,
because I think that's probably what cost him his life and the life, perhaps,
of the people he was with. He was sort of on a collision course with fate, if
you will. There would come a time when he was after something that was just a
bit too difficult or a bit too far or where the cards were stacked just a bit
too steeply against him.
FRONTLINE: Was Fred Cuny a happy man?
VT: His quest for influence and his quest for power, to a large degree went
through the position of being the senior advisor, the grey eminence, the
resident expert, the person who knows what's happening in the field and whose
vast experience enables him to provide advice that is invaluable and will avoid
U.S. foreign policy major disasters and will lead to saving hundreds of
thousands of lives. And that's, I think, the way Fred saw himself.
And when he was in that position--which was true to a certain extent in
Northern Iraq, and perhaps in other places, or on his way to being in that
position--he was a very happy man. When it was clear to him that he wasn't in
that position and wasn't inching any closer to that particular position, he was
a very unhappy man, frustrated man, angry man. If he was in a good mood, he'd
you that everybody, including the President, was listening to him. And if he
was in a bad mood, he would tell you that he couldn't get his doorman to listen
FRONTLINE: Do you view his life as a tragedy of sorts?
VT: It is, because if you look back, and try to find a rationale for it, it is
clear that the contradiction within Fred is probably what led to his death. So
that's an element of tragedy, there is something somewhat inescapable and
ineluctable about his death, even if I and others maybe didn't see it back
then. That's one.
And the second element of the tragedy is that he was sort
of nipped just as he was about to really bloom. I get the impression that he
was coming to a point where he was really becoming, if not a player in
Washington, at least someone that a lot of people listened to, which is what
he'd been striving for so long to achieve. You know, he was someone who was
called into the National Security Council to brief them, to the CIA, to the
Pentagon, and he loved that, and he relished it. So he was really killed just
as things were beginning to fall into place. And--how old was he? Early
VT: So, you know, it was just--I mean, he had a few good years in him yet. And
that's a tragedy.
FRONTLINE: You were talking about how he loved briefing the military, the White
House, the CIA. There is sort of a stew of humanitarian relief and politics and
military that seems to be getting more and more complex. Does that stew trouble
you at all?
VT: Well, yes. Although I think that stew is always there. It troubles me
because I see that my profession, which was Fred's profession, is getting less
and less neutral. The Red Cross myth, the white car, the white flag, no longer
exists. More and more aid workers are getting killed. We're more and more a
factor in these conflicts, and our interventions are less and less
neutral in that by working with certain groups, we legitimize them, we provide
a fuel for conflict, and that troubles me.
And, I sort of wonder where does this all go? I see it very differently than I
did when I began, at the end of the '80's just as the last sort of politically
neutral relief operations were coming to an end.
FRONTLINE: Did it trouble Fred? Or did he thrive in it?
VT: I think he thrived in it. I think he rode that wave. That's where his
versatility paid off. Technical, humanitarian, political and military. For
some of Fred's detractors, he represented what was reprehensible in where our
profession is going, in that he mixed the genre, if you will.
FRONTLINE: And they think it's reprehensible because it puts people at risk?
VT: Because it leads to more and more loss of neutrality in the profession.
When I say neutrality, I don't mean necessarily political neutrality, I mean
neutrality in terms of the effects you have, as a humanitarian worker on the
conflict. And, Fred certainly was not concerned about remaining neutral in the
conflict. He believed in military intervention, humanitarian intervention. He
believed very strongly that there were good guys and bad guys, and I agree with
him entirely in Bosnia. I mean, my view of the Bosnian war is quite black and
white, because of where I worked in Bosnia. I
worked on the Muslim side, on the Bosnian side. But I think that your point
that he was not concerned about neutrality is a very good one, because--and
especially as he went on in his career -- he identified his career more and
more with U.S. foreign policy, and therefore, felt less and less neutral.
And the humanitarian aspect became only one aspect of it, and sort of his
entry. But, you know, increasingly he would speak about "we," meaning the
Americans, meaning the American military.
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