In the 1940’s, American production not only succeeded in building tanks and bombers, it brought life to the desert. During World War II the United States Army’s Preventive Medicine Service brought penicillin to Libya and, with it, survival against common diseases that had killed for millennia – influenza, wound infections, sepsis — and a vast reduction of deaths from cuts and scratches, childbirth, and dirty water. By the end of the war, Libya more or less belonged to the United Kingdom and the US as friendly occupiers of a third rate desert monarchy, a base for protecting the Mediterranean and a vast air strip to counter the growing might of the Soviet Union. It also was a new-found source for oil, a free gas station for the next twenty-five years. And, with benevolent occupation, western medicine gained a toe hold in Libya.
By the time the US and Britain left Libya in 1970, the Libyan population had changed radically. Life expectancy shifted from 42 to age 72, expanding to ages where Libyans and others who lived along the far-flung US supply lines had come to live long enough to begin to contract diseases and cancers from which they had never previously suffered. The population grew from around one million, where it had hovered for twenty centuries, to a present day estimate of 6,700,000. There are presently 24 births but only 3 deaths per 1000.
But, in 1970, there were very few home-grown Libyan professionals such as doctors, engineers, or the like. It seemed that Libya’s only professional class was the military. Why did Britain and America leave? Because that military class, led by Colonel Ghadafi, staged a coup against their desert king and the foreign occupiers that had begun to exploit the oil and geographical proximity to Eastern Europe. Sparked by an independence movement that would be echoed forty years later, Libya rebelled for freedom. Instead, Libya only changed hands,from king to despot.
Following through on promises, Ghadafi did spend some oil money for schools and hospitals and development of a professional class. He built some infrastructure. Today over 90% of the population is literate and has direct access to medical care. Still, there isn’t a lot to do for the average Libyan in a country with little industry and a well-defined export system limited to oil, so the country is very underemployed. With a population of well–educated, healthy, underemployed males aged between age 18 and 60, there would be sparks and flames. There are now, and there were then.
So, decades ago, making up for perceived slights, an overpopulated, literate, healthy, mostly unemployed Libya unleashed terror on its own dissidents and its neighbors and declared jihad on the West.
I was to become a witness to it, very up close and frighteningly personal.
Next: No good deed, the Conclusion. Benghazi: A primer in medicine, AIDS, and terror