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Guest Post: Shipman Reviews Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason K. Stearns

J. Scott Shipman, the owner of a boutique consulting firm in the Metro DC area that is putting Col. John Boyd’s ideas into action, is a longtime friend of this blog and an occasional guest-poster.

Book Review:Dancing In The Glory of Monsters, The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, Jason K. Stearns

by J. Scott Shipman

Several thoughts come to mind when reflecting on Jason K. Stearns’ epic Dancing In The Glory of Monsters, The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, but “dancing” doesn’t figure into any of those thoughts, and monsters are writ large, center stage. And make no mistake; we’re talking fiendishly horrific monsters, almost inhuman, as if drawn from a dictionary definition: “Anything horrible from…wickedness, cruelty or commission of extraordinary or horrible crimes; a vile creature…” So the reader should be advised, some of the stories are very disturbing.

Indeed, Mr. Stearns paints a gut-wrenching portrait of a nation and region ravaged by colonial meddling, venal and brutish politician/military leaders, and centuries old ethic strife all culminating in “many wars in one” beginning in 1996 in Congo (the former Zaire) and including active participation of neighbors Rwanda and Uganda just to name a couple.  In terms of geography, Congo straddles the equator and is the size of Western Europe, or slightly less than one fourth the size of the United States. According to the CIA World Fact Book, the literacy rate is 67% and the mortality rate a surprisingly “high” 54 years for men, and 57 for women; given the slaughter since 1996, my guess would have been a much lower number.

The Congo Wars were largely a by-product of the epic 1994 genocide in Rwanda where in the space of 100 days an estimated 800,000 Rwandans (primarily Tutsis and moderate Hutus) were killed. The killing was “organized by the elite but executed by people.” Stearns says, “…between 175,000 and 210,000 people took part in the butchery, using machetes, nail-studded clubs, hoes, and axes.” The killing was done in public and almost no one was untouched either as “a perpetrator, a victim or witness.” For internal political reasons, this resulted in over one million Hutu refugees/rebels fleeing over the border from Rwanda to Zaire. A massive tug-of-war across the border began with the ailing Zairian president Mobutu Sese Seku providing support to the rebels, and eventually a ten-year struggle within Zaire proper of both the Rwandan civil war and wars to control what became in 1997, Congo.

Dancing With Monsters is divided into three parts. Part 1 ended with the collapse of Mobutu’s government in May 1997. Following a brief respite in the fighting, Congo’s new president Laurent Kabila “fell out with his Rwanda and Ugandan allies” resulting in the second Congo war in August 1998 which “lasted until a peace deal reunified the country in 2003.” But the fighting in the eastern part of the country continues to this day and is considered the third Congo war.

Stearns tells the Congo story based on first person interviews with both perpetrators and victims of extraordinary atrocities, although he focuses more on the perpetrators who “oscillate between these categories.” A perpetrator one day becomes tomorrows victim and vice versa. Stearns has worked the better part of 10 years in the Congo, and is to be commended for the raw physical courage necessary to live, much less interview many of the “monsters” in his revealing book.

Interestingly, Stearns chose to focus on a system “that brought the principal actors to power, limited the choices they could make, and produced chaos and suffering.” That “system” is in a word, a mess. The chaos and suffering are of a kind with no contextual parallel in the modern Western experience. Stearns attempts to provide a context in an excellent introduction that offers insight into the violence, which more often than not, appears maddeningly senseless and consistently brutal. The culture of the region appears to be one where everyone is on the take, where everyone is corrupt simply to survive. To quote one of Stearns’ sources: “”If you don’t bribe a bit and play to people’s prejudices, someone else who does will replace you.” He winked and added, “Even you, if you were thrown into this system you would do the same. Or sink.”” This tone of resignation and an “ends justifies the means” justification permeates the attitudes of the political/military types Stearns interviews; in fact this philosophy colors a good portion of the book, and therein points to a large part of the systemic problem. A quote attributed to another monster, Stalin kept coming to mind: “You can’t make an omelet, without breaking a few eggs.”

From this attitude of resignation, my guess is that perhaps the “system” Stearns has documented is the extreme end result of Che Guevara-style of Soviet Marxist totalitarianism. Guevara himself spent 1965 fighting in the Congo but concluded, “they weren’t ready for revolution.” The Congolese may not have been ready for revolution, but it appears they bought the philosophy hook, line and sinker. This mentality reminded me of a passage from another book of horrors, The Whisperers, by Orlando Figes, where he writes: “she had subordinated her own personality and powers of reason to the collective.” The subordination of reason is pandemic in Congo; a place where mostly ethnically based discrimination and killing is conducted without so much as an apology. Many of Stearns’ political/military leaders spoke of “democracy,” but in my reading I did not get the sense this was anything more than a rhetorical fig leaf to remain in the good graces of the UN and the West, for there has been little in the behaviors of these leaders to suggest a level of seriousness and understanding as to what democracy means; political accountability comes to mind. Meanwhile, the killing continues.

Speaking of democracy, a good portion of the West was and continues to be indifferent to the Congo and the wars. Stearns points out, “the response, as so often in the region, was to throw money at the humanitarian crisis but not to address the political causes.” This sounds accurate. Stearns believes the West should do more, comparing the response to Kosovo in 1999, where “NATO sent 50,000 troops…to Kosovo, a country one-fifth the size of South Kivu“(part of Congo). Many of those interviewed by Stearns agree, but with a twist. In the concluding chapter, Stearns quotes a Rwandan political advisor offering what he called a “typical view” of the US from the region:

“When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, you decided to strike back against Afghanistan for harboring the people who carried out the attack. Many innocent civilians died as a result of U.S. military operations. Is that unfortunate? Of course. But how many Americans regret invading Afghanistan? Very few.”

Many Americans regret the extent of our operations in Afghanistan, more with each passing day. In my opinion, this seems to be offering an all-too-typical moral equivalence argument; since innocents die in American wars, our slaughter of innocents is justified. Stearns correctly follows this quote with extension of the Rwandan official’s line of thought:

“This point of view does not allow for moral nuance. Once we have established that the genocidaires are in the Congo, any means will justify the ends of getting rid of them, even if those means are not strictly related to getting rid of genocidaires.”

This official’s argument is as dangerous as the wars he and his neighbors have endured. In delegitimizing any moral nuance his prescription is amoral, or worse, claims an exclusive role defining morality thereby justifying a continuation of the slaughter. I don’t have a solution, but this prescription will yield only more of the same. Political accountability doesn’t pass the buck, or hide behind a general truth that tragedies occur, but rather learns from mistakes made and steadfastly strives to avoid further bloodshed.

In conclusion, I would offer one bit of advice to those who read this important book: use Google Earth or a good atlas; the book has maps, but the maps aren’t sufficient to the level of detail provided in the book. This is a minor nit, but one that can be enhanced through an external source.

Stearns concluded on a note of optimism and confidence in the Congolese people, whom he calls extremely resilient and energetic peoples. One could conclude nothing less from this excellent and truly frightening recounting of their story. Highly recommended.

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