Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa" by Jason K. Stearns

(PublicAffairs, 2011)

The "Great War of Africa" has raged at varying levels of intensity in Zaire / the Democratic Republic of Congo since the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 spilled over into the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis. Despite massive loss of life, the fall of one of the century's most colourful dictators and a continent-wide scramble for the resources of one of the world's richest regions, Westerners/Northerners remain surprisingly under-informed regarding the conflict. The Congo war serves as an African analogue to the Great Imperialist Wars of Europe in the 20th Century, but most people barely bother to untie the admittedly daunting knots that comprise it. At best, they pay attention to the snatches of horrific, almost surreal violence that tend to get picked up whenever Western media trains its eyes on the region. The fact that we're too lazy to understand the conflict, but piqued by its horror stories, is a test case in racism and the out and out failure of our analytical capacities. In the Western/Northern imaginary, the Congo war is continuous with the fantasy of the "Dark Continent"; hence the phenomenon of human interest stories about systematic rape and torture with almost zero attempt to put such violence in geopolitical context and examine our own political and economic complicity.

The virtue of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason K. Stearns is to shatter this myth of innate African savagery while giving the at times numbing complexity of the conflict its due. His angle is simpe but brilliant: reconstruct the conflict historically while applying to its micropolitics Hannah Arendt's thesis on the "banality of evil". Through painstaking collection of first-person reports and reconstruction, some of the conflict's greatest monsters are shown to be petty careerists; ordinary people are seen to have commited gross human rights violations through a kind of poltical inertia. The picture of the war which emerges dispels the idea that it was an inevitable product of the African soul. Rather, it becomes via Stearns a product of the human soul in particularly central-African conditions. Stearns humanizes an inhumane conflict, thereby making it harder to brush off and absolve ourselves of moral responsibility. There is something universal about the Congo war, and this should be sufficiently troubling to give it the attention it deserves.

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