An important, highly readable account of the war raging in the heart of Africa over the past decade and a half. Nine nations border the Congo, and nearly all have at one time or the other been part of the violence that has consumed millions of lives and left those who survive searching for justice.
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason Stearns (@jasonkstearns) shed light on a subject which I knew little about, but even the small bit I thought I knew turned out to be incorrect. That we in the West do not understand how and why the conflict began is a bitter truth that bears examination.
The conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo parallel the timeframe for much of the Great War of Africa, yet consider how much more media coverage those much smaller conflicts received in the West. The size of the Congo is roughly the same as all of Western Europe, yet the shameful truth is this: sub-Saharan Africa does not have the “strategic” value that would create enough interest in the West to engage or at least attempt to understand what happened.
And the key word there is “attempt” as Stearns points out in an impassioned conclusion:
The Congo war had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple of paragraphs. Like an ancient Greek epic, it is a mess of different narrative strands — some heroic, some venal, all combined in a narrative that is not straightforward but layered, shifting, and incomplete. It is not a war of great mechanical precision but of ragged human edges.
Stearns points out early in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters the difficulty of unraveling the puzzle, but then he does an admirable job of doing just that by centering much of the narrative around the people involved. Heads of state, politicians, soldiers, refugees and villagers, Stearns interviews them and uses their stories to illustrate and illuminate what happened. It is a powerful way to approach this subject, and the writer does well to remain in the background and let those most affected talk.
This is not a military history, although a few battles are discussed in overview as well as some massacres. The timeline skips around a little, and a map of the Congo and surrounding areas would have been very useful, but overall I found this book to be very enlightening. I often look for books on subjects I know little about and in this case I was rewarded greatly.
If interested, Mr. Stearns’ blog Congo Siasa continues his coverage of events in the Congo, where warfare and violence continue to be a plague on the people.