Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns (2011)

There was not one Congo war, or even two, but forty or fifty different, interlocking wars. Local conflicts fed into regional and international conflicts and vice versa.
(Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, page 69)

Twin wives

The coolest thing about President Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (1930 to 1997), latterly known as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, dictator of Congo / Zaire from 1965 to 1997, was that, after his beloved first wife Marie-Antoinette Gbiatibwa Gogbe Yetene died in 1977, he married twins.

Well, technically, he married Bobi Ladawa in 1980 (Mobutu asked Pope John Paul II to officiate at the ceremony but the canny Pole politely declined). But Bobi had an identical twin, Kosia, and they shared the presidential marriage bed, sometimes singly, sometimes together, and they appeared at state occasions as a threesome.

Bobi bore the Great Leader four children, and Kosia bore him three daughters. Rumour had it that the deeply superstitious Mobutu was scared by the thought that the ghost of first wife Marie-Antoinette would return to haunt him so he a) had the vault of her mausoleum hermetically sealed to prevent her spirit getting out but b) kept the twins by him so they could ward off ghostly attacks from either side. Obviously that didn’t stop Mobutu having many other sexual adventures, like all the men in this story, but I can’t help admiring the twin wife strategy for warding off supernatural attack.

The two wives of Mobutu: Bobi Kadawa and Kosia, identical twins

The two wives of President Joseph Mobutu, Bobi and Kosia Kadawa, identical twins

Synopsis

The Great War of Africa is said to have lasted from 1998 to 2003. At its height it drew in armies from about 12 African countries and involved over 40 different militias to create a chaos of violence, massacre and destruction across large swathes of what was then called Zaire, now the Democratic Republic Congo, in central Africa. The war was meant to have been ended by the Sun City Agreement supervised by South African president Thabo Mbeki but in fact, nearly 20 years later, conflict continues to wrack various parts of the Congo, including the Kivu area in the far east of Congo, near the border with Rwanda.

Background

Traditionally the best way to understand roots of the great war is to start with the Rwandan genocide (1994), and the best way to understand that is as one of the snowballing consequences of the Rwandan civil war (1990 to 1993). Everything derives from this event. This idea immediately puts things in perspective and much easier to explain.

Tutsi and Hutu

To understand the Rwandan civil war you need to know that the Tutsi minority in Rwanda had been subjected to racial prejudice and periodic pogroms and massacres since before the country’s independence in 1962. For a century or more prior to this the Tutsi minority which made up about 10% of the population of Rwanda had lorded it over the Hutu majority. For centuries there had been a Tutsi king at the head of a Tutsi aristocracy and they all regarded the Hutu as peasants who worked the land.

In 1959 the Tutsi monarchy was overthrown when the last Tutsi king died in mysterious circumstances (after being injected by a Belgian doctor) and Hutu politicians led an uprising which drove many Tutsis into exile in the neighbouring countries of Uganda to the North, Zaire to the West and Tanzania to the East. This became known as the Hutu Revolution. At independence in 1962, Hutu politicians took leadership of Rwanda and there were periodic pogroms and massacres of the Tutsi minority in local regions or towns throughout the 1960s and 70s, forcing more to flee into exile.

In Zaire the exiles were mostly centred in two areas, north and south Kivu, so-named because they lie to the north and the south of Lake Kivu which forms most of the border between Rwanda and Zaire.

Yoweri Museveni

However, it’s in Uganda that the story begins. Because it was here that second-generation Tutsi exiles from Hutu-led Rwanda decided to join Yoweri Museveni’s rebellion against Ugandan dictator Milton Obote in the 1980s. Why? Because the Rwandan refugees in Uganda were persecuted by Obote, as they had been by his predecessor Idi Amin – discriminated against, lived in poverty, were jeered and spat on by Ugandans – so overthrowing Obote would directly improve their lives.

Museveni’s campaign became known as the Ugandan Bush War and ended with Museveni seizing power in 1986. (In fact, Museveni remains president of Uganda to this day, an indication of how difficult so many African nations find it to manage transitions between leaders.)

Having successfully overthrown one dictator, the senior Tutsis in Museveni’s army naturally got to thinking about overthrowing the dictator of their own homeland Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, and thus being able to return from exile.

The RPF and the Rwandan civil war 1990 to 1993

In 1990 a small cohort of Tutsis who had risen to senior positions in Museveni’s army went absent without leave, taking guns and weapons with them, and launched an invasion of north Rwanda, calling themselves the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

The Rwandan army, supported by French soldiers flown in to support them, repelled the invasion and drove the RPF back into the northern mountains, but here they regrouped under the brilliant leadership of Paul Kagame and settled into an effective guerrilla campaign.

This dragged on for three years until international arbitrators forced the RPF to the negotiating table with Rwanda’s dictator Juvénal Habyarimana in August 1993. Habyarimana and elements in the Rwandan military and political world then did everything they could to delay implementation of the peace deal – the Arusha Accords – which they deeply resented because it required assimilation of the Tutsi exiles into the Rwandan cabinet and army.

Unlike the hardliners, however, Habyarimana came under pressure to fulfil the accords from the ‘international community’ and by spring the following year, 1994, looked like he was about to begin implementing them.

The racist ideology of Hutu Power

During the war a loose association of Hutu extremists had developed which enunciated an ideology of Hutu Power in racist propaganda outlets such as magazines and radio stations. They had representatives at the highest level of the army, political sphere and the media and slowly cranked up propaganda claiming the RPF didn’t just want to return from exile, but were planning a Tutsi revolution to restore the Tutsi monarchy and return the majority Hutu population to serfdom and slavery.

Habyarimana’s plane is shot down triggering the Rwandan genocide

It was against this extremely tense background that President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by two ground-to-air missiles as it came in to land at Kigali airport on the evening of 6 April 1994, as he returned from attending a summit of East African leaders in Dar es Salaam. To this day there is acrimonious dispute about who shot it down: the French (Habyarimana’s strongest Western supporters) claiming it was agents of the Tutsi RPF; the RPF claiming it was hard line elements within the Hutu military.

The truth will probably never be known, but within the hour leading Hutu Power hardliners seized power, sending Presidential Guards to murder the country’s Prime Minister and all other cabinet members who weren’t part of their Hutu Power ideology, then ordering all army units to round up and kill as many Tutsi as they could get their hands on. This only makes sense if you realise it was the behaviour of men who genuinely thought a) the RPF was attempting a coup to restore Tutsi total domination of society, and therefore b) Hutus must be rallied to ‘fight back’ and eliminate all Tutsi, everywhere, because who knew how many of them might not be traitors and Fifth Columnists, enemies and – to use the dehumanising word which the propaganda relentlessly drummed home – ‘cockroaches’.

Rwanda has always stood out from its neighbours in being an unusually well organised and hierarchical society, and orders from the centre were quickly dispatched to regional leaders and passed down to ‘commune’ level. These local administrators had lists of all Tutsis living in their area, and the army and the fast-growing militia, the Interahamwe, were sent to work systematically through every city, town and village, to identify and murder every Tutsi they could find. By the time the message percolated down to militia level it had become very simplified: all Tutsi were in on the conspiracy to murder the beloved president and return all Hutu to slavery. “Quick, now, kill them all before they start to murder and enslave us!”

The RPF end the genocide

As soon as the killing started the RPF, which had established headquarters 50 miles north of Kigali, abandoned the peace accords and resumed its advance. Being far more disciplined and effective fighters than the poorly disciplined Rwandan army, let alone the drunk, crude, blood-thirsty Interahamwe gangs, the RPF advanced quickly.

The genocidal attempt to exterminate all the Tutsis in Rwanda was not halted by any external powers, not by the UN or Americans or French, but solely by the efforts of the RPF as it systematically conquered the country and, everywhere it came, ended the massacres. By July 1994 they had taken the country and the genocide effectively came to an end.

The Hutu refugee crisis

But such was the terror the Hutu Power propagandists had sown about Tutsi domination that as they swept through the country, the RPF created panic among the Hutu population and a huge number of Hutus fled. In the end as many as 2 million Hutus fled across Rwanda’s borders into exile, the great majority west across the border into Zaire.

Here a number of mega-sized refugee camps were established. At first the refugees lived in utter poverty, disease took hold, hundreds died every day of cholera until international aid agencies arrived by the hatful, with tents and water and food. It was a vast operation, which ended up costing millions of dollars a day.

However, there was a bitter irony at work because among the hundreds of thousands of impoverished refugees were many of the Hutu organisers of the original genocide and they rapidly set about re-establishing their authoritarian rule over the civilians, using the Interahamwe and other militias to terrorise the refugees. They established no-go zones where UN write didn’t extend, they inflated the numbers of refugees in order to maximise Western aid, which they then creamed off for themselves.

In the Rwanda capital, Kigali, Paul Kagame, officially vice-president but still head of the army and the acknowledged power in the land, complained that the international community had done nothing to stop the worst genocide since the Holocaust, and was now giving more money and support to the génocidaires than to the country they had half destroyed.

Hutu Power regroups and renews anti-Tutsi violence

Not only that but the Hutu Power ideologues began military operations. There were long-established Tutsi populations in north and south Kivu and revitalised Hutu armed groups began attacking them with the sole purpose of killing as many Tutsi as possible. Then they began crossing the border into Rwanda and attacking police stations or massacring small Tutsi communities. In other words, the same people who carried out the anti-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, were trying to continue it in their new setting.

Kagami asked the UN to move the refugee camps further away from the border with Rwanda, and appealed to individual Western powers such as America and France. Individual Western analysts later admitted that the optimal solution would have been to use overpowering force to go into the camps and separate the militias and the Hutu Power authorities from the vast majority of Hutu refugees, to peacefully return the latter to their towns and villages in Rwanda, and to have imprisoned and charged the latter.

But this would have required a lot of UN soldiers, cost a fortune and, most decisively, risked all out conflict a) something the UN is not meant to get involved in b) something vetoed by America since its traumatic experience during the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, when highly trained, well-armed American forces had entered Mogadishu to neutralise a militia which had been terrorising the city, but which ended in the surrounding and killing of 19 US servicemen. Intervention in the huge, highly armed Hutu camps would have been a very similar scenario with the same risks. The Americans said no (p.335).

Rwanda creates the AFDL

The situation festered for 2 years but Kagame but the Rwandan leadership had made their minds up and begun planning soon after the genocide ended. They knew the international community would severely disapprove of an invasion but would be less censorious of an internal conflict. Therefore they created an entity named the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL). Stearns goes into greater detail than anything else I’ve read on the way the leadership for the new group was chosen and gives an extensive profile of the disgruntled old Marxist rebel leader, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who had been leading a feeble rebellion against President Mobutu’s rule since the 1960s, who was chosen for the job.

The First Congo War October 1996 to May 1997

But despite its Congolese name and Congolese ‘leader’ the AFDL largely consisted or Rwandan and Ugandan armed forces. In October 1996 they invaded eastern Congo and began fighting the Congolese army. Stearns gives plentiful eyewitness accounts of how utterly useless the Congo army was. Troops, including senior officers, simply turned and ran, looting what they could along the way.

The AFDL entered the refugee camps, fought Hutu Power elements who fled west into the jungle, and dramatically succeeded in their first aim, which was to dismantle the camps and force up to a million Hutu refugees to return to Rwanda where, to their surprise, they were treated well and helped to return to their towns and villages.

Zairian dictator Joseph Mobutu had been a close personal friend of Rwandan dictator Habyarimana and after the plane crash had his remains flown to his complex of luxury palaces in Gbadolite. He promised her and the other Hutu Power ideologues that he would help them return to power in Rwanda. Mobutu supported the reorganisation of the génocidaires in the refugee camps and his army helped revived Hutu militias carry out anti-Tutsi massacres in Kivu.

Therefore it was entirely logical and no surprise that the second aim of the AFDL was to overthrow Mobutu. Stearns interviews some AFDL officials and some of the many child soldiers or kadogo who made up the AFDL ranks and gathers the sense that most of them were incredulous at this aim. Attacking the refugee camps a few miles from Rwanda’s border was one thing, but ‘marching’ the thousand miles west to Zaire’s capital Kinshasa, through thick jungle with few if any usable roads and fording umpteen rivers, seemed like a fantasy.

Yet they did it. AFDL forces split into two broad wings, one marching west to Kinshasa, the other heading south to seize the vital mineral centres of Mbuji-Mayi and, in the far south of the country, Lubumbashi, the other heading west to the capital. Stearns is keen to clarify that:

The war that started in Zaire in September 1996 was not, above all, a civil war. It was a regional conflict, pitting a new generation of young, visionary African leaders against Mobutu Sese Soku, the continent’s dinosaur. (p.54)

Thus:

Not since the heyday of apartheid in South Africa had the continent seen this kind of mobilisation behind a cause. For the leaders of the movement, it was a proud moment in African history, when Africans were doing it for themselves in face of prevarication from the west and the United Nations. Zimbabwe provided tens of millions of dollars in military equipment and cash to the rebellion. Eritrea sent a battalion from its navy to conduct covert speedboat operations on Lake Kivu. Ethiopia and Tanzania sent military advisers. President Museveni recalled: “Progressive African opinion was galvanised.” (p.55)

RCD massacres and atrocities

It would be nice to report that the advancing AFDL and their Rwandan and Ugandan allies were greeted as liberators from the tired old dictatorship of Mobutu, and in many places they were, but, alas, Stearns gives eyewitness accounts of many places where Rwandan forces carried out massacres of locals, giving stomach-churning details of the massacres at Kasika and Kilungutwe, pages 251 to 261.

If only it was the story of an aggrieved nation overthrowing the wicked dictator of the neighbouring country who had supported the genocide, it would be a clean-cut fairy tale. But Stearns has clearly been very affected by the survivors of local massacres and pogroms he met and gives a much darker picture. He extrapolates out from the specific towns he visited to quote UN figures for the number of civilians massacred in the war and the extraordinary number of women raped and defiled (by defiled I mean things like pregnant women having their bellies ripped open by bayonets, their babies torn out, and then their dismembered bodies carefully arranged in obscenely pornographic poses – that kind of thing.) Thus it was that in a few short years, what many hoped was a kind of pan-African crusade, turned into a squalid affair of massacres and corruption.

Within several years, the Congo was to become the graveyard for this lofty rhetoric of new African leadership as preached by Mbeki, Albright, and many others. Freedom fighters were downgraded to mere marauding rebels; self-defence looked even more like an excuse for self-enrichment. Leaders who had denounced the big men of Africa who stayed in power for decades began appearing more and more like the very creatures they had fought against for so many years. (p.56)

And there is something eerie about the way the issue of Tutsis remained central to the entire story, as if the Tutsi-Hutu animosity is some really deep, ancestral Biblical curse. The atrocities Stearns investigates later on the book were all carried out by the RCD (the Congolese Rally for Democracy, the fig leaf name given to the Rwandan forces in the AFDL alliance) and these were of predominantly Tutsi ethnicity and this leads Stearns to discover that a bitter and abiding hatred of the Tutsi had been created in a trail of bloodshed right across Congo. Reading this book was sometimes like being in a nightmare where no-one can escape from the endless hyperviolence triggered by the endless obsession with ethnicity.

May 1997 Mobutu flees, Kabila becomes president

To cut a long story short, after failed negotiations mediated by everyone’s favourite African leader, Nelson Mandela, Mobutu and his ruling clique hastily fled Kinshasa into exile (where he died a few months later, an embittered sick old man) and Laurent Kabila was installed as president, promptly changing the country’s name back from Zaire to Congo.

Here as elsewhere in this book, Stearns goes into a lot more detail than any other account I’ve read, giving an in-depth account of Kabila’s 18 month rule, its few strengths and its many weaknesses. Chief among the weaknesses was the simple fact that he had no democratic mandate. He had won power by force and, what’s more, very obviously force backed by foreign countries, Rwanda and Uganda. He was a foreign imposition. Many in the political class had spent their entire lives campaigning against Mobutu, had been imprisoned sometimes tortured, multiple times, most notably the political survivor Étienne Tshisekedi. Polls suggested that if free elections were held, Tshisekedi would win by a landslide 70+% while Kabila would get around 10%. So he couldn’t hold free elections.

And his foreign backers very quickly made themselves unpopular. In the kind of detail this book excels at, Stearns tells us that youthful RCD cadres lorded it over the easy-going Kinshasans (or Kinois, in French). They took it upon themselves to upbraid Kinshasan women for wearing immoral western outfits (tight jeans) and  forced Kinshasan men to lie on the floor and be beaten with canes for minor traffic infractions.

Stearns’ account makes it easy to understand why Kabila lost popularity on all fronts. None of this would have mattered, at least in the short term, if he had kept the support of his chief external backers, Rwanda and Uganda. But, seeing how unpopular their presence was making him, Kabila made the fateful mistake of blaming everything on them and expelling all external forces and advisers.

Second Congo War August 1998 July 2003

The details are complicated but the overall story is simple: Rwanda reacted very badly to being expelled by the very man they had helped to put in power and so they and Uganda, once again, mounted an invasion of Congo in what was, in effect, the Second Congo War. This time, however, more foreign countries got involved and this is the start of what came to be called the war of Africa.

In the First Congo War, other nations beyond Rwanda and Uganda had got involved. Other regional powers such as Angola and Zimbabwe wanted to see Mobutu overthrown and so had sent nominal forces to help the AFDL. There was general unanimity among most of his neighbours to get rid of the old leopard.

However, the second Congo war saw the breaking up of this alliance: Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi were still allies and the main force behind the second invasion; but Angola, Namibia, Chad and Zimbabwe lined up behind the Kabila regime.

The first Congo war was fought on points of principle: closing the refugee camps, neutralising the Hutu militias and overthrowing Mobutu. The second Congo war was more about seizing resources, about money and influence. Thus Robert Mugabe, dictator of Zimbabwe, had loaned Kabila up to $200 million during the first campaign and wanted it paid back. As a reward, Kabila had awarded Zimbabwe a valuable ammunition contract, and other lucrative agricultural and mining contracts were in the offing.

For Angola, Mobutu had been a thorn in their side, offering sanctuary to the UNITA rebels (and channeling CIA funds to them) as they fought the left-wing Angolan government. Kabila had presented a clean break with that tradition and so won Angolan support.

Once again there is something eerie in the way the Tutsi issue raised its head again for Kabila responded to the Rwandan invasion by trying to rouse Congolese patriotism on his side chiefly by  resorting to fierce anti-Tutsi propaganda, just the kind of hate speech he had been hired by Kagame and co to stamp out in the Hutu Power refugee camps.

In the absence of strong civic institutions, ethnicity remains an enduring identifier

It’s an example of the point Stearns makes in the summary of his book that, in the absence of strong state institutions and traditions, ethnicity is one of the few enduring, solid, easily identifiable values citizens of many post-colonial countries have. It provides a mental, cultural, linguistic identity which everyone can understand, from the most over-educated professor to the illiterate peasant in his field. As soon as news of the new invasion from Rwanda became known, all Tutsi everywhere in Congo became fair game, and Stearns recounts numerous roundings up and mass executions of Tutsi. This is what I meant by the nightmare of ethnicity which I mentioned earlier. There is stomach-churning violence and bloodshed on almost every page of this book.

Just the buildup

Believe it nor not, all the preceding is just the the build-up to the great war of Africa. You need to understand all the above to make sense of what followed, which was five years of confusing conflict, eventually involving the armies of some 12 African nations and over 40 different militias.

The odd thing about this book is that it is brilliant about the build-up, shedding light on many of the incidents and events I’ve outlined above. Stearns has met a lot of key players and eyewitnesses and treats their testimony with great sophistication, starting chapters by introducing us to apparently random individuals and then, by letting them tell their stories, slowly revealing the role they played as army leaders, or political players or child soldiers or survivors of massacres, filling in part of the jigsaw and then often going on to make general points about, for example, the role of child soldiers in the conflict, or the recurrence of anti-Tutsis sentiment, or analysing in detail just why the Congo army was such rubbish and why the Congo state as a whole collapsed so easily to foreign invasion.

(This is because, in a nutshell, Joseph Mobutu had spent 32 years hollowing out, undermining and weakening the Congolese state. Mobutu thought that strong state institutions, such as an independent judiciary, police force, free press and strong well-trained army would all threaten his hold on power. So he created a system in which nobody received regular wages but everyone depended on him, the Great Chief, for handouts, bonuses and rewards. He recreated the traditional African social structure of the strong chief handing out rewards to family, clan, tribe and those who pleased him, and in doing so hollowed out and destroyed almost all the structures of a functioning society, including even the mining companies which were all that kept the Zaire economy from complete collapse, but which he sold off for quick profits, preferring to cream off money here and now so that none was left to invest, so that the infrastructure collapsed, power stations failed, mines flooded, entire mines were abandoned, output collapsed and the Zairian economy along with it. The more you read about his rule, the more astonishing it becomes that someone could be so criminally irresponsible in running a country.)

Weakness of the book

Often Stearns creates this effect by starting a new chapter by introducing us to a new personage, who we slowly get to know, describing the circumstances of his interview and so on, before slowly getting round to the point of how they fit into the history. In other words this is not a conventional chronological history, it is more like a series of magazine-style profiles of emblematic individuals which help us into the events and stories which form the history.

Anyway, although the book is nominally about the Great African War it’s more than a bit ironic that this method, which has served him so well during the preceding 200 pages, somehow breaks down when it comes to the main subject of the book. David van Reybrouck’s book about Congo breaks the Second Congo War / Great War of Africa down into 4 distinct phases with an explanation of each phase and maps showing how the vast territory of Congo was divided between various armies during each phase.

There is nothing as clear or graspable in this book. Instead Stearns continues his method of approaching the subject obliquely via biographies of individuals who he met and interviewed at length but, after a few chapters, I began to feel I was missing any understanding of the bigger picture. Thus there’s a long profile of Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, an ageing Marxist professor who was, unexpectedly made head of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) and why, not surprisingly, this didn’t work out. Stearns tracks him down to poverty-stricken shack in a remote suburb of Kinshasa and finds him still unbelieving of the mass violence which accompanied the RCD campaigns.

Jean-Pierre Bemba

Then there is a long chapter about Jean-Pierre Bemba, the bull-like rebel who set up his own group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) which in 1999 took control of the north of the country. Stearns is good on Bemba’s close relationship with Mobutu during the good times, and the roots of his rebellion, and then the (inevitable) descent into massacres and atrocities (real atrocities which are so disgusting I won’t repeat them, p.230). The kind of thing which wrecked the high-minded pan-African rhetoric which I quoted at the start.

Pastor Philippe

He meets Pastor Philippe, witness to a horrifying massacre in Kisingani, in which his own children were brutally murdered (p.243) and this broadens out into a series of descriptions of atrocities carried out throughout the region. Wherever you turn there’s a group of soldiers gagging to round up the village, lock them in the local church, chuck in some hand grenades and burn the building to the ground, or spray it with machine gun fire, or round up the village into a hall and call them out one by one to have their throats slit like goats, or get the men to watch while the women are gang-raped, and so on. On and on it goes, with stomach-churning atrocities on every page. Pastor Philippe thought the Tutsi soldiers were so savage because they were brain damaged after the genocide (p.243). (This is not as eccentric as it sounds; elsewhere Stearns quotes a study in a psychiatric journal estimating that around a quarter of Rwandans who lived through the genocide still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. p.46).

Occupants of a house in a village Rwandan troops had taken over got into an argument with the soldier standing guard outside so he stuck his kalashnikov through the window and emptied a clip, killing everyone inside (p.248).

All these accounts explain why Stearns has a markedly more anti-Rwanda attitude than most of the other accounts I’ve read. It also feeds into a chapter Stearns devotes to estimates by aid agencies and the UN about how many people died during the five years of the war. The best estimate is 4 to 5 million died either through direct violence or the result of being dislodged from their land, becoming refugees, disease and starvation, and a shocking 200,000 women have been raped (p.263).

(This critical attitude to Rwanda is partly explained by Stearns’ CV. Born in California in 1976, and privately educated, Stearns took a degree in political science and was lined up to attend Harvard Law School when he first travelled to the Congo in 2001 to work for a local human rights organization, Héritiers de la Justice. Between 2005 and 2007, Stearns was based in Nairobi as a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, working on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. In 2007, he left to spend a year and a half researching and writing this book, based on interviews with leading protagonists of the conflict. In 2008, Stearns was named as coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo, a panel responsible for researching support and financing of armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In their final report, the Group found both the Rwandan and Congolese governments guilty of violating United Nations sanctions. So Stearns is very highly qualified indeed to make these kinds of judgements.)

Back to the war, only a tiny fraction of the estimated 5 million death toll came from actual fighting because, as Stearns makes abundantly clear, the soldiers were mostly useless at set piece battles. The Congolese army, in particular, just dumped their weapons and ran away. What all the armies and militias of every side were extremely good at was massacring unarmed civilians, slitting their throats, tying their hands and chucking them in the nearest river, bayoneting them to death, gang raping women before cutting their vaginas open, dashing babies and toddlers brains out against walls or trees, and so on, and on, and on, for page after page. (The most disgusting disfigurements are from the massacre at Kasika on page 257.)

The assassination of Laurent Kabila 16 January 2001

Chapter 18, pages 267 to 284, is devoted to the assassination of Laurent Kabila, two and a bit years into the war, on 16 January 2001. He was shot dead in broad daylight in his office in Kinshasa by one of his personal bodyguards, a former child soldier who had accompanied him from the early days of the First Congo War. The assassination is the departure point for a review of Kabila’s administration which, basically, reverted to the same kind of personal rule as Mobutu, keeping all civic institutions weak and running everything by feudal patronage of the king-chieftain. Because of the collapse of the mining infrastructure Kabila became more and more reliant on cash from Angola and Zimbabwe to pay his troops and just about keep his rule afloat.

Stearns explains that in Congo this is known as envelopperie i.e. the system whereby nobody receives a fixed salary, but everything works by unmarked envelopes filled with cash. This isn’t corruption. It is the way the entire state is run, from the highest level of the cabinet, throughout the civil service, all local administration, the army and the police, right down to the lowliest business deals (p.321).

Anyway, Kabila’s assassination was also the focus for numerous conspiracy theories, just as the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane had been seven years earlier. Was it a revolt of the small cadre of child soldiers who were disgruntled at not being paid and the general chaos of Kabila’s rule. Or was it organised by the Angolan government who had previously supported him, because Kabila had reverted to allowing UNITA to smuggle diamonds through Congo as long as he got a much-needed cut? Or was it the people who had most to gain, a conspiracy organised by Paul Kagame and the Rwandans?

After much debate among his courtiers, it was decided he would be succeeded by one of his many sons by his numerous mistresses, Joseph Kabila, and this leads onto an extended profile of Joseph’s shy, reclusive, character. Anyone who expected a dramatic change in the style of government in Congo was initially heartened when he slowly got rid of the advisers who had surrounded his father and replaced them with a young generation of technocrats, but then disillusioned as he proceeded to use many of the same tactics his father. Joseph went on to rule as president from January 2001 to January 2019. He was only with difficulty persuaded to have genuine democratic elections in December 2018, which led to the election of Félix Tshisekedi, himself the son of Étienne Tshisekedi who was for so long a thorn in the side of Mobutu. African dynasties of power and who is, at the time of writing, still president.

Congo’s crooked mining industries

The next chapter, chapter 19, titled Paying For The War, pages 285 to 304, does what it says on the tin and gives a detailed account of the heroic mismanagement of Congo’s vast mineral wealth by Mobutu inn his 32 years of misrule, which was accelerated by Kabila in his three and a half year rule.

Both these rulers proved incapable of understanding that you need to invest significant amounts in infrastructure (power plants and cabling, roads, proper maintenance of mines and machinery, decent accommodation, schools and hospitals for tens of thousands of workers) and let all those things decay and collapse into (literal) ruins. This explains why few respectable multinationals were prepared to step in to run mines to extract the rich stores of copper, tin, coltan and uranium which sit under Congo soil.

And it explains why the way was left open for smaller operators who were prepared to take more of a risk, who didn’t have the wherewithal to rebuild the ruined infrastructure, but had the nous to get in and extract the easiest veins or even trawl through heaps of slag to extract what they could. Mobutu and then Kabila encouraged this behaviour because they wanted some money now to pay for the endless war, rather than vague promises of a lot of money in the future, and this explains why, as per Stearns’ method throughout, he elucidates the subject via a profile of entrepreneurial mining engineer Jean-Raymond Boulle, a foreigner (p.286), and then of Pierre Goma, a native Congolese (p.296). Olivier is attributed a pithy quote which sums things up usefully:

“The first war had been about getting rid of the refugee camps and overthrowing Mobutu. The second was about business.” (p.297)

Joseph Kabila

The penultimate chapter, pages 307 to 325 of this 327-page book, is devoted to the character and achievement in office of young Joseph Kabila who succeeded his assassinated father. This is all very interesting as far as it goes, but as I got to the end of the book I realised something fairly simple.

Somehow, in the previous 100 pages, although he makes mention of some military engagements and the leader of one particular rebel group, Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the stuff about the mineral industry, and some stomach-churning accounts of atrocities… somehow Stearns has failed to give a good overview of the Great War of Africa itself. There’s no chronology or overview or sense of the different phases of the war as are given in just a handful of pages in David van Reybrouck’s account.

It’s strange that a book ostensibly devoted to the Great War of Africa contains a wealth of information about the build-up to it, extensive information about the key players and many peripheral aspects of it, such as the funding from Zimbabwe or the trade in illegal diamonds and so on… and yet almost nothing by way of conventional account of the war itself, which groups fought where, if and where there were any major battles. In the quote I give at the start of this review he mentions that the war in fact involved 40 or more conflicts but he nowhere explains what these are.

I think the good reviews of the book stem from the fact that he is brilliant on the long, long buildup to the war, gives more in-depth and information rich profiles of key players such as Paul Kagame or Laurent Kabila than I’ve read anywhere else, and also features extensive profiles of individuals whose stories shed light on all aspects of the conflict which kicked off with the RPF invasion of Rwanda in 1990… and yet details of the Great War itself… oddly patchy, unsystematic.

I like the persona of Stearns who emerges from the book, I admire the immense amount of research he’s done, I enjoy his clear, authoritative, reasonable style, I am gripped by the portraits of so many Congolese and Rwandans, every page contains fascinating insights into life in the region, complemented by facts and figures from western aid agencies or economic bodies (about the Congo economy, the mining industry and so on).

And yet, puzzlingly, almost bizarrely, there’s a hole in the middle of the book where an authoritative account of the war itself should be.

Conclusions

In his final short chapter  (pages 327 to 337) Stearns draws some conclusions from this sorry history.

The media

First he blames the media:

  1. the short attention span of 24/7 news in which only the most bloody/grotesque stories can make it amid the endless turnover of domestic stories means that…
  2. stories from beyond the West rarely feature and, if they do, without any background or context…
  3. thus fuelling the general sense that these atrocities are happening far away in a conflict which is endlessly plagued by genocide and civil war

1. This is all true but it’s hard to see what can change it. It’s the same complaint Michael Ignatieff makes in chapter one of The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (1998) where he calls for sweeping reform of TV news, which will replace superficial 3-minute items with in-depth documentaries, thus informing the citizens of the West about the deeper causes and contexts of the umpteen conflicts around the world, and so informing the decisions of Western governments about where and how to intervene and help.

2. Secondly, it’s not the media making it up or exaggerating – there has been a steady flow of atrocities, civil wars, massacres and genocides from Africa for most of my life, which overlaps almost exactly with the arrival of African independence in the early 1960s. The Congo Crisis, the Biafra Crisis, Idi Amin expelling Ugandan Asians, Emperor Bokassa and his fridge full of human heads, the daily reports of police atrocities in South Africa, the famine in Ethiopia, civil war in Sudan, civil war across the Mahgreb, the antics of Colonel Gaddafi, the Ethiopian famine and Band Aid, the collapse of Somalia and the activities of its pirates, the Rwandan genocide and so on. In the last week, while I’ve been reading this book, there’s been 1) a military coup in Sudan 2) the rapid advance of the rebel alliance which looks like it might overthrow the Ethiopian government, and 3) ongoing killings in the Kivu region of east Congo, which has suffered continual unrest since the events described above. In other words, Africa has been a source of endless disaster stories for most of my life. The media isn’t making them up.

It is unrealistic to expect the British viewing public to submit to hour-long documentaries about each of these situations. All the evidence is that the majority of the British public don’t give much of a damn about politics in their own country, so expecting them to put the effort into understanding the intricacies of conflicts thousands of miles away is utopian.

3. Thirdly, Stearns’ own text acts against his own argument. He scolds the media for presenting an image of Africa dominated by disaster, war and death at the end of a long, gruelling account of disaster, war and death in Africa. Far from countering the stereotype, Stearns’ book deepens and exacerbates my sense of Africa as the location of unending ethnic conflict, massacres, pogroms, atrocities and a terrifyingly high level of killing and rape.

The best way for Africans to stop their continent being portrayed as a zone of endless civil wars and atrocities is not to blame western media but to stop having endless wars and atrocities.

Ignatieff and Stearns in their different books seem to think that if only western audiences knew more about these faraway African conflicts, they would take a more sympathetic view of them. Well, looking up the Sun City Agreement on Wikipedia led me in two clicks to the ‘Effacer le tableau’ genocide. This isn’t even mentioned in Stearns’ book but was one of the many catastrophic side-effects of the Congo wars.

‘Between October 2002 and January 2003, two the rebel groups, the MLC and RCD-N in the East of the Congo, launched a premeditated, systematic genocide against the local tribes and Pygmies nicknamed operation ‘Effacer le Tableau’ (‘erase the board’). During their offensive against the civilian population of the Ituri region, the rebel groups left more than 60,000 dead and over 100,000 displaced. The rebels engaged in slavery and cannibalism. Human Rights Reports state that this was because rebel groups, often far away from their bases of supply and desperate for food, enslaved the Pygmies on captured farms to grow provisions for their militias or, when times get really tough, simply slaughtered them like animals and devoured their flesh, which some  rebels believed gave them ‘magical powers’.

Can you seriously argue that if the average westerner learned knew about these conflicts, they’d become more sympathetic? More disgusted and repelled, I suggest.

The fundamental cause of civil violence

Stearns agrees with Ignatieff that the fundamental cause of the unending violence is the pitiful weakness of state institutions. As explained above, Mobutu systematically undermined any modern state institution which might present a challenge to his power and replaced it with the law of the Strong Man, the African chieftain who dispenses largesse to his favourites and locks up anyone who criticises him. This has been the identical pattern across numerous other African states since independence.

Since independence, the story of political power from Joseph Mobutu to Joseph Kabila has been about staying in power, not about creating a strong, accountable state. (p.330)

The lack of any state institutions to rein in power and limit violence helps to explain why ethnicity and tribalism remain behind as two of the few means left to politicians to mobilise their supporters and entire nations in times of stress. So long as African states have weak, powerless state institutions, so long will ethnicity remain an organising and rallying cry for leaders trying to remain in power (p.331).

Foreign aid

This is a very vexed issue. I worked at the UK’s Department for International Development for 2 years where I heard, read and researched the countless arguments for and against western aid to developing countries. It’s a big subject, with vast numbers of books, papers, speeches, political policies and research devoted to it, but the outline of the basic arguments are relatively simple.

1. Endless aid retards the development of civil society…

Stearns makes the point that giving aid indiscriminately encourages poorly developed states like Congo to remain such. If the French or German or Swedish government are paying for roads and hospitals in the Congo, then the Congo government doesn’t have to. More subtly, it won’t learn the tricky, fiddly, frustrating way in which western democracies work (most of the time) with their complex interplay of independent institutions, judiciary, free press and huge range of civil society agencies, charities and watchdogs and whatnot.

2. …but we must continue to give aid

Stearns disappoints me a little by saying we must continue to give aid to Congo ‘obviously’ because of the centuries of slavery, colonialism and exploitation by the West (p.332). But must we, though? There are some equally powerful counter-arguments. The slave trade was abolished over 200 years ago. How much longer must we continue to atone for it? Another hundred years? Forever?

The colonial period lasted from about 1885 to 1962, some 77 years. 77 years after independence will we still be bailing out the Congo government? How long does it take a post-colonial country to become truly independent? The pro-aid argument suggests the answer to that question is never. Former colonies will never cease requiring Western aid. Throw in periodic calls for reparations for slavery and/or inflicting climate change on them, and paying out to Third World countries will never end.

Wasted aid to date…

But the most powerful argument against aid is ‘look what happened to all the aid we’ve given so far’. It was creamed off by Mobutu and redistributed to his clients and powerbrokers with no regard to their ruined country. It went into the mad extravagances of Mobutu’s palace and Concorde lifestyle. It went directly into the purchase of bijou properties all over Europe. A huge amount of it never impacted the lives of the ordinary Congolese in the street, which got steadily worse and worse as time went by i.e. as the sum total of aid poured into the country increased. More aid = greater poverty.

When I worked at DFID there was a hoary old saying that development aid involved poor people in the  First World giving money to rich people in the Third World. Certainly when you read about the lifestyle of Joseph Mobutu 1965 to 1997 it’s hard not to get very angry that all those palaces, luxury cars, expensive patisserie flown in from Paris, was paid for by aid money and countless loans from the World Bank or IMF or Western donors.

Not only that, but there’s a respectable anti-aid case which argues that Western aid keeps African nations infantilised, semi-developed, and dependent on their patrons. It encourages reliance. It is a form of neo-colonialism because it ensures the recipient countries will never be weaned and acquire real independence.

Pro aid people say we’ve learned from all those mistakes, and now we are much more savvy and targeted about how we give aid to named, defined projects which have specific measurable outcomes. Maybe. But if this book shows one thing it is the utter inability of Congolese politicians to run a country. They couldn’t run a medium-sized business. The clientilist system perfected by Mobutu was swiftly copied by his successor Laurent Kabila, and then by his successor, Joseph, creaming off short-term profits, fire-selling state assets, stealing whatever aid they could – all in order to pay off the army involved in endless stupid wars, and to pacify important stakeholders, army bosses and regional powerbrokers. To build civil society and proper infrastructure? As little as they could get away with.

On their own two feet

The vast, desolating irony is that everyone agrees the Congo is sitting on a literal goldmine, along with copper mines, diamond mines, uranium and coltan mines of incalculable value. It ought to be the richest country in Africa, but it has had a succession of leaders who were kleptocratic morons, who have run its mining industries into the ground.

Therefore, you’d have thought that if aid to the country is to continue, it should be focused on rebuilding the ruined infrastructure around the mines with a view to providing the country with a decent income of its own. Even if this involves inviting back in Western mining companies, this strategy would start to give well-paid employment to everyone living in those areas and, if production is taxed at an agreed and consistent level (i.e. not managed via corrupt backhanders and payoffs) then Congo’s budget would soon by buoyant and it could set about a plan for reviving the legal economy, building roads, investing in electricity and digital infrastructure, restoring a strong police force and civil service which receive regular decent pay so don’t have to resort to bribery and corruption, and generally try and make its way towards being a half-decent, viable state which provides a reasonable standard of living for its population. That’s the hope.

Demographics and climate

But lurking behind the political plight of all African and developing nations are two objective realities which no amount of books and articles and strategies can argue away: explosive population growth and environmental damage/climate change.

In 1962 when Congo became independent its population was an estimated 16 million (there’s never been a census). Now, as I write, it is estimated to be 90 million and every one of this huge country’s  ecosystems – its agricultural land, its rivers, its rich rainforests – are being permanently degraded. It’s hard to be optimistic.

Congo proverbs and sayings

I started reading Stearns immediately after reading Philip Gourevitch’s famous book about the Rwandan genocide which readers of my review will know I had an allergic reaction to because of its foregrounding of the author’s naively American, blank incomprehension at the monstrosity of the thing, rather than applying knowledge and analysis.

As I read the Stearns I noticed a tiny but symptomatic difference between the two authors which is that whereas Gourevitch, being the A-grade English graduate that he is, uses as epigraphs to his chapters entirely inappropriate quotations from George Eliot or John Milton, Stearns instead uses Congolese proverbs and folk sayings. These are teasing, suggestive, evocative, flavoursome ways of entering into an alien culture, and also indicative of how much deeper Stearns has got under the skin of this country and its people than Gourevitch did of Rwanda.

  • Power is eaten whole. (p.3)
  • A cat can enter a monastery but she still remains a cat. (p.163)
  • No matter how hard you throw a dead fish in the water, it still won’t swim. (p.181)
  • The gratitude of a donkey is a kick (p.239)
  • Death does not sound a trumpet. (p.249)

Credit

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns was published in 2011 in the United States by Public Affairs. All references are to the 2012 Public Affairs paperback edition.

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The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff (1998) – 2

‘What is more human than war?’
(Michel Ducraux, head of the Red Cross delegation in Kabul)

Chapter 3. The seductiveness of moral disgust

This rather pompous chapter title conceals something much more simple, which is: Don’t give up on trying to help the victims in disaster zones because you’ve become disgusted by the endless stories of brutality and barbarism. Or: avoid becoming disillusioned.

Ignatieff describes how, for the first four or so years after the collapse of communism, there was a lot of brave talk in Western diplomatic, academic and media circles about the ‘peace dividend’ and the ‘new world order’. Those years saw the international community energetically intervening in crisis situations around the world – overseeing elections in Cambodia, throwing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, creating a safe haven for the Kurds, attempts to end the civil war in Somalia, UN intervention in Bosnia.

There was hope that the huge budgets previously devoted to war would be redirected into foreign aid. But now, as he writes in 1998, the early 90s feel like a vanished era and he describes how that optimism lapsed under the impact of a series of failures and disasters, marked by the Yugoslav wars and Rwandan genocide (pages 89 to 91).

So this chapter considers how to keep the cause of international humanitarian intervention alive, and how to make it more practical and effective.

I. On the road with Boutros Boutros-Ghali

The first half of the chapter is an account of a fascinating week Ignatieff spent as a member of the small press pack accompanying United Nations General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali (who held the position from January 1992 to December 1996). Boutros had had a big impact: when he took over the UN had 4,000 peacekeepers worldwide; three years later it had over 70,000.

Thursday 13 July 1995: on the plane heading south from Cairo. Srebrenica has fallen, the Dutch UN peacekeepers have been taken hostage, Muslim men have been separated from their women and driven off never to be seen again. Ignatieff cross questions Boutros who insists the UN has done as much as it could. If they had not been in Yugoslavia things would have been worse. They have set up refugee camps. But when it comes to intervening in actual conflict, the UN are negotiators and you have to wait till parties are ready to come to the negotiating table.

Friday 14 July 1995: Nayarubuye, Rwanda. The town where the inhabitants have decided to leave the dead from the genocide unburied as a memorial to the genocide. Fergal Keane is show round it in his book Season of Blood. Ignatieff says the UN force in Kigali could have done more. The genocidal militias were spurred on by Radio Milles Collines; the UN contingent could have shut it down. Machete-wielding gangs roamed the streets of Kigali; UN tanks could have stopped them. The reduced UN contingent did set up a safe haven at the soccer ground and protected the famous Hotel Rwanda, but then was forced to sit and watch three months of genocide. It was an epic fail by any standard. Now, one year later, key members of the genocidal regime are in the vast Hutu refugee camps in eastern Zaire, where they are being housed and fed by the same UN which failed to prevent the genocide.

Saturday 15 July 1995: Luanda, Angola. Boutros flies in to check on the ceasefire agreement between Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels and the government of Eduardo dos Santos. In the twenty year civil war half a million people died and an oil-rich country full of potential was turned into a wasteland. Now the UN tries to keep the peace in this ruined land.

The United Nations has become the West’s mercy mission to the flotsam of failed states left behind by the ebb tide of empire. (p.79)

Ignatieff notes that the UN has had to step in and administer failed or stricken states. He names Mozambique, El Salvador, Haiti, Namibia and Cambodia, to which we, in 2021, could add Iraq, Syria, Libya, let’s see what happens next in Afghanistan. After meeting with President dos Santos, Boutros and his entourage fly to the jungle base of the guerrilla leader Savimbi. The two men embrace. Diplomacy means dealing with murderers, that’s what it is.

Sunday 16 July 1995: Gbadolite, Zaire. Boutros, his team and the little pack of journalists which includes Ignatieff flies to the vast luxury jungle complex of President Mobutu. He keeps them waiting then arrives in a limo with entourage and charms everyone. Then smoothly promises Boutros he will not harm the Hutu refugees in their huge camps in eastern Congo. Three weeks later he breaks his promise and his troops start emptying the camps using whips and guns. [I’m not sure this is correct. All the other sources I’ve read claim that Mobutu supported and maintained the Hutu refugees. But maybe Ignatieff is referring to one event in what was a very confused situation, in the refugee camps, which went on for years.]

Monday 17 July 1995: Bujumbura, Burundi. Burundi is a kind of mirror image of Rwanda. It, also, is split in this great ethnic divide between Hutus and Tutsis, but instead of the Hutu majority in power (as was in the case in Rwanda, leading up to the genocide) the Tutsi minority have remained in power.

Forced by the ‘international community’ to hold genuine elections (as most third world countries were, after the end of the Cold War), in 1993 Burundi finally elected a Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, its first ever Hutu. His reforms antagonised soldiers in the Tutsi-dominated army and he was assassinated in a failed military coup in October 1993. This led to the Burundian civil war, in reality a series of massacres around the country, which dragged on for years and in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed. Ignatieff pays tribute to a remarkable man, which is worth recording:

To stop Burundi from disintegrating, the secretary-general appointed a special representative, Ahmed Ould Abdallah, an indefatigable fifty-five-year-old Mauritanian diplomat, who bears himself with the imperiousness of a Saharan chieftain. In April 1994, on the night that the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over Kigali airport, Abdallah went on radio and television to prevent false rumours from precipitating a bloodbath. He sat up all night with the army chief of staff, phoning the local commanders and ordering them to remain in barracks. Most observers credit Abdallah with saving Burundi from the genocidal frenzy that overtook Rwanda next door. (p.85)

Ignatieff describes Abdallah as being on the phone all the time to local politicians, instructing them to keep a lid on things. He, personally, goes out on the streets, meeting the leaders of militias in ethnically cleansed towns, telling them to curb the violence or they will all be swept away. It’s a portrait of remarkable bravery. As always Ignatieff is interested in the theory or principle behind events, and sees in Abdallah a form of ‘preventative diplomacy’.

Ignatieff sits in on the meeting Boutros chairs with the country’s political elite. Tutsis and Hutus sit on opposite side of the table and won’t look each other in the eye. One by one they retell their long stories of grievance and offence: the Tutsis did this to us; no, the Hutus did this first. It is the behaviour of five-year-olds in a playground. Boutros waits till the end, then harangues them, telling them they are grown-ups, they are politicians, and the art of politics is compromise. You talk, negotiate and compromise with people from the other side; you don’t try to exterminate them.

II. The limits of UN power

That evening in the hotel Ignatieff interviews Boutros. Doesn’t he ever get tired of all this? Doesn’t he yield to ‘The seductiveness of moral disgust’? (So that’s where the chapter title comes from.)

Boutros has an important message. He tells the leaders of all these screwed-up countries that the ‘international community is watching them’ and monitoring their behaviour, but he adds an important rider. The United Nations will not save them. He manages down their expectations. Lots of leaders think they can behave like petulant children and the UN will somehow fly in and rescue them from the consequences. But in reality the UN is much more powerless than it seems, tied to ‘mandates’ which are thrashed out by the Security Council. When even the most liberal power in the world, America, refused to let UN forces in Kigali intervene in the Rwandan genocide, then you realise how impotent it is.

In reality all the UN can do is try to steer opposing forces to the negotiating table. They are Relate for countries mired in civil conflict, but in order to change the forces in a country have to want to change. The UN can broker deals and then it can police what was agreed – but the conflicting parties have to agree to want to make a deal in the first place. Boutros gives the Israelis and Palestinians as an example. How long did it take to get them to the peace table?

III. Maybe we should be more imperialistic

Ignatieff describes how, by 1995, the euphoria and optimism which followed the collapse of communism has evaporated. He reflects that the problem of foreign intervention of the past 5 years had been too half-hearted. The West is hobbled by post-imperial guilt. We lob a few shells at the bad guys then withdraw, expecting things to get better, but by and large they only get worse. For such a card-carrying liberal, Ignatieff surprises the reader by asserting that maybe we need to be more imperial, more interventionist and more assertive.

What if General Schwartzkopf had been made the MacArthur of Iraq, toppling Saddam and given free rein to rebuild Iraq as MacArthur rebuilt Japan? What if America had responded to the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu with full throttle aggression, had defeated the warlords or dragged them to the negotiating table, and were now policing the UN-supervised reconstruction of the country? What if NATO had responded immediately to the Serbian uprising in Bosnia in 1992 with air strikes and an aggressive ground campaign, which had prevented the creation of new concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, the long agony of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica? (p.94)

The West maintains the arrogant assumption that we know best, and reserves the right to intervene where and when we see fit, but then always does so a) too late and b) half-heartedly, withdrawing whenever as soon as anyone gets shot or public interest wanes and moves onto the next disaster somewhere else.

IV. Disillusion and disgust

So now we get closer to the core of his argument. Ignatieff thinks he detects a new mood of disillusion throughout the diplomatic community which has spread to some of the aid workers. What’s the point? What’s the point applying sticking plasters to countries whose leaders are hell-bent on mass murder and social destruction? So this chapter amounts to Ignatieff wondering aloud whether the entire project of Western intervention has reached the end of its tether or needs to be rethought.

V. Ideologues of disillusion

Ignatieff describes this wave of disgust and disillusion as if it’s a ride washing over the Western world and goes on to mention two of its leading thinkers or idealogues (definition: ‘Someone who espouses a particular ideology, particularly a political one.’), namely Samuel Huntingdon and Robert Kaplan

Samuel Huntingdon

Samuel Huntingdon (1927 to 2008) was an American political scientist, adviser, and academic who spent over half a century teaching at political science at Harvard University, as well as spells advising the governments of South Africa and Brazil. He became famous among the chattering classes for his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. This predicted that, with the end of communism, global conflict would in future be caused by clashes between ‘cultural’ forces, by which he religious and ethnic blocs. He predicted that the Western world would find its most severe antagonist in the Islamic world. Most liberals pooh-poohed this idea as reactionary until 9/11 turned the world upside-down and gave his ideas renewed popularity.

Huntingdon took a relativistic view of human rights and democracy, seeing them as achievements of Western civilisation were not necessarily appropriate to other cultures. Therefore foisting our values on other countries and cultures was not only morally wrong but a practical mistake.

Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.

Ignatieff was writing very soon after Huntingdon’s book was published and takes strong issue with it. Huntingdon appears to be saying this kind of civilisational clash is fated and predestined whereas Ignatieff very strongly disagreed. For Ignatieff, the whole point of Yugoslavia and Rwanda is not that they were fated, but that specific rulers chose to whip up ethnic nationalism in order to stay in power. Civic nationalism was a realistic alternative for these countries but specific leaders chose to neglect that path. At the opening of chapter 2 Ignatieff ridicules Huntingdon’s idea that the war in Croatia was a ‘clash of civilisations’ by reducing it to absurdity, saying that Huntingdon’s theory implies that there is some kind of invisible line between the farmhouse full of Serbs that he (Ignatieff) is holed up in and the farmhouse full of Croats 250 yards away, and that this represents the borderline ‘between civilisations’.

Robert Kaplan

In February 1994 i.e. only a year or so before Ignatieff began writing his book, American journalist Robert D. Kaplan published an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled ‘The Coming Anarchy’. He had been on a tour of West African states and had seen for himself the anarchy and chaos in many of them (Liberia, Sierra Leone) and the example of the failed state Somalia on the opposite coast.

Kaplan predicted that, with the end of the Cold War, conflict of ideology would be replaced by conflicts caused by multiple overlapping causes, a congeries of causes which would be difficult to disentangle and impossible to control (p.98).

  • environmental deterioration would bring ever-increasing conflict over resources
  • impoverished rural populations would migrate to cities, creating huge unstable urban areas liable to splinter along ethnic or cultural lines
  • cultural or ethnic groupings would supersede political borders, creating regions of conflict which cross traditional borders
  • the post-modern world would be a confusion of cross-cutting identities, systems and allegiances

Ignatieff summarises Kaplan’s view as predicting that future conflicts won’t even be dignified by the phrase ‘civil war’, they will ‘wars of disintegration’, fought over drugs, resources, control, power – a return to pre-modern warlordism. The West and its economically advanced partners in Asia (Korea, Singapore, the advanced parts of China) will go from strength to strength, leaving vast areas of the globe to become ‘a subrational zone of semipermanent violence’.

Ignatieff doesn’t explicitly counter Kaplan’s vision. On paper he ought to be against it because Kaplan, like Huntingdon, has such a fatalistic tinge. But Ignatieff summarises his view simply as the most famous representative of what can be called the modern chaos theory.

Three questions

Instead Ignatieff ends this essay by asking three questions in light of the Bosnian war:

  1. When is it necessary for outside powers to use military force in civil wars?
  2. When is it right to back a minority’s claim to secede from a state?
  3. How can civilian populations be protected from the consequences of civil wars?

Trying to define answers to these questions turns out to be very tricky in the context of the complexity of the Yugoslav wars, but one theme emerges. Half-assed intervention may do more harm than good. UN supplying food to refugees of both sides may have encouraged both sides in the war to fight on. Claiming to provide ‘safe havens’ which turned out to be anything but, was arguably very harmful. But then the West refused to counter Serb aggression and let the Serbs bomb Sarajevo into ruin for four long years! On the other hand, sending in limited numbers of UN troops to try and monitor ceasefire lines and so on, gave hostages to the enemies. Once they were in place, more aggressive intervention, such as air strikes, became impossible for the Serbs would have massacred or taken the UN troops hostage.

To summarise:

The chief threat to international security in the post-Cold War world is the collapse of states, and the resulting collapse of the capacity of civilian populations to feed and protect themselves, either against famine or interethnic warfare. In a world in which nations once capable of imperial burdens are no longer willing to shoulder them, it is inevitable that many of the states created by decolonisation should prove unequal to the task of maintaining civil order. Such nations have achieved self-determination on the cruellest possible terms. Either they are torn apart by ethnic conflict, or they are simply too weak to overcome the poverty of their people. (p.105)

What is needed is a more imperial approach, by which Ignatieff means a really long-term commitment to bring peace and then spend decades rebuilding a state with the kind of civic institutions we enjoy in the West. But this, also, is fraught with risk and probable failure. It may be that peoples in a failing state come to hate each other so much that only a third force can enter and hope to restore peace and order. But the experience of colonialism is that quite quickly both sides will unite against the peacekeeper. After all this is what happened in Northern Ireland where the British Army initially went in in 1969 to protect the Catholic community from attacks by Loyalists. But they hadn’t been there long before a sequence of incidents led the Catholic community to hate their presence and there followed nearly 30 years of violence on all sides.

And of course Ignatieff was not to know it, but the Americans were to try follow his admonition to be more not less imperialistic in Iraq and Afghanistan this century.

In Iraq overthrowing the dictator turned out to be the easy part and then trying to create a peaceful civil society proved impossible as the country collapsed into waves of insurgencies. In Afghanistan, we have just seen the end of twenty years and over a trillion dollars worth of investment which is that the ‘state’ everyone involved claimed to have created was overthrown in less than a week by the Taliban and their theocratic rule has been restored to what it was before 9/11. And after all that effort Afghanistan remains one of the poorest, least educated places on earth.

Ignatieff thought the West was ‘disgusted and disillusioned by its failed attempts to intervene in civil wars, keep the peace and try to build nations, back in 1998. I wonder what his position is now?

Chapter 4. The Warrior’s Honour

This is the longest chapter in the book and gives it its title. It opens with a long factual account of the origin of the International Red Cross, starting with Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnessing the Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859, and then volunteering to help treat the tens of thousands of casualties which clogged the town in the aftermath of the battle. He returned to Switzerland, dazed by what he had seen, began consulting with experts in the areas of medicine and law, war law, and in 1863 the founding charter of the Red Cross was published in Geneva.

Ignatieff follows the Red Cross’s history through the cataclysms of the twentieth century, showing how rules and processes were added, the most important being the organisation’s studied impartiality, bolstered by the way that the entire international committee remained Swiss until relatively recently, and  its commitment to secrecy i.e. it has historically refused to turn over details of participants in war crimes etc to various international courts, because doing so would jeopardise its ability to operate in future warzones.

It comes over several times that the International Red Cross does not pursue justice and it does not campaign for human rights. Its job is to police the laws of war. It polices the implementation of the Geneva Codes. As Wikipedia explains:

The Geneva Conventions are rules that apply only in times of armed conflict and seek to protect people who are not or are no longer taking part in hostilities; these include the sick and wounded of armed forces on the field, wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians.

In practice, as the Red Cross representative in Kabul explains, this means trying to calmly convey to warlords and militias the basic rules:

  • don’t shoot the wounded
  • don’t fire on ambulances
  • don’t target hospitals
  • don’t attack civilians
  • don’t torture prisoners

As Ignatieff summarises:

The Geneva Conventions are not about justice but about good treatment. (p.193)

And again:

Dunant’s original genius lay in his acceptance of war as an essential ritual of human society, which can be tamed but which will never be eradicated. (p.156)

Along the way Ignatieff points out that Dunant knew from the start that its principles of care for the victims of conflict no matter what their origin, ethnicity or involvement would not be enough to guarantee its future. Dunant also relied on the warrior’s code.

Ignatieff explains that almost all soldiers across all cultures, across all periods, have codes of honour, codes they operate by. Just being a mighty fighter isn’t enough. In general soldiers, whether Samurai or native Americans or Aztecs or medieval knights have operated by agreed codes of behaviour. He explains how the Red Cross has played along with these codes in various situations, matching its humanitarian aims to protect the weak and treat the sick with the nearest thing available in the warrior codes of the culture it found itself in.

However, things have changed. When his account continues into a detailed consideration of the role played by the Red Cross in the Yugoslav wars, he points out the organisation came under real stress. Both the Croat and Serb governments licensed the establishment of paramilitaries which were encouraged to carry out ethnic cleansing which their parent governments, and armies, could deny responsibility for (p.133). As part of this freedom from responsibility some of them attacked Red Cross convoys. The Red Cross were too late to help the inhabitants of Vukovar. The Red Cross were powerless to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica. Red Cross officials were traumatised to discover the Serbs had built the first concentration camps in Europe since the Second World War near Banja Luka.

These cumulative failures made Red Cross staff and managers wonder the organisation was relevant any more. Or whether war had changed so much that its role needed to be reconsidered (p.140).

Worse, was the advent of a new feature of the wars of chaos, namely child soldiers. Young teenagers have maybe fought in armies through history, but entire units of children armed with machine guns was a new phenomenon. It was most salient in Africa, especially the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Here teenagers, often stoned out of their minds, lorded it over roadblocks and machine gunned people at random, including several Red Cross missions.

In both instances, the warrior code which Dunant knew his organisation relied on, was not just breached but had ceased to exist.

Ignatieff applies the same interpretation to the civil war in Afghanistan. He flew into Kabul 3 days after the former communist president, Mohammad Najibullah, had been caught by the Taliban who had just taken Kabul, tortured to death, castrated, beaten to a pulp and his body dragged round the street behind a lorry before being hung from a traffic pole.

Ignatieff laments that, for most of its history, Afghan warriors fought by a code, not least limited by its subsistence agriculture. They fought after the seeds had been sown and until harvest time. There were in-built modes of restraint. But after the Soviet invasion of Christmas 1979, the Americans poured weapons into the country and these, along with what the Soviets left behind when they abandoned the place in 1989, made it one of the most heavily armed countries on earth. Once the Soviets had gone the mujahideen militias of this deeply tribal country fell to attacking each other, with a technology which didn’t require a winter break. By the time Ignatieff arrives, year-round fighting with bazookas and rocket-propelled grenades and mortars had reduced most of the towns and cities to rubble. Ignatieff tells us that in all the warzones he visited he had never seen such devastation as 1996 Kabul.

The latter part of the essay analyses in detail the moral basis of the Red Cross’s work. Even some of its own staff think it should take a more proactive stance on human rights. But the veterans know its mission is narrower and darker than that. Its appeal to the warrior code may be a slender basis for action, a slender hope. But it also may be all that separates war from utter savagery.

But times have changed. For most of human history states have endeavoured to secure a monopoly of violence and vest it in a specialised warrior class, ruled, as mentioned, by a warrior code. But modern technology has removed much of the interaction of ‘soldiers’ in the West, who are increasingly technicians; while the rest of the world has seen an unprecedented flood of weapons, billions of small handguns, and endless amounts of the light, cheap and reliable Kalashnikov rifle.

The result is that poor, weak, post-colonial states often cannot enforce that monopoly of violence. What state collapse means is that violence passes into the hands of private armies, militias, paramilitaries, warlords, gangsters, drug cartels and so on. One commentator has described them as ‘ragged wars’. Many of them are hardly wars at all, but conflict between criminal gangs fighting for control of drugs or raw resources, such as the precious gems and minerals of eastern Congo.

a) It is very difficult for any society to claw its way back from such total collapse.

b) None of the purveyors of violence listed above conform to any warrior code. They have not been trained in the art of restraining and channeling violence. The result is unrestrained savagery. Barbarism.

Ignatieff delivers a surprising conclusion. What the world needs is states. Before humanitarian aid, or general aid programmes or economic development, these countries need states which control professional armies with trained leaders. These armies can then disarm the militias and paramilitaries and enforce a return to peace. This may mean not intervening in civil wars and letting a victor emerge naturally – then supporting them to restore the state’s monopoly on violence. Only under these conditions can there be any hope of a return to the basic stability which is required before any kind of social or economic development can be undertaken.

Chapter 5. The nightmare from which we are trying to awake

The past is an argument. (p.174)

The final chapter is a consideration of the purpose and effectiveness of truth and reconciliation commissions. The most famous one is the one set up by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, but there were also attempts to air dirty secrets and establish the facts about the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile.

These commissions are based on shaky propositions:

  1. That a ‘truth’ agreed by everyone can ever be achieved.
  2. That a direct analogy between individual psyche and national psyche.

We know that some people can be cured of crippling neuroses or obsessions or depression or other mental symptoms if they can be made to face up to traumatic experiences from the past; if they can ‘work through’ their ‘issues’. Bit it’s wishful thinking to imagine the same can happen for nations. A nation is not a person, doesn’t have a ‘mind’ and an ‘unconscious’.

Still, on the plus side, may people were brought ‘closure’, particularly by concrete information about what happened to their loved ones who went missing decades ago. They were tortured to death by the Chilean police or dumped out of helicopters into the sea by the Argentine air force.

Ignatieff suggests a kind of hierarchy of outcome, or a series of waystations, for these kinds of commissions, in order of attainability:

  1. truth
  2. reconciliation
  3. justice

Truth He draws a distinction between truth and justice. It’s one thing to get all sides to agree on a narrative of events (the ‘truth’), it’s quite another to get them to agree on an interpretation of what those events mean. After all, they’re likely to be coming from very different perspectives.

He says some international supporters of truth and reconciliation processes were disillusioned when the military in both Argentina and Chile refused to take part and refused to accept any blame or responsibility.

A truth commission can winnow out the facts upon which society’s arguments with itself should be conducted. But it cannot bring these arguments to a conclusion. (p.173)

Reconciliation is difficult because of the identities people all-too-often create around their plights and experiences. Both victors and victims create narratives which entrench their status, how both sides refuse to acknowledge any guilt or responsibility, how time hardens these myths into stone. Compromise becomes impossible.

Ignatieff takes us on a whistlestop tour of such T&R commissions. These include the ones about the military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, which the military of both nations took part in but ensured their scope was severely limited. The one carried out in Germany after reunification.

The glaring fact that one has never been a public admission of guilt or acknowledgment carried out in Russia. Russia was never de-Stalinised and therefore continues to bear the burden of unspoken guilt, creating two Russias, one of the hundreds of thousands of liberals and intellectuals who are well educated and ashamed of its murderous past, and the tens of millions of party members who feel no guilt about the past, who take their medals and awards to their graves, who resent the liberals as traitors and foreign agents, who play into the hands of Putin the patriotic Russian nationalist.

The title of this chapter is a famous quotation from James Joyce, to be precise Joyce’s character Stephen Dedelus in his novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ The character, like Joyce, was conscious of Ireland’s stifling attachment to its grievances and oppression which almost guarantee that the same situation recurs over and over again, like the recurring nightmare of a trauma victim.

The only way to awake from the nightmare is to acknowledge the trauma and try to lay it to rest. Ignatieff praises President Alwyn of Chile who publicly apologised to the victims of Pinochet’s repression, and German Chancellor Willi Brand who got down on his knees in front of a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto. These gestures by leaders opened up a space in which millions of their citizens could also come out into the open and make gestures of apology. Saying sorry opens the door for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. Ignatieff is full of scorn or anger that none of the leaders of the six post-Yugoslavia states have apologised for anything.

Vengeance

In the last pages Ignatieff offers a striking new interpretation of the idea of vengeance. He makes the brilliant point that vengeance is usually considered a low, dishonourable act, vulgar and crude. But it can also be interpreted as a strongly moral devotion to keeping faith with the dead, by continuing their work, by acting on their behalf. Thought-provoking idea…

But it doesn’t change the facts on the ground that vengeance tends to an eternal cycle of violence as sons take revenge for their fathers who took revenge for their grandfathers, and so on endlessly, just as the Serbs and Croats of 1992 were encouraged to avenge their grandfathers of 1942. Something must break this cycle, some act of penance or reconciliation. And the first step towards that is understanding of the other side and their hurt, no matter how difficult or repugnant that might be.

Reconciliation has no chance against vengeance unless it respects the emotions that sustain vengeance, unless it can replace the respect entailed in vengeance with rituals in which communities once at war learn to mourn their dead together. (p.190)


Credit

The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff was published by Chatto and Windus in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Vintage paperback edition.

New world disorder reviews

Don McCullin @ Tate Britain

This is an enormous exhibition of over 250 photos by famous war photographer Don McCullin. A working class lad who left school at 15 and got interested in cameras during his national service, the show opens with the first photograph he sold (in 1958 a policeman was stabbed by members of a gang in Finsbury Park – McCullin happened to have been at school with some of these young toughs and persuaded them to be photographed posing in a bombed-out house – people in his office saw the printed photo and said why don’t you try selling it to a newspaper? A newspaper bought it, and said have you got any more like that? And so a star was born).

The Guv'nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The Guv’nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The exhibition then follows McCullin’s career as he visited one warzone, famine zone, disaster zone, after another from the early 1960s right through to the 2000s, in the process becoming one of the most famous photographers in the world. He began a long association with the Sunday Times which covered war zones and natural disasters around the world in a ground-breaking combination of photojournalism.

Each of these odysseys is accompanied by a wall label which gives you the historical background of the conflict in question, and then, separately, McCullin’s reactions and thoughts about it.

Not all of them are abroad. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, though mainland Brits often forget it, was, of course, a low-level war or civil conflict fought here in Britain. And McCullin also undertook trips with journalists to parts of Britain which were still very, very deprived in the 1960s and 70s, capturing images of the homeless and alcoholics in the East End, as well as sequences depicting the bleak late-industrial landscapes and cramped lifestyles of the North of England.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

The featured locations and subjects are:

  • Early London i.e. variations on his gangs of Finsbury shots
  • 1961 a journey to Berlin just as the wall was going up
  • Republic of Congo descent into civil war
  • Cyprus – intercommunal assassinations between Greeks and Turks
  • Biafra, war and then famine in this breakaway state of Nigeria
  • Vietnam – McCullin went to Vietnam no fewer than eighteen times and shot some of the iconic images of the war: there’s a display case showing the passports he used and the actual combat helmet he wore
Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

  • Cambodia – as the Vietnam conflict spilled over into its neighbour setting the scene for the rise of the Khmer Rouge
  • the East End i.e. the homeless, tramps and derelicts around Spitalfields
  • Northern Ireland in the early years of the conflict 1970 showing youths throwing stones at British soldiers
  • Bradford and the North – McCullin has a special fondness for Bradford with its rugged stone architecture, and shot the working class amusements of the population (bingo, the pub) with the same harsh candour he brought to his war photos
  • British Summer Time – a smaller section about the activities of the British rich i.e. the season, Ascot etc
  • Bangladesh – the war followed by floods and famine as East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971
  • Beirut – once the Paris of the Middle East descends into a three-way civil war, destabilised by neighbours Israel and Syria – there’s a famous sequence McCullin shot at a home for the mentally ill which had been abandoned by most of its carers: madness within madness
  • Iraq – among the Kurds in particular as the first Gulf War came to its tragic end (President Bush exhorted the Kurds and Marsh Arabs to rise up against Saddam Hussein but when they did, gave them no help, so that they were slaughtered in their thousands or fled to refugee camps
  • southern Ethiopia – amazingly colourful tribespeople holding kalashnikovs
  • India – one of McCullin’s favourite countries which he’s returned to again and again to capture the swirl and detail of life
  • the AIDS pandemic in Africa – pictures of the dying accompanied by McCullin’s harrowing description of the AIDS pandemic as the biggest disaster he’d covered

Finally, in the last big room, are displayed the photos from the last few decades of McCullin’s career (born in October 1935, he is now 83 years old), in which he has finally been persuaded to take it easy. These are in two big themes and a smaller one:

  • he has been undertaking trips to the ancient Roman ruins to be found in the Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean, leading up to the publication of the book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire
  • and his most recent book, The Landscape (2018), is a collection of stunning photos of the scenery near his home in the Somerset Levels
  • finally, right at the tippy-most end of this long exhausting exhibition are three or four still lifes, very deliberately composed to reference the tradition of the still life in art, featuring apples or flowers in a bowl, next to a cutting board
Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Black and white

All the 250 photos in the exhibition are in black and white. McCullin printed them himself by hand in the dark room at his Somerset home.

As I’ve remarked in reviews of umpteen other photography exhibitions, black and white photography is immediately more arty than colour, because it focuses your visual response on depth, shade, lines and composition.

A lot of the early war photography is obviously capturing the moment, often under gunfire (McCullin was himself hit by shrapnel and hospitalised in Cambodia). But many of the smokestack cityscapes of Bradford and the North, the images of swirling mist and muddy rivers in India, and then the bleak photos of the Somerset Levels, in winter, dotted by leafless trees, floodwater reflecting the huge mackerel cloudscapes – many of these also have a threatening, looming, menacing effect.

The wall labels and the quotes from McCullin himself make it explicit that he is still haunted by the horrors he has witnessed – of war and cruelty, but also of famine and death by epidemic disease. It is a fairly easy interpretation to find the trauma of war still directing the aesthetic of the later photos – whether of Roman ruins in the desert or lowering skies over bleak Somerset in winter – both looking as if some terrible cataclysm has overtaken them.

The magazine slideshow

The one exception to the black and white presentation is a big dark projection room which shows a loop of the magazine covers and articles where McCullin’s photos were first published, displays of how they actually looked when first used, covered with banner headlines, or next to pages of text, and accompanied by detailed captions, describing the scene, what had happened just before or was going to happen afterwards, quotes from the people pictured.

It is striking what a difference a) being in colour and b) being accompanied by text, makes to these images. You quite literally read them in a different way, namely that your eye is drawn first to the text, whether it be the splash headlines on the front covers, or the tiny lines of caption accompanying the images.

It makes you realise that they were almost all first intended to tell a story, to explain a situation and, in all of the rest of the rooms of the exhibition, where that story is told by, at most, a paragraph of text on the wall, the images become ‘orphaned’. They stand alone. they are more ominous, pregnant with meaning, imposing.

Here, in the magazine slideshow, pretty much the same images are contained, corralled to sizes and shapes dictated by magazine layout, and overwritten by text which immediately channels your aesthetic and emotional responses and underwritten by captions, explanations and quotes which lead you away from the image and into the world of words and information.

And because information is, at the end of the day, more entrancing than pictures, more addictive (you want to find out what happened next, who, where, what, why) in one way this was the most powerful room in the show. I stayed for the entire loop which must have lasted over ten minutes, incidentally conveying, yet again, the sheer volume of work McCullin produced.

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

One perspective

Which brings me to my concluding thought which is that, for all its breadth (some fifty countries visited) and variety (from traumatic photojournalistic immediacy of wounded soldiers or starving children, to the monumental beauty of the Roman ruin shots and the chilly vistas of Somerset in winter) there is nonetheless a kind of narrowness to the work, in at least two ways:

The louring images of Somerset could hardly be more bleak and abandoned and the commentary is not slow to make the obvious point that they can be interpreted as landscapes as portrayed by a deeply traumatised, harrowed survivor i.e. it is all the suffering he saw which makes McCullin’s photographs of Somerset so compelling.

Well, yes, but these are also landscapes which people travel a long way to go on holiday in, where people have barbecues in the summer, take their dogs for walks, cars drive across playing Radio One, which has a good cricket team and various tourist attractions.

None of that is here. None of the actual world in all its banality, traffic jams and Tesco superstores. The images have been very carefully composed, shot and printed in order to create a particular view of the world.

And this also goes for the war and disaster photos. Seeing so many brilliantly captured, framed and shot images of war and disaster and famine, as well as the images of wrecked human beings in Spitalsfield and the poverty of the North of England – all this is bleak and upsetting and creates the impression that McCullin was living, that we are all living, in a world in permanent crisis, permanent poverty, permanent devastation.

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

You would never guess from this exhibition that his career covers the heyday of the Beatles, Swinging London, hippies smoking dope in a thousand attic squats, Biba and new boutiques, that – in other words – while soldiers were torturing civilians in Congo or Bangladesh, lots of young people were partying, older people going to work, kids going to school, families going on package holidays to the Costa del Sol, trying out fondue sets and meal warmers and all the other fancy new consumer gadgets which the Sunday Times advertised in the same magazines where McCullin’s photos appeared.

In other words, that away from these warzones, and these areas of maximum deprivation, life was going on as usual, and life was actually sweet for many millions of Brits. Kids play and laugh, even in warzones, even in poor neighborhoods. No kids are playing or laughing in any of these photos.

McCullin’s photos build up into an amazing oeuvre, an incredible body of work. But it would be a mistake to use them as the basis for a history or political interpretation of the era. It is just one perspective, and a perspective paid for by editors who wanted him to seek out the most harrowing, the most gut-wrenching and the most conscience-wracking situations possible.

If the cumulative worldview which arises from all these 250 photos is violent and troubled that is because he was paid to take photos of violence and trouble. Other photographers were doing fashion and advertising and sport and pop music photos. Their work is just as valid.

None of McCullin’s work is untrue (obviously), and all of it is beautifully shot and luminously printed – but his photos need to be placed in a much wider, broader context to even begin to grasp the history and meaning of his complex and multi-faceted era.

The promotional video


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Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Conflict, Time, Photography @ Tate Modern

A major exhibition of art photography about war and warzones, what’s not to like? The images come ready-made with all sorts of poignancies and pathos.

To mix it up the curators tried something radically different from the predictable chronological order, namely arranging the images by the length of time after the event they are addressing took place.

Hence the importance of time in the title, and hence the rooms are titled ‘Moments later’, ‘days, weeks later’, ‘Months later’, ‘1-10 years later’, all the way up to ’85-100 years later’.

An overabundance

There are a lot of photographers and a lot of wars. Helps to have a good working knowledge of the conflicts in the ‘century of atrocity’, Mankind’s most shameful century so far (but who knows what’s round the corner?) though there were some displays of work from select wars of the 19th century:

(Nothing from the Boer War or any of the small colonial wars the European nations waged against native peoples during the ‘Belle Epoque’….)

Even so the information panels next to each set of images are packed with facts about the individual photographers (almost none of whom I’d heard of before) and then about their ‘project’ or relationship to the subject matter, and then about the nature of the conflict or war in question, often itself dense with historical and political complications — An awful lot of information to take in.

I paid assiduous attention to the first third, skimmed the next third and, I admit, was too full of facts & fights by the end to do anything except just react to the pics…

The surfeit of material was epitomised by the images around Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The very first images in the show come under the heading ‘Seconds after’ and were a few photos taken ‘seconds after’ the Hiroshima bomb exploded, by a Japanese man working in a lab nearby, who ran to the window in time to catch the growing mushroom cloud. (In fact, theyre not particularly good photos, and don’t look anything like the famous mushroom cloud.)

But about half way through the show there was a mass of images on the subject: a display case containing 13 or so photo-books of images from various sources, by numerous photographers, above which was hung a selection of photos each by different photographers, and then another wall of images from ‘one of the most important photo books of the century’, The Map (1965) by Kikuji Kawada. I found it difficult to react to any but the clearest and most striking images…

Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu - interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963
© Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

There were some familiar and iconic images of war, namely Richard Peters’ shots from Dresden just days after the fateful air raid, or Don McCullin’s combat-shocked American GI.

Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968 © Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968 © Don McCullin

It is photography’s bad luck to have become so easily assimilable. We are surrounded by images and will be in ever-increasing amounts as the internet tightens its grip on our lives. Possibly, what were once termed ‘raw’ and ‘graphic’ images had an impact at some nominal golden age in the past, maybe in the 1960s and 1970s when this kind of photo-journalism first came in. But we’ve had fifty years of ‘graphic’ images of wars, plus the steady stream of jihadist terror since 9/11, as well as a brutal new level of graphic violence in war movies and TV (Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers (2001)) – all of which, I think, has diminished their aesthetic, and moral, impact.

Therefore, some of the other types of engagement, some of the more tangential approaches to the subject matter on display yielded a different sort of feeling, less at risk from horror fatigue. For example, the series of large colour photos of locations where World War I deserters were executed, located and photographed by Chloe Dewe Mathews.

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013. Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy. Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil. Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani. Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed. 17:00 / 15.12.1914  © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013. Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy. Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil. Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani. Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed. 17:00 / 15.12.1914
© Chloe Dewe Mathews

Favourites

Like everyone these days, I also take photographs (showcased on my walking blog) and from doing it myself I’ve evolved a favourite style or approach and way of seeing: I don’t do people (they move, they want permission) and prefer to do either natural features or buildings framed square-on, with space around the subject so you see it in its entirety and, ideally, warm sunshine on a clear day, which helps pick out the detail and gives contrast and depth to an image.

That background explains why I liked what I liked in this show.

1. Simon Norfolk made a portfolio of images titled Chronotopia of Afghanistan. The name refers to the way this wretched country has endured 30 years of almost continuous fighting and therefore why the buildings and landscape contain multiple layers of devastation. Norfolk’s images are big and bright and clear.

Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building, 2003. © Simon Norfolk

Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building, 2003. © Simon Norfolk

2. Jane and Louise Wilson I came across their photos at Tate Britain’s hit-and-miss Ruin Lust exhibition. Here again they had three of their enormous black-and-white photos of the Nazis concrete bunkers and defence system along the coast of France – the Nazi subject matter is totally familiar (no reading up required), the buildings are starkly charismatic, they are framed in the classic way I love.

3. Sophie Ristelhüber is awarded an entire room full of really big photos showing the impact of the First Gulf War on the desert landscape in Kuwait and southern Iraq in 1991, titled Fait. Enormous and in glossy colour, like Norfolk’s, they are consistently high quality and imaginative – each image carefully composed and framed. Very powerful.

4. Ursula Schulz-Dornberg was represented by a sequence of black and white photos of the bare, abandoned remains of the Kurchatov nuclear test site where over 480 detonations took place, photographed 22 years after the final test, in 2012.


There’s a lot more from conflicts in Africa (Congo, Namibia – nothing from Biafra), South America, China, the Armenian genocide, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Holocaust survivors and so on, a relentless and depressing testimony to humanity’s inability to live in peace.

Powerful though many of these images are, there is always something clinical and detached about a glossily printed static image hanging on a white gallery wall. I think the complex emotional aftermath and meditation about conflicts and wars is done better by other arts, music sometimes, but poetry…. there’s a case for arguing that poetry commemorates the dead best of all.

Sophie Ristelhüber’s photos, in particular, with their wrecks in the desert, reminded me of Keith Douglas’s poem from the Desert campaign in World War Two.

Vergissmeinnicht by Keith Douglas (1942)

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

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