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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Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

‘No emotion, Ray,’ warned Lomeli. ‘We need to think very clearly.’ (p.330)

The Pope dies in the middle of the night. Heart attack, according to the Vatican doctors. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Baldassare Lomeli, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, is woken in the early hours to come see the body and set in train the host of formal procedures prompted by the death.

Immediately we are thrown into the midst of the procedural and political complexities of the Holy City, and quickly ushered into a melee of bustling cardinals and archbishops, and to the monsignors and priests, secretaries, nuns and security men, who staff and run the Vatican.

It turns out that we are going to see the entire story from Lomeli’s point of view. The text is not a first-person narrative, it is a third-person narrative, but it follows Lomeli very closely and continually eavesdrops on his thoughts and feelings as the story unfolds.

This is because, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, it falls to Lomeli to make all the practical arrangements for the conclave which must now be called to elect a new pope – to invite the cardinals to Rome, to organise their accommodation, to supervise the transformation of the Sistine Chapel into a voting chamber, the whole thing. Thus Lomeli is the perfect character to accompany through all these arcane mysteries and also the man best placed to confront and unravel the knotty problems which the conclave, in the event, throws up…

Harris skips over the state funeral of the dead pope, which is irrelevant to his purpose, in order to jump to the moment three weeks later when the conclave of all the cardinals foregathers to elect the next pope. One hundred and seventeen cardinals are called from all over the world to the conclave. The successful candidate must gain two thirds of the votes i.e. 79. If the classic thriller is a question of Whodunnit, Conclave is a Whowillgetit: who will be the next pope?

Factual research and conclave procedure

In fact there are more than 117 cardinals in the world but, back in 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced an age limit: no cardinal over the age of eighty can vote. The procedure was further amended by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Thus only 117 are eligible.

Harris is a former investigative journalist, and the book is heavily loaded with factual information, from an intimate description of the interior of the Sistine Chapel as it is prepared for the Conclave of Cardinals, to a detailed description of the hostel on the south side of the Vatican, the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals all stay, with all kinds of scattered insights into the roles of the serving nuns or security police, and so on. Building up an in-depth and persuasive picture of how the place runs.

I was particularly fascinated by his description of the actual process of voting, which is surprisingly straightforward: each of the cardinals has a sheet of paper placed in front of their seat at the benches lined up in the Sistine Chapel and, after some preliminary prayer, they simply write down the surname of the cardinal they’re voting for in big block capitals then fold the piece of paper in half.

Then, one by one, they process up to the altar of the chapel where tellers are waiting, say a short formal prayer, place the folded paper on a chalice and tip the chalice up so the paper falls into an urn, while a secretary counts off their name. When all 117 have voted, the pieces of paper are then counted by one teller, another teller unfolds each one and reads out the name, handing the paper to an assistant who skewers it on a big needle attached to a red thread, so there can be no accidental double counting.

When all 117 have been read out and the votes totted up, the teller announces them, then the pieces of paper on thread are bundled into an oven and burnt.

There is another oven next to it (both being makeshift installations inside the famous chapel) beside which are two piles ‘cartridges’ filled with a chemical mix. After the count, an assistant places one or other of these cartridges into the second oven and ignites it. One produces a billow of black smoke, indicating that a pope has not been elected, the other produces white smoke, indicating that a pope has been elected.

I thought there might be speeches or presentations from the leading candidates but no: they all just vote and the results are read out. Then they traipse back to the Casa Santa Marta where lunch is served amid a hum of gossip and intrigue. And then they traipse back to the Sistine Chapel (or pack into the cheesy little white minibuses which are laid on to take them the half mile or so round the back of St Peter’s, in case it’s raining), troop into the chapel, take their places at the makeshift benches, listen to another prayer, then one by one write out their preferred candidate, walk up to the tellers table, tip their voting slip into the urn, and so on.

Generally, it only takes four or five ballots for a winner to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. In 1978 it took eight ballots to elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, as Pope John Paul II. The rules have changed several times in recent decades but the current rule is that, if the first ballot gives no clear result, there follow four ballots a day, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Wikipedia gives the full, current procedure:

In Harris’s novel, the process is given a sense of urgency and suspense because Cardinal Lomeli gets unofficial bulletins from the reliable Monsignor O’Malley, ‘Secretary of the College of Cardinals’, about the press speculation going on outside the Vatican, and in reply gives generalised advice for O’Malley to pass on to the Vatican press office.

The set-up

Even as Lomeli is called to the bedside of the dead pope on that fateful evening, he realises that the two or three other cardinals in attendance are already beginning to assert their authority and – gently but firmly – compete for the vacant position.

By the time we’ve jumped forward three weeks to the start of the conclave, the competition is overt and jostling for position among the three or four main contenders has become open. There is worldwide attention – as many as a billion and a quarter Catholics are waiting on the result, as well as every media organisation on the planet.

(The three week delay is to give time for every cardinal around the world to sort out their affairs, and fly to Rome, to get settled in at the Casa Santa Marta, and prepare physically and spiritually for the conclave.)

The media and the cardinals themselves acknowledge the leading candidates, representing the various wings of the church. Most obviously there is a liberal, Secretary of State Aldo Bellini, and a man-of-the-people conservative, the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco.

But there is also the smooth-talking, silver-haired operator, the Canadian Chamberlain of the Holy See, Joseph Tremblay, plus a number of ‘outsiders’, including the African cardinal, Joshua Adeyemi from Nigeria who, if elected, would obviously be the first black Pope.

Revelations

But just as the conclave is about to begin, just as the last of the cardinals arrives at the gate of the Vatican, and the last of the non-essential staff leave in order to ensure there are no distractions and no communication with the outside world (all phones and laptops must be handed over), Lomeli is thrown into turmoil by two revelations:

1. The Polish Woźniak, Prefect of the Papal Household, makes a fearful confession to Lomeli: on the very afternoon of his death the former Pope had summoned smooth Cardinal Tremblay and dismissed him from all his offices i.e. sacked him. Why? Woźniak doesn’t know.

2. Lomeli is still reeling from this revelation when he is summoned back to the gates and told that there is an unexpected cardinal there, one who is not on the official list. How can this possibly be the case? It turns out that Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was made a cardinal by the dead Pope in his last few weeks, by a process known as in pectore, in his heart’, meaning the Pope didn’t tell anyone else.

This is pretty irregular but not unknown. Pope John Paul II had also created a cardinal in pectore, it was widely thought because the new cardinal was dispatched to work in China, where he had to conceal his identity from the authorities.

In the event the other cardinals take this discovery in their stride, welcoming cardinal Benítez during the first group meal, and he turns out to be a slender, quiet, but popular figure.

The plot

Having set the scene the book then rattles along at a steady pace, mixing factual background about this or that aspect of the voting, with acute insights into Lomeli’s own personal doubts and hesitancies – after the votes and communal meals we follow him back to his spartan quarters where he often prays for guidance, and the reader shares these moments of vulnerability, indeed all his moods – but the driver of the book is the well-calibrated description of the Race To Be Pope.

And, because it is a thriller, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a steady stream of further revelations which shock and horrify Lomeli, who then has the agonising responsibility of whether to share them with the rest of the conclave. And face the accusation that when he does, he is only doing so in order to sabotage his opponents and place himself in pole position.

And although we are privy to all his thoughts – Lomeli repeatedly tells all the other cardinals, and himself, that he does not want to become pope, he saw what it did to the previous incumbents – nonetheless, as scandal engulfs not one but two of the leading candidates, in each consecutive ballot the vote for him increase, and the reader wonders whether he will, despite all his protestations, end up being elected. Whether, in fact, the man whose inner doubts and worries we have been party to, will turn out to be the next Pope.

But quite apart from his place inside the story, Lomeli plays a far more important function as our eyes and ears into what is going on, providing appropriate explanation whenever needed – and for his pondering over the meaning of the hints and implications which drive the plot.

In fact, slowly and inexorably Lomeli, who is supposed to be a frail 75-year-old Italian cardinal, turns into Hercule Poirot, a slow-moving, thoughtful but acute observer of other people, who puts together various pieces of evidence to piece together the mysteries hanging over the conclave.

Spoilers

Two more revelations dominate the main body of the story.

1. it emerges that the African cardinal, Adeyemi, thirty years earlier had had a brief affair with a very young novice and got her pregnant. Now she has turned up, assigned among the nuns who silently and reverently prepare and serve the cardinals’ meals between voting sessions. This middle-aged nun confronts Adeyemi in the canteen in front of all the other cardinals during dinner, and the resulting scandal ends his promising candidature.

But Lomeli is prompted to ask who arranged for this African nun to be transferred at short notice from Nigeria to Rome. And a trail of clues eventually leads him to a further revelation. When Woźniak told him about the former Pope dismissing Tremblay, there was mention of a report into his alleged misdeeds. Where can this report be? Probably among the dead Pope’s belongings. In his apartment. Which is sealed up with plastic ribbon and papal seals.

Well, Lomeli prays for guidance and decides he can’t do nothing, and so in the middle of the night he calmly breaks into the former Pope’s apartment and searches it until – in the tradition of schoolboy adventure stories – he discovers that the old Pope’s massive, antique wooden bed contains hidden compartments. And in these compartments Lomeli discovers the report the late Pope had commissioned which turns out to be a root and branch investigation into the finances of each and every one of the cardinals, with generally shocking results.

But in particular Lomeli discovers indisputable proof that smooth-operator Tremblay had been paying other cardinals to vote for him. This is the sin of corruption or simony.

Not only that, but he discovers it was definitely Tremblay who arranged for the African nun to be brought to Rome to stymie Joshua’s chances! What a schemer! What a crook!

As usual we are given access to Lomeli’s private thoughts as he ponders what on earth to do, before deciding that God has helped him discover all this, and it is not his job to conceal it: if he waits till after Tremblay is elected pope and this all gets out – as, he ruefully reflects, every secret the Vatican has tried to smother for the previous fifty years does, eventually, leak out – think what damage it will do to the institution he has served all his life.

And so he co-opts the assistance of the steely-willed head of the Vatican’s nuns, Sister Agnes, head of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, and between them, overnight, they make 118 photocopies of the dead Pope’s damning report into Cardinal Tremblay’s activities and place one on every seat in the cardinals’ refectory. As they come down to breakfast the next morning, one by one they read it, leading to uproar. In a dramatic scene Tremblay stands, confronts the accusations head on, and claims Lomeli has only done this to sabotage him, Tremblay, and promote his, Lomeli’s, chances of becoming pope.

Which, for a moment, sways the cardinals against Lomeli until the steely little nun Sister Agnes breaks all convention by speaking in the refectory, demanding to be heard, and announces to the horrified cardinals that she can vouch for the fact that it was Tremblay who requested the African nun be transferred to Rome and thereby sabotaged cardinal Adeyemi’s candidature.

After which the tide turns against Tremblay, and he can only stand begging for understanding and denying it’s true as the rest of the cardinals turns their backs on him.

And so, with only eighty pages of this 380-page-long book left to go and the two front runners, Adeyemi and Tremblay, dramatically withdrawn from the race, who on earth is going to win?

Two bombshells

With Adeyemi and Tremblay knocked out, the next ballot puts Lomeli ahead as front runner, though without the necessary two-thirds majority, when there is an abrupt and shocking change in the tone of the book. A car bomb goes off in St Peter’s Square out front of the Vatican. And a suicide bomber blows himself up. And a terrorist goes into a Catholic church in Munich and starts machine-gunning the congregation.

Suddenly, and irrevocably, the rather charming, old-world if intriguing atmosphere of the novel is shattered. If you have any imagination, you can hear the screams of the wounded, the smell of burned flesh, the body parts scattered across the cobbles. For me this sudden eruption of the real world shattered the rather quaint, almost Ealing Comedy era atmosphere Harris had created.

Lomeli finds out what has happened from O’Malley and then, as usual, agonises about whether to even tell the other cardinals. they heard the loud explosion. Indeed some of the stained glass in the lobby of the chapel was blown in, but it is against the rules of the conclave to bring in any extraneous subject – otherwise it would turn into a political talking shop, not a retreat for spiritual meditation.

Eventually, Lomeli decides he will tell the assembled cardinals what is going on (it is, as it has been all the way through, his job to run the conclave, as Dean of the College of Cardinals: that’s why Harris chose him to be the main protagonist of the story).

Once he has it prompts two speeches from the assembled cardinals. First of all the son of peasants, the ultra-conservative Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco, declares that, in light of this atrocity, all the Catholics in the world will be looking for strong leadership. If he’d stopped there he would have seized the meeting, but he unwisely goes on to lambast all the progressive tendencies of the last 50 years, tolerance of homosexuality, of divorced Catholics remarrying, up to and including the mass immigration which has seen countless mosques being built across Italy, home of the Catholic Church, and it s during his tirade against Islam that the first cries of ‘Shame’ and ‘Boo’ are heard.

When he finally sits down, to everyone’s surprise it is the shy, retiring and inexperienced Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, who asks to be heard, and makes an impassioned plea for tolerance and forgiveness. He has tended to Christians dying in Muslim lands and can tell his fellow cardinals that not one of them wanted vengeance. they all died in the spirit of Christ, asking for their murders to be forgiven.

This quiet speech for the first time creates a real sense of religion, of holiness, in the chapel. Lomeli finds himself being lifted by it, and when the next ballot is held he unequivocally votes for Benítez and then listens, dazed, as the votes are counted and the secret cardinal of Baghdad is voted Pope!

But that isn’t the second bombshell. This comes when Prefect of the Papal Household, Woźniak, staggering at the news, asks to take Lomeli aside for a hurried word. Right back at the start of the narrative it had been Woźniak who told Lomeli that the previous Pope had dismissed Tremblay and Lomeli had asked him to do a bit of digging, which led to the revelation that the former Pope had commissioned the report. But  Woźniak had also done a bit of digging into Benítez while he was at it.

Back then, three days earlier, he’d told Lomeli that Benítez had been involved in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, been injured but (obviously) survived, and there were some references to him being booked into to go to a clinic in Switzerland, a visit which was then cancelled and here he is at the conclave, having just been voted Pope. But Woźniak has only just had time to find out more, to contact the clinic and discover it is a clinic for gender reassignment.

My God. Lomeli runs through to the small Room of tears where Benítez is already being fitted into the papal robes. They have sent the white smoke out the chimney. Already the crowd in St Peter’s Square is roaring. He is only minutes from making his appearance and his first speech.

Lomeli turfs everyone else out the room and demands Benítez tells him the truth. So he does. Benítez was born with the genitals of a girl, but his parents (like so many parents in developing countries, wanting a boy) raised him and dressed him as a boy and, of course, as soon as he started attending seminary school, and then into the junior priesthood, he didn’t give sex a thought, he didn’t see other men’s genitals, his looked normal to him. It was only when he was injured in the car bomb and went to hospital, that a full inspection revealed he was a woman. He went straight to the former Pope to discuss it, and himself made a booking at the gender reassignment clinic. But then realised this is the way he’s made. This is the way God made him. And this is the destiny God has chosen for him. Who is he to say no to God.

And leaving Lomeli perplexed and bewildered the new Pope continues dressing ready to greet his flock of over 1 billion souls, the first ladyboy to be Pope!

Clichés and clarity

On page one we read a description of cardinal Lomeli making his way at two in the morning to the pope’s apartment.

The Rome air was soft and misty yet already he could detect the first faint chill of autumn. (p.1)

Later on we read that:

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. (p.115)

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a restaurant or hotel lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanation of the byzantine procedures of the Vatican or the latest revelation in the fast-moving plot – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man trained by years in journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake.) But it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to character.

I’ve just read Munich, his thriller set during the 1938 Munich Crisis and the best parts of it, the bits which have stayed with me most, are his documentary descriptions of the actual meetings between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. The personalities of the two male protagonists of the thriller plot pale into insignificance next to the factual content. They are like competent watercolours placed next to an oil painting.

Same here. Lomeli is meant to be Italian, a crusty, 75-year-old, dogmatic, Catholic cardinal of an Italian; just imagine what a rebarbative, rich, gnarly old cuss he must be, and all the sins and corruption he must witnessed, and the decades of in-fighting and politicking he has had to navigate. You’d imagine he would have wildly un-PC views about race, homosexuality, women and so on. Just imagine the depths of cynicism this tottering old Italian must have sunk to, what a monstrous character could have been created.

And yet, in Harris’s hands, Lomeli is a decent chap who thinks in perfectly lucid, grammatically perfect, English sentences. There is no confusion in his mind. He reacts to new information or insights with the thoroughness of a computer, processing them and thinking entirely rationally about what to do next. If he is temporarily at a loss, things soon reappear to him in a cool rational way.

Harris makes a few gestures towards Lomeli’s age, his decrepit body, his wavery voice and the fact that he has difficulty sleeping, but these are all on the surface. Lomeli’s mind is never confused or overcome by bias or prejudice or cantankerous feelings. In fact he hardly has any feeling. Harris gives him ‘moments of doubt’ when he kneels and prays to God for help and advice. But none of these convey any emotion at all, let alone a sense of genuine religious anguish or loss. They are window dressing.

This is because Lomeli is a cypher, a cog at the centre of the plot. In a thriller, the plot is everything, literally everything. Each new development must be communicated in as clear a way as possible so that the reader can share the sense of suspense and thrill and excitement. Any lingering over description or psychology just gets in the way of the slow release of new information to build up suspense.

So Lomeli is given a few superficial trappings of age and experience:

He switched on the stuttering light and checked himself in the bluish glow: front first, then his left side, then his right. His profile had become beaky with age. He thought he looked like some elderly moulting bird. (p.138)

But no real psychological depth, no sense of the countless physical degradations of age or the incredible depth of experience such a man must have. Instead he sounds much like you or me, a decent chap doing a tricky job.

Instead he is Hercule Poirot in the Vatican, on the trail of several mysteries, as the clock ticks on and the conclave votes go by – breaking into sealed apartments, investigating the dead pope’s last wishes, uncovering sin and corruption.

And, at the end of the day, what he uncovers (until the final revelation) is relatively clean and straightforward:

1. Adeyemi had an affair with a pretty young woman which, to most of us, is acceptable and forgiveable. It was a breach of trust and an abuse of his position. But it wasn’t the systematic sexual abuse of under-age boys, which is the real story in the modern Catholic Church. This subject is referred to a couple of times by Harris’s cardinals but is treated very much as something of the past, something that has been dealt with and is behind the church now. Which we know not to be true. The opposite. It shows every sign of growing to really profoundly undermine the Catholic Church forever.

2. Similarly, we learn that Cardinal Tremblay has doled out what appear to be mere tens of thousands of Euros to cardinals to get them to vote for him; but there is no mention of the far, far bigger, scandalous involvements of the Vatican Bank with the Mafia, with organised crime, drugs and people smuggling, and a shadowy network of freemason, which emerged in the 1980s.

In the middle of the book, when not much had been revealed and it is full of dark premonitions, I imagined the big secret would turn out that Tremblay had murdered the Pope because he was uncovering a vast web of financial corruption. It all turns out to be that Tremblay was directing Church funds towards the generally backward and impoverished dioceses of cardinals he hoped would vote for him.

In other words, Harris’s protagonist uncovers ‘scandal’ but it is relatively clean and respectable scandal. Nothing to seriously frighten the horses.

Maybe this is part of the deal he did with the Vatican, whose authorities gave him such full access to the Vatican, even rooms off limits to the public and gave him every help and advice. Maybe in return Harris pledged to keep the ‘scandal’ on the safe side. Or maybe there was no deal or understanding, Harris was just being tactful and polite. Or maybe these relatively minor transgressions were his plan all along.

Whatever the motivation, in his earlier novels, protagonists proceeded from the everyday world and slowly uncovered vast and horrifying conspiracies which underlie it – hence their tremendous grip and excitement. Whereas this ‘thriller’ about the Vatican, in the end delivers ‘revelations’ which are pale and insignificant compared to the actual scandals which have rocked and continue to rock the Catholic Church.

Hence, for me anyway, a tremendous sense of disappointment and anti-climax.

The car bombs

That said, the midly intriguing narrative is turned upside down by the car bombs which, for me, ruin the tone of the book. they introduce a note of real tragedy and bloodshed which is all to recent and real for a Londoner like me. And all the less necessary as, in the end, their only use in the plot is to provide the opportunity for a speech by the arch conservative which loses him the papacy, and the quiet speech in favour of forgiveness which wins it for Benítez.

And then there is the revelation that the new pope is a woman!

This, for me, reduced the whole thing to an extended joke, with this revelation as the punchline. The climax of Harris’s first and best book, Fatherland, was the revelation of the Holocaust in a Nazi Germany which had won the war and successfully covered its appalling secret. The slow uncovering of the truth and the final scenes of full knowledge, made my hair stand on end with genuine fear and terror.

The last few pages of Conclave did quite the reverse, and make me laugh out loud at its politically correct, bien-pensant, North London liberalism.

Not only have almost all the cardinals all the way through been immaculately correct in their attitude to black and other Third World cardinals, none of them has had a flicker of a thought about women, let alone choirboys (with the egregious, scapegoating exception of Adeyema), and now the result of all this praying by all these decent, upstanding, compassionate old men turns out to be… electing a woman Pope!

Very funny. Very suave. Very slick. But more like a Guardian editorial turned into a novel than his earlier, genuinely gripping, thrillers.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave We follow Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli, as he supervises the conclave called in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, only to discover a number of scandals which compromise most of the leading candidates, and lead up to a very unexpected result.

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

John Lewis Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject about which he knows so much, and that this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘THE DEALS. THE SPIES. THE LIES. THE TRUTH’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, this blurb gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels much more like the textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t at all give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments in the history of the bomb but is, at its core, an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising President Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with likely results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets in order to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which certainly continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda on both sides, but which also proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates each separated by a decade, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would inevitably grow larger as an ever-shrinking capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletarian revolution inevitable and unstoppable. That was Marx and Engel’s clear prediction.

1. In direct contradiction to Marxist theory, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.

2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat was forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. Communism only took hold  in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened.

It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest of their populations. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

It wasn’t just their theory of revolution that was wrong. Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief but how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because, in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist conflict, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with direct personal experience of war, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war among themselves. The opposite of what Lenin predicted.

This was a big shift in American strategy. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its own economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed back into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The Truman Doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945 to 1949), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, which was now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies of, and ensured freedom from tyranny for, France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it also included a long and dishonourable tradition of American support for repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist figures available in many countries.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in pre-communist China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in post-war South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy. Thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime in China was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded these states as vital buffers to communist expansion, which meant that, in practice, both dictators could get away with murder and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection. France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – making nonsense of Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, an increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights 

The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested by the authorities in 1977, leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in both the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals

A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history, contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses, themselves driven by the ineluctable laws of economics. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but most space is given to the key role played by Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

  1. Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes – hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations [SALT] talks).
  2. Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua. Fascinatingly, Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of needing to be seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account, Reagan is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’, p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

  1. Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter before him) Reagan’s strategy and speeches were based on the idea that Soviet communism must inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
  2. Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism were to collapse like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991; it is, rather, a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era.

Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred in  his long and distinguished academic career).

In other words, coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed like a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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