I finished Army of God while standing outside a DC metro station, after exiting for my final stop — it’s a gripping book, one filled with striking images that hammer home the visceral, immersive terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) raids on Congolese villages. It also raises, for progressives committed to resolving the humanitarian monstrosity that is the ongoing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), difficult questions about just what kinds of government intervention and non-state activism might make a real difference.
David Axe’s narrative lays plain just how hard a nut the LRA is to crack. Emerging in Uganda in 1986, the LRA and its brutal leader, Joseph Kony, have taken advantage of the porous borders and densely forested terrain in central Africa to evade capture by the series of international forces tasked with eliminating them over the past two decades. While Axe reports that repeated campaigns have whittled the LRA down to (roughly) a few hundred soldiers, the Army is still capable of reenacting all of the terrors — mass murder, rape, and enslavement of children — that have deservedly made its destruction a priority for the international community.
But what can the rest of the world do? Though President Obama has signed legislation committing the US to a strategy for defeating the LRA, we don’t have much to show for it. Army of God casts doubt on whether a recently claimed accomplishment, capturing the LRA “fourth in command,” really was a much of a coup as the US government and local allies make it out to be. An unusually muscular UN force is currently on its way to the DRC to hunt for the LRA and other similar groups like the M23 militia. Its effectiveness remains to be seen.
My point isn’t to raise doubts about whether we should be actively searching for Kony and his ilk; anyone who can read this book and come away with that conclusion has a moral screw loose. I defy anyone who tries to read the chapters telling the story of LRA victims and tell me “it’s not our problem.”
Rather, the question is whether our global institutions are good enough to meet the moral challenges they face. Progressives believe in a law-governed world in which all persons are free from deprivation and fear, but, as we’re all aware, these two ideals can be at odds: the legalistic inefficiency of the UN can undermine its ability to meet the needs of the world’s most disadvantaged. Figuring out how global institutions can be reformed to deal with the LRA and groups like it (Axe notes that the LRA is more a product of systemic chaos than a sui generis group) will, I suspect, become one of the critical questions of 21st century global politics.
But fighting monsters like Kony isn’t merely the province of governments. Axe devotes a full chapter, and significant praise, to the group Invisible Children, the folks behind the “Kony 2012″ video. Indeed, he goes as far as to recommend them as a charity worth donating to at the end of the book. He’s somewhat less charitable to the group’s critics, literally caricaturing some of them in the vein of the talking heads in that most famous of graphic novels, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
The critics of Invisible Children weren’t, for the most part, knee-jerk anti-aid libertarians; they were generally academics, advocates, and development professionals deeply committed to the welfare of the people in the Congo. I encourage you to read as much of the massive debate the group set off, on both sides, as you can find time for — there’s a great compendium here. In short, the critics argued that Invisible Children consciously constructed a narrative that made white foreigners into saviors and Africans into passive victims, a frame that underpins a lot of bad development work. They wondered if Invisible Children’s simple answer (“Get Kony”) obscured complicated policy questions. They raised questions about Invisible Children’s funding allocation decisions. And they pointed out that it’s hard to draw a straight line between any of Invisible Children’s campaigns and any real, on-the-ground accomplishments.
I’ll leave you to resolve the merits of the Kony 2012 campaign and Invisible Children more broadly below. I raise the criticisms only to 1) give a second side of the story and 2) broaden the scope of our conversation a bit — if Kony 2012 worked (or didn’t), what does that tell us about human rights activism more generally? What can progressives do to make their government do more to stop gross human rights abuses around the world?
If there’s one thing to take from Army of God, it’s that these are questions we can’t afford to ignore. The depth of Axe’s experience in the Congo, and his care for its people, shines through every page. Tim Hamilton’s illustrations, inspired by study of several traditional African styles, lay bare the fundamentally human stakes in a way that plain photographs often can’t. Army of God is, most of all, a profoundly humanistic work, in the best sense of the term. It reminds us that, as far away as the Congo is, its residents deserve the same sympathy and respect as the people down the block.
I look forward to talking to with you all and David about this wonderful little book.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]