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VINE VOICEon April 4, 2011
"How do you cover a war that involves at least 20 different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective?" Jason K. Stearns

The Congo, a vast country as big as Western Europe, wildly rich in natural resources, and valuable minerals as diamonds and uranium, having common borders with nine central African nations, has received little sustained media coverage, even during its political crisis striving for democracy, after independence, in 1960. I was on a consulting job in Zambia, and drove to Ndola to meet a friend who taught at the university of Lubumbashi, the park was so peaceful, and the visitors were friendly. In two decades, after its economic collapse in 1996, the (Dem. Rep.) Congo was destructed by an annihilating war, in which millions lost their life in a deliberate genocide. The brutal war has left hundreds of thousands of women gang-raped and left millions of war-­related disabilities, and more than three millions were forced to flee their villages. Jason Stearns, who worked for the United Nations in Congo, tells the tragic story of chaos and suffering in, "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters," explaining the tragedy of the Great War of Africa, and the destruction of the Congo, where almost all state institutions of public services crumbled. The author describes the inhumane fights, "like layers of an onion, the Congo war contains wars within wars."

"Dancing in the Glory of Monsters" is the best account so far: more serious than several recent macho-war-correspondent travelogues, and more lucid and accessible than its nearest competitor,.." wrote Adam Hochschild in the N Y Times.
While Douglas Rogers, author of " A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa" wrote, under 'The Triumph of Fear, "The war in Congo- a state that has known little but slavery, colonialism and dictatorship for four centuries- started not as a civil war but as "a regional war, pitting a new generation of young African leaders against the continent's dinosaur, Mobutu Sese Seko. Its catalyst, moreover, was self-defense. It was planned and fought by Congo's tiny neighbor, Rwanda" quoting Stearns own description.

Adam Hochschild concludes in his compelling NY Times review that, "The task facing anyone who tries to tell this whole story is formidable, but Stearns by and large rises to it." As for me, the brave engaging writer refreshes my painful childhood memories of the post WW II movies, about the Holocaust, which kept happening in Bosnia, and Darfur. So, I skimmed through the book to find quick answers to my desperate questions within its chapters, and was chocked by his simple explanation of international non decision, "One reason we shy away is the conflict's stunning complexity." Could this be a justifying defense for the Clinton Administration? A blogger wrote about Libya, "Obama needs to get on the horn with Bill Clinton - there are lessons of history we can't afford to ignore."
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on July 28, 2011
How best to make sense of Congo's enduring crisis, a tale of daunting political complexity and extraordinary cruelty? Many writers have tried, for no other African country captivates the western literary imagination as much as Congo. This fascination long precedes Joseph Conrad, who indelibly described King Leopold's Congo Free State over a century ago. But faithful subjects do not good art make, and most western writing on Congo is unreadable or, at best, unbearable.

The sheer complexity of Congo's dramatic history is one contributing factor behind all the dreadful writing. Many an author sacrifices compelling narrative for rigorous scholarship, resulting in a turgid swamp of acronyms for all the armed groups, the Security Council Resolutions and the doomed peace deals. Epic chronicles like Africa's World War (Gérard Prunier) may be valuable to scholars but are so microscopically detailed as to be opaque to non-specialists.

Adventure writing, the other main genre of Congo literature, is equally abundant and can carry a plot, but the stories glorify the exploits of the author and ignore the Congolese. "Watch me as I commune with gentle pygmies, wrestle crocodiles on the great Congo River, escape beheading by a throng of stoned child soldiers"-- setting the bar for unbearable reading. Common to both schools is the absence of Congolese voice; for both, Congo is a neutral, muted stage for the author's performance (scholarship, "survival"). Faced with such output, one thinks, the trampling of Congo just goes on and on.
Jason Stearns shares this lament. A recognized scholar and field analyst with years of human rights reporting from the country's most remote zones of conflict , he tackles Congo's complexity head-on, unpeeling the onion of its myriad wars within wars. But Stearns is after larger game than demystifying Congo's "inscrutable chaos" for a western audience. By capturing the political rationales and individual motives as voiced by key players themselves, abhorrent though they may be, he personalizes Congo's tumultuous ups and downs. Taming this wooly complexity with character-driven narrative and firsthand experience, the book is ultimately a challenge to the reigning stereotype of Congo as an inchoate mêlée of raw power devouring the meek and innocent. Recalling the reductive lens that framed colonialism's "civilizing mission" (humanity over barbarism, reason vs. unreason), it's not hard to discern an unbroken line between western perceptions of Congo in Conrad's time and our own elitist, arguably racist, comprehension today.

The result is a visceral, compelling weave of major events in Congo's recent history recounted by actors whose candor, intimacy and humor color all manner of uncanny situations. Capturing these stories demands a level of trust and degree of access rarely available to foreigners. To his credit, Stearns does not dwell on this feat, huge though it is. We see only a procession of scenes in which prolonged political collapse is punctuated by wholesale slaughter and the bleakest comedy of errors, leaving a Breugelesque afterimage. Many of the actors are cold killers, to be sure, but as one militiaman reminds the author, "Are you absolutely sure you would act differently in my situation?" By this point in the story, the answer is clear.

When there are no protagonists on hand to carry the plot, Stearns fills in with troves of intriguing detail about the formative years and gargantuan egos of, for instance, Jean-Pierre Bemba, former rebel leader turned vice-president under Joseph Kabila and now facing trial in The Hague. There is much fascinating discussion of Kabila père (Laurent Désiré), his failure to impress Che Guevara in the early 1960s and his recruitment by Paul Kagame to front a rag-tag insurgency against Mobutu in 1996. Both fig-leaf and cannon-fodder, Kabila provided cover for the Rwandan infiltration of Eastern Congo to hunt down Hutu militia opposing Kagame's regime. To the surprise of all, backed by Rwanda's crack military, Kabila crossed thousands of miles of bush on foot and reached Kinshasa in record time, ousting Mobutu and ending decades of single-party rule in Zaire. The days of heady optimism did not last long, for reasons that led to Congo's infamous "second war," concluded with a shaky peace deal in 2003.

Readers will come away with a keener grasp of the various political sub-cultures and ethnic force fields that have shaped the country's landscape since independence. Here's an illustrative paragraph on the failed "rebel professor", Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, the appointed leader of the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), an eastern rebel group that ruled viciously, with little popular support, in the "second war" against Kabila père:

"Many others with similarly high ideals made the same deal with the devil as Wamba. After all, being a leader takes vision and charisma, but it also requires propitious circumstances. Hadn't Che Guevara tried and failed, limping away malnourished and dejected? Hadn't Tshisekedi, who had marched with tens of thousands against Mobutu in 1992, also been reduced to a marginal figure, with only a handful of diehard supporters heeding calls for protest marches? They had failed because the circumstances had not been ripe for them, whereas Wamba and his new comrades now did have the right circumstances: a formidable, time-tested military machine that could undoubtedly take them to the summit of the state. Change and power were being offered on a silver platter."

To help situate these portraits the author reflects on Congo's inability to gain altitude since independence, how its leaders can be rational and heartless at the same time, and the failings of international development assistance in country. While these asides do not comprise a dedicated argument, they gradually come into relief and define the thrust of the book. The salutary, if politically correct, attempt to rescue the Congolese from our received ideas and prejudice certainly adds nuance and depth to Congo's roving, rancorous band of political elites. As a friend once said of Congo's conflicted East: "If it looks like anarchy, then you don't understand what you're seeing." In other words, for the lazy or elitist mind, it's natural to dismiss Congo as "inscrutable chaos." Stearns reveals the patterns and deciphers the logics credibly and coherently. Congo's leaders are not insane, far from it.

On balance the book's deep digging yields rich dividends, particularly for those of us working in country. Its only minor flaw is a tendency to deflect responsibility for Congo's failings away from the Congolese themselves. One example is worth citing; it is also commonly heard in Congo, where the decades of crisis are always someone else's fault. Stearns is always careful to connect today's problems to their historical precedents and conditions at independence. But this emphasis on historical causation risks bleeding contemporary history of any agency, and with it individual culpability. Blaming history, or others, robs victims of the power to reverse their fate.

Stearns is doubtless aware of this dilemma, but his account of the security sector is fatalistic, as though its predatory existence were pre-programmed and inevitable. "The roots of the army's weakness lie in the Belgian colonial state," he writes. True, Congolese had no direct experience of running any of the country's military or civilian institutions at the time of independence. Paradoxically, Mobutu's fear of dissent meant ethnic loyalty trumped an effective army and police, who turned on an already impoverished population to meet their survival needs. "Like the rest of the state apparatus, [the army] was present everywhere, harassing and taxing the population, but effective nowhere." The current state of affairs is unchanged; are we to blame the men or their non-existent institutions?

Stearns knows the answer, but shies from criticizing the Congolese. Understandable, perhaps, since he has relationships to maintain. But the book's countless vignettes reveal a culture whose norms dictate a ruthless will-to-power that mocks any formalized, regulatory environment. Given the awful brutality and loss of human potential in Congo, polite silence implies `they know not what they do'--tantamount to infantilizing criminal actors ensconced in a cozy bubble of near-total impunity. Who then should denounce this open wound on the face of humanity; who is best placed to demand change? Not outsiders: our history there is too compromised to offer credible change. Next to the shrill wailing of celebrity-driven advocacy to "bring change" to Congo, Stearns' silence is one of refreshing humility.

By listening to key dramatis personae--perverse and misanthropic in parts, tragicomic and ludicrous in others--Stearns unpacks the multiple, hidden layers of motivation and incentive driving events of the last twenty years. Perhaps more than any Congo book I know, this one succeeds in revealing why "war [has made] more sense than peace."
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on May 18, 2011
Several thoughts come to mind when reflecting on Jason K. Stearns' epic Dancing In The Glory of Monsters, The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, but "dancing" doesn't figure into any of those thoughts, and monsters are writ large, center stage. And make no mistake; we're talking fiendishly horrific monsters, almost inhuman, as if drawn from a dictionary definition: "Anything horrible from...wickedness, cruelty or commission of extraordinary or horrible crimes; a vile creature..." So the reader should be advised, some of the stories are very disturbing.

Indeed, Mr. Stearns paints a gut-wrenching portrait of a nation and region ravaged by colonial meddling, venal and brutish politician/military leaders, and centuries old ethic strife all culminating in "many wars in one" beginning in 1996 in Congo (the former Zaire) and including active participation of neighbors Rwanda and Uganda just to name a couple. In terms of geography, Congo straddles the equator and is the size of Western Europe, or slightly less than one fourth the size of the United States. According to the CIA World Fact Book, the literacy rate is 67% and the mortality rate a surprisingly "high" 54 years for men, and 57 for women; given the slaughter since 1996, my guess would have been a much lower number.

The Congo Wars were largely a by-product of the epic 1994 genocide in Rwanda where in the space of 100 days an estimated 800,000 Rwandans (primarily Tutsis and moderate Hutus) were killed. The killing was "organized by the elite but executed by people." Stearns says, "...between 175,000 and 210,000 people took part in the butchery, using machetes, nail-studded clubs, hoes, and axes." The killing was done in public and almost no one was untouched either as "a perpetrator, a victim or witness." For internal political reasons, this resulted in over one million Hutu refugees/rebels fleeing over the border from Rwanda to Zaire. A massive tug-of-war across the border began with the ailing Zairian president Mobutu Sese Seku providing support to the rebels, and eventually a ten-year struggle within Zaire proper of both the Rwandan civil war and wars to control what became in 1997, Congo.

Dancing With Monsters is divided into three parts. Part 1 ended with the collapse of Mobutu's government in May 1997. Following a brief respite in the fighting, Congo's new president Laurent Kabila "fell out with his Rwanda and Ugandan allies" resulting in the second Congo war in August 1998 which "lasted until a peace deal reunified the country in 2003." But the fighting in the eastern part of the country continues to this day and is considered the third Congo war.

Stearns tells the Congo story based on first person interviews with both perpetrators and victims of extraordinary atrocities, although he focuses more on the perpetrators who "oscillate between these categories." A perpetrator one day becomes tomorrows victim and vice versa. Stearns has worked the better part of 10 years in the Congo, and is to be commended for the raw physical courage necessary to live, much less interview many of the "monsters" in his revealing book.

Interestingly, Stearns chose to focus on a system "that brought the principal actors to power, limited the choices they could make, and produced chaos and suffering." That "system" is in a word, a mess. The chaos and suffering are of a kind with no contextual parallel in the modern Western experience. Stearns attempts to provide a context in an excellent introduction that offers insight into the violence, which more often than not, appears maddeningly senseless and consistently brutal. The culture of the region appears to be one where everyone is on the take, where everyone is corrupt simply to survive. To quote one of Stearns' sources: ""If you don't bribe a bit and play to people's prejudices, someone else who does will replace you." He winked and added, "Even you, if you were thrown into this system you would do the same. Or sink."" This tone of resignation and an "ends justifies the means" justification permeates the attitudes of the political/military types Stearns interviews; in fact this philosophy colors a good portion of the book, and therein points to a large part of the systemic problem. A quote attributed to another monster, Stalin kept coming to mind: "You can't make an omelet, without breaking a few eggs."

From this attitude of resignation, my guess is that perhaps the "system" Stearns has documented is the extreme end result of Che Guevara-style of Soviet Marxist totalitarianism. Guevara himself spent 1965 fighting in the Congo but concluded, "they weren't ready for revolution." The Congolese may not have been ready for revolution, but it appears they bought the philosophy hook, line and sinker. This mentality reminded me of a passage from another book of horrors, The Whisperers, by Orlando Figes, where he writes: "she had subordinated her own personality and powers of reason to the collective." The subordination of reason is pandemic in Congo; a place where mostly ethnically based discrimination and killing is conducted without so much as an apology. Many of Stearns' political/military leaders spoke of "democracy," but in my reading I did not get the sense this was anything more than a rhetorical fig leaf to remain in the good graces of the UN and the West, for there has been little in the behaviors of these leaders to suggest a level of seriousness and understanding as to what democracy means; political accountability comes to mind. Meanwhile, the killing continues.

Speaking of democracy, a good portion of the West was and continues to be indifferent to the Congo and the wars. Stearns points out, "the response, as so often in the region, was to throw money at the humanitarian crisis but not to address the political causes." This sounds accurate. Stearns believes the West should do more, comparing the response to Kosovo in 1999, where "NATO sent 50,000 Kosovo, a country one-fifth the size of South Kivu"(part of Congo). Many of those interviewed by Stearns agree, but with a twist. In the concluding chapter, Stearns quotes a Rwandan political advisor offering what he called a "typical view" of the US from the region:

"When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, you decided to strike back against Afghanistan for harboring the people who carried out the attack. Many innocent civilians died as a result of U.S. military operations. Is that unfortunate? Of course. But how many Americans regret invading Afghanistan? Very few."

Many Americans regret the extent of our operations in Afghanistan, more with each passing day. In my opinion, this seems to be offering an all-too-typical moral equivalence argument; since innocents die in American wars, our slaughter of innocents is justified. Stearns correctly follows this quote with extension of the Rwandan official's line of thought:

"This point of view does not allow for moral nuance. Once we have established that the genocidaires are in the Congo, any means will justify the ends of getting rid of them, even if those means are not strictly related to getting rid of genocidaires."

This official's argument is as dangerous as the wars he and his neighbors have endured. In delegitimizing any moral nuance his prescription is amoral, or worse, claims an exclusive role defining morality thereby justifying a continuation of the slaughter. I don't have a solution, but this prescription will yield only more of the same. Political accountability doesn't pass the buck, or hide behind a general truth that tragedies occur, but rather learns from mistakes made and steadfastly strives to avoid further bloodshed.

In conclusion, I would offer one bit of advice to those who read this important book: use Google Earth or a good atlas; the book has maps, but the maps aren't sufficient to the level of detail provided in the book. This is a minor nit, but one that can be enhanced through an external source.

Stearns concluded on a note of optimism and confidence in the Congolese people, whom he calls extremely resilient and energetic peoples. One could conclude nothing less from this excellent and truly frightening recounting of their story. Highly recommended.
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on July 26, 2011
If you ever wondered what was going on in the congo, this is your chance to finally understand why it is such a protracted and bloody conlict.
clearely written and based on real people, this book is a must for those who care about africa.
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on December 11, 2012
The so-called Great War of Africa is an important subject calling out for good books to be written about it. But unfortunately, very little good material in the way of history has been written. Many of the books, including this one, are good source material for a *real* history of the conflict, but are themselves not effective history.

The problem with Stearns is that he is too philosophical and too analitical in looking at the conflict. He doesn't let the events and people tell their own story. He is far too interested in drawing "meaning" or putting "reason" on the human suffering of the war that he fails to often see what is right in front of him.

Worse yet, he falls back on all the old cliches about Africa. Everything in Africa is explained by "deep history", "systems" and "institutions". He often sounds like someone with a sociology degree working at the UN in the 1960s. He talks about "good" and "evil". Worst of all, he invokes an argument that sounds a whole lot like "white man's burden" in that he says that somehow *we* "owe" the Congo a solution to its problems ("Why help? We owe it to them"). He fails to understand that those sorts of paternalistic attitudes toward Africa are part of the problem rather than part of any solution.

"Evil" is a concept that keeps coming up in the book. He reaches for Hanna Ardnt at one point which is about as far off the mark as one can get. He comes very close to a working analogy when he compares the conflict to the 30 years war in Europe but for all intents abandons it quickly after. There are certainly acts of evil described in the book, but they don't end up serving much purpose in telling the history of the war (or wars).

His ultimate conclusion that there is neither cause nor essense to be found in the war is equal parts useless and frustrating. He wants often to wallow in the history of a century ago or to endlessly go through the individual suffering associated with the war. While he does these things, he neglects the big picture of the war and the era in which it happened. All of the things he brings up are very sad, but often not enlightening. Brutality and inhumanity are the consequences of war in these sorts of places. Far more interesting is to ask the question "why" of the people beyond the battlefield. That includes all of Congo's neighbors and that includes the international community as well. The people who arm and fund the militias. The people who kept the war going. He doesn't go far enough in that direction in my opinion.

In my opinion, one of the author's problems is that he is too close to the story. His book will certainly be of use to those authors who follow him looking to tell a better history of the war. The interviews and the oral history he has captured in the book is useful as raw source material. But he can't seem to bring it together to tell a story of the war.

He has the problem common to many who deal with Africa which is that interview subjects are constantly engaged in what Orwell called "doublethink". Rather than saying what they mean, they speak in a language of code-words and phrases that the sociologists, athropologists and the western media accept. They throw out words like democracy, freedom and tell tales of their own victimhood that often are simply meaningless echos back of what journalists and western academics think about them. It would be more honest to hear ethnic killers talk about being ethnic killers rather than hearing them talk about building democracy. Language is failing us in these situations as a means of communication. The media poisons the well so totally that all we hear back from these people is what we ourselves have said about them. They give us what we want to hear.

The author wants more attention if not direct intervention in the Congo. But he fails to understand that Western Troops and American money can't solve whats wrong. It didn't work in Somalia. It didn't work Iraq. Its not working in afghanistan. In Kosovo over a decade later, the entire economy is based around the international mission to Kosovo. There is also a failure to see the full irony in blaming colonialism for the problem and seeing a return of pseudo-colonialism to Congo as the solution.

In my opinion, the problems of Congo can't be solved within the Congo. The problems can only be solved when countries like Rwanda are told once and for all to get out of Congo. When countries outside of Africa stop listening to nonsense from cynical leaders of criminal regimes. When people put a higher premimum on stopping a war than wallowing in historical guilt over things that happened long before anyone involved was born. Its the people who fund the warlords who matter, not the warlords themselves.

In the end, maybe the book works unintentionally as a social snapshot of the attitudes of those directly involved in the war and nothing (including the attitudes of the author) should be taken at face value. Within those limitations, its an interesting read. Not a history nor a book with a case to make. But more of an impression of a time and place. Maybe ultimately its a testiment to the ways that language has started to fail us in provinding understanding in regards to a war like this one.
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on October 28, 2012
A really useful background book to understanding the complexities of the terrible ongoing strife in the DRC. Very well researched and written in a very easy-to-read style, it offers personal accounts of the war from all sides. Disappointing that the sexual violence, an issue DRC has become infamous for, warranted only a few lines, with a dire lack of interviews of women and survivors.
Also, books that give historical and socio-political backgrounds should not always bow to the pressure to come up with recommendations. That part of the book came across as a hurried simplistic section which could have been left out without compromising the rest of the book.
An important read nonetheless for anyone trying to unravel the complexities of the Great Lakes region and the role of African countries and the international players in this ongoing tragedy.
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on September 18, 2012
Jason Stearns has written a grippping account of the notorious wave of Central African violence over the last 20 years. Yet I find some of his conclusions only beg questions, instead of offering viable answers.

When he writes on page 333 to absolve western governments of fueling war, of being "eager to get their hands on Congolese riches," he flies in the face of a century of Congolese history and his own evidence. While western powers per se may not have played a direct role in this latest round of butchery, they have been willing abettors of corporate shysters and warlord accomplices.

Which raises another problem with his conclusion, that because of this sordid history we owe it to the Congolese and all Africa to provide "an environment conducive to growth and stability." Presumably this will be accomplished through massive capital investment, government aid, and "humanitarian intervention" when necessary. Yet said sordid history was also begun with the noblest of intentions (re: Robert Conrad) as was western colonialism in general. In 1994 the West "did nothing" in Rwanda precisely because it then had no vested self-interest in doing otherwise. It's simply impossible to offer the kind of interested aid from afar Stearns recommends without falling into accusations - and the re-creation - of another round of colonialism. Damned either way.

What then to do? I don't pretend to have an answer. But it's obvious from this book alone that the state system foisted on Africa in the wake of western colonialism has been a monkey on its peoples' backs.
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on November 15, 2013
The recent history of the country known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo is singularly melancholy, even by the depressing standards of colonial and post-colonial Africa. In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium somehow managed to convince an international conference held in Berlin to give him control of the region that now makes up the Congo. He made the entire country into his personal possession and named it the Congo Free State. Without any necessity of dealing with a parliament or any other institution that might limit his control over his colony, Leopold hardly made any pretense of bringing civilization to Africa, as the other colonial powers did. The Congo Free State existed solely to enrich King Leopold with its rubber plantations, by the most efficient or brutal means possible.
The situation in the Congo became so notorious that in 1908 the Belgian parliament took control of the colony from Leopold. The Belgian government ruled the colony somewhat more humanely than King Leopold had but the Belgian colonial officials made no effort to prepare the Congolese for self-government. No African was placed in any position of authority. The colonial army had no black officers. Needless to say, when the Congo achieved independence in 1960, there was virtually no chance that the new nation would be governed in an effective or democratic manner. In fact, there was considerable political unrest until Joseph Mobutu or Mobutu Sese Seko as he came to call himself, took power in 1965.
The only good thing that can be said about Mobutu was that he was not a Communist and so did not slaughter his people by the millions, as Communists invariably do. Unfortunately, Mobutu was dictator and a kleptocrat. He changed the name of the country to Zaire and pillaged it, filling his Swiss bank accounts from the Zairian treasury. Despite this Mobutu might have died in peace, had he not made it a habit to intervene in the internal affairs of Zaire’s neighbors.
Mobutu was overthrow in the First Congo War from 1996-1997. This war and the following Second Congo War which was fought from 1998-2003 is the subject of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns
Stearns begins with the genocide in Rwanda that preceded and sparked the Congo Wars. After the Hutu massacred the Tutsis of Rwanda, Tutsi rebels took control of Rwanda and drove thousands of Hutus into neighboring Zaire. With support from Mobutu, the Hutus began attacking the Tutsis across the border. The Tutsis in response decided to overthrow Mobutu but assembling a coalition of southern African nations and arming Congolese, predominantly Tutsi, rebels. This first Congo War was a success as the rebels drove Mobutu from power and installed Laurent Kabila as the new president of the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Kabila turned out not to be very competent and the policies he favored seemed to be unchanged since the 1960’s. The Rwandans began to be exasperated with him, especially after he began harassing the Congolese Tutsis, so the Rwandans supported a new rebel movement against Kabila. Meanwhile, there was a falling out between the former allies Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Angola, and each nation supported its own movement in the Congo and fought over the natural resources of the Congo. This was the Second Congo War.
Jason Stearns writes the history of these two wars from the perspective of several participants in these wars and the aftermath. Some of these stories are from prominent players in the politics and fighting of the region, some are from people who were simply in the way. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is not primarily a military history but a story of a disaster that has blighted the lives of millions of people in central Africa. Stearns writes of mass murders and refugees as much as he does of troop movements and political deals, leaving the reader with a true appreciation of the scope of the suffering these wars brought.
The fighting in the Congo is mostly over now. Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent rules the Congo and has proved to be a relatively effective leader, though one reluctant to create the kind of institutions the Congo needs. The suffering of the Congolese people continues as they try to rebuild their wrecked country. Still, as Stearns points out in the end of his book, they have an indomitable spirit and may yet overcome the bad hand history has played them.
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on September 7, 2012
An important, highly readable account of the war raging in heart Africa over the past decade and a half. Nine nations border the Congo, and nearly all have at one time or the other been part of the violence that has consumed millions of lives and left those who survive searching for justice.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason Stearns (@jasonkstearns) shed light on a subject which I knew little about, but even the small bit I thought I knew turned out to be incorrect. That we in the West do not understand how and why the conflict began is a bitter truth that bears examination.

The conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo parallel the timeframe for much of the Great War of Africa, yet consider how much more media coverage those much smaller conflicts received in the West. The size of the Congo is roughly the same as all of Western Europe, yet the shameful truth is this: sub-Saharan Africa does not have the "strategic" value that would create enough interest in the West to engage or at least attempt to understand what happened.

And the key word there is "attempt" as Stearns points out in an impassioned conclusion:

"The Congo war had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple of paragraphs. Like an ancient Greek epic, it is a mess of different narrative strands -- some heroic, some venal, all combined in a narrative that is not straightforward but layered, shifting, and incomplete. It is not a war of great mechanical precision but of ragged human edges."

Stearns points out early in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters the difficulty of unraveling the puzzle, but then he does an admirable job of doing just that by centering much of the narrative around the people involved. Heads of state, politicians, soldiers, refugees and villagers, Stearns interviews them and uses their stories to illustrate and illuminate what happened. It is a powerful way to approach this subject, and the writer does well to remain in the background and let those most affected talk.

This is not a military history, although a few battles are discussed in overview as well as some massacres. The timeline skips around a little, and a map of the Congo and surrounding areas would have been very useful, but overall I found this book to be very enlightening. I often look for books on subjects I know little about and in this case I was rewarded greatly.
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on March 13, 2012
Before reading "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters" I knew relatively little about the wars in the Congo throughout the 1990's - conversations with colleagues who had served in Rwanda and occasional references in "Responsibility to Protect" literature had convinced me that the problems of central Africa were daunting, incomprehensible, and intractable. Reading Stearns' work - a masterful combination of oral history and analysis that describes the political situation, motives of the various combatants and stakeholders and the truly horrendous human suffering inflicted in the two Congolese civil wars with clarity and arresting imagery - has made Central Africa's issues seem far more comprehensible but no less daunting. Stearns, to a degree, appears to have found himself in the same position at the end of his work - there are no definitive, all-encompassing recommendations for how the international community should respond (although he does make some very sensible and measured observations). Of note, he has resisted the temptation to blame all the Congo's ills on the usual bogeymen such as multinational corporations (although he is prepared to be scathing of their less ethical practices) and, while decrying the international community's relative lack of interest, is sober and objective about the limited potential of external forces to resolve the consequences of generations of misgovernment and fractured civil society.

My criticisms are relatively few - in my view, more attention to the Rwandan civil war and massacres in 1994 and 1995, and previous political violence in the Congo since independence would have helped frame the context of subsequent conflict. While Stearns describes the broad patterns and consequences of violence, this is in no way a military history of the conflict (not necessarily a criticism, just a warning not to expect detailed descriptions of military operations or tactics), and the Kindle version has no maps - a significant obstacle to understanding events when read without easy access to an atlas or Google maps. Overall, however, a valuable and informative - if less than uplifting - insight into central Africa.
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