Jason Stearns’ Dancing in the Glory of Monsters has been praised by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post, which means that it must be shit. Had you any doubts, it has also been praised by the Mail and Guardian and the right-wing American blogger Matthew Yglesias. Yet, oddly enough, Stearns (or at least his paid researchers) put money into interviewing people and visiting the territory, and the first portion of the book — the description of how the Rwandan military dictatorship resolved to invade Zaire and ultimately overthrow its government — is not wholly uninformative, much like Michaela Wrong’s loathesome and racist book on the subject. (Needless to say, the vile Ms. Wrong likes the book.)
To understand what is amiss here, it is perhaps useful to check out a few smaller issues, starting with a couple of underreported events in Afghanistan, of all places.
Just over a week back (when this was written), Afghani guerrillas attacked Camp Bastion, the second most important military base of the imperialist occupation forces in that suffering country, which is the headquarters of operations in the south of the country and also the headquarters of the British contribution to the imperialist occupation. In the attack, some 15 guerrillas were killed (it is claimed, the entire attack force) but in the course of the attack they breached the perimeter, destroyed at least 5 American Harrier ground-attack VTOL aircraft, and killed some personnel, including the commander of the Harrier squadron. Obviously, such an attack required careful planning and necessitated excellent intelligence — the attackers must have known exactly where everything in the base was, and must have been prepared to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of such a substantial objective.
This was what you learned if you listened to SAFM or accessed the Web. However, if you read South African newspapers, you learned what Britons learned; that the Taliban had attempted to murder the heir to the throne of England, but failed. No mention was made of destroyed aircraft or NATO imperialist casualties, just a pyramid of dead Afghani would-be regicides. This was made possible because, after the British deployed the future King to Afghanistan to provide the massacre of civilians with a false aura of patriotic and monarchist euphoria, the Taliban warned that they would do their best to kill or capture him. In reality, had they wanted to attack him, they would have attacked the area of the large airbase where Apache helicopters are situated (it is inconceivable that they knew so much about the area’s military weakness and the location of suitable targets without knowing that). So, basically, the South African newspapers, imitating the British media, lied about what was happening in order to further the propaganda of the imperialist occupation forces, even though this propaganda has almost zero resonance in South Africa outside the League of Empire Loyalists.
A couple of days after that, a crowd of servants of the imperialist occupation forces were driving through Kabul. They were pilots of small aircraft which transport goods and personnel to the Western civilian imperialist forces in Afghanistan’s provinces. In Vietnam, this job would have been done by the CIA’s Air America. Likewise, in Vietnam, the work done by the “NGOs” they served (which are wholly subsidised and controlled by governments, so they are non-governmental organisations only in the sense that their funding and control is off the books) would have been done by the CIA or USAID or both. now, however, the job is being done by private cronies of the comprador elite which rules imperialism today, which is why they are doing such a stinking bad job.
Naturally, such people have to ride in armoured personnel carriers whenever they emerge from their fortified (swimming-pooled, whore-stocked, luxury-laden) living-quarters. However, a pissed-off young Afghani woman circumvented this by driving a bomb-laden vehicle into their APC, blowing these pirates of the imperialist idyll to fragments. This makes it more difficult for the imperialists to pursue their military projects in the provinces (since these “NGO” projects are mostly information-gathering and military support operations), so this was an act of war similar to anything carried out by the resistance against the Nazis during World War II. Notwithstanding, every South African newspaper denounced the attack, calling it barbaric terrorism (the usual thing the Nazi media put out at every successful guerrilla raid).
To avoid talking about how those hireling pilots had been serving a murderous military occupation, the South African media preferred to pretend that the attack was launched as a response to the recent surge in American-based anti-Muslim propaganda — as if this propaganda were not itself intended to legitimate the torture and murder of Muslims which the Americans and their imperialist packrats conduct on a daily basis. President Zuma, bizarrely, was denounced in the South African press for not condemning the attackers instead of merely lamenting the deaths, as if it is his duty to support American imperialism where and when it occurs. (The same newspapers failed to call on Zuma to condemn the Americans who slaughtered yet another wedding-party two days later; indeed, those newspapers made no mention of this slaughter, since no white persons were involved.)
Now, you may say that this is all predictable, and indeed it is. It is, however, still worth looking closely at. Coincidentally, the Creator recently obtained Chomsky and Herman’s The Political Economy of Human Rights, a book rather hard to get hold of these days, published in 1979, with a weak President pretending to stand up for decency (after a decade of tyranny, torture and murder) but actually continuing every element of his predecessor’s corruption in order to appeal to the extremist right-wing zanies who dominated national politics. Sound familiar?
The book is tedious and nauseating in the extreme, but this is not Chomsky and Herman’s fault. They are chiefly concerned with chronicling the mass murders, tortures and tyrannies pursued in the interests of Western imperialism, and contrasting these activities with how they are presented in the Western media. An endless parade of grotesque human rights abuses and equally grotesque journalistic support for these things should make anyone sick to the stomach, especially as this behaviour recurs over and over again. Naturally, as one would expect from reading Manufacturing Consent which they wrote almost a decade later, the Western media very carefully refrains from ever placing itself in a position where it might have to reveal information embarrassing to the interests of its Western imperialist masters. (On the other hand, it is perfectly permissible for the Western media to denounce the public puppets of such masters, almost invariably denouncing them because they are insufficiently supportive of democracy and freedom — that is, of mass murder, torture and tyranny.)
Chomsky and Herman identify, essentially, three major methods through which these objectives are attained. “Suppression plus an emphasis on the positive” entails concealing what actually happened behind a pretense that if anything bad has leaked out, it is justified by the fact that mass murder, torture and tyranny promote stability and good governance. “The pretense that the US is an innocent bystander” entails separating whatever happened from the imperialist power which usually installed the tyranny responsible, trained their torturers and murderers, provided the equipment with which the torture and murder was carried out, and usually provided open diplomatic support for the tyranny in its torture and murder. “‘Atrocities Management’ and the demand for Communist abuses” entails, when the scale of the crimes against humanity cannot be concealed, discovering alternative crimes which are represented as being as bad as the atrocities which have been revealed, so that, bad as the atrocities are, the alternative is worse.
Of course nowadays the “Communist” propaganda trope might seem difficult to make use of — although if one looks at the way in which Latin American “Bolivarian” governments, and the Russian government, are treated in the Western media, one sees that the Communist intellectual legacy remains dominant in that media, no doubt because the Western media was so saturated with fascism during the Cold War in order to promote imperialist interests. Moreover, China is almost always represented as a Communist country, making the Communist trope applicable — although a close examination of Western representations of China suggests that it is not so much political as racist dogma which dominates hostility to that country, the “Yellow Peril” narrative invented during the Opium Wars of the 1840s having been endlessly resuscitated during the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s, the Boxer Rebellion and the suppression of the Filipino independence struggle of the 1890s, the war against Japan in the 1940s, the war against Korea in the 1950s and the war against Indochina in the 1960s and 1970s.
Buttressing this, of course, is the anti-Muslim propaganda trope which has been steadily expanding in the West ever since the Egyptians nationalised the Suez Canal (and most particularly in the United States since Israel’s triumphant imperialist-supported aggression in June 1967, which generated virtually all the major problems in the Arab world subsequently). It would be truly tedious to go through this trope; suffice to say that it makes the bizarreries of the South African press over the Afghani resistance possible, and of course the South African press links with imperialism are almost painfully obvious.
Now, how does this apply to Stearns’ book? Well, he is able to describe the Rwandan genocide conducted by the junta which seized power after Habyarimina’s murder quite accurately. This is, of course, because the junta was fighting against the Rwandan Patriotic Front, depicted as the good guys in the Rwandan civil war. He does admit that the RPF committed a few atrocities in their four-year march towards Kigali, although he does not detail these. However, he refuses to admit what is blindingly obvious, namely that the RPF was backed by the United States, in the same way that the Museveni dictatorship in Uganda was backed by the United States (and Uganda was also, by this time, providing base facilities for the US proxy war against Sudan). The fact that the RPF’s opponents were backed by France is mentioned in passing.
All this means, however, that when the RPF’s opponents proceeded to butcher every suspected RPF supporter they could lay their hands on, legitimating this massacre through the long-standing anti-Tutsi prejudice which was widespread in the region due partly to the Tutsis’ collaboration with the colonial power (very like the Ibos situation in West Africa), this has absolutely nothing to do with the war, and most definitely not to do with a power-struggle between the United States and France in the Great Lakes region. Nothing about this is said, even though it is blindingly obvious from everything that Stearns describes. So, in a sense, this is sound history, but dominated by the insistence that the United States is an innocent bystander.
However, Stearns does go further than this — he is severely critical of the UN for allowing the massacre to take place, and for allowing the refugee camps for the Hutus fleeing the RPF’s advance to be set up. Of course it was the United States which prevented the UN from proclaiming a state of genocide in Rwanda, thus preventing the UN from legitimating action — and the United States had refused to provide financial support for a peacekeeping operation in Rwanda (almost certainly, because they did not want any force there which might obstruct the RPF in its march to control). So Stearns, while not justifying mass murder and torture, is certainly obscuring the US role in making it happen — and also tends to provide legitimacy for the tyranny which the military dictator Paul Kagame installed in Rwanda, even though Stearns acknowledged that Kagame was at best a murderous martinet (much of his description of Kagame tallies with any description of a psychopathic personality, which Stearns obviously admires).
There follows the description of the RPF’s preparations for invading Zaire and destroying the Hutu refugee camps there, which were operating under the auspices of the UNHCR. This is not enormously different from the SADC’s preparations for invading southern Angola and destroying the Owambo refugee camps there, except that these camps received virtually no aid from the UN. In both cases, refugee camps were being used as resource bases for guerrilla operations. However, it is, of course, against international law to attack civilians simply because they might be sympathetic to guerrilla forces (even if you don’t happen to like those guerrilla forces). Interestingly, Stearns takes no account of this. Essentially, the fact that the former Hutu government was launching some ineffectual guerrilla attacks in Rwanda is seen as justifying anything the Rwandan government did in the east of Zaire. This seems to correspond to an “emphasis on the positive”.
Another thing which Stearns makes clear is that the RPF was not just concerned with destroying the UNHCR’s operations in Zaire, but also with overthrowing the Mobutu government. This was why they had invited a clutch of superannuated or unpopular anti-Mobutu leaders to serve as fronts for their invasion, and even trained up Congolese guerrillas to provide a screen for these leaders. The Creator has no real objection to this kind of invasion to change government in the case of Mobutu, who had been an appalling leader of Zaire for decades — although one of the reasons why he had been appalling was that he was a puppet of the United States, raising the question of whether regime change would really lead to any real change if the invading army was backed by the United States as well. The problem with such regime change was that there was no real reason for it once the refugee camps had been destroyed — unless Rwanda intended to profit by installing a puppet regime in power. But Stearns doesn’t ask any questions about this, nor about Americans reasons for wanting to remove an embarrassing regime and replace it with a legitimate-seeming puppet.
When the invasion eventually happened, of course, the Mobutu regime’s defenses collapsed because it had effectively no control in eastern Zaire. In other words, one could not really blame Mobutu for the existence of the camps — he had possessed no effective means of stopping it. Stearns admits that the assault was brutal, although he emphasises how excellently the Rwandans fought. He also emphasises how the UN, which was sworn to protect the refugees, did nothing effective to do this, delaying matters until the Rwandan forces swept over the camps and destroyed them. The UN response, says Stearns, was relief. (It becomes clear, but only from reading between Stearns’ lines, that the UK and US were the forces which promoted this delay — but Stearns mentions only the British acts to stop the French from trying to make the UN live up to its commitments.)
After several chapters and over 100 pages building up the glories of the RPF, the sad state of Rwanda after the genocide, and the illegitimacy of the Zairois government, Stearns allows only a few pages for what happened to the people who had been in the refugee camps. The RPF had previously murdered all the inhabitants of a Hutu refugee camp which they captured inside Rwanda in 1994 (Stearns naturally takes the lowest figure of murders — 2,200 as the official one, and notes the full American political support for the murders, on the grounds that one must not make a fuss about murders after a genocide.) With the invasion, the RPF drove hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees into the Congolese jungle, without food, medicine or any kind of social support. In order to do this, they certainly killed thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. Stearns admits this on one page, saying that “tens of thousands of refugees were killed, while more probably died”. In other words, we are talking about at least 50 000 people murdered by the RPF in the 1996 invasion. Very probably the real figure is far higher — some estimates put it at 250 000; as Stearns observes, nobody knows; “No thorough investigation has ever been carried out” — which Stearns possibly says because the most reliable investigations support the highest figures. This, again, is suppression, plus atrocities management. And an emphasis on the positive — after all, was not the Kagame dictatorship making the trains run on time in Rwanda, and installing the temporary Good Guy, Laurent Kabila in power in Kinshasa.
But then comes November 1996, and the launching of the second Rwandan invasion, this time of the new Democratic Republic of the Congo. Why in the world did they do that? Stearns finds an anti-Kabila Tutsi from the Congo who declares that “It was obvious that Kabila had to go”. But Kabila posed no threat to Rwanda; he didn’t even have any troops on the Rwandan border. Why did the Rwandans suddenly decide to invade, and drag Uganda along with them, in an attempt to re-run the same war that they had fought seven months earlier? Especially when Stearns casually mentions that in order to get this invasion going, it was now necessary to seek the support of ex-Mobutuist generals and politicians — in other words, essentially reverse the moral gains of the previous war — along with a rag-tag crowd of political opportunists and tribalists whom even Stearns, who is fully in support of this war, admits brought nothing but disaster to everything they touched. Why, then, did the Rwandans think that this was a good idea, why did the Tutsi hate a man who had done nothing to them, and why does Stearns go so far in not asking these obvious questions?
However, the second invasion was also worse in other ways. One could argue that the Zairois government had threatened the stability of the Rwandan state by allowing guerrilla bases in its territory — even if that had no basis in international law. One could also argue that the Zairois government was appallingly corrupt and tyrannical. The Congolese government, in contrast, was not attacking Rwanda in any way at all, and while Stearns makes a plausible case that the Kabila dictatorship was corrupt, it was certainly not brutal or tyrannical and there was no reason to doubt Kabila’s desire to ultimately hold elections once some kind of effective state had been cobbled together — which Kabila could not manage in only six months. In short, the Rwandans had no fig-leaf for their invasion; it was simple aggression with the goal of installing a more pliant puppet in Kinshasa — “regime change”, as it is now called, though carried out by a colonial surrogate. Stearns never questions this.
But why did the Rwandans want this pliant puppet? Somehow Stearns never says. What he does emphasise, instead, from the moment that he mentioned Kabila, is Kabila’s Marxism. Kabila had fought alongside Che Guevara more than thirty years earlier; in the course of his campaign to become master of the Congo, Kabila had distributed pamphlets containing left-wing jargon (and presumably left-wing solutions to problems — we don’t know, because Stearns refuses to tell us the content or tenor of those pamphlets). To Stearns, this is risibly bizarre. It also corresponds remarkably well with Chomsky and Herman’s “demand for Communist abuses” — although by 2011 the mere existence of socialist principles is apparently a Communist abuse in itself.
At one point we are told that the Angolans advised Kabila, after the Rwandan invasion, not to continue with his plans to bring mining rights under state control and limit the capacity of foreign mining companies to exploit the Congo’s minerals (for the obvious reason that there was a war going on and principles might have to be jettisoned). All this suggests that Kabila’s left-wing politics, as well as his obviously sincere Congolese nationalism, might have been a reason for wanting to get rid of him — not because he was harmful to the Congo, but because his rule might lead to the Congo getting its hands on some of the nation’s mineral wealth instead of having it all go to foreigners, as had always been the case.
Stearns admits that the Rwandan/Ugandan invasion was a disaster for the Congo, that while the invasion was carried out with great military dash it failed in its agenda of installing Mobutuite generals in power and of driving Kabila into exile, and instead merely provoked Kabila into appealing to Zimbabwe, Angola and other SADC countries for support. Stearns also admits that millions of people died in the occupied DRC while the Ugandans, Rwandans and their Congolese puppets squabbled over the mineral spoils. Yet he seems incapable of seeing that an act of aggression which is justified only by the alleged incompetence of a government which the act fails to overthrow, and which leads to the slaughter of millions, is a terrible crime — in fact, the most terrible crime in the book, dwarfing even the Rwandan genocide itself — which is entirely the fault of the Rwandans whom his book attempts to praise.
But not only the Rwandans. How was it that the Rwandan and Ugandan aggression was not condemned by the United Nations? (Stearns doesn’t even ask this question.) Which national economies made use of the minerals extracted by forced Congolese labour in the eastern DRC? It immediately becomes obvious that the aggression could not have happened without the tacit backing of the West, and almost certainly benefited Western big business. (Stearns writes as if the Congo levitated in an economic void.) Once again, Stearns is concealing Western — most particularly American — involvement in this ghastly profit-driven bloodbath.
Stearns reaches perhaps his apex of hypocrisy in discussing the assassination of Laurent Kabila. He gleefully quotes the Western imperialist propaganda rag, the Economist, claiming that everyone in the Congo wanted Kabila dead — no real evidence of this is provided, of course. He admits that perhaps, just perhaps, the Rwandans might have been responsible for the murder. (It is obviously possible that the murderers of three million will not be deterred by one more.) He also puts forward an implausible claim that the Angolans might have been responsible, allegedly because they suspected Kabila of doing a deal with UNITA. (Others have attempted to accuse the Zimbabweans.) In other words, although the most credible culprits are obvious, it is necessary to pretend that we can’t be sure enough to point fingers (while Stearns feels no embarrassment about pointing fingers at Kabila and his son, regardless of the weakness of evidence.)
But of course Stearns here is leaving out another enormous possibility. Since the United States was supporting and profiting from the war, was this assassination the work of the United States? Stearns acknowledges that Kabila’s predecessor, Patrice Lumumba, was murdered under the auspices of “the CIA” (that is, the United States government of the sainted President John F Kennedy) but is incapable of noticing that a government with such a track record might not scruple to perform such deeds again. (The US had, after all, attempted to murder both Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic in recent years.)
It is particularly ironic, then, that Stearns is indignant when, while he is flitting around the former war-zones of the eastern DRC, he is suspected of being a CIA agent. A local intelligence officer wonders if he is recruiting Tutsis for yet another Rwandan invasion. The village chief accuses the United States of having organised the recent earthquakes in the province. (Presumably he had been reading some of the more conspiratorial American weblogs.) Stearns is appalled at such suspicion. How can these people cast such doubts on the bona fides of an innocent American visitor? Anyone would think he were Graham Greene’s blithe, innocently murderous Pyle in The Quiet American. Why do these people hate us?
All the while people like Stearns are denouncing the African monsters of their particular intellectual construction, they are failing to see how the real monster is reflected in the eyes of the people they are talking to . . .