Top positive review
Devastating Account of Congo Wars
22 June 2018
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is an exceptionally well written set of accounts of the actions in and around the Congo Wars. This is not a history of the wars themselves but a series of expertly interwoven narratives charting some of the actions of the people involved. It is the story of politicians, perpetrators, and victims. The logic and reasoning behind some of the myriad different actors in the Wars is touched on and offers a great introduction to understanding Africa's World War.
The book rightly starts at the genesis of the Wars - the Rwanda massacres of Tutsis by Hutus. Strange that so much suffering in Congo can have been caused by this bout of outrageous violence in small, neighbouring Rwanda. Jason Stearns takes an holistic view, not just looking at the actions within Congo but the motivations of those around. Of course Rwanda is the most important because it was the Government of Paul Kagame who toppled Mobutu Sese Seko.
The thinking behind the Rwandan intervention is fascinating. Impressive to see such access to some of those in the inner circle that Kagame put together. Of course the Rwandans made a terrible mistake in installing Laurent Kabila and there is not really enough here to explain how come they made that error. Kabila does not seem to be such an obvious leader that the Rwandans had to choose him given the comments of those who were around him in the early going.
The capability of the Rwandan forces compared to the impoverished Congolese ones is well laid out. The depredations of Mobutu and his systematic dismantling of the Congolese forces is described as the ultimate cause of their futility. It was only foreign intervention that held the Rwandans in check at all.
The international element is not fully explored. There is description of the Angolan and Zimbabwean intervention gains some coverage but this is not really their story. It is mostly the story of the Congolese themselves and in many cases the proxies used by others for purposes both moral and self-interested.
Some of the savagery carried out in the DRC was utterly heartbreaking. Stearns tells some of those stories like the worshippers burned in a church or villagers being wiped out. The tales told by survivors are devastating to read and there is a lot of human tragedy in this work. Stearns tells victims stories sympathetically without being overly sentimental. It is fascinating that different sides see things so differently and that each side only really knows about atrocities carried out by the other.
Stearns also engages with perpetrators. He meets with some of those who led factions or militias and tells their story or retells the descriptions of those who were close to leadership. These are classic stories of Big Men. Many of them seem to be out to enrich themselves and in a few instances they seem to be utterly incompetent. The tales of people who emerged from the jungle to glorify themselves and then fade away when their facade falls are a level of detail that those without more than a passing interest in the subject will not necessarily have. It is understanding these factions that leads to understanding the overall tragedy.
The reason this book works so well though is because it is structured and written so effectively. The narrative spreads over so many different angles because there are so many different aspects to the conflict. Stearns does not take a strictly chronological order but it is roughly a guide from the Rwanda massacre to the time of Joseph Kabila.
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is not a military history but is an important analysis of the politics and people. It is a seminal work on a conflict that has had a devastating effect in Central Africa. Stearns shines a light on dark corners of the violence and does so with a dispassionate sympathy which makes it so easy to identify with all of those involved.