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on 29 June 2012
This is a highly readable book, which I found difficult to put down. The author went through great lengths collecting first hand evidence. The book is full of vivid descriptions of what actually has been going on in the Congo, so that after reading it, it is hard not to appreciate all the horrors experienced by the people.

However, I found major problems for it to be considered a serious history book.

1. At the outset Mr. Stearns warns the reader that the conflict in the Congo has been complex and confusing. Intentionally or not, but the author does not help to disengangle the confusion, but rather adds to it. The story is full of breaks in the chronology and a non-linear timeline, so often it is difficult to follow the author's narrative, let alone the moves of the protagonists. What works for "Pulp Fiction" is less helpful here.

2. Interviews with real participants of the events do illuminate the story, but I often found the book too much focused on interviews themselves rather than drawing connections between the described events and the larger story. It felt at times as if I was reading "World War Z".

3. I would hate to imply that the author is one-sided in his presentation of the events, but you do get a feeling that there is an immense share of attention given to atrocities committed by the side supported by Rwandan forces. At the same time, of the million refugees who crossed into the Congo a good half were shepharded by Rwandan troops back to Rwanda. Not a single page in the book is dedicated to this, how it happened, what was the result. At the same time there are description upon description of sufferings of the other half of the refugees.

In my opinion, if you already know the story of the war, this book can help with detailed insight into the events. For a new reader it may fail to provide a coherent understanding.
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on 31 July 2011
I have read dozens of books on the RDC but none of them come close to pulling all the threads together like this one in a readable but upsetting history, I lived in Congo Brazzaville for many years and realise now that my "in depth" knowledge of the DRC,s history hadn,t even scratched the surface, I would urge anyone to buy and read this book and then try to imagine the horrors still going till this day..and then look on in wonder at the lack of interest shown by the Western political elite. True a lot of the pain is self inflicted but nobody deserves what the poor in the RDC have to contend with on a daily basis.
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on 17 July 2011
Written with a pace and narrative Grisham would be proud of. Caught between a tragedy, horror and comedy. An amazing story many would never have heard and fewer understand. Intelligent, thought provoking, shocking, horrifying and resembling Catch-22 in places. From the genocide in Rwanda to the country today - fifteen years of history, five million deaths. Page turning, readable - highly recommended.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 20 September 2014
The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa's `First World War' purportedly killed up to 5.4 million people between 1998 and 2007 (a tally that has, incidentally, been disputed). Yet it was scarcely reported on or noticed outside the country itself. Any book trying to describe the conflict is going to struggle to construct a narrative of a war that featured few set-piece battles or decisive watersheds. It's a real challenge for anyone to undertake and it's all too easy simply to resort to clichés like the `Heart of Darkness' or throw up one's hands and exclaim `the horror, the horror'. So I read this book partially on the strength of some of the reviews on its dust jacket, which claimed the book was going beyond clichés but offered an analysis.

It doesn't quite manage in doing that. It offers a compelling and extremely readable account of the war, told principally through interviews. This is no mean accomplishment - I do not wish to disparage it at all. Mr Stearns' passion for the country and his vivid portrayals of the people he meets makes for highly compelling reading. Certainly, one gets a sense of some of the proximate causes of the conflict (the fall-out from the Rwandan genocide in 1994 being one of the most prominent) and his narrative allows one to follow the key developments with ease.

But only in the last chapter is there a proper attempt at analysis. The usual suspects are named: politicians and their appeals to ethnicity and xenophobia; the endless cycle of victimisation and revenge (the Rwandans serving as an exemplary example of victims into victimisers) ; the lure of the country's mineral wealth and the incentives created for fighting and killing over the spoils; the lack of any strong, independent institutions that can hold politicians and the passions they arouse in check. All these factors seem to create a vicious circle in which periods of relative peace are merely preparations for the next round of war. No doubt all this is true (the pet explanation of the left that it is all down to the rapacity of Western corporations overlooks the fact that Mobutu nationalised foreign companies in the 1970s and got away with it; his perceived value by the West as an anti-communist stalwart meant that corporate interests with sacrificed to keep a kleptocratic dictator in power).

But it is easy to blame politicians for the mess - for their appealing to the worst instincts of their followers and so fuelling endless bouts of killing and rapine. But why do so many ordinary people want to `dance in the glory of monsters', as the title of this book states (the reference is to Joseph Kabila's rebuke to the people for their partaking in the crimes of Mobutu)? The reference to the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt's classic formulation of the problem, and a trope that comes up several places in the book, is simply too pat. The evils that have befallen the DRC are not banal. In some countries, politics manages to contain differences, differences that, expressed in other circumstances, lead to murder and mayhem. Let's take a recent example closer to home: Scotland's referendum. There is no doubt that had Scotland voted to secede, the UK would not have descended in civil war. And Scotland will not descend into chaos because the nationalists lost the vote. The political process will work to ensure that such passions that have been expressed will not spill into general disorder. We take this for granted. But it is no accident. In the DRC, politics have failed to contain the passions of politicians and populace alike and that, too, is no accident. Why?

Some comparative analysis might have come in handy here. Not all of Africa is a toxic swamp of ethnic bloodletting and dysfunctional or non-existent institutions. What has Botswana managed to do right, so its mineral wealth has provided real benefits for the country while the DRC's wealth has brought nothing but trouble? How come Tanzania has succeeded in constructing a genuine Tanzanian national identity that has succeeded in transcending tribe and ethnicity, while the DRC hasn't? The final observation to make is that the author does not offer much in the way of a prognosis for the future of the country. Bad as things are now, they are not as bad as they were in the late 1990s. Some progress has been made. Perhaps one can draw some hope that there are some signs that a functioning political process is beginning to develop? The author could, in my view, have expounded a bit more on this.

So although the book is very readable and very informative account of the DRC's `Great War', it is somewhat weaker on the analytical side. It is nonetheless worth reading, despite this limitation.
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on 18 July 2011
'Dancing in the glory of monsters' is another brilliant example of a journalist delving into history and presenting an accessible account that is enthralling and accurate. This book follows Dowden's 'Africa, Altered States, Oridnary Miracles', Merridith's 'The State of Africa', and Wrong's 'In the footsteps of Mr Kutz', chronicling the history of the DRC. If anything is lacking, it is the attention given to Western powers and their influence at this time. Stearns introduces elements of influence but neglects for whatever reason to take this further. Contextualising it from an African regional experience is fine, but in my opinion this should be more explicit.

If you find the DRC interesting then this book increases the intrigue!
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on 2 January 2012
I've been interested in Congo's 'World War' ever since reading Philip Gourevitch's superb articles in the New Yorker a decade ago. Since then I've read widely on the subject and yearned for a definitive account of the war. I had high hopes that Jason Stearns's book would be it. It's impressive, though personally wasn't quite the book I was looking for.

Partly this is an expectation issue. From the reviews of the book in the media I was assuming a general history, something with the sweeping narrative of, say, Andrew Roberts recent history of World War 2. In retrospect that's probably naive because the war Roberts describes is a much more conventional conflict with easily defined opposing sides and an ideological framework. One thing that Stearns brilliantly captures is the sheer messy complexity of the war in Congo with lots of different armies fighting in different places at different times with the boundaries of ally and foe constantly shifting.

The first half of the book is a much more personal account of the war, drawing upon a varied cast of characters and exploring their experiences. This was the part I found less interesting. Although the individual tales are expertly drawn and deeply moving there's too much emphasis on the micro-level of the conflict without sufficient extrapolation to the wider story. Again, this is less a criticism of the book than a question of my own expectation. Around the 200 page mark Stearns pulls back to give us a much wider view. Here his general history of the second half of the war begins and for me was more satisfying.

As an old Congo-hand Stearns knows the country and his subject well. He's also very good on teasing out extraordinary details. Sometimes these are shocking, such as the vivid passage where a woman sees a road littered with bodies; as she walks through it clouds of butterflies rise from the corpses. Sometimes they are darkly comic: the myth of the general who supposedly shoots himself six times before, utterly unwounded, gives his blessing to Kabila.

There is also some insightful, myth busting analysis. I've always half-believed that the war was very much driven by the West's determination to get its hands on Congo's mineral wealth. Stearns clearly shows this was not the case, at least in the earlier stages of the conflict.

A few minor quibbles. Occasionally the writing lapses into cliché. People grow up with 'silver spoons in [their] mouths' for example. And why does he refer to Medicine Sans Frontiers throughout as 'Doctors without Borders'? Although a literal translation I've never heard it systematically referred to as that.

Ultimately, if the book has a message it's that the only thing to save the region will be the establishment of strong, independent institutions, and that outsiders must stop focusing on the horrors committed in the heart of darkness and try to understand the underlying forces instead. By any definition the wars in Congo are a chaotic mess so this will be easier said than done. Jason Stearns has gone a long way in trying to disseminate and explain the conflict. It is, however, a war that defies simple narrative or explanation. So if I was left slightly disappointed with the book perhaps the fault is less the author's than the amorphous, ragged nature of the war itself.
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on 15 October 2013
I love African history. Having exhausted the supply of good historical books on sourthern Africa - I started to read about the history of the Great Lakes region. Having never lived or even been there I thought it would be difficult to become interested in the regions history...I was wrong. The situation in the Congo is so complex and involves so many different countries (especially African nations) that Stearns had a huge task on his hands to explain it in a single book. However, I think he succeeded and has produced an amazing story. This book looks at the recent history of the Congo and how the crisis in the region involves so many different countries in the region. I think it explains the politics taking place in a really skillful way - I finished the book in a few days because the whole story was just fascinating and I couldn't put the book down. If you are interested in contemporary regional politics in sourthern and central Africa - you will find this book a fascinating read. I would place this book within my top 5 all-time favourite books on African history !
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on 21 October 2011
This is the perfect piece of non-fiction, written so well I rushed through it, fantastically informative and a book that left me with so much more understanding of central Africa, especially Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, as well as helpful snippets on Angola and Zimbabwe. The author writes about the various motivations of political leaders or soldiers in a way that explains without recourse to crude stereotypes. Given general ignorance about the region, many will read this without knowing what haopens next, which does make it like a thriller. The concluding comparison with Europe's 30 year war of the 17th c is v helpful too. To me this was as informative aout central Africa as Yergin's The Prize was about oil, and probably deserves a prize itself.
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on 19 October 2012
The untold story of the Congo area of Africa where the killing was in the millions while the world looked the other way and wrung its hands about allowing the Rwanda crisis to get out of hand.
The frightening thing is that it all happened in recent times with virtually no visibility to the rest of the world. I am pretty well informed reading papers and journals (economist etc.) on a daily basis. Yet the size of this passed me by and makes Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan look like a kiddies play tiff!
The book is coolly and well written which makes its content stand out.
I made the mistake of buying the Kindle version.. Now I am desperate to lend it to anyone who will read it and need to buy a paper copy. Love the Kindle - but this has to be in paper!
Pete
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on 31 May 2014
Jason Stearns has made a very admirable effort to explain the chaos and anarchy that is the Congo in the wake of the civil war or great war of Africa as he suggests. I think that is a very fair description of the situation that unfolded in the Congo. At one point it seemed that virtually every African nation had some sort of contingent or involvement in the conflict along with the multiple Congolese groups.

Overall I enjoyed the book. However I do have to agree with a previous reviewer who suggested there was too much analysis and not enough description. This made the book in my opinion a little dry at times.
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