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Dancing in the Glory of Monsters [Book Review]


Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns attempts to explain the causes of the Congo Wars and the events that unfolded once the fighting began. Unlike in other wars, there is no single individual or group to fully blame for the conflict because there were so many different parties involved from within the country and surrounding nations. The conflict received relatively little coverage in other parts of the world due in part to its complexity. The media likes simple stories with obvious headlines and this conflict provided everything but that.


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I previously read a book about King Leopold and his exploits in the Congo. I’d heard about conflicts and fighting within the country since then. But I didn’t have a good understanding of what exactly was taking place as far as why the fighting began or who was fighting. When I came across Dancing in the Glory of Monsters a few years ago, I added it to my reading list in hopes of getting a more complete understanding of the history of Congo.

Stearns explains that part of why there was comparatively less media coverage for the conflict in Congo is that the situation was a bit more complex. It’s no less unfortunate but rather more difficult to explain than some of these other conflicts that have taken place in other parts of the world. The sides, causes, and reasons for the continued fighting are difficult to explain. There are no clear-cut explanations and there are no obvious good guys or victims versus villains.

It’s estimated that about 5 million people died between the conflict’s beginning in 1996 and ending in 2003. For comparison, an estimated 6 million people died during the Holocaust. The majority of deaths weren’t directly a result of violence but rather the side effects of the fighting. War and poverty combined with the Congo’s failing infrastructure resulted in people being unable to access proper food, medical care, etc.

To put the war in context and make it easier to understand, Stearns explains that the conflict in Congo is unlike many of the world’s recent wars. It’s not about one country fighting another or a government fighting a militant group or even two ethnic groups fighting each other. Instead, it’s more like if you think of centuries ago before there were clearly defined countries but rather just groups spread across regions and empires.

Consider America as an example. In the present day, there is the nation “United States of America” and within that, you have the states. You have the American military but states have their National Guard, state police, and local police. Think back to the period after the Revolutionary War when states had militias and there was just a fledgling federal government.

Imagine if the federal government had never fully formed and there was a weak standing national military. You would have a collection of individual states where each one has a militia mostly funded by the local wealthy class. For example, a conflict begins between Pennsylvania and Maryland, and the surrounding state militias get involved. Meanwhile, England, France, and Spain are still milling about. You could quickly have fighting spread across multiple states leading to instability in the region. It could become an incredibly messy every man-for-himself situation complicated by all of these different factions fighting for individual reasons.

To properly tell the story of the Congo conflict, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters first dives into explaining the conflict in Rwanda, including the genocide, which began in 1994. It’s not a tangent but rather incredibly relevant because the conflict in Rwanda would have an impact on surrounding countries. This was in part because many people who fled the conflict in Rwanda went to neighboring countries in search of safety. Many people including military personnel, civilians, politicians, etc. fled across the borders into Congo. (At the time the country was called Zaire but I’m going to refer to it as Congo to keep things simple.)

Stearns explains that people had been living in this region which came to be known as Rwanda before colonialization. For the most part, the area’s tribes or ethnic groups had structured their societies to mostly coexist with each other. That changed when the colonial powers came in. They had a desire to exert control over this foreign larger population while being a relatively small group. To achieve that goal they took what was a loose hierarchy or a social structure and formalized it adding self-serving classifications.

Those classifications which dictated each group’s position in the hierarchy had a profound effect on an individual’s economic standing. They made one ethnic group second-class citizens but effectively the favorite child and the other a third-class citizen. These and other factors contributed to the Rwandan genocide.

Stearns spoke with people who were either in the military or just regular civilians during this period to get a better understanding. I’ve seen a few documentaries and have read about the Rwandan conflict. And like many others, I also watched the movie “Hotel Rwanda” which was based on a true story. But this was the first time I’d read a book that delved more deeply into explaining the conflict.

Something that stood out to me in the explanation was the UN sending in a contingent of French troops. That’s something that I’d seen in other documentaries where a big deal was made about the UN sending in French troops to help to get things under control. But it’s explained here that this was after France had been supplying the Rwandan government with weapons and training. While France didn’t necessarily instigate this conflict, it contributed to the circumstances that would give rise to such a conflict. They then stepped in afterward as the good guys, seemingly heroes, trying to bring peace to the region.

Anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of people fled to neighboring countries and they would need resources. This sudden influx of people resulted in the food prices, for example, going up several times over. Because so many people had weapons (and not handguns but high-powered rifles and rocket launchers) it greatly devalued the price of weapons.

When entering neighboring countries, people were told to turn over their weapons at border checkpoints. Imagine that there ended up being piles of these big guns left behind. I don’t know how much money people earn per day over there. But it’s explained that certain types of high-powered rifles were going for $40 or $50 while an AK-47 could be purchased for $100. With guns in plentiful supply at such relatively cheap prices is it surprising that violence occurred?

The conflict and genocide erupted into the open when the Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was assassinated. The society effectively collapsed due to the breakdown in government, ethnic genocide, and people fleeing violence.

Stearns interviewed one of the high-ranking commanders from during that period. No one accuses him of having taken part in the massacres but rather that he didn’t do enough to stop them once they began. If you’re in the midst of war and you’re a commander tasked with maintaining order amongst your troops. I could see why it might also be expected that you safeguard against injustices.

He explains that initially, they tried to control the rampage killings and looting of villages. But by that point, he was no longer in command of an official army. The troops were partially composed of regular civilians, prisoners, children, and whatever other able-bodied males they could find. Some of these individuals hadn’t received proper training and lacked discipline.

There had been training courses about observing international humanitarian law for the regular troops. But what do you do once you get into the war and soldiers begin frivolously killing people or raping and pillaging? What about when it starts to spread through the ranks?

It sounds like the issue was twofold.

First that the commanders didn’t act fast enough. And secondly, which is my layman’s conjecture, that their soldiers were undisciplined. What are you doing with children in an army? What are you doing with prisoners? There is a higher risk of people in those two groups being rash and not fully thinking things through. If they’re in your military ranks, it’s to be expected that unless they receive very intensive training they won’t operate at the same level as trained soldiers.

In war, there have been incidents where even soldiers that have gone through proper military channels for training commit atrocities. Some people are just bloodthirsty and join the military because they want to be violent and kill. You also have individuals, regular citizens, who rape and steal.

If your military is composed of regular people, especially people that you’re just picking up from wherever some of those people might not be of the best character. It goes back to the saying that war is hell. This is part of why militaries go out of their way to stress discipline and put recruits through the rigors of basic training. It’s in hopes that under fire during war theoretically, they’d be better prepared to conduct themselves and follow orders.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is incredibly hard to follow at points because there are so many moving pieces. People erroneously speak about and refer to Africa, a continent as though it’s just one big country. We say North America when discussing geography but we don’t speak about North America as one entity instead people specifically refer to America, Canada, or Mexico. It’s much the same with Europe.

Consider America, there are individual states each of which has its own government, history, culture, etc. This is based in part on where they’re located in the country. There is a federal government but a lot of the day-to-day things are handled at the state or local level. Even within states, you have regions and cities with vast differences.

For example, in New York state there’s New York City but also places like Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. Larger cities lean more liberal while rural areas and smaller counties lean more conservative. Even within New York City, there are five boroughs but also the suburbs of Long Island and Westchester County. Neighborhoods like East New York or Brownsville are worlds apart from the Upper East Side or the Hamptons.

Consider Africa through that lens and zoom out to it being a continent with way more countries than North America. Africa is huge and some of its countries are far larger than some of these the major players on the world stage. And within these vast countries, you have different regions and ethnic groups.

The borders used to create the countries in Africa were created by European powers with little regard for ethnic groups. A European colonizer might decide this land here is now all going to be Angola, Zaire, or Rwanda. Never mind that the land is inhabited by groups that have different cultures, languages, histories, etc. Conflict can arise from just mashing people together especially if they are treated very differently.

If you look back, Europe has a history of constant conflict. Not just between what we think of now as nations but even within themselves as recently as the 1800s to early 1900s. Countries like Italy and Germany consist of regions that banded together under one flag. When I visited Germany it felt like one country though my perspective might have been skewed by only being there for ten days. But from what I understand about Italy, regions are a really big deal. Geography in the sense of topography and bordering nations influence food, language, and other aspects of culture.

Colonizers exerted control and ruled over regions of Africa for centuries. Africa has had civilizations and preexisting divisions along with conflicts going back for millennia at this point. But further complexity was added by these occupying forces. The imperialist powers began withdrawing in the 1900s but remnants of the systems they created remained in place.

By the 60s, African nations were now supposedly independent but external forces continued to interfere. Putting in power particular politicians and assassinating or otherwise removing from power other politicians. There were certainly corrupt individuals within these countries as well as ethnic prejudice. And people fighting over resources is something that happens all around the world. But having all of these people and entities openly or quietly involved made matters much more complicated.

Countries being so close that people can walk across borders with relative ease would cause politicians to want to play a greater role in what’s taking place in neighboring countries. Sometimes to take advantage of the situation but also to protect their interests and maintain the security of their own country. This is especially true if rebel or military forces from one country take it upon themselves to flee or pursue their enemies across the border into a neighboring country.

There were three or four different military and rebel groups from one country fighting in the conflict. Within the government, different factions threw their support behind those that were fighting based on who could benefit them the most. All of that wheeling and dealing behind the scenes made the situation even more complicated.

On a basic level, they were fighting over resources but to truly understand the conflict is quite difficult because there were so many moving parts. And when you ask people about their role, most will try to present a positive image of themselves. They will present themselves as having been on the right side of history or will try to downplay or explain away their questionable actions. Reading just the first section of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, I came away with the sense that there was fighting for decades some of which ramped up in the 60s around several African nations gaining independence. But the true causes and simmering tensions had existed prior.

Fighting ramped up in the 60s but ebbed and flowed over the decades. By the 90s things ramped back up again and with generations upon generations of conflict and hurt feelings, there were different political forces at play. For example, there was Idi Amin in Uganda and Mobutu in Congo. There’s also a discussion of Lumumba. Even after reading I couldn’t keep all of the factions straight and could only remember the names of top-level people. Yet, I was able to get the gist of what was being explained.

Early on in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, there’s a bird’s eye view of the nations in this region of Africa, their relationships with each other, and their individual histories. There are explanations of how the militaries operated as well as the formation of rebel groups. You get some insight into the politics of these societies which includes at least brief profiles of notable leaders such as presidents, prime ministers, generals, etc. But I appreciated that Dancing in the Glory of Monsters began to include more discussions of the experiences of civilians.

There’s information about the campaign to seek out those perceived as perpetrators of Rwanda’s genocide as well as a desire to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko. Like any book about war, there are descriptions of various battles, the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, and also massacres carried out as the two sides went back and forth in attempting to one-up each other with violence.

Estimates of the number of lives lost or people displaced are inaccurate because census counts were blocked for political reasons. During an attack, people would be killed in the villages. Those who were fortunate would run away to escape often traveling great distances in search of safety. People hiding out in the jungles and forests without dependable access to food or healthcare while living under extremely stressful conditions would claim more lives. Estimates could be made regarding people who died in villages by counting corpses. But it was more difficult and nearly impossible to count those who died in the jungle on their journey to refugee camps or just simply elsewhere.

Even those who made their way to refugee camps or to towns and cities where they thought they would find safety might be turned away. Aid workers were often prevented from counting the number of refugees in camps by the military or those otherwise controlling the camps. Without taking opportunities to count people, it’s difficult to understand the true scale of the casualties of the Congo Wars.

The UN estimates that about 800,000 people died in the Rwandan conflict whether from direct fighting, genocide, disease, malnutrition, etc. That is a tremendous number but it doesn’t capture the reality of the situation. Those are 800,000 individual lives estimated to have ended during that conflict.

You then have the First Congo War where no one really knows how many people died because political shenanigans ignored some groups, effectively erasing them while preventing the counting of others. This has resulted in drastic differences between the low and high-end numbers. With another major conflict having taken place right next door a few years earlier there are comparisons.

When people speak about the conflict in Congo, they fall back on comparing it to the conflict in Rwanda. This is in the sense that the situation in Congo was bad but look at Rwanda. Instead of these two very devastating events being viewed independently, they get grouped. And because one has somewhat more data available which gives scope and context to the number of people affected, that one gets a bit more attention.

The loss of life is the loss of life and it should be considered a tragedy. Yet it’s downplayed if not ignored. That aspect was very useful in gaining a better understanding of the politics and machinations that go into reporting these kinds of situations.

Putting gender politics aside, wars have historically been fought between men while women, children, the elderly, and disabled people stay home. Yet, throughout history, atrocious crimes have been committed against women which is unfortunate. But for the most part, up until maybe recently, women were not out on the battlefield.

Theoretically, under the rules of honorable engagement, you don’t launch attacks on civilians. But what you see here is a hunger for revenge fueled in part by the inflammatory rhetoric that had been drilled into the soldiers and civilians promoting prejudice against other groups. When soldiers or rebels went into an area they weren’t just killing their official opposition, they were also viciously murdering civilians.

In college, I had to give a brief presentation about the Boys War, the name given to the reality that child soldiers were being used in the Congo War. Based on what I read it seems that the military needed bodies to continue fighting the war. They turned to young men, teens and children really, and recruited them to be soldiers.

Using America as an example, crime in society is typically committed by adolescent and young adult men in the range of their teens to mid-20s. The brain is still developing and you’re not fully mature at that age. Physically you might have the body of a man but your mind isn’t there as yet.

Notice it’s in that age range at which militaries like to recruit young men. That’s also the age at which gangs and criminal organizations tend to recruit young men. I would advise against joining a gang at any age but you would look like even more of a fool joining a gang at the age of 35.

I can see how as a teen, someone might be able to talk you into joining a gang as kids that age are trying to find their identity and crave acceptance. They become concerned with having money and quite often either older teens, young adult males, or even grown men negatively influence them to go down the wrong path. Knowing this, Laurent-Désiré Kabila went into communities and made contact with local coaches, club leaders, and boy scout troop leaders. These role models and influencers who these boys and young men probably looked up to were offered monetary incentives to help recruit them for the war.

The boys they targeted for recruitment were young with some in their teens if not younger. When you think about it that’s very much like criminal organizations. Often drug dealers, sex workers, etc. get caught up in those activities at young ages when they don’t have many other options for legitimately making money. It’s sad because this is a vulnerable period during which teens were being sent off to kill people. And like many others that age who become involved with illicit activities or risky lifestyles, they’re only considering the potential benefits rather than all the things that could go wrong.

You gain an understanding of the military campaigns during the First Congo War that led to the Mobutu being forced to step down. But to understand how and why people came to support his removal from power, it’s important to understand how he and his government functioned. There was a lot of bloodshed but Mobotu eventually stepping aside after ruling for 30 years allowed the conflict to end.

This is something you see in other instances where there is a revolution and individuals or even a group believe they’re better capable of running the government. They position themselves as having the best interest of the people in mind. Only to get into power and repeat some of the faults and mistakes of previous administrations or find the work more difficult than imagined. When Mobutu was removed from power Laurent Kabila emerged as the nation’s new leader though it’s worth noting that this was not through a vote.

Mistakes were made by officials as well as selfish decisions based on greed. It might be a matter of absolute power corrupting. But also maybe having a flawed perspective on the difficulty of operating a government as someone on the outside looking in. After taking up the position of leader, it would seem that Kabila’s administration had issues just simply because he was not fit to lead and had no idea of what he was doing.

There are multiple examples of a leader assuming power and within their administration, they focus more on putting people in place who are loyal rather than capable. This results in cronies, family members, and people to whom they owe favors occupying positions. When you have this occurring across the administration, like the leader of the military has no military experience, you can end up with a very weak government.

Past a certain point, the conflict becomes repetitive largely because the problems that initially sparked the war were still there. Generally, when you look at just about any conflict or war a battle over resources is somewhere in the mix. People fighting over land, natural resources, access to resources, etc. tends to be the thing that sparks wars. Sure, people might claim to be fighting for freedom, democracy, culture, rights to self-determination, etc. but at the root, resources are somewhere in the mix.

In this case, there is a constant shifting both within Congo and also with nearby countries. When a conflict occurs in one place refugees tend to flee in search of safety. For some it’s temporary but others might settle in the area. But in moving to a place where other people are already living or even in an uninhabited place eventually, you might butt heads over who should have rights to the land. You see this with Mutubo, in Rwanda, and with Kabila and some of the other individuals later involved in this fight for resources.

Despite these being what we would now think of as Black people, there’s a fight here because this is sub-Saharan Africa where just about everybody is Black, and the concept of race as we know it is a relatively recent creation. But ethnic groups or tribes have existed for millennia before. They’ve been fighting whether that’s based on ethnicity, where you’re from, etc. The Europeans just added fuel to the fire. The availability of guns and heavy weaponry makes these conflicts even more violent and devastating than they might have been in the past.

You now have this issue where a person comes to power and they make all types of promises about what is going to change and how things will improve but they fail to deliver. What would often happen is that greater emphasis would be placed on loyalty rather than the competency and capabilities of officials. Insecurity would lead to them passing over people who were capable and therefore a potential threat to their power.

These leaders and their cabinets would make decisions that were beneficial to them without paying attention to how they would create long-term issues that might destabilize the country. This was the case with Mobutu and led to him being pushed out of power but also occurred under Kabila. They might have begun with genuine concerns for the population or at least campaigned on caring. But once in place, they and the people around them would use their positions as an opportunity to fill their pockets. They sacrificed the greater good of the country for their personal gain.

While Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is focused on this region of Africa, this is something that you also see elsewhere in the world, even here in America. America is an incredibly wealthy nation. Many of these African countries have a lot of natural resources but they don’t necessarily have the same infrastructure as other nations around the world.

America is a very wealthy country but a lot of its wealth is concentrated in a relatively small percentage of the population. If politicians and other people in power took the time to consider what would be the greater good for the mass of people, decisions would be made differently. That’s not to imply that there would be no poverty or that everyone’s going to be rich. But the disparity between the wealthy and the poor would be less.

You don’t always have the most ethical people seeking out these kinds of positions. And even when people begin with good intentions there’s temptation along the way as opportunities to gain power and/or make money present themselves. Unless you’re a very disciplined and ethical person, a lot of people might choose to do what’s best for themselves rather than what’s best for everyone else.

The Congo army was in the midst of fighting wars but officers within the military were selling off the weapons (ex: tanks, plane parts, etc.). It’s not like the war was over or winding down and they were selling surplus. At one point during the fight to overthrow Kabila his soldiers needed to retreat. The enemy was closing in on them but they had to leave vehicles and weapons behind as there was only one boat available to serve as a ferry. And the officers present couldn’t use any of the military aircraft because the fuel had been sold as well.

I’m generally against war. Militaries and warfare tend to be held in high regard but wars result in the death of people. And quite often civilians are the most affected ones. These are just regular people going about their lives who bear the brunt of war. Meanwhile politicians, people at the top, and other warmongers who are living cushy, comfortable lives plunge their countries into wars. Regular people then find themselves ducking and dodging bullets, having their belongings and resources commandeered, communities pillaged, women raped, men killed, and children/the sick without much-needed help.

People generally don’t like tyrants or rather they eventually grow tired of them. Regardless of how powerful or dangerous a person might be, if they hang around long enough, they’re bound to bump into someone that has their number. Case in point, Mobutu was forced out and Kabila was assassinated by one of his guards.

Several theories are floated about who might have orchestrated the assassination of Kabila. But the reality is that because so many different people had motives to kill him, it’s difficult to pinpoint one particular person/group or to settle on a specific theory. It’s believed that some might not have been directly involved in the assassination plot but knew it was in motion and chose to not interfere. Seeing the benefits of Kabila’s murder, they did nothing to warn anyone or to prevent it from happening.

Congo is a major producer of several natural resources such as diamonds, cobalt, zinc, etc. Being the leader of Congo or in certain high-ranking positions within the administration would endow the individual with the authority to make decisions about mining and import/export agreements. Some people were using their positions to enrich themselves so they could live cushy lifestyles. But others were using their positions to funnel money into their ideas and initiatives. The need to fund wars or particular programs would influence their decisions. As part of that, they might choose one mining interest over another.

The discussion of mining isn’t a deep dive into the history of the industry but rather a basic overview. Yet, it’s a good explanation of the various mining interests, factions, and alliances. Not only do you have these military and political machinations at play but there are also commercial considerations in the mix that are further muddying the waters. It’s like all levels and areas of society are impacted by the war.

The lives of regular people are made hard by the conditions they’re being forced to live under. At the same time, these countries have tremendous amounts of resources. But due to mismanagement as in other areas of society, what could be a tremendous generator of income for the country and thereby its people becomes a missed opportunity.

These are opportunities to make tremendous amounts of money and some initiatives did generate revenue. But instead of that money being taken and invested into infrastructure which would improve the country and quality of life for its people, the leaders of the country took the money and did their own thing. This included lining the pockets of their allies who in turn spent huge amounts of money on mansions and other luxuries.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters closes with a discussion of Joseph Kabila, Laurent Kabila’s son, assuming leadership after his assassination. It sounds like he made some positive changes in comparison to his father which helped to bring some degree of if not stability, then less uncertainty under his leadership. He arguably lacked some of his father’s charisma but was able to learn and adapt.

In some aspects, Kabila was an improvement over his dad but problems persisted. It’s like Congo’s society has potential but still doesn’t quite seem to get to where it needs to be. Here you have it that the stars aligned and he managed to end up in this position. But he was smart enough to remove a lot of the problematic people that existed under the previous regimes.

The issues regarding mining and resources continued to some degree under his regime. He was ultimately able to end the large-scale fighting which was a major achievement. But as Stearns explains, because of these, not just generations but centuries of problems and unrest in this region these were deep-seated issues to overcome.

The broader problems in this society are still there but the solutions for resolving them are unclear because there’s no straightforward path to a more successful future. Yet, Stearns does throw out some ideas as to how and why steps should be taken to put these nations on better footing.

This was a really good book although it started a little bit slow. I think, in part because it took me a while to get even a basic grasp on the different groups and things at play. Even at the end of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, I still couldn’t keep all of the different factions straight. But as you read along, you get a better understanding of the different major groups while some individuals pop up repeatedly allowing you to more readily recall them.

Just be prepared that you’re going to have to put in some effort. That is if you’re not already familiar with these events. It’s worth checking out. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is focused on the mid-1900s to the recent past. This is a good starting point for gaining an understanding of this period in the Congo’s history. But you’ll probably have to seek out other books to get a real understanding of the time before that.

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