By this point, it’s probably safe to say that awareness of Joseph Kony has been well and truly raised. Admittedly, the Kony 2012 video hasn’t yet spread quite as widely as Rebecca Black’s heroic efforts to raise awareness of the fact that it’s Friday did, but it’s not far off. And, by now, there are enough critiques of the campaign that it feels a little bit redundant to add another one: Visible Children were very quick off the mark with their response, and Demand Nothing offered one of the first radical responses looking at how the Invisible Children campaign fits into military and corporate interests in the region. For anyone who really wants to read up on the subject, whydev.org have a pretty extensive list of pieces on this stuff.
So, at this point, I don’t really have anything that new to say, but it’s worth restating the essentials: yes, Joseph Kony is definitely a very bad man, and it’d be good if he was stopped. But, as Invisible Children say “the only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to coordinate efforts with regional governments…The KONY 2012 campaign is calling for U.S. leadership… It supports the deployment of U.S. advisors and the provision of intelligence and other support.” “Other support” is a beautifully neutral-sounding euphemism, but it’s clear that, at the end of the day, what they’re asking for is for the US and Ugandan governments to solve the problem with their armies. Which is problematic, because both the Ugandan and US armies have terrible records of human rights abuses. This is unsurprising, because all wars lead to atrocities. Frankly I cannot begin to imagine how anyone could take a look at what’s happened in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade and think that sending the US military in to sort everything out is a workable way of making things better. Invisible Children are calling for military intervention, and that means asking for more My Lais, more Fallujahs. It means asking a brutal dictator with a track record of abducting children to serve as soldiers and a body of armed men* with a history of murdering 15-year-old boys for fun to team up and save the day. One of the interesting things about the KONY 2012 campaign is how they seem partially willing to accept the horrific consequences of what they’re calling for: if taken literally, the slogan “#stop at nothing” would be very suitable for a Stalin, a Milosevic or a Kony.
As Mark Steel wrote years ago, talking about another set of military atrocities that by now have been mostly forgotten, “The details differ, but the process is the same. Because a war of occupation inevitably provokes massive opposition, so the population becomes at first mistrusted, and eventually regarded as subhuman, back to the very British concept that slaves could be tortured as they were brutes who possessed no souls.
Otherwise it would be quite a coincidence that, in almost every war, soldiers seem to torture civilians, whereas this problem rarely arises with any other profession.
If, every few years, fishmongers were caught dragging people into a back room and pulling them round on a lead, someone might inquire as to whether there was something inherent in the job that was causing this.”
It’s worth stating again that this is in no way intended as a defence of Joseph Kony or his actions. He is a terrible man, and the idea of leaving him free to continue doing terrible things is a horrible one, almost as horrible as the idea of sending US troops into the region. But whenever people want to commit a great crime, the most effective way to justify it has always been to point to another great crime. If the technology had been around at the time, I’m sure it would have been possible to make a very effective “Kaiser Wilhelm 1914” film about the things the German army was doing in Belgium. I’m sure it would have been a good film, and made some compelling points, but that wouldn’t have made the millions of deaths in the years that followed any less of a tragic waste.
I don’t want to compare the US or Ugandan governments to the nazis, because I don’t think that’s a helpful comparison to make, but I do think it’s worth comparing them to the governments who fought the nazis, and in the name of fighting a terrible evil, carried out mass slaughter against the populations of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not to mention the actions of that great anti-nazi and humanitarian Joseph Stalin. And on and on it goes: from the Israeli politicians calling on the memory of the holocaust to justify their oppression of Palestinians to the Palestinian politicians talking about Israeli crimes to justify their attacks on civilians, from the babies allegedly thrown from incubators in Kuwait to the bloodshed unleashed after 9/11, the killing goes on and on.
Fredy Perlman’s classic “The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism” had a good answer to those who think that just raising awareness is always a good thing in itself: “The idea that an understanding of the genocide, that a memory of the holocausts, can only lead people to want to dismantle the system, is erroneous. The continuing appeal of nationalism suggests that the opposite is truer, namely that an understanding of genocide has led people to mobilize genocidal armies, that the memory of holocausts has led people to perpetrate holocausts. The sensitive poets who remembered the loss, the researchers who documented it, have been like the pure scientists who discovered the structure of the atom. Applied scientists used the discovery to split the atom’s nucleus, to produce weapons which can split every atom’s nucleus; Nationalists used the poetry to split and fuse human populations, to mobilize genocidal armies, to perpetrate new holocausts.”
How can we stop this? Unlike Invisible Children, I don’t think there’s a simple answer to offer. But the one thing that definitely won’t work is just offering more of the same: we can’t trust Obama or General Museveni to sort things out for us any more than we can trust Kony to do it. We need to stop relying on these bastards and their guns. In the short term, if you really feel that you need to do something to help the situation in Central Africa right now, Visible Children have a list of charities doing useful work on the ground that aren’t trying to start a war, and you should feel free to donate to them.
* in general, I don’t like it when people say “men” to mean “people”, and I avoid using it in general, but the whole ideology of the army is so intimately bound up with what it means to be a man in this society that it seems to make sense here. Oh, happy International Women’s Day, everyone.