The best introduction to the conflict in the Congo…

…is probably Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, the new book by Jason Stearns. It’s also the most enjoyable to read.

This is sensible journalism and narrative history, in the same vein as Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Instead of making you think through the wars, he helps you see and feel it. Perhaps if I was a Congo expert I would find much to infuriate me, but I doubt it.

There have been several recent academic books on the wars. Severine Autesserre’s book challenged the way I think about peacekeeping, but you (or she) would not call it an overview of the war. Gerard Prunier has the most encyclopedic book, but it’s probably a volume for the hardened Congo hands: even being quasi-familiar with the conflict, I honestly found the tangle of groups, events, and places impossible to follow. And why not? It’s a massive conflict covering a huge territory and nearly a dozen regimes. I would say Stearns’ book is a complement not a substitute.

What I appreciate most: Stearns does not go Bill Berkeley on us and try to boil down ethnic conflict to a simple story. He embraces the complexity. On some level, though, this makes the book intellectually unsatisfying. There is no obvious thesis. Then again, that would be thinking through the story rather than feeling it.

If I had to pin Jason down to a thesis, I would guess it would go something like this: In a region ravaged first by the slavers, then by Belgians, and next by Mobutu, the idealists and nice guys were usurped or killed. The political leaders left were rapacious, selfish, and often stupid. But not so stupid they couldn’t brutally and efficiently massacre their enemies and anyone who looks like their enemy.

In this scenario, it makes “sense” to eliminate the other group, and even people who might sympathize with that group. And expecting that kind of terror, it makes a great deal of sense for members of that other group to preemptively strike back.

It sounds a lot like economic theories of war by mutual fear, and it’s a logic followed (in this story) by everyone from Kagame to Bemba to Kabila Sr.

There’s also a hint of the Great Man approach to politics. That it takes a sensible, calculating and strong leader to bring order and prosperity. That you cycle through Habyarimanas and Bembas and Kabila Sr’s until somone more steady-handed gets the helm — like a Kabila Jr or a Kagame. That’s not to say the Kabila Jrs or Kagame’s aren’t brutal tyrants themselves. They are, and Jason gives ample evidence. But they simply try to achieve their goals through order rather than chaos.

This approach to politics is pretty unpopular nowadays, but it’s actually one I’m inclined to share.

In any case, Jason runs a blog at Congo Siasa, and so I hope to hear if I read him wrong.