Why I won’t hate on machine gun preachers

Today, faithful readers might be in for a surprise reaction.

A drug-dealing, leathered, whiskered biker not only finds God but a cause — a brutal rebel force kidnapping and enslaving African children. He starts with an orphanage, but ends with a personal war, running mercenary missions to recapture the children and hunt down their captors.

If it sounds all too Hollywood, well it is. But it’s also true. His name is Sam Childers, and he is still out there.

The movie is Machine Gun Preacher. If the film is predictably heroic and romantic, the reality is less so. Brett Keller is one of the more dedicated detractors. The actual orphanage looks less than wonderful, and Childers looks like he might be as much mercenary and arms dealer as child savior.

The aid bloggers have been derisive and angry, for pretty good reason. If the “it takes a white man to save Africa” narrative doesn’t piss you off, the narcissistic model of armed humanitarianism just might.

Here’s where I diverge a little.

In what seemed a puzzling move for an economics PhD student, I spent most of 2005 and 2006 a few hundred miles from Childers talking to people who were taken as kids, had their children stolen, and maybe themselves got mutilated in the process. As if that wasn’t bad enough, their entire society–all two million Acholi–had been forcibly displaced into the worst camps you’ve ever seen, pushed there a little by fear but more by the very government that was supposed to protect them. Where they were mostly idling or dying.

This had been going on for nearly 20 years by the time I arrived, extremely late on the scene. Like most people, I was pretty ignorant that all of this had been going on.

The hundreds of truly horrific stories I listened to are hard to communicate. A few truly insane statistics are not.

This was not an isolated set of abductions. Basically, if you were an adolescent boy living in the war region, there was a 2 in 5 chance that a rebel would snatch you in the middle of the night, and probably kill a family member in the process. Assuming he didn’t make you do it yourself.

If you were a girl, especially one under 13, your chances were 1 in 5 of getting carted off where you would promptly become the fourth wife of some killer commander leading some a miserable mobile unit through the bush.

Few rebel movements are built on a single man. This one mostly was: the now semi-notorious Joseph Kony. In spite of the fact that the US and the Ugandans probably had a decent sense where he was (sat phones can be tracked) he evaded capture for more than two decades. And by “evade”, I mean “basically do whatever the hell he wants because almost nobody is coming after him.”

That had started to change by 2006. But I sincerely wonder if you could find a single victim or teacher or aid worker or priest in northern Ugandan who didn’t once say to themselves, “Man, if we just got one group of elite troops and hunted him down, this would all be over.” In fact, I bet a good number of them thought, “I should just do that myself.”

This doesn’t mean that marching into the bush with your own machine gun, and sights for Kony, is a particularly good idea. Most of us have the sense, and lack the courage, not to do it. But it was inevitable someone would.

Childers might been a dangerous loon, but he’s a dangerous loon that was bound to happen–by Uganda’s and our own inaction. Why, someone even made a serious comic book out of the idea.

If you think that the better answer is for a military to hunt down Kony, and that they will behave better, well, you’re fooling yourself. Ugandan or American or whatever — they would kill just as many innocents, arm just as many bad guys, traffic just as many arms, and (if they rescue and give help to children) do it just as ineptly. Quite possibly they would be worse. In fact, for the most part, they’ve been terribly worse.

In spite of this, there are pretty good reasons why we want governments and not vigilantes to fight our wars, for mostly the same reasons most of us would probably would take a police force over Batman.

Nonetheless, before you hate on Childers, I will ask you to hate on Kampala and Khartoum. I will ask you to hate on the Security Council, four American Presidents, and a still inept International Criminal Court. And, more importantly, we should all hate a little on ourselves.