Chris Blattman

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.

23 Responses

  1. I think you make a good point Chris. Not sure if Sam is honest, good or plain crazy, but when compared to Kony, he’s almost angelical. And if Sam can do the job that those “more qualified but not interested” are not doing, I hope he does. Too much hypocrits around. Many people wishing the right thing be done, behind a keyboard – including myself. too much talk-talk, very little walk-walk.

  2. Dr. Blattman,
    RE: Your reply from October 7, 2011, 3:17 pm let me summarize by saying that I have been looking for a new idol to worship since Easterly shuttered AidWatch. With the above mentioned comment, it has become you. Well played.
    I’m presently writing from Kitgum and if you have any interest in doing extension work along these lines, please look me up. Hollywood does love a sequel and Kony being hunted down by a Peace Corps volunteer and a Yale prof sounds pretty hot to me. It would look great on grad school apps, too.

  3. I enjoyed the movie and apparently so did Obama. You may not like Childers methods but you have to agree on the enemy he is fighting.
    From the WSJ
    “President Barack Obama has authorized the deployment of up to 100 combat-equipped U.S. troops to central Africa to help hunt down the leaders of a rebel force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.”
    Amen. It is about time.

  4. I would like to say that I agree with the overall point. I know bush pilots who know the areas not to fly over in DRC, Northern Uganda, and Chad because of this group. As a white man who has lived in South Sudan, I have heard the accounts of individuals affected. I have also heard of how Government lead military has failed, and even turned against civilians trying to root out this problem.

    It’s not that what Childers is doing is right, it was just a matter of time before someone was frustrated enough to do what he has done. The story isn’t one of heroism, but of disappointment in leadership and integrity in others.

  5. I get the point of the article – Childers is problem of our own creation, or more specifically, of the global community’s creation, both in Sudan and externally.

    However, just because we messed up doesn’t mean that we can’t try to stop others from creating a bigger problem. We can’t always stop the big organizations immediately, but things that we CAN try to stop – like Childers- we should.

    And, I very much enjoyed your Communism retort a couple of comments ago. Always a laugh when people pull out the socialism card. :)

  6. Sam Childers is a man of God, not a loon or an arms dealer. He’s in Sudan to rescue the children and if bad guys get killed in the process, then so be it. He has the full support of the Sudanese People Liberation Army.
    I encourage everyone to read Sam’s book, “Another Mans War” , to get the whole story. The movie only scratches the surface.

    ps.Thanks Chris for , “Not Hating on the MGP” :)

    1. The SPLA has denied any connection with Sam Childers. There are also reports of his orphanage being left in disrepair with, local communities complaining about his presence, the little time he’s ever around.

    2. Renee, despite Sam Childers’ best intentions and despite what you may think, he certainly does not have the full support of the SPLA (

      As for the bad guys getting killed in the process, what if those “bad guys” are abducted children? The majority of the LRA’s fighters are made up of abducted children. If those kids get killed while Sam is doing God’s work, is it still “so be it”?

      Lastly, if anyone must read Childers’ book, I implore you to please visit your local library and check it out. Do not fund his vigilante work.

      To quote a movie critic: “I wonder what Jesus called his favorite firearm?”

  7. Love him or hate him, this guy gets a lot of people pretty wound up (me included). Maybe he can take all the money he is going to make from this movie and try his luck in eastern DRC for a sequel!

  8. Why is color so important. It could be any man God let this man do some good. Why do we need to look at the color of a mans skin.

  9. I don’t have much experience in armed humanitarianism, but when you slip your finger around an AK-47 trigger, aren’t *all* of your fingers are pointing back at you?

  10. @Afrophile, I think a large reason why most of us in the development community detest Childers is because he’s blurring the line between humanitarian workers and mercenaries, which makes us a target and infringes upon our ability to actually do our jobs. And until Clooney, or Bono, or Angelina, or any of the other celebrity humanitarians out there decides to arm themselves and run into the bush to hunt down the LRA, you can hardly draw a comparison between them and Childers.

  11. “The aid bloggers have been derisive and angry, for pretty good reason.”

    That’s only if you take the reason at face value. The fact is that what infuriates the aid bloggers (as a stand-in for the “development community”) is that they hate the “it takes a white man to save Africa” narrative as long as the white man isn’t them. They’ve staked their claim to a piece of Africa and they’ll be damned if Childers (or Clooney, or Bono) is going to take it from them.

    That’s why you never hear even a peep of grudging respect from the aid bloggers when it appears Clooney’s project may turn out to be quite valuable:

  12. “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.”

    If we already have this colourful bunch of failures, why do we need more?

    1. I probably could have been more clear here. We need the military to do the dirty and necessary job, but when we advocate any counterinsurgency, we should keep in mind that they will probably be as or more destructive or problematic as Childers.

      The difference between Childers and a military might be mainly one of legality and legitimacy. Substantive actions might change quite little.

  13. I don’t disagree. I think the point is more along the lines of the saying, “When you point your finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at you.”

    1. Chris,

      In other words, you’re simply afraid of upsetting, offending, or just plain infuriating those members of the Born Again Evangelical community with whom you are affiliated and from whom you perhaps obtain financial and/or personal benefit.

      Save us all the trouble next time and just admit these facts.

      Have a nice day.

      1. It’s certainly true that the Born Again Evangelical community has been successfully co-opting atheist political science professors, financially and personally.

        “How does he afford that bicycle?” people often ask about me. “Or that fancy swatch?” And they don’t know the half of it, since I keep the Ferrari and Rolex away from view.

        I do splurge on organic vegetables, but mostly that makes me a Communist.

  14. Chris, what’s your point here? That because the suffering in northern Uganda was so bad we shouldn’t criticize a Hollywood film about a self-publicising loon? And do you really believe the solution to the LRA was just to get a group of elite troops to hunt him down? Wasn’t that tried with the Guatemalan special forces in 2006?

    I’ve not seen it (have you?) but my bets would be (a) the film and the reaction to it will end up being about white man saving South Sudan, not about informing people of the suffering in Uganda, and (b) only encourage people to think that the way to solve Africa’s (for, yes, it is a country) problems is for the white guy to ride in (preferably with guns).

    I cannot see any good coming out of this.

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