Of Pringles and Perpetrators: Two Worthwhile Books on Genocide

Ever since May my mind consistently has returned to the same question: “Why do human beings do such awful things to each other, and on such a great scale?”

It’s a fascinating and baffling question. I say “since May” because that’s when Yun and I paid a visit to the House of Sharing ­– a museum as well as shelter for the few surviving “Comfort Women” who were enslaved by the Japanese. That particular episode is another story for another time.   But let’s just say, while there I became very disturbed by the nature of the things I learned about. And I wanted answers.

These two books (both non-fiction, written by journalists) cover two different parts of history. They differ in geographical scope as well as political context. I originally did not even intend to read them with the same focus. The first one I picked because a friend recommended it, and the location (Congo) intrigued me. The second one I chose because I needed supplementary reading for Cambodia. Yet both books delve into the dark side of humanity and offer insight as to why people sometimes justify doing the brutal things they do. I’m not talking about psychopaths and serial killers with mental perversions, but rather ordinary, “normal” people who commit extraordinary atrocities in extraordinary situations.

Book #12. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. By Jason K Stearns

You hear the name “Congo” and you well may think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The name perhaps evokes the idea of a mythical or colonial sort Africa from days gone by. But the Congo (The Democratic Republic of the Congo, to be exact) is a contemporary place with a brutal recent history. So brutal, in fact, that it has become the bloodiest human conflict in the world since World War II, with over 5 million dead.

I was not aware of that, by the way, until I picked up this book.

Stearns makes it emphatically clear at the beginning that he does not have “a Unified Theory of the Congo War, because it does not exist.” This is arguably the reason that most of the world has largely ignored the Congo Wars: it’s chaotic, complex and hard to wrap your head around. There is no singular charismatic villain in the same strain as Hitler or Mao. The players are confused, with various ethnicities within Congo fighting even as a total of nine other African nations surrounding Congo get directly involved. The Congo Wars have in fact been called “Africa’s World War.”

Stearns is no history prof and never claims to be – what he does do is break down the First and Second Congo Wars into sizable chunks of explanation interlaced with fascinating interviews with politicians and fighters he’s met along the way.

While he meets both perpetrators and victims, in the interest of better understanding the why and the how for the atrocities committed he focuses on the point of view of the perpetrators.

His subjects include a Tutsi fighter who helped carry out acts of revenge against Hutus. In response to the question “Why?” the Tutsi fighter replies, “It was an order.” In response to “Why was it an order?” the interviewee merely shrugs. It’s as though the soldier involved in such brutal acts feels absolved of responsibility since he is merely carrying out instructions.  It’s not unlike Adolf Eichmann’s famous example of the “banality of evil” – Stearns brings up the similarity.

Conversely, another interviewed subject is a Hutu general who claims that his subordinates carried out massacres against his orders. When pressed further on why the atrocities happened the way they did he defends using practical excuses:

‘Don’t forget this was a war,’ the avuncular general repeated. ‘If I had deserted, I could have been killed by my own commanders or by the RPF.’ He paused and fiddled with his watch. ‘The genocide was terrible, of course,’ he said. ‘I thought it was a huge mistake.’ He saw the killing out of his office window, as it were, disagreed with it, and got on with his work.

 From the point of view of an outsider, genocide is horrific and blatantly evil. And from the point of view of a Westerner especially, it’s hard not to compare other genocides with the cold, calculating and systematic nature of the Holocaust.  That’s not to say genocide is not evil (do I have to even say that?), or that there is normally no premeditation involved, but in the case of Rwanda and the Congo it can be seen as a struggle against an enemy that’s spun out of control and unfortunately sort of just “turned into” a genocide.   Stearns’ strength is that he shows all sides (Hutu, Tutsi, Rwandan, Congolese et al) and makes no attempt to reduce the situation a black-and-white one – although he does make it more accessible and understandable to a reader who is ignorant.

By examining up close larger-than-life characters like the failed Marxist scholar-turned-politician Wamba Dia Wamba to the decadent dictator Laurent Kabila, Stearns does a great job of rendering the last twenty-odd years of Congolese history into an upbeat account that you can actually follow (providing you keep the political party acronym guide handy). At times it can even be darkly humorous in the stark observation of Congolese themselves.

A Congolese friend once described the curse of the Congolese politics as “the reverse Midas effect.” “Anything touched by politics in the Congo turns to shit,” he told me. “It doesn’t matter if the Holy Father himself decides to run for president, he will inevitably come out corrupt, power-hungry, and guilty of breaking all ten of the holy commandments.”

 Now it would be false to say that the author is without hope for the future of the Congo. Hope he certainly has – at least in the spirit of the Congolese people. In the meantime, though, this book is a great insight not only of a troubled nation in particular, but on the potential great darkness within human nature itself.

Book #13   The Lost Executioner. By Nic Dunlop.

Not unlike the Congo, Cambodia is a luscious green country with a deadly history. Author Nic Dunlop guiltily confesses that he would sometimes take in the beautiful and quiet scenery around him, only to realize suddenly what horrors had occurred there just a few years earlier.

For me, Cambodia had become shorthand for all that was wrong in the world. I wanted to understand how a movement that laid claim to a vision of a better world could instead turn people into instruments of overwhelming evil…

 The Lost Executioner can be considered a historical source (again, not overly academic) on the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath, but what sets it apart from other books is that the author is originally a photographer who set out to find one of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious figures, Commander Duch – and against all odds, succeeded. While having a bit of a thriller element, Dunlop never exaggerates or dramatizes his achievements. Like Stearns, he focuses on his interviews with the survivors (victim and perpetrator alike) of the genocide in an attempt to better understand what happened.

Again we find people in authority attempting to absolve themselves of personal responsibility because they are not the final authority.  Unsurprisingly, Dunlop also uses Adolf Eichmann as an example for comparison (maybe we’re onto something).  The following is from an interview of Dunlop’s with Khmer Rouge member In Sopheap.

As someone who had stayed in the Khmer Rogue right until the end and was still a supporter, did he feel in any way responsible for the millions who had died, I asked.

 ‘During my work as an ambassador I never defended the killing.’

 ‘But you didn’t condemn it, either.’

 ‘I didn’t have all the elements to judge. Concretely, what evidence do I have?’

 ….It was a game he would not or could not see beyond. Instead he chose to see the excesses of the Khmer Rouge period in the abstract, as though what had happened had nothing to do with him. And this is what enabled the Khmer Rouge to murder and kill without conscience. They could hide behind a piece of machinery, deaf to the screams of the people caught up in its grinding cogs.

 The world of the Khmer Rouge was one of kill-or-be-killed. Arguably, people in positions of power, like Duch and In Sopheap had no choice but to come down forcibly on those who were “suspect”, lest the regime become corrupt and overthrown. The paranoia reached such a height that prisoners were eventually slaughtered without trial – anyone could be next. To understand the madness requires understanding a deep rooted fear and distrust of one’s fellowmen, as well as a bleak outlook of life.

What is especially sad about the Khmer Rouge is that it wasn’t even a genocide of one nation against another. It was Cambodians killing other Cambodians. Dunlop argues that the Khmer Rouge was not unprecedented – he compares the modern regime’s brutality to the ancient kings of Angkor and points to the fact that Cambodian culture itself helped create the setting that allowed the Khmer Rouge to exist. One particular example he uses is a collection of traditional folktales called the Gatiloke.

 In the Gatiloke…people rarely lived happily ever after. It reinforced a deeply rooted belief in a preordained life, a time-honoured acceptance of the status quo, which provided a useful means of social control to numerous regimes – including, ultimately, the Khmer Rouge.

Certainly there was also major influence from other countries and their instability (Vietnam), and colonialism and western intervention had their parts to play as well. Both Dunlop and Stearns discuss the damage wrought by the US carpet-bombing and the Belgian administration, respectively. One simple factor never accounts for everything and the explanation is head-bashingly complex. But what’s really hard to understand is the state of mind of the genocidal killers themselves.

It would be natural to assume that these people are completely alien and unrelated to us in every way, as we find their actions inhuman and reprehensible. But they are in fact human beings with human appetites and interests like the rest of us, which realization makes them somehow even more disturbing, creepy and paradoxically unknowable.

Previously, when Pol Pot had given one of his last interviews, it was not his predictable denials of mass murder that had intrigued me. It had been a tube of Pringles which sat on the table before the interview. The evil that the Khmer Rouge had come to represent in our collective minds was not at the end of some malarial river deep in a dark primordial jungle. Mass murderers enjoy Pringles, too. These details don’t bring us closer to them. They bring them closer to us.

 The descriptions of “malarial river” and a “dark primordial jungle” are references bringing us right back to the Congo and the same stereotypes that pervade there. Genocide doesn’t only happen in faraway lands. Distance is relative, anyway. As difficult as they may be to understand, there are lessons in both the Congo and the Cambodian genocides for the rest of us when it comes to human nature and what we are capable of, given the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances. I’m still trying to comprehend it. Perhaps I never truly can, unless I was in the situation.  God forbid.

But I will say this – I will never look at a can of Pringles the same way again.


Author: 29 Books

I read novels from South Korea, Japan, England, Nigeria, and any other place that intrigues me.

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