The recent viral Kony 2012 campaign and the whole controversy surrounding it reminded of the 2003 movie Tears of the Sun. The Antoine Fuqua directed Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci vehicle was one of the »Africa awarness« movies the movie industry decides to put out every couple of years – mostly corresponding with real »Africa awareness« campaigns. Other examples include Blood Diamond or the – strangely enough – Uwe Boll film Darfur. Tears of the Sun stands out even among these movies though for Roger Ebert’s assessment of it as an “impressionistic nightmare” proves itself to be true on so many levels. The movie openly shows together rape, child soldiers, senseless killings, and religious conflict – all problems apparent in certain areas of the African continent. It also conveys what can be called stereotypical Western portray of Africa: Africans themselves are either helpless victims or hardly speaking murderers that use drugged up child soldiers to do their evil bidding. In the middle of all of this are the White, Western characters such as Monica Bellucci’s aiding doctor and Bruce Willis’ marine with a heart of gold, spouting such wisdoms as “God has left Africa”. They are essentially the only characters in the movie that are active in a good way. The lifes of helpless Africans depend on them because the movie portrays them in a way that makes them unable to take any kind of action of their own. The message of the movie is basically that Africa – because the way the movie wants the audience to understand it, all of Africa is clearly the same hotbed of horrible conflict – is helpless without Western military intervention.
And that brings us to the Kony 2012 campaign. This campaign and the controversy surrounding it pose an essential question: What can be the effect of raised awareness in the West about criminals such as Kony? Should the goal be to pressure the dictatorial Uganda government that deploys child soldiers in its own army to hunt down Kony? Should the goal be to send Western military in to get rid of Kony? The same questions are applicable to the conflict in Darfur – once immensely “popular” about the political aware Western crowd but now almost forgotten – or the also almost forgotten Rwandan genocide or the hardly present ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Can Western countries end these conflicts and if so, how can they do that effectively? Will putting president Bashir on the ICC criminal list have any effect? Will economic sanctions against these countries lead to change? Or is military intervention – as Tears of the Sun suggests it – the most effective way to end genocide and slaughter?
As a historian whose field of interest is the Holocaust, I can’t be opposed to military intervention. Without question World War II effectively ended the German campaign of mass murder. The same is true for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that ended the auto-genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge or the 1991 NATO intervention in former Yugoslavia with only the latter being fought – at least in part – because of the atrocities committed. The question that still remains is how effective these interventions were not in ending the immediate violence but in eliminating the structural and ideological reasons for the genocide and atrocities committed. While in the case of the German and Austrian committed Holocaust there can be made a case for the effectiveness of the Allied intervention and occupation, in the latter case of Yugoslavia the intervention might have ended violence but if it helped in eliminating the political and structural reasons for the ethnic violence is a question that can not be answered at this point, to put it carefully.
I can’t and won’t make the cause for intervention in every case. Also, I can’t answer all these question I have posed because it all depends on the specific case and circumstances. To put it in very simple and general terms, the reason why people such as Joseph Kony, Bashir, and others like them all over the world can exist are a manifold mix of social, economic, political, and historical reasons. The most effective and also most difficult way to end violent conflicts like these would be to change these factors. A long, hard, and difficult way that is not easy to walk. I believe that for each one of us individually the way of contributing to this, is by informing ourselves, by not forgetting “unpopular” conflicts that still are ongoing (Darfur!), by donating to organizations we can be sure about (Oxifam and Doctor’s without border some to mind), and by putting pressure on Western governments resp. support the people who do in order to achieve a more fair and non-exploitative policy of the West as well as providing the necessary assistance for self-help.