Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Book Review: The Graves Are Not Yet Full
…But what do I mean by evil? The individuals encountered here are not all evil people. What they have in common is not the depth of their venality as individuals but the extent to which, collectively, they personify some of the roots and requirements of large-scale mass slaughter. Each in his own way is a creature of evil, and each has magnified the potential for evil in the arena in which he operated. Each embody a history, a culture, a symbiosis of interests, calculations, and assumptions which, taken together, add up to a catalog of essential elements that can transform latent evil into reality. And each has been a survivor, a well-adapted creature of a malignant environment” (p. 11)
These two paragraphs are from the introduction of The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa by Bill Berkeley, and the subtitle really sums up the topic well. Berkeley, using his own research and experiences as a foreign correspondent covering African stories, focuses on many of the most well known cases of violence in modern African history. Yet the long-term history of many of his case studies is not discussed in this book to any great extent, but that is kind of Berkeley’s point: the age old conflicts that we in the West are so often told lie at the root of Africa’s problems- the “ancient ethnic hatreds”- simply don’t exist. Berkeley’s central conceit is that most of the horrendous acts of violence that have occurred in modern Africa are caused by events within the last 100 years or so and are perpetuated by “Big Men” who are vying for power and profit and pitting neighbor against neighbor to accomplish these goals.
Now to be sure, Berkeley knows that the long-term history of Africa is full of violence (but so is the history of everywhere else.) But he makes the case that the current incidences of mass murder and rapes are a modern phenomenon. He sees tyranny and anarchy as the method used by the Big Men, as the two often go hand in hand in African politics, with anarchy not the absence of any control but often the tool of those in power to destabilize any form of threat or opposition to their own control (Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko is a prime example of this strategy). Berkeley makes for a compelling argument, albeit one that is very America-focused. In fact, one of the “Big Men” of the book discussed in great detail is Chester Crocker, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Reagan Administration, and his role in Liberia’s recent history.
The case studies in this book are many of those on the African Violence and Corruption All-Stars list: Liberia, Zaire, Sudan, Rwanda, etc. All are nonetheless interesting cases and, of course, highly debatable. Some points made by Berkeley seem a bit overly simplistic, even to my limited knowledge of African history (ie, violent conflict didn’t just appear between black South African ethnic groups during the 80’s: see the Mfacane) but overall Berkeley does a good job illuminating many aspects of the complex and tragic problems of several African states.
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