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First Kill Your Family

Peter Eichstaedt

Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army

(Chicago Review Press)

With a title like First Kill Your Family, you certainly know what you are in for when you pick up this book by veteran international journalist Peter Eichstaedt. Prepare yourself, too, for snarky observers to comment about your poor choice of beach reading.


But you’re not reading this book for escape or entertainment.You’re reading it to learn about an underreported war that, for more than two decades, has consumed northern Uganda and spilled over into neighboring Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing tens of thousands of people and forcing 1.5 million people to flee their homes. 


In fact, Eichstaedt doesn’t just want you to be enlightened.He wants you to join him in mobilizing global attention about this war.Eichstaedt—also the author of a 1994 book on the World War II-era uranium poisoning of Native Americans—lays out the story of the conflict in all its twisted complexity and then poses the critical questions that the international community, the Ugandan government, and you need to answer.


Is the Ugandan government really serious about defeating the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group led by a bona fide witch doctor named Joseph Kony? Or, does the government have reasons for keeping the war simmering? After all, the conflict enables it to maintain a strong military presence in the traditionally bellicose north and provides ready access to Western cash for fighting terrorism.


Have the leaders of the Acholi—the main tribal group in the north—done all they can to persuade Kony to end his crusade, or do they give him tacit support? Did the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Kony help or hinder the peace process? Perhaps most importantly, can there be both peace and justice in northern Uganda, or do we all need to decide which is more important?


Eichstaedt is a firm believer in the power of the rule of law, and he views the ICC indictment as an important step to bringing both peace and justice to the region. He is frustrated—in a very Western way—with Ugandan villagers who say they are willing to forgive Kony and give him amnesty if it leads to peace. Eichstaedt thinks that forgiving criminals makes it more likely that new Konys will emerge in Africa; that, in fact, the ICC can act as a deterrent.


On the other hand, he wonders if the LRA has been able to attract followers because of pressing Third World realities: “Why not kill and die if you ultimately must anyway? ...  In a world bereft of justice, kindness, or honor, any ray of hope was better than none, no matter how ridiculously morbid and demented”. I don’t think this is a true characterization—people in developing countries do find joy and experience kindness, no matter how tough their daily lives may be.


Nevertheless, if you follow his logic, then the question is this: Would the threat of an ICC indictment from the faraway Hague really serve as a deterrent to someone living in such a Hobbesian world? Or, instead, would it be useful to focus on the role of poverty as a motivation for both joining the fight and craving peace about justice? After all, armies provide food and shelter for their soldiers and it is peace that will bring economic growth, not a court trial. The author says little about how poverty reduction might impact the dynamics of the conflict.


Eichstaedt works hard to talk to as many different people involved in the war as possible. His investigations acquaint him with witch doctors, abducted child soldiers, LRA negotiators, Acholi leaders and the vice president of south Sudan. The book’s title comes from the story of Richard, who was 17 in 2000 when LRA rebels came to his village. He was beaten, forced to kill his parents, and then kidnapped. Richard fought with the LRA for two years, until he finally escaped.


Although these personal stories are heartfelt and memorable, don’t expect the lyricism of a book such as We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, a chronicle of the Rwandan genocide by Philip Gourevitch. First is written with a factual, straightforward style.


You can almost imagine it as a script for a new Christiane Amanpour series on CNN. Chapters end with segue ways ripped from the news magazine repertoire, such as: “But the more I looked, the more a shocking reality emerged” and “Two months later, Museveni [the Ugandan president] would sing a different song”. Quick, break to commercial. This crisp, snappy style will appeal to some readers, and feel a little cold to others.


In the end, the biggest mystery that remains is what exactly pushes Kony to continue fighting. A war persists when its protagonists elicit more benefit than cost from the turmoil. A peace process only works when this fundamental equation changes for all parties involved. Eichstaedt tries to get to the bottom of what inspires Kony—even traveling deep into south Sudan in the hopes of meeting the man himself.


In the end, Kony’s motives remain a mystery. Is Kony the leader of a spiritual movement, a political movement, or something else? Until someone can determine what Kony sees as the costs and benefits of the war and understand the role the ICC indictment plays in his calculations, peace may be elusive. But, don’t just listen to me. First is here to help you learn about this horrible yet fascinating conflict, and make your own assessment of the possibilities for peace.

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