By Raymond Scott
The implication of Jason Russell’s film “Kony 2012″ is indeed an encouraging one. This evocative film looks to rouse us, through shock-and-awe tactics, out of a sort of armchair complacency that has too often possessed so many of us when it has come to the sufferings of our fellow man in far off lands. It would seem as if Russell is rejecting the wisdom offered to us for our consideration by the late John Quincy Adams.
The former president who once warned that America should not exert her energies abroad “in search of monsters to destroy,” what we in twenty-first century could regard as genocide, tyranny, fundamentalism and the like, but should rather act exclusively as “the vindicator of only her own.” Essentially, we shall not be so foolish as to risk what is ours for the welfare of others, and it is exactly this line of reasoning that Mr. Russell tries so nobly to push back against.
In the late 1980s, one of history’s least-understood rebel organizations began by fusing Christian mysticism with a particular blend of East African nationalism in the northern reaches of Uganda. Originally, just a peculiar flavor of a broader resistance movement that swept against the corrupt Ugandan government of the 1980s, the Lord’s Resistance Army even then had no discernible vision of the kind of society for which it fought. Based largely on the ghoulish charisma of one Joseph Kony, a man who styles himself as both a divinely appointed Satan and Christ, the group has functioned for over two decades as nothing more than an arbitrary killing machine, motivated by seemingly anything but nothing so much as its bloodlust.
What distinguishes the LRA from its nihilistic contemporaries, let’s say al Qaeda or the Khmer Rouge, is its wicked and insatiable appetite for child armies. Since it has been active, the LRA has abducted and forcibly drafted nearly 66,000 (a figure Russell grossly underestimates) Ugandan and other East African children into its ranks. With no intelligible manifesto or little red book, we must to assume that the LRA abducts and slaughters children for no other reason than to simply abduct and slaughter the more. Kony’s organization is as meaningless as it is horrifying, and in a way, this senseless only intensifies its wickedness. Indeed, the LRA has created a self-perpetuating cycle of chaos, misery and sadism that has irretrievably ruined the lives of countless.
Russell, who founded the non-profit Invisible Children in 2004 has made it the organization’s mission to raise awareness about and ultimately terminate the operations of the LRA in East Africa. Invisible Children launched a campaign to have Kony brought to justice by Dec. 31, 2012 with its media sensation “Kony 2012″ after President Obama’s decision to send a U.S. task force of 100 soldiers to Uganda to help train and equip the Ugandan military for operations against the LRA. Yet Russell’s film, while admirable in intention, presents us with both a misrepresentation and simplification of a conflict that should otherwise warrant more thoughtful exploration.
By the film’s conclusion, Russell gives one the impression that the conflict in northern Uganda has reached a fever pitch, increasing in ferocity by the hour, as a parading army of 30,000 child soldiers mutilates Ugandan village after Ugandan village, an act which only our most skilled Green Berets could stop. Yet far from being the terror of Uganda, the LRA has actually been removed from Ugandan soil for more than five years now. In fact, northern Uganda has been dramatically transformed since the conflict’s conclusion into a relatively economically vibrant, pluralistic place. Most of the footage on display in “Kony 2012″ had been documented in mid-1990s when the LRA had been far from its last throws.
And throughout the 30 minute feature, where Russell calls for a sledgehammer, he would be better off using a scalpel. The LRA has been operating mainly within narrow confines in the Congo and the Central African Republic for years now and controls a loyal force of no more than 200. This is not to understate the cruelty or the capability of these men by any stretch, but do not be left with the sinking feeling that what the Ugandan jungles need is the arrival of the 42nd Airborne. Rather, the LRA, namely Kony, must be surgically eliminated by an almost shadow-like effort in coordination with the Ugandans and the Congolese, which would assuredly add several layers of complexity to any offensive mission. Funnily enough with “Kony 2012″ we are given both an oversimplification and understatement of the dilemmas associated with the tackling the LRA.
There are also real concerns to be raised with the overall effectiveness of Russell’s organization, Invisible Children, Inc. Evidently, it has now been confirmed that only a third or so of the funds poured into Russell’s non-profit actually go to direct services, while the bulk of the organization’s cash finds itself funneled into staff salaries, transport and film production (arguably the shining quality of “Kony 2012″). Out of five possible stars, Charity Navigator, a company that rates charities, gives the organization a meager “2” for it lacks any external audit committee. I hate to be a wet blanket, but we must be aware that the funds amassed by the advertised $30 “Survivor Kit” are being carried by Russell in a very leaky bucket.
It is unsettling that Russell’s interpretation of public awareness is some that translates into teens wearing “I <3 Kony” shirts and “Kony 2012” lawn placards. Surely there are better ways to express solidarity with our Ugandan brothers and sisters than to ironically glorify a child rapist. Sometimes, less is more.
Circling back to my first point though, the best argument raised by “Kony 2012″ is indeed Russell’s call for intervention, or in other words, his call for us through military means, borrowing Adams’s rhetoric, to destroy a monster abroad. We, like Russell, need to have the backbone to substantiate the promise of Dec. 31, 2012 with decided force to end this hideous conflict.
Yet how fast will the pendulum of support for Russell swing after the arrival of the first American boots in Uganda? You can already hear the Noam Chomskys of the world, and soon, very many of Russell’s romantic supporters, hurling around the terms “white man’s burden,” “mission creep” and “American empire,” while casting those of the LRA as Guevara-like freedom fighters. Let’s not beat around the bush, here: a nonmilitary option with the LRA is a non-option. An armed confrontation with these monsters is not a regrettable or necessary evil, but something we should readily embrace, something for which we can be proud.
I hope as much as the next that Kony, after nearly 30 years at large, finds himself on trial for crimes against humanity, and there is no reason at all why any of us should wish against the filmmaker’s goal of a successful intervention. Though, an oversimplification of an issue that has been cause for headache for so many for so long is as constructive as the profits of trendy T-shirts and wristbands being poured into an organization that may as of late find itself in over its head. A video campaign that skyrockets to 50 million views in less than a week should not compel us to refrain from offering it a skeptical eye, but rather warrants such suspicion all the more.