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Army of God: Joseph Kony’s War in Central Africa
Book Reviews

Army of God: Joseph Kony’s War in Central Africa

An earnest but ultimately shallow illustrated examination of the atrocities committed by the militant Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.

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KONY 2012, the blockbuster viral video sensation by Invisible Children’s Jason Russell that helped bring to light the atrocities by guerilla militant Joseph Kony and the brutality brought on by his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has become a textbook example of the fleeting nature of most internet-born fads, and that’s a shame.

Politicians around the world reacted as they usually do, issuing edicts and promising support, but even this fever rose and fell within the lifespan of the video’s popularity. Russell, who had became a controversial figure – before and especially following his public mental breakdown – and soon eclipsed his subject matter as interest in the cause waned and was replaced by the next big internet thing. This is evidenced by Invisible Children’s follow-up to the original video, KONY 2012: Part II – Beyond Famous, which failed to gather even a fraction of the original’s success or elicit much public support and/or outrage.

For those initially enraged-then-engaged to “do something” after watching the original video, which included public demonstrations and other flash-mob style activism charges of ‘slacktivism’ – making a minimal effort mostly to boost one’s ego – were warranted as interest dropped and the mob moved onto the moment’s next viral sensation, most likely Gangnam Style; the campaign against Kony became as substantive as planking.

Much of this story is documented in David Axe and Tim Hamilton’s well-intentioned, but ultimately hollow, work of ‘graphic journalism’ Army of God: Joseph Kony’s War in Central Africa. Essentially a condensed graphic novel that falls prey to the same pitfalls that trip many attempts to portray history graphically; information overload and a real lack of focus about what it’s trying to accomplish.

The problem with labeling this particular work as “graphic journalism” is that it contains so little actual journalism, as author David Axe has regrettably chosen to focus much of his attention on public domain information about Kony, the LRA, and the media attention that followed the KONY 2012 campaign. Too much of Axe’s narrative feels like illustrated Wikipedia entries.

This starts from the very first chapter, which naively bleeds through Congolese history from its pre-human era to European interference in less than two pages in a rushed attempt to explain how the region’s war-torn past helped give rise to a figure like Kony.

Worse is an especially pointless interlude starring then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose jaunt to the region in 2009 seems to have grafted onto this story more to help its lack of familiar celebrity than for any narrative purpose. Interludes detailing Mrs. Clinton’s snaps at a journalist’s question notwithstanding, this section allows David Axe to recite paragraphs from her politically hollow speech that was high on emotion but low on substance, as well as letting her take credit for UN Security Council Resolution 1888, a strengthening of Resolution 1820 that was designed to aid in “preventing and responding” wartime sexual attacks against civilians.

The same could be said of including President Obama’s signage of a 2010 law that required the US to disarm the LRA, or the subsequent 2011 follow-up that would send 100 Special Forces to the region to help “aid” the hunt for Kony. So many examples of people and governments rising up to express outrage against the LRC, condemning their actions with edicts and promises that Kony’s days were numbered; much like the KONY 2012 campaign and its inspirational powers, it’s all so much grandstanding to little real effect.

The book fares best when it illustrates hands-on information and recollections, such as those of schoolteacher Fidel Mboligikpele, who lost nearly his entire classroom to the brutal savagery of the LRC, or 13-year old “Patricia”, forced into ‘marriage’ (i.e. sexual bondage) after she and her brother were taken hostage, only later to endure the humiliation taunts of “LRC Bride” again and again.

The third story is from priest Ferruccio Gobbi, who survived after being abducted by the LRC and thought himself a deadman before being let go. These stories take up less than 21 pages in a book totaling over 111 pages of mostly padding and superficial information; it’s tragic reading that Fidel Mboligikpele rose to fame after speaking with Hillary Clinton and “UN Envoy” Angelina Jolie in a three-way video conference that was broadcast internationally.

David Axe gives a sincere voice to his characters, many he personally interviewed and whose stories are documented here, but the material’s true value seems foreign to him. Simply regurgitating swaths of publicly available information does not constitute journalism – that’s called research – and this book would have benefited had he greatly expanded the stories from those people he personally interviewed. Given his extensive experience as a war correspondent, a little more Joe Sacco-style reporting and less Wikipedia would have gone a long way here.

Artist Tim Hamilton frames these stories in brutal black and white imagery that may startle those who may have only read about Kony’s brutality elsewhere, and I imagine this was the point. There are few sanitized pictures here, and his caricatures of real-life personalities (there’s a helpful glossary in the back) are strikingly realistic. Also much appreciated are the extra pages of unused art and production notes accompanying them.

Army of God: Joseph Kony’s War in Central Africa is an earnest but ultimately shallow illustrated examination of the atrocities committed by the militant Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. While Tim Hamilton’s brutal black and white artwork is especially compelling, it’s David Axe’s scattershot reporting where things fall apart. Had he concentrated more on his hands-on reporting, such as that of teacher Fidel Mboligikpele or 13-year old LRC survivor “Patricia”, this would have been a far more evocative and personable journey for readers. As it stands now, it’s simply a well-intentioned, if superficial, glimpse at a worldwide problem, much like the forgotten KONY 2012 viral campaign that instigated it.

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David Axe, Tim Hamilton (art)

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PublicAffairs Books

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03/12/2013

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About the Author: Nathan Evans