Is there anything more obnoxious than a pampered American experiencing disillusionment at the hands of an African? The victim du jour could just as easily be from Europe, Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East, but there’s something especially vexing about the dark continent, as if we’ve seen too many benefit concerts or weeping celebrities to believe that the Western world would ever stand back and do nothing in the face of true evil. Brian Steidle, a Marine and the aghast American in question, is everything about this country that grates and appalls, yet he’s all we have as we navigate the minefield of genocide in the killing fields of Sudan. His story, told in the powerful, but painfully narrow The Devil Came on Horseback, is less about the people of that godforsaken land, of course, than one privileged sot’s interpretation of the horror, and his subsequent awakening to madness. Early on, Steidle, a lifer who decided to change direction and help monitor the peace treaty among rival factions in the war-torn Sudan, stated without irony his belief that if the American government could only see the slaughter taking place, they would have boots on the ground within a matter of days. That he arrived past the age of thirty with such an opinion testifies to his oblivion in the brainwashed cocoon of military life, but also the weakness of a documentary that relies on his perspective alone to engage the audience. Brian may have been ignorant, or naïve, or even clueless in his assumptions that a man on a white steed would save poor blacks in a country few care to locate on a map, let alone understand, but the bloodletting had already been recognized by many groups within the United States, thank you very much, most of whom did not require further lectures from a baby-faced Marine.
Sudan’s situation, and the nightmare of Darfur, is far too complicated to encapsulate in a single review (or film), but let it be said that without question, it does speak to yet another African nation torn apart by greed, hatred, and the struggle for power that never seems to abate for a single moment. The corrupt, military-controlled government, seeking the age-old stranglehold on power that always amounts to little more than paranoia and a recognition that oppression breeds resistance, has aligned itself with the Arab-dominated Janjaweed (at best, a roving band of thugs and rapists) in order to reclaim land and dispatch the “undesirable” elements to the west. The government denies any affiliation with the group, but the evidence speaks for itself, and I think we’re at the point in world history when the words of a military dictator are dismissed outright. And so the killings continue, with the Janjaweed burning down villages, setting women and children on fire, and killing just about anyone who has the audacity to try and move out of the way. Theirs is a campaign of terror, which also has the consequence of forcing thousands of refugees into nearby Chad, a nation already among the world’s poorest, and the least likely to support a growing population. As such, the Sudanese flee to displacement camps, which are themselves raided by the government agents, increasing an already unacceptable body count. By all accounts, the action meets the UN criteria for genocide, yet that body — along with a less than enthusiastic United States — does little but pass toothless resolutions and wag its impotent finger at Sudan’s ruling elite. As always, it’s a classic study of inaction. People talk, a few may cry, and people continue to die.
And then there’s our noble Marine. Sure, he’s doing much more than most, and is actually risking his life by taking hundreds of pictures of genocide in action. More importantly, his six months in the mouth of hell helped bring attention to the cause, complete with a New York Times write-up and swing around the talk show circuit. No one’s damning him for that, of course, as few could ever doubt his sincerity, but must white faces always speak for Africans, as if they lacked the ability to force the world’s attention all by themselves? This weakness of approach is best typified by the brief appearance of an African aid worker who sits with Brian and his sister. His job is thankless to say the least, and yet he wrenchingly tells the pair how America is their last, best hope, and as a Muslim, how the entire Islamic world is silent on the matter. He is clearly exhausted and almost blinded by pain and agony, but there he is, a man fighting every second of the day to do the grunt work of ensuring survival. He’s not going to stop the killing all by himself, but if he can keep someone alive for another day, he’s achieved a quiet victory in spite of the odds. And yet, as soon as he appears, he is gone, and we are left to wonder how many other such stories there are in this landscape of death. The film is poorer for his absence, and it makes one long for more castigations of the Muslim world, who continually cry about injustice and Western arrogance, yet themselves haven’t contributed a single grain of rice to the cause of fellow believers. I’m all for holding the United States accountable for its hypocrisies (and there are many), but ask yourself this — outside of funding terrorism, what has, say, Saudi Arabia done with its vast, almost limitless oil wealth? It’s not a red herring, but a legitimate question in an age where we are still reluctant to grab non-whites by the lapels on the world stage.
The snapshots that comprise Mr. Steidle’s case are as revolting to common decency as anything captured at the liberation of Dachau, and yet the civilized world stands back, tentative and uncertain. Without question, old fashioned racism stands at the center of the apathy, but it’s also fair to assume that when it comes to a continent as unrelentingly depressing as Africa, few solutions even seem plausible. I’d imagine that even the best minds have thrown up their hands, at last admitting that civil strife and tribal warfare will forever define the region. Imagine yourself to be a humanitarian worker, tending to the sick and dying as AIDS ravages the continent, and having to face leader after leader (religious and otherwise) who simply refuse to believe that contraceptives (or lack thereof) have anything to do with either the problem or solution. And how, exactly, does one deal with the conflicting cries for respecting cultural differences while misogynistic practices that celebrate genital mutilation and rape all but define that very culture? Could anyone blame the West for simply giving up the fight? Steidle would passionately argue against such resignation, but even he comes to see how he has done little but act as witness; standing idly by while throats are slashed and bodies stacked like cordwood. Maybe, then, the film’s perspective is a wise one after all, if in fact it accepts the Marine’s tearful powerlessness. Yes, it’s easy to shake your fists at the UN or the Bush administration, but what would they do in the end — invade the country and occupy it for a generation? Hatred of this sort is a patient beast indeed, and it’s more than likely that tensions would simmer just long enough to allow for American forces to leave, after such time the murders would continue.
It’s unfair and unwarranted to hold a documentary accountable for the sins of a nation, but part of the reason The Devil Came on Horseback fails to fully come alive is because it seems content merely to educate, rather than dig in and risk offense. How that “offense” would take shape is beyond me, but surely the craft (or subject) has evolved beyond the need to simply present the facts and run them through a lone man’s filter. Even slam dunk causes like the systematic elimination of over 400,000 people are fraught with complexities that begin to look insurmountable the more they are examined without illusions. Yes, people need medical care and food, but what of the history? The inner workings of a vast network that can’t be overcome by sheer idealism alone? Here again, the voices of the afflicted would have been vital, even if they too would not have told the full story. As with any difficult matter, there are biases and prejudices that go beyond the images, and though dead is dead, bringing such killings to a stop may in fact produce something far worse at a later date. And yet our college kids continue to march, hold their signs, and expect that brutality can be pushed aside by simple will and the stroke of a pen. What does the world ask of the Sudan? What does it want for the people of Darfur? The answers no doubt vary, but it’s safe to assume that an end to the genocide tops all lists. And how to achieve this end? Not even a hardened Marine — a man paid to use instruments of death to clean up assorted messes — can begin to hazard a guess.