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The Invisible Children ‘Kony 2012’ Campaign is Reckless and Dangerous

By Taylor Marvin

Invisible Children’s effort to stop war criminal Joseph Kony is the cause of the day, with their ‘Kony 2012’ video –released on Monday — already at over 7 million [update 3:00p Thursday] 40 million views on YouTube.

The viral campaign, designed to raise awareness and support for further US action targeting Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, has been remarkably successful: my Facebook and Twitter feeds are dominated by students reposting the video and calling for America to bring Kony to justice. Invisible Children is explicitly calling for an increased US military presence in central Africa: according to the Invisible Children website, the goal of the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign is that the US combat advisers dispatched to Central Africa last October “support the Ugandan Army until Kony has been captured and the LRA has been completely disarmed.” Despite the organization’s peaceful aim to “inspire young people to help end the longest-running armed conflict in Africa”, it also advocates more kinetic options: Invisible Children has funded central African military forces and rebel groups and favors direct military intervention to kill or capture Kony.

“I completely agree that Kony needs to be brought to justice,” Morehouse College’s Laura Seay remarked this morning, “but nothing about this IC campaign will make that happen.” Seay’s critical view of the Kony 2012 campaign isn’t unique. “It is hard to respect any documentary on northern Uganda where a five year-old white boy features more prominently than any northern Ugandan victim or survivor,” Mark Kersten pointed out at Justice in Conflict (via Lauren Jinkins). These criticisms are all valid, and the organization’s apparent preference for generating media attention over actually helping Africans is troubling. But what’s much more dangerous is Invisible Children’s breathless advocacy for US intervention in Central Africa without offering offering any critical view of how risky this intervention could potentially be. I’m not arguing that IC’s founders and supporters’ hearts aren’t in the right place — Kony is a monster, and one that deserves to be killed. But their best-case assumptions, faith in the effectiveness of violence, and complete disregard for half a century of ill-fated US interventions in civil wars is enormously irresponsible.

Make no mistake, dispatching US combat advisers to intervene in a civil war isn’t peacekeeping; it’s an American war. The frequent pleas for the US to enter conflicts to ‘stop war’ are nonsensical: American intervention at any level can only end conflicts by winning them. Unfortunately it’s not clear if advisory missions to Central Africa or even direct SOF involvement is capable of capturing or killing Kony at an acceptable level of US involvement. It’s also important to remember that any level of US involvement in a dirty, decades-long African conflict will be distasteful. The LRA extensively use child soldiers, and combating the LRA means treating children as legitimate military targets, a reality that will be difficult to explain to US audiences watching graphic news reports of maimed kids.

As I’ve argued before, wars should not be fought for idealism or the desire to ‘do something’ in the face of atrocities. As Peter J. Munson recently noted, “war and military force is a brutal and imprecise instrument.  It is ugly, destructive, wasteful, and stupid.” Wars are always costly and always risky. The United States should only enter foreign conflicts if advocates of interventions can clearly articulate a realistic exit strategy from the conflict without relying on best case assumptions, and why the expected benefits of victory outweigh the risk and expected costs. Civilian deaths are awful, and it’s impossible to begrudge the desire to ‘do something’ to halt the slaughter of conflict. What is not forgivable is irresponsible advocacy of war without a clear-eyed assessment of its costs. The United States has no clear path to victory against the LRA, and while a stable Central Africa is certainly in the general interest of the United States, it is much harder to argue that this long-term goal merits US entanglement in a decades-long civil war. Kony is a monster, but the United States has no moral imperative to hunt down war criminals.

IC’s attempts to portray Kony as an exogenous cancer that can be cleanly removed from Central African society is misinformed at best. This morning Mark Kersten noted that “some reports suggest that the majority of Acholi people continue to support the amnesty process whereby LRA combatants – including senior officials – return to the country in exchange for amnesty and entering a process of ‘traditional justice’.” Even in the immediate-term efforts to kill or capture Kony would be difficult. The LRA is a highly experienced fighting force, and while it draws less local support than other insurgencies, its intimate familiarity with the terrain is a significant operational advantage over US SOF and allied militaries. While the lethality and coordination between US special operation forces and intelligence agencies have improved since the failed 2008 ‘Operation Lightning Thunder’ targeting Kony, operations against the LRA would be difficult and risky. Even increased advisory missions would not be casualty free — just last month four Air Force Special Operations Command-affiliated airmen died in Djibouti when their aircraft crashed, possible returning from a clandestine mission to Central Africa. Escalating US involvement in the conflict will mean more dead Americans.

Invisible Children refuses to acknowledge the risks and costs of the intervention they advocate. Indeed, IC’s founders seem to lack any understanding of the consequence of intervention.

Photo by Glenna Gordon.

Posing with weapons and looking hard doesn’t make you informed; it’s the face of a war tourist. Injecting arms into unstable regions is almost never a good policy — as journalist C.J. Chivers has spend a career ably documenting, guns don’t have half lives. “Modern military rifles can be adapted by their owners to tasks and roles their manufacturers had not foreseen,” Chivers recently wrote, noting “how long [weapons] can last after they travel from state custody.” An AK-47 has a service life measured in decades: arming the Ugandan military will have long-term consequences that are impossible to predict, but are unlikely to be positive.

As I argued when the Obama administration dispatched 100 combat advisers to Central Africa late last year, limited combat commitments create the conditions for unintended escalation by investing US credibility in a conflict’s outcome without the resources necessary to win it [slightly edited]:

“However, even advisory missions are investments in the outcome of a foreign conflict. This makes them vulnerable to an escalation dynamic: because advisory deployments publicly invest the US in a successful conflict outcome while often falling short of the force threshold needed to actually influence it, they create the potential for a frustratingly unsuccessful mission that encourages US leaders to ‘raise the stakes’ of their investment. This is exactly the dynamic that encouraged the gradual escalation of US combat commitment in Vietnam — few in the Kennedy and later Johnson administrations intended the US to fight a full scale ground war in southeast Asia. But advisory, and later limited combat, missions in South Vietnam invested US credibility in winning, a credibility problem that effectively committed the US to future escalation in the absence of immediate success. Restricting the publicity of limited deployments can reduce this future commitment problem: it appears that this is what the Obama administration is attempting to do with its limited and gradual deployment of troops to central Africa. But administration and military officials should be aware of this commitment dynamic, and be prepared to disengage and accept the reputation costs of public failure if the mission appears unable to achieve success.”

In US military history “advisory missions” tend to either be outright lies or escalate into open combat commitments. “One of the biggest issues with a simplistic ‘Stop Kony’ message is that discussions of Navy SEALs [sic] or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts,” Michael Wilkerson argued today in Foreign Policy. This danger isn’t a problem for the Kony 2012 campaign: escalation is its specific goal.

Unless Invisible Children defines the upper end of “nothing” as napalm strikes and a full-scale ground invasion, I’m going assume that there’s some hyperbole here. Still, “stop at nothing” is not a rational approach to gauging the value of US intervention; it’s an explicit commitment tying US credibility to Kony’s death no matter the cost. If the authors of the recent Senate resolution “ruling out a strategy of containment for a nuclear-armed Iran” are, to borrow Spencer Ackerman’s description, “too stupid to make foreign policy”, then so are the architects of the Kony 2012 campaign. Letting your enemy dictate your commitment level is a strategy should be left in the dustbin of LBJ’s war room.

Invisible Children’s unquestioning belief in the United States’ ability to bring about a desired outcome through violence should be a red flag for liberals: we’ve been here before. Despite becoming frighteningly proficient at small unit unconventional jungle warfare, US special operations forces were unable to shift the balance in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Three decades later US Rangers and Delta force personnel were unable halt atrocities in Somalia: despite enjoying complete tactical superiority over their irregular foes, US forces were ordered into a conflict they fundamentally did not understand, were unable to apprehend warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and generally made the situation in Somalia worse by prolonging the violence and destroying UN credibility in the country. While the effectiveness of US SOF have increased by leaps and bounds since 1993, it’s unlikely that JSOC and the CIA would be able to kill or capture Kony as easily as Invisible Children assumes.

If we’ve learned anything over the last two decades, it’s that military solutions are never as quick and easy as their advocates assume. The US has rarely fought a war in the modern era that went according to plan. The advisory missions to Vietnam begun in the 1950s escalated to a war that killed over 50,000 Americans and nearly broke the US military. The Bush and Clinton administrations’ idealistic intervention in Somalia was an ill-conceived fiasco that Islamic militants still cite as evidence of the US’s fragility. The conflict in Afghanistan, hyped as a small war fought by special operations forces on horseback, devolved into a decade-long counterinsurgency that nearly everyone admits won’t end in a ‘victory’ anything near what its architects intended. The Obama administration’s war in Libya quickly escalated from the fiction of a no-fly zone to regime change, and only ended in Qaddafi’s blind luck capture and execution. Drone strikes targeting AQAP and al-Shabaab have become an open-ended and locally-inflammatory bombing campaign over two countries. Unconventional wars are risky and difficult. Why should operations against the LRA be any different? Unless Invisible Children can explain why, their advocacy for US intervention doesn’t deserve an audience.

Just because a cause is fashionable doesn’t make it wise. Invisible Children’s efforts to raise awareness is laudable, but its faith in military solutions isn’t. The Kony 2012 campaign is a good way to get Americans killed in a quixotic, ill-conceived war with no bearing on US interests.

Updated to include photo credit.

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20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very well put Taylor. These kind of trendy campaigns hypnotize viewers by presenting a seemingly simple solution to a complex issue. It is so poorly thought out. A faux campaign to make Kony more famous than he already is for killing and terrorizing, so that we can send US troops in to kill? That kind of notoriety is exactly what men like him want- and they will sprout up in his place if the roots of the conflict (poverty, institutional accountability, etc.) aren’t addressed.

    March 7, 2012
  2. Leena #

    Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more. It’s unfortunate how misleading the campaign is in myopically placing blame on Kony also as if the LRA will cease to exist if he were killed.

    March 7, 2012
  3. Joe Smoe #

    Stop at nothing does mean, “Let’s blindly send in our troops and have ‘a war on terror’ all over again.” Ultimately, the Kony 2012 wants to make his name as well known as previous criminals of humanity. I agree in that the US has to be very strategic in its involvement. I agree that it won’t be pretty and that by the end everyone will be against it (as with every war situation), but the Kony 2012 viral campaign has a strong message. If a few competent commanders took the reigns on the issue, sent in special forces (not the average troops), maybe they could get Kony within a few years. Trying to talk down the problem as if nothing better can be done is a crime in itself.

    March 7, 2012
  4. Very good keep it up … thank you

    March 7, 2012
  5. Diane #

    Just because asp merging does not bear a financial interest for America does not justify allowing this to continue to happen. If a country can wage war on another country over oil and revenge as it has before why can it not step up to protect the young! Lives are being lost regardless of military intervention and unfortunately may of these children are casualties of war already. Why not assist them in any means possible! Where would the world be if no one attempted to stop Hitler? Saddam? Gadhafi? Osama Bin Laden?

    You need to start somewhere!

    March 7, 2012
  6. Erika #

    It is always wise to be skeptical of something before you commit yourself to believing and supporting it. However, I think many people are missing the main message of the “Kony 2012” video by pulling it apart piece by piece to find any mishaps or errors in it. It is obvious that the conflict in Uganda is more complex than Joseph Kony, and includes a history that none of us will ever truly be able to comprehend. Yes, he is only one man, and who knows how arresting him would exactly affect the situation in Uganda, but he is the man in charge of one of the most notorious rebel groups -LRA- who have been plundering and destroying Northern Uganda and its own people for the last twenty years. The idea behind this video is to raise awareness around the world of the man behind this rebel group, and show that it is possible for people everywhere to come together and support a true and good cause in this world, whatever that cause may be.
    If anything is to be done for this specific cause, awareness is exactly what it needs. Creating awareness does not necessarily mean sending military in to spark more conflict and bloodshed between people with great and complicated histories. The US government will do absolutely nothing if such a response is not in its national interest or the interests of its people. Awareness brings light to the issue and shows the US government and governments around the world that this is an issue the people are conscious of and care about. If anything it will put pressure on the cause and possibly push other organizations such as the UN to come together and take action to arrest this man.
    By supporting this campaign, you are coming together with the people around you to support people in a country you have never even met. Sounds pretty wonderful to me.

    March 7, 2012
  7. Moore #

    This article is really missing the point of this video. This video basically admits its purpose, but this article doesn’t recognize it. The purpose of this video is propaganda. In other words, the purpose of this video is to change publi…c opinion through emotional manipulation. This video is not reckless, it is calculated.

    However, there is nothing wrong with this. If one always sticks to a dispassionate discourse, one will always remain dispassionate, deaths will always be abstract, and we will never commit to engaging actively in the suffering of war to a degree enough to stop this man.

    The authors of the video are probably well aware of the conflicts gray areas. However, they choose not to highlight them in order to generate interest in their story. Since this video is very compelling, and going viral, it seems their strategy is working.

    Moreover, why should a private citizen not exercise his power for change? In modern internet times, an individual can express his voice more loudly than ever before. I say, more power to the authors for taking a proactive measurement, and forcing the government’s hand. How is this video iresponsible? Before this video, no one but academics knew about the LRA. If people don’t believe the hype, oh well, but at least now the discussion of the LRA is on the table.

    arming a region can definately make future conflicts more bloody, that is a fact. but the region already seems pretty bloody, so what should we do? that is the only tough one raised here.

    I like how the author posits that the abstract idea of American credibility is something more valuable than children’s lives, in that he seems unwilling to gamble the former for the latter. I just threw up a little bit in my mouth. He should tell the Ugandans. “I’m sorry, it’s not that I want you to kill your parents and be a sex slave, but you are 11, you are a big kid, you have to understand that we just went to AA+ status from AAA status, and we are kind of stinging right now. bad timing… ”

    You know, I have a tendency to be contrarian, and to not believe the hype. But what the heck is this article advocating? It says that Somalia’s conflict is drawn our because of US involvement. But earlier it says this Ugandan conflict has been going on for 25 years! Anyways, American’s pulling out of Somalia after black hawk down was an act of cowardice.

    We should not be afraid of American deaths, and we should accept civilian deaths in uganda as a transaction cost of liberty. yes, I dare use that word. probably will have to open fire on the child soldiers we would ultimately like to liberate. obviously there needs to be continual discussion about any war effort, where it is going, how active it should be, etc. There is 100% moral imperative to stop clear cut evil in certain circumstances

    But obviously, we should do some research and find out the extent to which the claims of the video are hyperbole. but at least the conversation is started, for that I am glad.

    March 7, 2012
  8. Jodi #

    @Joe Smoe – saying that a military intervention won’t work is different than saying that there is nothing to be done… the article doesn’t offer an alternative, but as the video itself points out, when they began building schools and infrastructure the violence decreased. However, when the US got involved, Kony decided he needed to strengthen his strategies. I think this in itself shows that the way to achieve sustainable positive change is through the development of the country, especially through education – not through military intervention. Giving arms and military expertise to an underdeveloped and corrupt nation will do the opposite of help. Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, the list goes on…

    March 7, 2012
  9. Marty #

    This article is way more reckless than the campaign. Thank you for thinking we are all stupid and lack of judgment. At least we do something when you just hate, trying to explain us something we already all know, but has nothing to do with the purpose of the campaign. Worst, you don’t propose a single alternative. Sorry, Taylor, your article is useless.

    March 8, 2012
  10. CJ #

    I did not know about Kony until the video… I have not spent any money on this campaign, just 30 minutes of watching the video. Kony is a real man that has committed real (hiddeous) crimes. I don’t see the harm in spreading “that” word. The US will not get involved until they get all the facts and weigh out the consequences. I am still waiting on a verdict of some sort about the vid, but Kony DOES exist, and I am one of many who did not know of him. Thanks for reading.

    March 8, 2012
  11. Gayle #

    Those saying that military intervention is not a necessary outcome and this is all about raising awareness have obviously not taken the time to read the Invisible Children’s letter to President Obama on the launch of Kony 2012 in which they state:
    “Your decision to deploy U.S. military advisors to the region in October of 2011 was a welcome measure of further assistance for regional governments in their efforts to protect people from LRA attacks. For these actions, we applaud your leadership and encourage sustained commitment.
    However, we fear that unless existing U.S. efforts are further expanded, your strategy may not succeed. The Ugandan and other regional militaries pursuing LRA commanders and groups continue to face daunting challenges. Their operations are hamstrung by flagging political will, weak cross-border coordination, the absence of tactical airlift, and the withdrawal of more than half of the Ugandan troops initially deployed to the field. Moreover, bureaucratic inertia and cuts in the U.S. foreign assistance budget have drastically limited the scope of non-military aspects of the strategy’s implementation, which are equally important to the pursuit of lasting peace in the region.
    In the coming months, hundreds of thousands of Americans will be mobilized through KONY 2012 to provide your Administration with a clear mandate to address these shortcomings.”
    Therefore support for Kony 2012 amounts to blindly signing a petition to the US Government to bring troops in to Central Africa – is that what you have signed on for?
    I think anyone supporting Kony 2012 should get a tattoo to mark their decision to support a bloodbath so in a year, or two, or five or ten they will have to face that awful truth – because awful is what we are looking at.

    March 8, 2012
  12. Me #

    since you’re critical of the video let me point at that there are numerous typos in this article, making it lack any credibility.

    The video may not be pure in its intentions, but it does shed light on a major international issue and criminal. There is nothing wrong with spreading word on this issue because the only way it will be solved is through global awareness and for that this video should be commended.

    March 8, 2012
  13. Dr. Gonzo #

    Thank you for this article. I also believe the Invisible Children have their hearts in the right place but fail to see that intervention is extremely hazardous. If you ever find yourself thinking that the solution to any problem is to arm and train a foreign military, you should rethink the question. I can only hope that reason will prevail.

    March 10, 2012
  14. Justin #

    @CJ, @Marty, @Erika, @Joe Smoe

    The Kony 2012 campaign is destructive, misleading and stupid. Here’s why:

    That video perpetuates the idea that the United States has the right, and in fact the duty, to intervene and smash any oppressive ruler or warlord in the world whenever it pleases. That mentality has a long history, it is called colonialism, and it has caused untold amounts of death and suffering around the world for hundreds of years.

    IC is indeed advocated for military intervention in this video, as shown by Taylor and Gayle.

    If someone had come out with a cool video that appealed to teenagers in 2002 about how we needed to intervene to take out Saddam Hussein, and as a result the Iraq War happened, would you have supported that? The United States’ destructive and unjustified military adventures have costed us TRILLIONS of dollars. And all of you, I guarantee, have been disadvantaged by such policies, as military spending is chronically placed as a higher priority than education, social safety net programs etc.

    Nowhere in that video do we see IC members trying to work with leaders or activists in the Ugandan region to stop Joseph Kony. Does that not seem suspicious to people? The video perpetuates Americans’ notion that Africa is chaotic, lacking civility and lacking agency and Africans just need the white imperialists to come and save their lives.

    If the U.S. were to carry out what IC wants, we would spend (at least) millions of tax dollars, destroy and disrupt the infrastructure and the lives of Ugandans, lose many of our own service members, and begin a necessary indefinite “nation-building” campaign in Uganda after taking out Kony once and for all. This course of events would do nothing for Ugandans in the long term.

    March 10, 2012
  15. bill johnson #

    WOW u are a piece of shit. first of all konys pathetic army couldnt kiill one US troop but if we dont send help thousands of KIDS will die. i know u dont care because you probably are godless human garbage but i pray for u because you are a lost soul and will find out what your kind of words mean for the human race. i hope when u are in hell u can find peace in knowing no US troops died for a good cause. instead ppl like u would let hundreds of americans die for oil. good day u evil pig , make sure when u increase ur weight from 300 pounds to 350 pounds that u donate some of ur lard for starving children u dog shit.

    March 12, 2012
  16. Vaughan #

    At “bill johnson ” I take it that you are christian. Probably middle America with your patriotic misleadings. You do understand that Koni also bases alot of what he preaches on christianity and look where thats going. This has been happening in Africa for a long time Koni is not the only person taking advantage of a poor nation. The fact is every one is so caught up in a movie they watched on the net they forget about all other things. Don’t get me wrong Koni is a horrible person that should not be killed but put in the most painfull and degrading place for the rest of his life for what he has done. But as far as I can see and alot of people I know think the same that this movie was more based around taking your eyes off all the atrocity that America is causing and to make people rich.Take a look at where all the donatons people make to some of the charities goes. Not much goes to help the people.

    I do think it is a great thing that so many are now awear of some of Africas problems. But as a few people have said sending in an army will in no way help. They will be fighting a child army so in such will be killing children. Go team America!They are pretty good at killing inocent people already why not get some more practice.

    I think more than focusing on killing Koni all the nations that are willing to go to war over a movie should be looking at ways to educate the people. For the price of one missle you Americans would no doubt shoot you could probably build 10 schools. For the price of a new war you could create infrastructure throughout Africa. I do agree you may need some non trigger happy countrys there in a purely peace keeping role(Don’t shoot or blow up inocents) to help with teaching proper construction,good farming practise ect. and to defend the defenseless not go hunting.There would no doubt be people killed on both sides but try not to go looking for trouble. If the people of Africa have a better quality of life where they can be educated to become more self sufficiant as a nation and contribute to the world economy through knowledge. Instead of just slave labour. They will be able to sort themselvs out. This wont be a quick answer but will help sort the larger problem as a whole with a lot less blood shed. People like Koni can only exist through the fear and weakness of others.

    If you look past the movie the people of Africa are crying out for propper education and know where it will take them. Instead of slagging of others opinions and praying to God. Why not get your church to fund raise for a new school house or orphanage and make a positve difference instead of another blood bath.

    March 16, 2012
  17. The authors of the video are probably well aware of the conflicts gray areas. However, they choose not to highlight them in order to generate interest in their story. Since this video is very compelling, and going viral, it seems their strategy is working.

    die cut business cards

    March 27, 2012
  18. confederate conservative #

    At Vaughan, my first complaint is you spelled “Kony” wrong.
    I have no clue where you’re from, but from the garbage coming out of your mouth I sure as hell hope you’re not in the US. “Us Americans” have the strongest military in the WORLD. Yes yes, we are in debt. But first consider who we are fighting. Maybe between 300-1000 soldiers with inferior weapons & perhaps archaic war tactics. The longer we wait, the bigger that little army gets & the more children that are abducted, hypnotized, tortured, or killed. Back to cost, my previous argument is that we are stronger…needless to say it wont require the same vast number of troops like that of the Iraq War. To say that we are “trigger happy” is slightly true but mostly a crude argument. Do not overlook our country’s attempts at making peace treaties to stop terrorism. If they were effective the US would not need to take military action. About infrastructure…how can you build one when the citizens are being terrorized in their homes? The problem is an out of control rebel group. Would you build schools and rebuild communities and just ignore the threat of Kony’s pillaging? What would be the point? Nobody is saying that violence is more important than education because it’s not! The people you are calling “trigger happy” are educated individuals who risk their lives so others can be educated. Kony’s purpose is not to educate these people, but to brainwash them. So you’re basically picking one or the other. Brainwashing while building infrastructure, or military action to protect the freedoms and education of the people. These people fear for their lives everyday, do you? I don’t have to thanks to these “trigger happy” Americans who pledge allegiance to their country. It is also VERY important to warn you not to confuse the actions of our military with the actions of our government and not to combine the stupid & cruel things done by a few of our troops with the reputation of the US military. Killing innocent people is sometimes unavoidable. What reason do we have for doing it intentionally? Put yourself in the position of a soldier, sometimes you can’t just scan the scene & selectively kill the wrongdoers. Thousands of our “trigger happy” military personnel return home to their families with mental disorders due to the civilian casualties they witness.

    April 8, 2012

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