Her War - Emma McCune in Sudan

Literature Review


Emma's War

by Deborah Scroggins

Random House, 2003, 416 pp.


Acts of Faith

by Philip Caputo

Knopf, 2005, 669 pp.


In 1987, a young Brit named Emma McCune arrived in Sudan. Leggy and idealistic, she fell in love with the heightened drama of the country, where chronic hunger and conspicuous consumption were often separated by only a barbed wire fence. After a string of sexual liaisons with African men and a short but impassioned career improving schools in Southern Sudan, she married Riek Machar, a commander in the Southern People’s Liberation Army (S.P.L.A.). Despite the deprivations and humiliations that come with being a warlord’s wife, Emma threw her full weight behind her husband’s increasingly brutal military campaign. McCune died in 1993 in a car accident in Nairobi, Kenya.


Two books that trace Emma McCune’s story in Sudan during the North-South conflict ask how Westerners can (or cannot) intervene ethically in another country’s civil war. Philip Caputo’s Acts of Faith and Deborah Scroggins’s Emma’s War both take negative views of McCune. Yet there are definite ways to portray her as a heroine: she established over a hundred schools in Southern Sudan, for example, and Emmanuel Jal, a former child solider-turned rapper, has dedicated an ode to McCune as his “angel to the rescue.” There is also evidence, however, that she was quick to trade humanitarian concerns for violence. For instance, Scroggins includes a chilling quote from McCune upon receiving news that her husband’s force had massacred over a thousand civilians in an intra-S.P.L.A. rivalry that she helped fuel: “Was it a victory?” she asks coldly. Both Scroggins and Caputo suggest that her hunger for power stemmed from childhood insecurities, and that she often employed sex for personal gain. But because she is such a complex individual, both authors can use McCune to explore the ethics of relief when the “humanitarian” worker has an ulterior motive, whether it is religious or moral zeal, hunger for power, or an addiction to adrenaline.


In Acts of Faith, a novel based on McCune’s adventures in Sudan, Caputo draws his McCune figure (imagined as a born-again Christian named Quinette Hardin from small-town America) as a rich and beguiling character whose choices can be hated, but also understood given the right context. Hardin is the underdog protagonist who elbows her way into a hero’s role working for a nongovernmental organization. She eventually becomes disillusioned when she realizes that she is facilitating a humanitarian scam. After going to live in a remote southern village at the invitation of a local commander of the S.P.L.A., she is radicalized by an air raid that destroys the local hospital. Hardin falls in love with the commander and his community, and the ends of protecting them come to justify her means to do so: that is, running guns for the commander she soon marries.


Scroggins’s book, on the other hand, is written as a semi-biography, with the story of the author’s own implicated role as a member of the same East African expatriate community running parallel with McCune’s. Here, McCune is portrayed as both self-righteous and tawdry, flaunting her love affairs with Sudanese men as evidence that she is more tolerant than the other aid workers. Scroggins clearly finds McCune’s desire to be a messiah in a miniskirt tasteless and exploitative, and perhaps emblematic of the aid effort as a whole. Moreover, McCune is rejected by the other aid workers in the southern town of Nasir for compromising their security by manipulating the flow of food aid to benefit S.P.L.A.’s operations. Yet Scroggins reveals that she views even these complaining, “pure” humanitarians as little better than McCune, as they react to the stress of staving off death in the displaced persons camp by fornicating and drinking their emotions into submission.


Looking at the countries and period that Scroggins covered as an American journalist, it is quite difficult not to conclude that Western attempts to improve peace and security in Africa have done anything but make the situation worse. Scroggins left Africa between the 1993 Black Hawk Down (Battle of Mogadishu) catastrophe in Somalia, and the 1994 Rwandan genocide—perhaps the darkest period in contemporary U.S.-Africa policy. At this point, the U.S. abruptly cut short its robust intervention in Somalia after eighteen marines were murdered and dragged through the capital Mogadishu. Six months later, the American public had no interest in intervening in the Rwandan genocide. Scroggins left East Africa in early 1994, just after her suggestion to write a story about the gestating violence in Rwanda was met with laughter by her editor. Thus, it is not surprising the Westerners in Emma’s War who try to right wrongs in Africa end up justifying their selfish pursuit of adventure or piety on humanitarian grounds. Ultimately, there are no Westerners, including the author, who clearly do more good than harm. Scroggins seems to decide that the most ethical action is retreat.


Caputo presents a more nuanced perspective of the motivations and impacts of all of his characters, but particularly of his McCune figure. She is not entirely selfish, but loses herself in her blind faith in God and in her own piousness. Yet other characters are able to make marginal improvements to the lives of suffering civilians without causing collateral damage. These moderates—mostly characters that straddle the two worlds, such as a half-African, half-American businessman, or a white philanthropist born in Kenya—remain skeptical of their own morality. By refusing to blindly trust their own righteousness, they are able to perceive the contradictory ethics that exist in reality, and particularly in civil wars. Thus, they stop short of justifying immoral means with their “good” intentions.


It is possible that I relate more to Caputo’s novel because I am unwilling to concede that the West can do no good, ever, in Africa. Having worked for American N.G.O.s in several African countries over the past few years, I am fully implicated in the aid industry that both authors question. I read Acts of Faith while on vacation in Sierra Leone, several weeks before returning to the States to do research on aid effectiveness. Thus, my personal reaction has been to recoil from my initial fervor for robust intervention and foreign aid to a position of skepticism where the burden of proof is on the West to show that the involvement is indeed ethically justified. But I have also seen Western intervention make life better for poor and conflict-affected people—so long as those providing the aid seriously question their own efficacy and motivations.


In the murky Sudan that both Scroggins and Caputo paint, there are few unconditional moral imperatives. Scroggins’s well-researched and beautifully crafted book falls short on this internal contradiction: it recognizes that there are no pure solutions to Sudan’s civil war, yet condemns McCune and the humanitarian mission for their imperfections. Caputo warns against blind faith in any imperative, and his empathy for all his characters liberates his narrative from the binary morality against which he argues. As he writes, “anyone who does not acknowledge the darkness in his nature will succumb to it... the lamp of conviction needs to be shaded by doubt, or it burns with a blinding light.”



Africa, Humanitarian Aid, Sudan