"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


wars aren't pointless

Try as I may to ignore it, Gettleman's Foreign Policy op-ed "Africa's Forever Wars" won't go away:
There is a very simple reason why some of Africa's bloodiest, most brutal wars never seem to end: They are not really wars. Not in the traditional sense, at least. The combatants don't have much of an ideology; they don't have clear goals. They couldn't care less about taking over capitals or major cities -- in fact, they prefer the deep bush, where it is far easier to commit crimes. Today's rebels seem especially uninterested in winning converts, content instead to steal other people's children, stick Kalashnikovs or axes in their hands, and make them do the killing. Look closely at some of the continent's most intractable conflicts, from the rebel-laden creeks of the Niger Delta to the inferno in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and this is what you will find.
Derek Catsam has a nice takedown of the piece's central premise here.

One of the interesting things about teaching courses for the first time this year has been the experience of rereading articles I haven't looked at since taking preliminary exams. (Or, let's be honest, that I never got around to reading in the first place.)

For my first stab at teaching a seminar on conflict, I assigned Stathis Kalyvas' 2001 World Politics article, "'New' and 'Old' Civil Wars: A Valid Distinction?" (gated). In the piece, Kalyvas eviscerates an argument that became common after the end of the Cold War. The idea behind that argument was, in Kalyvas' words, that, "...new wars are characteristically criminal, depoliticized, private, and predatory; old civil wars are considered idological, political, collective, and even noble." The "old" wars are, in this view, "political," while "new" civil wars are "criminal."

I think it's fair to say that this sums up Gettleman's view of Africa's current round of conflicts.

Kalyvas goes on to rip this argument apart, first by noting that conclusions of this nature result from a lack of complete knowledge about current civil wars clouds our perceptions of what's really going on. He then points out that the fact that we are unable to clearly categorize the "new" civil wars does not mean that they are fundamentally different from those that occurred before and during the Cold War. In fact, it appears that rebel movements have quite often engaged in the sort of "senseless" violence - raping, looting, taxing, and murdering - for which Gettleman faults African rebels.

Kalyvas then cites a wide range of research that shows that "new" civil wars - including those in Africa - are actually not about looting and grievances, nor are they pointless.

Still with me? Let's keep Kalyvas' points in mind as we go back to Gettleman:
...what is spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic is actually just opportunistic, heavily armed banditry....

I've witnessed up close -- often way too close -- how combat has morphed from soldier vs. soldier (now a rarity in Africa) to soldier vs. civilian. Most of today's African fighters are not rebels with a cause; they're predators. That's why we see stunning atrocities like eastern Congo's rape epidemic, where armed groups in recent years have sexually assaulted hundreds of thousands of women, often so sadistically that the victims are left incontinent for life. What is the military or political objective of ramming an assault rifle inside a woman and pulling the trigger? Terror has become an end, not just a means.
A couple of questions: did Gettleman consider the underlying motivations that lead people engage in combat? There's a ton of research on this issue. Since he apparently didn't bother, I'll just sum it up briefly: people very rarely decide to go to war just for the hell of it.

Take the case of the eastern Congo. What evidence is there that the Congo's armed groups enjoy living in miserable conditions in the forests, or that they only rape because terrorizing people is the goal? Did Gettleman look at the very real grievances over land rights, the dynamics of state weakness, or the questions of ethnicity and citizenship that affect the behavior of every single armed group in the eastern DRC?

It would appear that the answer to those questions is no. Instead, he claims that "Congo today is home to a resource rebellion in which vague anti-government feelings become an excuse to steal public property."

Of course, anyone who seriously studies the region will tell you in a heartbeat that the Congo war is not now and never was a "resource war." It's a war in which resources fund part of the
conflict, but no one is actually fighting for control of the resources as an ultimate goal. The patterns of violence and all available evidence do not support Gettleman's claim.

As for the "anti-government feelings," I've never met a Congolese person who didn't want his or her country to be under the control of a strong, centralized regime. The only anti-government feelings I've ever heard expressed are those against the Rwandan regime, whom most eastern Congolese blame for their region's problems.

And, newsflash: it's been possible to steal public property in the Congo for at least 30 years. The vast majority of those who do so, however, engage in such behavior without ever resorting to armed rebellion. So that doesn't really explain what's going on.

For the last year or so, I've been trying to figure out why Jeffrey Gettleman consistently exoticizes Africa in his reporting for the New York Times. This piece gives us a glimpse into the overall framework in which he appears to be operating, and the result isn't pretty.

By failing to dig a little deeper and understand what's actually behind all the violence - and by ignoring the fact that all the "old" civil wars, including those in France and the United States, were pretty nasty as well - Gettleman does his readers a great disservice. He treats Africans who engage in war as irrational savages who have an insatiable appetite for destructive violence. He never acknowledges that many wars throughout human history - especially those in which ethnic or religious identity was a key issue - involved horrific violence against civilians, caused lots of unnecessary deaths, and lasted for decades on end. Thirty Years' War, anyone?

Treating African conflicts as another manifestation of "the other" means that we never get the full picture. By characterizing Africa's modern conflicts as meaningless and ignoble, Gettleman misses the point entirely. People always have reasons for fighting. They may be coerced into it by leaders who have larger goals, they may truly believe in a cause, they may feel that they aren't getting their fair share of available resources, they may feel it's the only way to protect their homes and families, or they may not have other options in life.

That a war does not make sense to an outsider does not mean it is pointless.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Old War - New War is not very helpful for lots of reasons you mention, including that the horrors of war are not exclusively African (Mechanised genocide? Post WW2 soviet occupation of Berlin? Nuclear weapons? Abu Ghraib anyone?)

I think western journalists also have issues understanding political grievances in some African contexts today as these grievances are mobilised for violence through non-western discourse (e.g. Acholi spirtualism used by the Holy Spirit Forces and later the LRA in opposition to Museveni).

However during the cold war, when rebels had to get funding from outside the continent, they would use western cold war discourse despite it being politically meaningless (e.g. Angolans UNITA and MPLA were not really Communist or Democrats). But western journalists could use that to explain what the issues were.

Now when people get displaced from their land and rebels mobilise them using discourse and symbols that are localised, does NOT mean there is an absence of politics or meaningful political agency, or that something new has happened.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010 4:33:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Well-put, anon.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010 8:59:00 AM

Blogger KS said...

PLEASE send this to NYTimes in a letter to the editor.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010 9:21:00 AM

Blogger Derrill Watson said...

John Dickinson: Mr. Franklin, are you seriously suggested that we publish a paper to the world declaring that an illegal rebellion is, in fact, a legal one?

Ben Franklin: Why, Mr. Dickinson, I'm surprised at you. Rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as "our rebellion." It is only in the third person, "their rebellion" which is illegal.

-- 1776

Tuesday, April 06, 2010 10:03:00 AM

Blogger dcat said...

Thanks for the link, though I did sorta fish for it!

You augmented it just as I hoped you would, though.

Best --

Tuesday, April 06, 2010 10:49:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Dcat, I had actually already linked to it before I saw your comment! :) Good stuff!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010 11:10:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What evidence is there that the Congo's armed groups ... only rape because terrorizing people is the goal?"

Then why else do they rape, in your opinion? Rape is a crime against civilians, not a method of combat, no matter what's the "point" of the war. I think the point of the war and the point of the violence have to be considered separately. After all, one can be a soldier and not rape anyone.

You refer to the Thirty Years' War, but the history of that war seems to actually support Gettleman's argument. Its gradual descent from "war" into indiscriminate pillaging usually gets a lot of emphasis in historical accounts. The violence was pointless, in the sense that these acts served the armed individual, but not the goal of the original war, and the violence carried on after the armies had long disintegrated.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that terror for terror's sake can happen as part or in the aftermath of a war with a cause, and violence in a war can be pointless even if the war may be not.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010 10:49:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Okay, but as you point out, saying that violence in a war is pointless is not the same as saying the war is pointless, which is exactly what Gettleman is doing. But I'm still inclined to think that rape in particular is a very common weapon of war. The only difference in the DRC is a question of scale, which is certainly related to the fact that the eastern portion of the country is mostly ungoverned space.

Rape is almost always used as a weapon in wars that have an ethnic dimension; it has to do with showing the power of the attacker's men and the inability of the men in the victim's group to protect its own. It's also a way of destroying an ethnic group; if women can't become pregnant anymore, or if they are impregnated by "foreigners," then lineage and kinship ties are destroyed. In Congolese cultures, most raped women become ineligible or unwanted for marriage, meaning the birth rate declines, meaning the group's ability to reproduce itself can decline under certain circumstances.

It's not a mistake that forced sex is used as a means of torture and humiliation. This phenomenon seems to transcend cultures and historical eras.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 8:25:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great post and it hits on like 30,000 different things I've been thinking about as someone who majors in both journalism and African studies. Gettleman was a hero of mine before I started to know better, and now that I do all I want to do as an idealistic college student is become the anti-him.

Saturday, October 30, 2010 11:39:00 PM


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