War in 140 Characters

If you have been following the problematization of social media over the years, the stories in "War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century" (2017) by David Patrikarakos might not be all that surprising. For those who are interested in how these processes actually take place - beyond the headlines, abstract or theory - the author presents some insightful qualitative examples, from multiple perspectives on the war fronts.

"This book is about war. But it is also about stories, the narratives of conflict and the conflict of narratives" (p. 3) writes the author. While some aspects of war and conflict remain the same, Patrikarakos argues that we "are in need of a new conceptual framework that takes into account how social media has transformed the way that wars are waged, covered, and consumed. (p. 5). How has conflict actually changed? "First, power has shifted from hierarchies or institutions to individual citizens and networks of citizens. Second, the narrative dimensions of war are arguably becoming more important than its physical dimensions. And third, the conflicts I am examining were not "traditional" state-on-state wars" (p. 5). The conclusion? "Our information environment is sick. We live in a world where facts are less important than narratives, where people emote rather than debate, and where algorithms shape our view of the world" (p. 264). 

One of the most interesting examples I found in the book was how the "troll factory" actually operates and its objectives. "The goal was twofold. The first was to shore up the Kremlin's own constituency by giving them a narrative to hold on to and subsequently disseminate. The second, more bemusing to him, was to simply sow as much confusion as possible: to counteract the realities on the ground with counternarratives made forceful not by the strength of their content, which was blatantly false, but by their sheer volume" (p. 144). 

Other problems of social media - on echo-chambers and cocoons: "As we cocoon ourselves in online bubbles of like-minded friends and followers posting content we find agreeable, so the Facebook algorithm feeds us yet more content that, based on our online habits, it calculates we will like. This is designed to keep us on their forums for as long as possible to allow companies to advertise specific products to us users based on what they know we like." (p. 12)

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Civil Wars in Africa: Roots and Resolutions

For some period in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a trend in conflict studies that suggested civil war in Africa was externally caused and driven. To counter that narrative, a group of scholars came together to explore the internal, domestic aspects of civil war in Africa (without neglecting the external factors). The result was "Civil Wars in Africa: Roots and Resolutions" (1999) edited by Taisier Ali and Robert Matthews. This edited volume provides a set of case studies on civil conflict in Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda as well as how conflict did not emerge in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. As with edited volumes of this nature, they are difficult to summarize because each chapter is unique and presents its own perspectives and conclusions. A new noteworthy points:

On causes of conflict:

  • "In the Horn, development has contributed to conflict primarily in response to state decisions about investment in export sectors, especially agriculture and livestock. The state has steered investments towards areas controlled by the ruling elites. Resulting investment patterns have led to extraordinary regional disparities in economic opportunity. These disparities have been intensified as the state provided social services primarily [go] to the same areas. This post-colonial continuation of a colonial trend intensified inequalities among social groups and regions; and resulting tensions fed larger civil conflicts. The most conflict-prone areas in the Greater Horn are nearly all areas that have been excluded from the fruits of state investment." (p. 44)
  • "Both threads of conflict in Rwanda – the civil war and the genocide – can be traced directly to the impact of manipulation of social cleavages, in this case ethnicity, by political elites in competition over power" (p. 80)

On overcoming conflict:

  • "Uganda's experience suggests that the re-establishment of stability in a country that has suffered extensive, recurrent upheavals requires firm but nationally minded leadership, extensive broadening of the political process to include previously marginalized groups, intra-elite cohesion, and positive developments on the economic front. Only then can conditions be laid for addressing the structural imbalances that underlie social conflict." (p. 14)
  • "To ensure the long term stability of Ethiopia, the newly elected government will have to allow for more political liberalization than it has at present. (Because of their close links with the government, forged during the liberation struggle, NGOs and donor countries have a special role to play in pressing the government in this direction.) In the absence of political reconciliation, the central government will probably have to resort to increasing repression to ensure its control over Ethiopia." (p. 305)

On preventing conflict:

  • "In this dominant climate of scepticism towards anything Tanzanian, inadequate due has been given [to] the political accomplishments of the Nyerere era. Yet these achievements were major… Tanzania enjoyed continuous, stable civilian rule for some twenty years. Then, peacefully and within that framework of civilian rule, there was not only a change of political leadership but also a near-180 degree change of ideological direction, with Tanzania becoming a more open political society, now in transition to a multi-party system." (p. 239)
  • "Most of the poorest African states today face the same central dilemma as did Tanzania in the mid-1960s. They must balance the contribution to good government that often flows from a greater popular participation and fuller respect for civil and political rights against the likelihood that these same democratic features may unleash divisive ethnic, regional, and class divisions, which may shatter the still-fragile unity of the state. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether something like the Tanzanian democratic, one-party system may be preferable for many very poor Third World states than either a competitive party democracy on the Western model or any of the most autocratic alternatives." (p. 246)
  • "It now seems almost inevitable that, in the absence of strong popular forces that can insist on greater answerability, democratic, one-party states will finally be unable to check the self-seeking, oligarchical temptations that lurk within them. Ideological commitment, nationalism, exceptional leadership, and even fear of the disastrous consequences of severe intra-elite rivalry seem unable to ensure that the ambitions, abilities and energies of the new elites serve, rather than undermine, the common good." (p. 248)

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The Battle for Afghanistan

The way war is waged has significantly changed since the 1800s. One might assume the lessons for contemporary times from such a period would be limited as a result. William Dalrymple's telling of the British attempt to conquer Afghanistan in 1839-1842 convincingly show the opposite. In "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan" (2013), Dalrymple tells the stories of battles long past in an engaging way, while also drawing allusions to present efforts of conquest in the country. The 567 page book tells the history of how the British army was devastated, and then their response following defeat – to toss away their own moral positions and engage in what we would today classify as crimes against humanity. In this post I focus on the linkages Dalrymple makes to the present, and have not attempted a summary on the attempted conquest itself. For those interested in Afghanistan, and conflict generally, this is essentially reading.

"I asked if they saw any parallels with the current situation. 'It is exactly the same,' said Jagdalak. 'Both times the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They say "We are your friends, we want to help." But they are lying' (p. 485). In a conversation with elders, Dalrymple recounts: one explaining "some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, "Why do you hate us?" I replied, "Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time."' (p. 487). The author recounts a visit to the "the Herat Museum of the Jihad: a collection of objects left behind by the various foreigners who have foolishly tried to conquer Afghanistan, ranging from British cannon from the First Afghan War through to Russian tanks, jets and helicopter gunships. It won't be long, one can be certain, before a few shot-up American Humvees and British Land-Rovers are added to the collection" (p. xxxvi).

Much like the Canadians, Afghanistan was an arena engaged not for its own sake, but for other self-serving military and political reasons. The British effort of the 1800s was similar: "it was also clear from this attempt to reach out to the Afghans that the British were not interested in cultivating Shah Shuja's friendship for its own sake, but were concerned only to outflank their imperial rivals: the Afghans were perceived as mere pawns on the chessboard of western diplomacy, to be engaged or sacrificed at will. It was a precedent that was to be followed many other times, by several different powers, over the years and decades to come; and each time the Afghans would show themselves capable of defending their inhospitable terrain far more effectively than any of their would-be manipulators could possibly have suspected" (p. 8). So too would the hypocritical rhetoric about independence, freedom and justice – applied as a means to promote agendas when in fact the actors themselves were often worse perpetrators of what was apparently the reason to go to war against another (see p. 77). Justifications would be supported with what Dalrymple describes as "doctored intelligence" (p. 490) with exaggerated threats "manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks" (p. 490).

Much like the Americans, victory was declare prematurely, and new wars were started, resulting in weakened efforts to hold territory in Afghanistan: "rather than concentrating on consolidating Shah Shuja's fragile rule in Afghanistan, and providing the resources needed to make the occupation viable and secure, Lord Auckland – like more recent invaders – instead took the premature view that the conquest was already complete and so allowed himself to be distracted by launching another war of aggression in a different theatre" (p. 220). Dalrymple makes this point: "in 2001, the British and American troops arrived in Afghanistan where they proceeded to begin losing what was, in Britain's case, its fourth war in that country. As before, in the end, despite all the billions of dollars handed out, the training of an entire army of Afghan troops and the infinitely superior weaponry of the occupiers, the Afghan resistance succeeded again in first surrounding then propelling the hated Kafirs into a humiliating exit. In both cases the occupying troops lost the will to continue fighting at such a cost and with so little gain." (p. 482).

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The Great War of Africa

"Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa" by Jason K. Stearns (2011) "tells the story of the conflict that resulted from these regional, national, and local dimensions and that has lasted from 1996 until today" (p. 8). The author not only has a depth of experience in the region, but also conveys a passion for the places, people, histories, experiences described. More than anything else, it is the way in which Stearns writes that is appeals. This is a story that needs to be read, and also an example of great story telling.

"This book tries to see the conflict through the eyes of its protagonists and understand why war made more sense than peace, why the regional political elites seem to be so rich in opportunism and so lacking in virtue" (p. 6). Stearns focuses upon "the perpetrators more than the victims, the politicians and the army commanders more than the refugees and rape survivors, although many of the protagonists oscillate between these categories. Rather than dwelling on the horror of the conflict, which is undeniable, I have chosen to grapple with the nature of the system that brought the principal actors to power, limited the choices they could make, and produced such chaos and suffering" (p. 8).

"Like layers of an onion, the Congo war contains wars with wars. There was not one Congo war, or even two, but at least forty or fifty different, interlocking wars. Local conflicts fed into regional and international conflicts and vice versa. Teasing out the origins can be a tail-chasing exercise" (p. 69). That is also where Stearns concludes: "The Congo war had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple of paragraphs. Like an ancient Greek epic, it is a mess of different narrative strands - some heroic, some venal, all combined in a narrative that is not straighforward but layered, shifting, and incomplete. It is not a war of great mechanical precision but of ragged human edges" (p. 336).

In some narratives, the international community (i.e. a few powerful states), exerts its will upon the world. The Congolese wars are yet another example of how agency and power much more complex: "As both Museveni and Kagame had learned in their own insurgencies, the international community was inherently hostile to foreign invasions but turned a blind eye to domestic rebellions that called themselves liberation struggles. Go look for Congolese rebels, he told Kagame, who could act as a fig leaf for Rwandan involvement" (p. 53). Readers unfamiliar with the Congo will be shocked with how other nations, particularly Rwanda, played key roles in the Congolese wars.

There are numerous side notes I found interesting, such as reflections on non-violent action (p. 9), intentional false indoctrination (p. 16), psychology of fear (p. 36), the role of economics and poverty in conflict and hatred (p. 95), the long-term societal impacts of conflict (p. 261). The author was seeking to understand the system, and about this, he concludes: "A central reason, therefore, for the lack of visionary leadership in the Congo is because its political system rewards ruthless behaviour and marginalizes scrupulous leaders. It privileges loyalty over competence, wealth and power over moral character" (p. 331).

What lessons can be learned? "This state of affairs should force foreign donors to think more carefully about contributing billions of dollars to development in the Congo without pondering the long-term repercussions… By taking the financing of most public services, donors take pressure off the Congolese government to respond to the needs of its citizens. Ultimately, the rule of law will not be created through a capacity building project in the ministry of finance but through a power struggle between government, local elites, and business circles. Donors need to figure out how to most responsibly insert themselves in this dynamic and not just pave roads, build hospitals, and reform fiscal systems" (p. 332). However, there "are no easy solutions for the Congo, no silver bullets to produce accountable government and peace. The ultimate fate of the country rests with the Congolese people themselves.Westerners also have a role to play, in part because of our historical debt to the country, in part because it is the right thing to do. This does not mean imposing a foreign vision on the country or simply sending food and money. It means understanding it and its politics and rhythms on their own terms, and then doing our part in providing the environment conducive to growth and stability" (p. 337).

My only (minor) recommendation to the author would be to reduce points of repetition. Some stories and facts are returned at different parts of the book. This may have been purposeful, for a readership unfamiliar with the details, but at times gave it a slightly unpolished feel.

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