Jul
19

The Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-41)

In back alleys and old book shops in Ethiopia, you can occasionally stumble across old gems. A recent example I found was "The Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-41) Genesis Ordeal Victory", published by the Ministry of Information in 1975. It is a 28-page pamphlet that includes a large set of images. For a historian, the pamphlet is interesting not only for the historical content from a Ethiopian perspective, but also the time period in which is was written and published. The publication documents the struggle against Italian occupation, from the perspective of the government of Ethiopia, and documents the crimes committed by the Italians. 

It states: "From start to finish, the Fascist forces waged the campaign with total disregard for the rules of war established by the diverse international conventions to which Italy was a party. Red Cross camps were deliberately bombed and incendiary devices showered on fleeing refugees. Prisoners of war, whether captured in battle or wounded or incapacitated, were executed on the spot. Torture, mutiliation [sic], skinning and castration were commonly employed. Whole families were locked in their dwellings and burnt alive. Some suspects were beheaded, others tied to lorries and dragged along till the corpse became utterly unrecognizable - still others thrown overboard from planes in flight. The most terrible atrocity of all was the widespread and indiscriminate use of poison gas. Whole areas suspected of harbouring resistance units were sprayed promiscuously - destroying all living things and polluting crops, rivers and lakes." (p. 17)

One comment is reminiscent of many made after the Rwandan genocide: "It is not to be contested that the majority of the peoples of the world - even most individual members of the League [of Nations] - were fully sympathetic with Ethiopia. But in the end, delay and procrastination, empty rhetoric and opportunism, above all the duplicity of the major European powers prevailed." (p. 23)

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May
12

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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Aug
18

Lessons from Canada’s War in Afghanistan

Canada sent thousands of troops to Afghanistan, and spent an estimated $20 billion doing so. The outcomes of the mission are debated, but will likely have little to no sustained impact. What can be learned from Canada's war in Afghanistan? Stephen Saideman sets out to answer this question is his "Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada's War in Afghanistan" (2016).

The books focus is narrower than the title might imply. Saideman explains it "is neither on the decisions made in Ottawa or Kandahar nor on what Canadians encountered in Afghanistan. Instead, the premise here is what that we can learn a great deal about Canada from what is experienced in Afghanistan and how it reacted" (p. 4). As a result, the book is highly Canada- and Canadian-centric. While the book makes minor allusions to the impact the war had on Afghans and Afghanistan, there are no details on this. Readers learn only of Canadian casualties, Canadian foreign relations, Canadian media, and so forth. Contextualization is important. I suggest that this book not be read alone, but alongside others, such as: Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid (2008), The Wars of Afghanistan by Peter Tomsen (2011), Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by Dalrymple (2012) and The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan by Graeme Smith (2013).

One of the interesting discussions that Saideman weaves throughout this book is the reasoning and justification regarding why Canada went to war in Afghanistan. It is often assumed that Canada had no choice, due to its membership in NATO. The author writes that the "famous Article V, which says that an attack upon one member will be viewed as an attack upon all, includes an opt-out clause that allows each country to respond to the attacks as it 'deems necessary'" (p. 21), and thus Canada did have options. Secondly, even after agreeing to join the mission, there was a question of scale. Saideman highlights Greece, as a NATO member, which had very few (often less than 20) soldiers in Afghanistan at any time. At one point, Canada sent more than 3,000 soldiers.

Why did Canada go? And, why did it enter at such a large scale? The author explains: "To be clear, Canada did not go into Afghanistan for the sake of Afghans but to better position itself in international affairs: to solidify relations with the United States, to improve its position within NATO and support alliances at a critical time, and to visibly make a difference" (p. 40). What sorts of successes can Canada claim? According to the author these include changing the culture of the Canadian Forces, improving Canada's position within NATO, and changing the international perception of Canadian forces. From this Canada-centric perspective, the war was a "success". He concludes: "We can cloud the issue by talking about schools, vaccinations, and the like, but the reality is that Canadian leaders (three of them, from two political parties) sent troops into harm's way because of Canada's place in the world. We can look at the conflicting progress reports about what was achieved in Afghanistan, but the mission always was about Canada's commitment to its allies" (p. 125).

While the author raises what cost this had to Canada, we do not learn of the costs to Afghans and Afghanistan. "Taking all this into consideration, I think a better approach to the question 'Was it worth it?' is to think about whether the relationship with the United States and membership in NATO were worth the [Canadian] casualties and financial commitment" (p. 125). Unfortunately, the author does not raise Afghan lives as important considerations in this assessment. Saideman does not mention the over 26,000 civilians killed during the war. One lesson the author does not tease out is how willing Canada and Canadians were to engage in war and take the lives of others to improve their own standing in the world.

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