Why They Fight

They hate us because we don’t know why they hate us.” The perceived ignorance of Americans as to the wider world around them was often cited as a compelling reason for the mass murder of several thousand citizens on September 11, 2001. Low scores on math and science, and the inability of two-thirds of Americans between eighteen and twenty-four years old to locate Iraq on a map in 2006 merely perpetuated this claim; that somehow American geographical ignorance is responsible for jihadists and regional strife around the world.

This is of course not the only suggested explanation for conflict in the developing world. Essentially, all the arguments put forth can be summarized as pertaining to ‘greed’, or monetary and personal gain, and ‘grievance’, i.e., ideological and cultural clashes. Abridging the vast array of motives to these two is oversimplifying the matter to begin with; further choosing one of the two as the sole factor would be downright spurious. Complicating matters is the tendency to use the ‘pre-modern’ character of third world conflicts to build an intellectual bridge back to the very beginning of history.

Several cross-cultural studies have shown that predominantly, revenge for homicide and economic concerns were the overriding causes of pre-state warfare. Lawrence Keeley cites the cases of pig theft in New Guinea, where pig-rearing was a crucial activity, and Plains Indian conflicts over wild horses (an important resource for transportation and hunting purposes) as typical economically-driven wars. Malthusian growth models have also been highlighted as a cause, with expanding populations driven to war by a lack of land.[1] Attempts to attribute these wars to the lack of a modern ethical code are meaningless at a time when fear and hunger were inevitable and absolute. As societies approached the dawn of civilization, these seemingly clear-cut explanations would be supplanted by less tangible honor killings.

Even accounting for change over many generations, much of the developed world’s thinking on third world conflicts inevitably resorts to these primitive descriptions. At first glance, attempting to comprehend the myriad reasons for soldiering recalls P.J. O’Rourke’s “three great rules of the social sciences: Folks do lots of things. We don’t know why. Test on Friday.”[2] But while conflict motive cannot be boiled down to a binary, there are several patterns that can be discerned. These are belief, boredom, and bread (or more directly, fear, habit, and want).

The most commonly cited motivation for conflicts in the developing world is belief. This can be further broken down into religion and culture. Aside from the (seemingly) obvious insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the religious half of belief would also seem to explain the standoff between Israel and the Arab world, the constant tension between Pakistan and India, and the Sa’dah insurgency in Yemen. But to call all of these religious in character would be missing a large part of the picture. India and Pakistan, once united under the British Raj, separated in a bloody, messy, partition that quickly deteriorated into all-out war. The two nations have a history of violence, and while the specific contest between India and Pakistan as nation-states is by definition confined to the decades since 1947, the ‘cultural’ conflict has been present for much longer than that.

Culture can also reflect the ascendency of nationalism as a definition of one’s allegiance, which then leads to the routine “boredom” of developing world conflicts. Whatever the roots of the Indo-Pakistani struggles, it has reached a point where it simply ‘is what it is.’ Hence the absurd spectacle of fighting over “a glacier so remote that it can hardly even be located on a map.”[3] On a sub-national level, the same feelings of the inevitability of identity can also manifest themselves. David Ronfeldt asserts that “some so-called failed states are really failed tribes.” Thus, we can see a sort of self-similar scale invariance at every level of society. Personal reasons become group reasons become raison d’état. The problem with this view, at least for the West, is when it because a reflexive assumption. ‘Underlying conditions’ is a useful phrase, but can be easily misunderstood. Worse yet would be to declare the problem solved after identifying a single contributing factor.

Conflict can easily be ascribed to cultural differences and even expected behavior patterns, but these perhaps serve more as legitimizers, rather than actual catalysts. This begins to fall into the “bread” category on the side of want. Naturally, expulsion of ‘undesirable minorities’ and ethnic cleansing are seen by the West as “pure, ‘ethnic’ struggles, inevitable corruptions of ‘ancient hatreds’.”[4] The increasingly globalized and modernizing world means that the ‘impenetrable’ world that we attempt to see through the lens of culture is well aware of our observation, and can use the expected emphasis on cultures to explain away their actions after the fact. When characterization becomes universal, it becomes impossible to attempt anything other than grandiose reform, regime change, or all out war. Consider Fareed Zakaria attempting to answer the question, ‘why do they hate us?’:

Bin Laden and his followers are not an isolated cult like Aum Shinrikyo or the Branch Davidians or demented loners like Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber. They come out of a culture that reinforces their hostility, distrust and hatred of the West – and of America in particular. This culture does not condone terrorism but fuels the fanaticism that is at its heart.

It is tempting to read too much into cultural differences in the developing world as catalysts for conflict. At the risk of excessive postmodernism, identity is largely a recent construct. To wit: created and exploited by colonial powers as a tool of imperial rule, ethnicity has really only achieved any hold when coupled with nationalistic programs. John Bowen warns that the three big assumptions – “that ethnic identities are ancient and unchanging…that these identities motivate people to persecute and kill… [and] that ethnic diversity itself inevitably leads to violence,”– are completely mistaken. Beyond the simple fact that it ignores other crucial factors, often warring parties seeking to obfuscate their true intentions exaggerate their differences. In Military Orientalism, Patrick Porter describes the common American belief in Afghanistan that “it is culture above all that makes the Afghans tick.” But as he goes on to describe, this is not at all the case:

The wartime behaviour of Afghans suggests that their culturally-rooted beliefs and taboos are not decisively important. First, the Taliban did not come out and fight. In a tactical moment, self-preservation trumped religious sensitivity. More deeply, the idea that…ritual honour is the Afghans’ political centre of gravity, contradicts other patterns of behaviour.[5]

Defying expectations – the “element of surprise” – is a principle tenet of warfare in both East and West; in developing countries and in the first world; according to both Sun Tzu and to Clausewitz. Encouraging the attribution of particular explanations to their own behavior and then defying those expectations is a logical wartime tactic. It might seem then that it is self-preservation, or rather, existence above all that drives people to (and from) conflict. But is it out need, or just out of plain want that conflicts occur?

The case of piracy in Somalia is a particularly fascinating one. The traditional assumption is that the complete absence of any central authority in Mogadishu leads to piracy as a means of acting-out, and the only source of income available. While not entirely incorrect, the “desperation” and last-resort nature of piracy is not how the pirates in the Horn of Africa have sustained themselves. Instead, the entire operation has become a community effort, a ‘pirate stock exchange’. Ransom money funds the infrastructure – the roads, the schools, and the hospitals – in Haradheere, 250 miles north of Mogadishu. The community invests in piracy; a 22 year-old divorcee contributed a portion of her alimony towards a single rocket-propelled grenade for a raid on a Spanish fishing ship. She made $75,000 in thirty-eight days.

The sua sponte approach to local governance is not confined to the anarchic regions of Africa. In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, drug cartels have control over much of the territory; even the well-armed, paramilitary Brazilian police are afraid to enter their sectors. In response, private vigilante civilian militias formed, and went from controlling 10% of the most violent areas in 2005 to 36% in 2008. At this point, the warfare itself is out of the hands of the central government. Like the slums of Bombay or the former District Six ghetto of Cape Town, the Rio favelas are an example of ‘government-free’ zones left to local control. In these cases, the fighting is at an existential level, or at least at a level of acceptable existence.

This, then, is the future of conflict: decentralized, devoid of ideology, and community-based. The Balkanizing of the world that began with decolonization and accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union is not a temporary phenomenon. The Western Sahara region of Morocco, the fracturing of Somalia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia in Russia – the list of succession and liberation movements in the 21st century is unending. Of course, some of these (see the Vermont Republic) are little more than dreams and idle talk, but as the August War in Ossetia and the ongoing Sunni-Kurd conflict in northern Iraq have shown, their supporters are deadly serious.

The devolution of identity and power back to more localized regions is a phenomenon even in the developed world. The United States is divided between ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’, with their inhabitants often proud to proclaim political allegiance to one party or another. The European Free Alliance groups together the Bavaria Party in Germany, advocates for a separate Flanders and Walloon in Belgium, an independent Alsace-Lorraine, and other regional identity groups from across the European Union. In the case of Alsace, after being exchanged between Germany and France so many times, and seeing so much of the twentieth century’s bloodshed on its soil, is it any wonder?

Complicating the global identity crisis is what John Robb calls the obsolescence of state dominance. “The wars states, at least Western ones, can wage today are tightly constrained affairs … High-risk wars with other states are extremely rare because of the potential for nuclear holocaust, and as such are fast becoming extinct. Today,” he writes, “wars are wars of choice.”[6] They are a luxury of the developed world, and a part of life for the developing and emerging ones. In their case, “greed versus grievance” is clearly a false binary. Identity may not be inevitable, but for the foreseeable future, conflict will be. The real question should be: how do we stop it?


[1] Lawrence H. Keeley, War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 114-116.

[2] P.J. O’Rourke, Age and Guile: Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995), 207.

[3] Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict since Clausewitz (New York: the Free Press, 1991), 215.

[4] Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (London: Hurst, 2009), 53.

[5] Porter, Military Orientalism, 143-44.

[6] John Robb, Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), 69.

One thought on “Why They Fight

  1. The “obsolescence of state dominance” might be the only point. Whether “we” are hated or why we are is irrelevant when viewed in the terms of a dead paradigm. We are the main legitimizer of the nation-state system in the current arrangement. All else follows.

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