Wars and Conflict

Intractable Conflict: Can We End ‘Endless’ Wars?

At the beginning of the 21st century, you’re less likely to die a violent death than at any other point in human history. Yet the world is hardly a pacifist utopia, and remains riven by enduring, violent hostilities. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows no signs of ending, and over the past year has got even worse. India and Pakistan struggle over the fate of Kashmir. Ethnic groups wage bloody war within Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Libya, Syria and Iraq may be descending into decades-long civil wars, as the so-called Islamic State tries to carve out a bloody Caliphate from these divided countries. Meanwhile, the smouldering embers of the Cold War are being stoked in Ukraine, as Europe and Russia face off.

Political scientists call such long-term rivalries from which there seems no way out intractable conflicts. They are among the world’s most destructive social ills, and the most difficult to solve. Over the past decade, Peter Coleman, director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, has been developing an innovative way of understanding intractable conflicts — and potentially resolving them. (A feature story in this week’s edition of Nature elaborates on how Coleman and colleagues are applying concepts from complexity science to wars without end.

Civil Wars

Ending civil wars is hard. Hatreds within countries often run far deeper than between them. The fighting rarely sticks to battlefields, as it can do between states. Civilians are rarely spared. And there are no borders to fall back behind. A war between two states can end much where it began without the adversaries feeling in mortal danger. With nowhere safe to go home to, both sides in a civil war often feel they must carry on fighting if they are to escape slaughter. As those fighting in Syria know, defeat often looks like death, rather than retreat (see article).

New mutiny

Yet civil wars do end. Of 150 large intrastate wars since 1945 fewer than ten are ongoing. Angola, Chad, Sri Lanka and other places long known for bloodletting are now at peace, though hardly democratic.

And recently civil wars have been ending sooner. The rate at which they start is the same today as it has been for 60 years; they kick off every year in 1-2% of countries. But the number of medium-to-large civil wars under way—there are six in which more than 1,000 people died last year—is low by the standards of the period. This is because they are coming to an end a little sooner. The average length of civil wars dropped from 4.6 to 3.7 years after 1991, according to Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, a professor at the University of Essex.

The main reason for jaw-jaw outpacing war-war is a change in the nature of outside involvement. In the Cold War neither of the superpowers was keen to back down; both would frequently fund their faction for as long as it took. Today outside backers are less likely to have the resources for such commitment. And in many cases, outsiders are taking an active interest in stopping civil wars.

Civil hands unclean

The motives vary. Some act out of humanitarian concern. Others seek influence, or a higher international profile. But above all, outsiders have learned that small wars can wreak preventable havoc. Fractious Afghanistan bred al-Qaeda; the genocide in tiny Rwanda spread murder across a swathe of neighbours. In coastal west Africa, violence is passed back and forth between Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast like a winter cold round an office. “The best predictor of a civil war is having one next door,” says Mr Licklider.

America’s Endless Wars

Official Washington likes to think of its wars as “humanitarian,” supposedly bringing “democracy” to faraway lands, but the wars really bring death, destruction and despair

Rita Corbin’s celebrated woodcut listing “The Works of Mercy” and “The Works of War.”

“The Works of Mercy: ” – Feed the hungry; Give drink to the thirsty; Clothe the naked; Visit the imprisoned; Care for the sick; Bury the dead.”

“The Works of War: “ – Destroy crops and land; Seize food supplies; Destroy homes; Scatter families; Contaminate water; Imprison dissenters; Inflict wounds, burns; Kill the living.”

For the last 17 years, we’ve asked our service members to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the question “What are we fighting for?” is becoming increasingly difficult to answer.

Two Decades of War Have Eroded the Morale of America’s Troops

The fraternal bonds of combat have always been invoked to political ends. But as we stand on the edge of 17 years of war, these ends have become smaller, indeed almost pathetic.

“War will purify the political atmosphere,” one magazine argued on the eve of the War of 1812, America’s first great military disappointment. “All the public virtues will be refined and hallowed; and we shall again behold at the head of affairs citizens who may rival the immortal men of 1776.” In our era of constant war, something like the opposite is happening. Though the military currently enjoys stratospheric approval ratings—72 percent of Americans express a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in it—almost every other major institution of American life is in the red: 12 percent approval for Congress, 27 percent for newspapers, 40 percent for the Supreme Court, and 41 percent for organized religion. Meanwhile, 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans see the opposing party as a threat to the nation.

If the courage of young men and women in battle truly does depend on the nature and quality of our civic society, we should be very worried. We should expect to see a sickness spreading from our public life and into the hearts of the men and women who continue to risk their lives on behalf of a distracted nation.