Useful enemies for permanent war

February 6, 2015

Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars Is More Important Than Winning Them
By David Keen
Yale University Press, 2012.

Governments in the US, Britain and Australia seem intent on waging war in faraway lands, supposedly to bring freedom and democracy to foreign peoples and to deliver us from the chaos of terrorism.

David Keen's useful Enemies, however, shows the folly of the policies being pursued. Far from bringing peace, it turns out throwing arms, bombs and money against opponents who refuse to neatly line up as targets is more likely to fuel the conflict.

The book is an analysis of war systems ― how the dynamics of war create economic systems that serve complex functions for a variety of groups, and perpetuate conflict. The horrific human cost is just the collateral damage of economic interest and corruption, legitimised by simplistic notions of an “evil” enemy.

The Western politician's desire to be seen to be winning is often very different from actually winning. The pretence of winning serves to inflame conflict, as it can remove the chance to address issues impeding peace.

The war against terror, with its depiction of gathering global chaos, is not just unhelpful intellectually, but deeply harmful in practice.

The publicly expressed intention to defeat evil may be good media, but it repeatedly creates opportunities for diverse actors to engage in politically and economically advantageous abuse with minimal international criticism, if not active support.

The road to peace frequently lies in restraining counterinsurgency efforts, with their links to corruption, drug running and criminality, rather than in military defeat of an enemy.

Where we see barbarism and atrocity, such acts usually have rational and economically pragmatic causes within the context of the war. What we see as ineffectiveness of foreign soldiers is often a survival skill.

The distinction between rebel and government soldier is often blurred. Collusion is far safer than fighting, especially if neither side is worth dying for.

War provides both sides with the opportunity for criminality and corruption. The high cost of modern warfare, and low pay and poor living conditions of people in poor countries, means that for power brokers on both sides, a war supported by foreign money is a get-rich-quick scheme.

Such schemes frequently involve collusion between opposing sides so that when “peace” is restored, the exploitative economics of the war system mutates into criminal activity. This hinders local development and long-term prospects for peace.

The complexity of each individual war means that anybody acting under the assumption of “good” and “evil” will act naively. This intensifies conflict, by allowing corrupt governments to eliminate moderate opposition and reduce freedoms.

War against a “demon” enemy provides context for a wide variety of violent, profitable and politically advantageous strategies to be pursued with impunity. Such strategies actively impede both victory and peace.

This book provides an analysis of the mechanisms by which conflict is turned into perpetual emergencies, where human rights are abused and the only beneficiaries are the arms dealers, criminal elements and the corrupt.

While specific in scope, it provides an important jigsaw piece for anyone interested in the resolution of armed conflict.

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