Canadian Christopher Blattman was a young economics student in a suit and tie at Berkeley University in California. Coincidences (a stolen laptop and the meeting with a psychology student) changed his course. Despite urgent warnings from his university supervisor, he went with the psychology student (whom he later married) to war zones in Uganda and Liberia. This was the prelude to a long-term project, which aimed to explore the reasons why conflict between groups and nations erupts into war.
In the book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace Blattman, who is now a professor at the University of Chicago, points out that war is the exception, not the rule: "War is destructive. It massacres soldiers, loots, starves and kills civilians, obstructs trade, crushes industry and ruins regimes.”
Only when the possibilities for compromise and negotiations shrink towards zero, the author maintains, do the weapons take over. He has categorized this process into five main causes.
- Uncontrolled interests. When an undemocratic ruler is not held responsible for the consequences of war and seeks personal profit.
2. Intangible stimuli. For example revenge, status or dominance. It is also about violence as the way to a higher goal – God's blessing, freedom or the fight against injustice.
3. Uncertainty. The opponent's strength and intentions are unknown, so attack seems to be the best defense. Then the costs of the war must be accepted as collateral damage.
XNUMX. Lack of trust and binding agreements. The cards are not on the table, or they are not to be trusted. Surrender the weapons and risk an ambush? Then rather strike while you can.
5. Misinterpretations. The situation is misjudged, the enemy is demonised, competition and mistrust bring the conflict to the edge.
The points are elaborated in chapters full of historical research, statistics and not least, as in point 1, by the author's own studies in the field, in Liberia. The country went from an American colony in 1822, via the establishment of Africa's oldest independent republic, to a long and bloody civil war that broke out in 1989. This is the story of rich natural resources and a political elite who used their military power to control the country's mines, plantations, people and weapons as well as business. Blattman states: “Their calculation of costs versus benefits was skewed. Their private unchecked interests did not match the needs of the public.” The result was a society with one of the planet's most irresponsible regimes.
Point 2 is illustrated by "honorable" war. Why was it so easy to recruit British fighter pilots during WWII? Because the patriotic will to sacrifice life (and reap medals) outweighed the fear of dying. This willingness to sacrifice can also be manipulated. Religious fanaticism can convince people with poor future prospects that killing the "infidels" is worthwhile, since it serves a higher purpose. Blattman quotes one of his interviewees, who had allowed himself to be seduced into violent agitation: "Violence is one of the most intense sensory experiences there is, and whoever is able to indulge in them experiences an equally intense bliss."
Uncertainty – the miscalculation of risk – is described as a frequent cause of war. Blattman quotes historian Geoffrey Blainey, who has researched world wars that have been fought since the 1700th century. According to him, a war "usually begins when nations disagree about their relative strength".
Trust problems are shown in point 4, with an example from Iraq. For Saddam Hussein, it was important to give the impression of having weapons of mass destruction. It was a fatal bluff and his way of warning the Americans against falling out with him. The game failed – for both of them. The country was thrown into chaos. Saddam lost his life and the Americans lost face when it became clear that they went to war under false pretenses. Not to mention what the war in Iraq cost the United States, in time, money and human life.
"Misinterpretations": Here Blattman refers, among other things, to the psychologist and writer Daniel Kahneman and his concept of fast and automatic thinking, unconsciously related to emotions. According to Kahneman, we humans are often egocentric, concerned with ourselves and our like-minded people. We jump to conclusions, we seek evidence for something we already think we know, and this can lead to strategies that in critical situations eliminate negotiating margins. Again, the Iraq war is a good example. The Bush administration was rooted in common identity, ideology and enemy image. It failed to double-check information – there was no room for opposing views, and it led to a disastrous interaction between misinterpretation and affect.
Where does the road to peace go, beyond avoiding the five reasons for war? Blattman recalls how stable and peaceful groups have dealt with competition. He mentions some main elements: Successful societies create positive ties – economically, socially and culturally. Institutional balance of power ensures that leaders listen to the needs of the people. They have created organizations that implement laws and legitimize the state. They have also collected a toolbox that makes it possible to intervene when violence breaks out.
It may seem that the moment is ill-chosen to think that it is more natural to choose peace over war. Blattman's categorized war dynamics are sadly relevant in Ukraine today, for example in line with point 3: Would Putin have invaded Ukraine if he had known the resilience of the Ukrainians and assessed the war's losses on his own account? Also, Germany is faced with everything that could have been prevented (a long-term misjudgment of Putin, driven by economic self-interest, dependence on Russian gas, inflation and more).
Blattman is cautiously optimistic and stated in response to questions from the German press some months ago: "As of May 9, Putin has neither escalated his rhetoric nor mobilized the country." Arms delivery from the West, he believes, will not increase bloodshed. On the contrary, the more clearly the West stands behind Ukraine, the more the war costs for Russia and thus the "motivation to find a solution" increase. As of August 2022, even Blattman did not dare to elaborate on what that solution might look like.
As we know, Putin did mobilize the country, but in a way that gives the impression of helplessness rather than of any master plan for victory. We know what the West and NATO have said they will do if he activates nuclear weapons: crush Russian troops in Ukraine and the entire Black Sea fleet. It now seems everybody is up against the wall. Bloodshed continues, with a West caught in the world of weapons.