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Understanding War in order to Save Lives
Alex Steffen, 22 Mar 05

Most of the worst humanitarian disasters on the planet are the result, at least in part, of war. War may be, indeed, often is, triggered or worsened by other factors (just as the killing fields of Rwanda were most terrible where hunger was the worst), but the proximate cause of much suffering in the world is a teenage boy with an automatic rifle.

If we are to create a more stable world -- and there is increasing evidence that security and sustainability go hand-in-hand and that attempts to create one without the other are doomed from the start -- we need to do a better job of heading off conflict (or negotiating its end), of stopping genocides, and of bringing the killers to justice. But we also need to better understand the kinds of problem violence creates, in order to better relieve suffering and more quickly recreate stability in war-torn areas.

The NYT just provided a valuable resource for doing just that, with the Marc Lacey piece Beyond the Bullets and Blades, which reports on an International Rescue Committee report which found that only 2% of those dying in African war zones were killed by violence:

Horrible though the genocidal spasms in Rwanda and the aerial bombings in Sudan have been, the vast majority of those who die in African war zones are not done in directly by warriors. Rather, it is the disruption that a few thousand armed men in ragtag militias can create in the lives of millions of civilians that send so many innocents to their graves.
In recent months, aid workers have begun providing a clearer picture of exactly why so many Africans die when conflict flares. Studies of two different war zones, by Physicians for Human Rights and by the International Rescue Committee, concluded separately that the major blame lies with the conditions created by wars in extremely fragile societies.

The first killer is flight. Desperately poor people are driven from their subsistence existence into even more hostile environments as they seek safety - deep into the forest in the case of eastern Congo, across the desert into Chad to escape the unfolding violence in Darfur. Typically, the few hospitals that may exist are emptied, their supplies are looted and members of their staffs are forced to run, alongside everyone else. Fields that once fed families lie fallow. Livestock die. Relatives and neighbors who depend on each other become separated.

Dependency and depression can come to many who find their way to the relative safety of camps, and when these uprooted souls return to razed villages, there is little time to rest from the trauma. Life begins again, and now their social network of neighbors and health workers and people to trade with - the thin fibers that knit lives together for survival - may have been torn beyond repair. The numbers who die in Africa's wars are almost too high to contemplate. The fighting in Congo - an amalgam of rebel insurgencies, tribal rivalries, competition for resources and just plain butchery without a cause - has taken an estimated 3.8 million lives since 1998, making it the most deadly conflict since World War II, the International Rescue Committee estimated. Another two million lives have been lost in southern Sudan, where a war between the government and rebels ground on 21 years before a peace deal was signed in January. And Sudan's Darfur region, in the west, has lost more than 200,000 additional lives over two years of tribal pillaging. Fighting in northern Uganda, where rebels who purport to fight for the Ten Commandments abduct children to reinforce their ranks and chop off the lips and ears of those who dare resist, has taken an estimated 100,000 lives. ...

Most deaths, the survey found, were due to maladies that are easily preventable and treatable in other parts of the world, such as malaria, diarrhea, respiratory infections and malnutrition. Less than 2 percent of the deaths were caused by violence.

All of which suggests the need not only to stop the violence (curtailing the trade in small arms would be a helpful start there, many say) and create incentives for peace, but also to reinvent the way we deliver refugee aid.

(Don't, by the way, miss the interactive graphics on the NYT site...)

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Interesting approach. Of course this is about the consequences of war, while the priority should go to preventing war. But that's stating the obvious.
Sadly, there's no reason for optimism, judging the cynicism surrounding, say, Congo (4 million people died there in the worst war since WWII).
Honestly, there are 100,000 people working in the conflict prevention industry on this planet, and another 200,000 in the post-conflict industry, but there's no political will to intervene when a conflict has broken out, and there's even less sérieux when it comes to addressing the real causes of modern wars in the developing world.
My country (Belgium) recently decided to allow a Belgian weapons manufacturer to build a small arms factory in Tanzania, the guns of which will certainly end up killing people in neighboring Congo. Can we get any more surreal?

Posted by: Lorenzo on 22 Mar 05

Hi Alex – There is perhaps no more important consideration for achieving environmental sustainability than to study the psychological dynamics that lead to war, because those same dynamics to a degree underpin the massive drive to accumulate wealth that locks us in to an increasingly industrialized and ecologically destructive mode of life. I know that many people in WorldChanging are optimistic about nanotechnology and other aspects of increased design efficiency. This is good, but we need to come to terms with the fact that to a significant extent business leaders, political leaders and the mass of the general populace in United States are literally insane, driven by motives whose origins they have not a conscious clue about.

If one really wants to get into this, two key books are Lloyd deMause’s Foundations Of Psychohistory and his recent The Emotional Life Of Nations. The thesis in brief is that child abuse and inadequate parental nurturing creates internal psychological dynamics that readily manifests as war. The constructive implication: invest massive amounts in helping young parents learn to tap into their nurturing side, and to curtail their impulses to discipline children by hitting them. There are successful programs in the United States and in Australia that do this. In Colorado they have produced measurable reductions in teenage delinquency.



Posted by: Andrew Gaines on 23 Mar 05



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