Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars Is More Important than Winning Them

June 21, 2012

The enduring problem of war raises two particularly vexing questions. First, why have wars, in particular civil wars with the huge economic and social costs that they impose on affected populations, lasted increasingly long? Conflicts in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and Sudan have defied the efforts of regional and international actors that have intervened to mediate or even to guarantee peace agreements. Since the end of the Cold War, the average duration of civil wars has increased to more than 15 years.

Second, and related, why do conflict parties pursue policies that so obviously make it more difficult to achieve victory? From the mutilations inflicted on civilians by rebels in Sierra Leone to the torture of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib by US soldiers and the killing of civilians by American drone strikes in Pakistan, governments and armed groups have frequently used force in a way that seems irrational from the perspective of winning over the population and defeating insurgency.

One answer to these questions appears in the title of David Keen's book. While he does not invoke the comparison, as in the Olympics so in war, it can be the taking part that counts more than the victory, for a variety of reasons.

Broadly, the book identifies three different functions of war that make it such a persistent feature of the international political landscape. First, it has an economic utility. While imposing huge costs and loss of livelihoods on many, it creates economic opportunities and windfalls, from sanction-busting and control over resources to corruption or illegal taxation for the benefit of the few who are well connected to the leadership of the government or armed groups. Second, war has a political utility beyond winning. It helps to shore up regimes by channelling popular grievances and justifying massive defence expenditure. Third, at the level of groups and the individual, war and violence have a psychological function, feeding on shame and feelings of powerlessness.

None of these insights is new - Keen himself has explored many of them in previous books and articles, and this tome brings them together for a wider, non-specialist audience. Two of his arguments, though, are particularly noteworthy.

First, while attention is often focused on the exploitation and violence committed by rebel forces, government forces are often as predatory, or even more so, on the civilian population. Keen draws on a wide range of examples, from South Vietnam's treatment of its peasant population to the violence used by paramilitaries in Colombia, to highlight how their actions have been driven by greed - and how the exploitation by government forces is at times fuelled by the aid policies of donor countries and organisations.

Second, waging war is more important than winning it not only in impoverished, resource-dependent, far-away developing countries but also in high-income, industrialised liberal democracies. Focusing in particular on the economic and political role of the military in the US, the book highlights how the need to justify the large military machine and high defence expenditure, both legacies of the Cold War, have contributed to the "permanent emergency" of the global war on terror. By applying the same lens to war in both developed and developing countries, and highlighting how they are often driven by similar political, economic and psychological dynamics, Keen undermines the comfortable distinction between violence in failed states and the modern - or even post-modern - wars of the West.

Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars Is More Important than Winning Them

By David Keen. Yale University Press, 304pp, £25.00. ISBN 97803001645. Published 17 May 2012

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