MM 2001: War - People

December 21, 2000

Ways of the warrior in ancient Africa

It was slavery that made historical African wars a world event, says John Thornton professor of history at Millersville University, Pennsylvania, US.

In his work, focusing on the history of pre-colonial Africa, he has argued that the impact of western firearms was less than typically thought. The Brown Bess musket, designed to fire rapidly without much accuracy, was suitable for massed forces on battlefields but of less use in Africa, where a battle could consist of a series of skirmishes. In coastal areas, much fighting was done from small watercraft with bows and arrows, involving thousands of warriors. This made it difficult for Europeans to penetrate the African coast, and European powers responded by stopping raids.

Thornton is studying Angola of the early 17th century, the period that saw the first evidence of the slave trade in America.

The Portuguese governor Luis Mendes de Vasconcellos took control in Angola that year, armed with theories of set-piece war that did not work in Africa. He ended up recruiting the Imbangala, teenage armies who mixed heavy alcohol use with witchcraft.

Thornton sees parallels in contemporary Angola, Uganda, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where warring factions are frequently accused of enlisting child soldiers.

"When you see this type of phenomenon taking place, you see what it would have been like in the 17th century," he says.

A military mind on the growth of 'grey war'

"Corporate armies, navies and intelligence services may be major actors in 21st-century armed conflict," says Steven Metz .

As research professor of national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, Metz published his monograph, Armed Conflict in the 21st Century, this spring. A former political science professor, Metz joined a military college in 1983, though he has never served in the armed forces.

In the paper, he reflects on the observation of military thinker Martin van Creveld that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will soon make "old-style major war unbearably dangerous". Informal wars will grow more common, he predicts, with their mix of ethnicity, race, regionalism, economics, personality and ideology, while "grey war" will mix traditional warfighting with organised crime. Colombia, with its mix of political insurgents, drug cartels, international mafias, hired legal and economic advisers, flush with cash and armed with electronic devices, is a case in point.

The US military is pulling ahead of even its closest allies in its technical command of the battlefield, says Metz; in 20 years, the UK may struggle to be an equal partner.

At the same time, Kosovo amply illustrated the limitations of a hands-off war. Borrowing a leaf from the Russians, the Serbians made full use of dummy targets, such as fake tanks armed with infrared devices to simulate heat emissions.

It is now estimated that Nato planes, flying high and fast to avoid casualties, may have destroyed only eight or ten Serbian tanks.

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