Our wars are nothing like “their” wars

I have been lazy. Stress, travelling, not the right mood to write, but I am happy to be back. I have been touring through Western and Centre Western Cote d’Ivoire: Daloa (third largest city of the country), Guiglo and Duékoué and Gagnoa.

Duékoué was the theatre of extreme violence in 2010-2011 and is the classic place showered with international peacebuilding aid. It has been quite curious to be dropped from Duékoué to Gagnoa, which is quite the opposite. No foreign agencies (I met some people from the Red Cross, I was expecting them to drive around on fancy 4×4, but I realize that they are volunteers from the local committee and that the ICRC has left several years ago), I am probably the first foreign researcher that most people that I am meeting see. The place is the stronghold of former president Laurent Gbagbo’s FPI party and all the ingredients for a disaster here seemed to be reunited (political polarization, presence of “auto-defence” groups, weapons stolen from the army warehouse), but curiously Gagnoa experienced very little violence in 2010-2011. An Ivorian researcher has written something about this issue, I would also add another element. It is perhaps a superficial assessment, but from its very aspect Gagnoa looks to me as a much wealthier town as Duékoué. The latter looks as a formerly marginal, peripheral town that has known an exaggerated demographic growth in the last few years. And I guess the exasperated competition for resources that has followed probably explains a lot.


 Traditional dance at a political meeting in Gagnoa

There has been a political meeting of the ruling coalition in town and I have watched it as I was interested in getting in touch with some of the participants. From a European/Western point of view, political meetings here are very odd. They are very ceremonial and ritualistic. All the “chefs traditionnels” were participating. First, the land was blessed, then we had a prayer from a Imam and a Christian preacher, then some traditional music and dancing (oddly, alternated with a Beethoven symphony on the loud speakers), then the announcement of the main event to be celebrated (the installation of a coordination of the RHDP coalition, the members of the coordination were called by name one by one, then they took pictures with the chefs traditionnels and with the main guest, Minister of Family and Women Anne Ouloto). The speech of Ouloto – the actual core of the business – arrived only at last. There were now and then some symbolic exchanges of gifts. In one word, it was quite boring, especially if it is not the first time one watches such kind of event.


Apart from events in Gagnoa, I have been thinking in the last few days about something that often comes to my mind with respect to the way we study – and we perceive –contemporary civil wars. A few months ago I was visiting the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw. It is a very celebrative Museum. I won’t blame the Polish for such a rhetorical approach, since the Polish resistance was so much mistreated in the past, both in terms of what happened to the partisans after the war – the few that saved himself from the Nazis were imprisoned and deported by the Soviets – than in terms of memory – under the Communist regime people could not even talk about the Warsaw insurrection. But I was struck about a museum display which reported the appreciation of a foreign observer (a British official I think), impressed by the heroism of the Polish and by the fact that teenagers as young as fifteen were fighting against the Nazis. Now, imagine that the British observer of 1944 is a UN officer cast in one of today’s civil wars. He will write that the partisans – pardon, insurgents – are recruiting child soldiers and will ask for such a barbarism to stop!


The Warsaw Uprising Museum

Perhaps what has pushed me to engage in my research project about the ‘victor’s peace’ has been this perception – that we have a different outlook when it comes to our past wars and when it comes to contemporary conflicts – especially conflicts taking place in developing countries. When we look at our wars, we look at them in political terms – violence was an instrument to enforce decisions about the future of a country and was justified in order to attain a political ideal.

Let’s take another example, the polemics in Italy about summary executions of fascists or suspected fascists by the partisans in the immediate post war years. I had a look at the topic because Italy is in a sense a victor’s peace as well and I wanted to understand what happens to the vanquished after a military victory. A realistic estimation puts the number at 10,000 people killed. Now, it is little compared to what has been done in the same years in terms of war crimes not only by the Nazi fascists and the Japanese but also by the Soviets, Americans and British (see bombing of German and Japanese cities). Still, it is a huge number if one considers that, for the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme, 1,000 deaths per year are enough to code a “major conflict” and that most recent wars have barely met that threshold. The reaction of most Italian historians to the (in)famous book of journalist Gianpaolo Pansa on the “Blood of the Vanquished” (Il Sangue dei Vinti) is that such assassinations have to be put in their proper historical context and that Nazifascist brutality should be considered when judging the partisans’ behaviour. I have seen otherwise serious commentators saying that these were a few revenge killings committed by a tiny minority of partisans (yet, not only Pansa’s mediocre pamphlet but also recent more rigorous research disprove the thesis that these acts were merely a response to previous fascist brutality).

I do not like Pansa’s book and I probably do not share most of his ideas about the Italian Resistance and about Italian communism. Still, I cannot help wondering, would have anyone formulated a similar judgement confronted to an analogous wave of post war political assassinations taking place in whatever contemporary developing country? Would have anyone talked about “a few revenge killings”? Human rights defenders would have denounced summary executions and called for “fair trials” even for suspected war criminals (and even if in most war affected countries, as in Italy in 1945, the judiciary is non functioning), while right-wing and even not-so-right-wing journalists would have looked at such acts as a proof of the barbarism prevailing in most of the Middle East or Africa. See the reactions to the recent killing of Muhammar Gheddafi, for instance. “Numerous organizations, including the United Nations and the U.S. and UK governments, have called for an investigation of the exact circumstances of Gaddafi’s death, amid concerns that it might have been an extrajudicial killing and a war crime”. Well, Mussolini’s death was surely an extrajudicial killing, yet most of us are not feeling outraged by it – including myself. I have to admit that since my childhood I have always thought that he had the end that he deserved. My opposition to the death penalty as a matter of principle has not altered this strong feeling.

There are two hypotheses here. The most positive one is that we have today, after seventy years of peace in Europe, advanced in our feelings of humanity and in our coherence in supporting human rights – so that we regard as inacceptable things that we tended to justify at the time of the Second World War. The second, less positive, hypothesis is that we are self-righteous and judgemental when it comes to the wars “of the others” and that we are judging them with a yardstick that we would never apply to European and North American wars. The latters are dolorous, but inevitable, stages in our twofold advance towards democracy and modern statehood. By contrast, contemporary wars in developing countries are not only barbarous but also futile – devoid of meaning. At best, they are a sort of disease, the manifestations of a syndrome called “state failure” or “state fragility”. Mark Duffield has written very well in a book that is now a classic about what he calls “the condemnation of all violent conflict” by the “liberal peace” complex.

When I decided to study victory in civil wars, I wanted, perhaps in a provocative way, to disprove this idea that violence in developing countries is always “bad”, that “their” wars are not worth fighting and that it is always better to stop them. Maybe some people will judge me a warmonger for having picked this topic. But I think that it is a duty of social scientists not to shy away from potentially controversial issues. Now, my problem is how to turn a productive polemics into a productive research – making sense of the material gathered during two months and half of fieldwork.