The title of the book sounds flippant but it is from a novel, Sicilian Uncles. The title is meant to sum up a challenge to what he calls the liberal theory of peace, a mishmash of views that sees civil war in developing countries as regressive, serving only the interests of the few, an expression of backwardness and barbarism, a departure from the supposed model of perfection that liberal democracies represent. Liberal democracies have forgotten their own violent histories and the relationship between war and capitalist development.
Though coming from the left, the argument has more layers and sophistication than this crude summary suggests. The causes of civil war are by no means simple and the standard explanations that we tend to resort to explain and predict when it might break out fail to establish any universally applicable rules. For instance, ethnic diversity and inequality are not cast-iron predictors of civil war. Poor countries can stay peaceful while war breaks out in middle-income ones. Nor does the so-called resource curse establish any such rule. An illustration of that is Angola. The conflict is strongly correlated with oil and diamonds, resources which have come to dominate the country’s economy. But, at the outset of the war, the country had one of the strongest manufacturing bases in Africa, accounting for 25 per cent of the country’s economy. Here, we are reasoning backwards. The war was one of the causes of the country’s resource dependence, not the other way round. He applies a lot of good sense to some tedious debates, like the reminder that greed and grievance are not mutually exclusive motivations for wanting to fight.
He is agnostic about whether we are living in an era of comparative peace. Writing in around 2003/4, the numbers of civil wars were dropping off. They still are, but whether this is part of broader trend depends on how you define civil war from ordinary run of the mill violence, like homicide. In some places, homicide rates in countries at peace exceed the death of rates of countries at war. These definitional difficulties arise without us having to expand the definition of violence to include just about anything that causes us distress, like being shouted at.
This has real-world implications, because post conflict reconstruction is premised on certain theories. There is too much haste to disarm and demobilize, on the assumption that this must be done to move a country from war to peace. Alas, rapid demilitarization can have the opposite effect, as the Americans found in Iraq. Though of the left, and scornful of liberal theories of peace, some of what he says will be discomforting to those on the left because, though he does not concede this, the liberal theory of peace overlaps with modish leftist assessments of war, like the assumption that only a narrow range of selfish interests benefits from civil war. He considers the example of Mozambique, a nominally Marxist government facing a Rhodesian and then South African backed insurgency, RENAMO. Brutal as this movement was, it did have internal support. RENAMO capitalized on the government’s unpopular economic policies to win it at least tacit and often active support. Outsiders cannot stir things up if there are no internal divisions to exploit.
If I differ from him, then it is because his frequent sideswipes at the liberal theory of peace have something of a straw man about it; no attempt is actually made to expound whether such a coherent theory exists. What he is doing is critiquing attitudes, some of them shared by people with similar leftist convictions to him. Many hit the mark but his treatment of history is not always so satisfactory. Yes, there is a historical relationship in the West between capitalist development, liberal advance and war, but bringing in the standard anti-capitalist creation myth of capitalism imposed on non-capitalist social relations overlooks the fact that many conflicts generated by ‘primitive accumulation’, like the enclosure of common land, involved arguments about different conceptions of market relations; commerce and profit making was not born sometime around 1492. Also, the democratic theory of peace, as opposed to the somewhat vague liberal theory, holds up pretty well applied to rich electoral democracies (is Germany and France going to go to war over Alsace-Lorraine ever again?) but this receives no serious consideration.
Overall, though, I found this book well worth the time and effort taken to read. It is rich in ideas and perspectives. When thinking of writing about conflict, I will go back to it.