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4.0 out of 5 stars good book, 14 April 2013
Very interesting book on the reasons why wars have been started. Also the way that they have interlinked with the cold war
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and useful, 25 Dec 2012
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David Keen will be well-known both to those interested in conflict in Africa (and especially Sierra Leone) and to those interested in the overlapping subject of complex emergencies - the subject of his last book.
In "Useful Enemies" Keen tackles a series of questions which have puzzled observers of conflicts for a long time: why do some conflicts continue when they could be quickly ended, why does winning not always seem important, and why do ordinary people often willingly join armies and militias, and seem reluctant to leave? The answer, the author suggests, lies in seeing conflict as a "system", whose "political economy" benefits people at all levels on all sides, and whose termination is therefore viewed as a threat. The idea of conflict as a desirable state is not new, of course, but Keen argues - effectively in my view - against simplistic readings which would reduce it to nothing more than the interplay of the economic and political ambitions of evil demagogues. He usefully emphasises that conflict (which may include actual fighting but does not have to do so) can fulfil a variety of psychological and political needs at all levels. Likewise, the book does not confine itself to Africa, nor to the so-called "developing world" but has an interesting and provocative chapter on the United States, as well as some stimulating thoughts on the political uses of the "War on Terror" which the West conceives itself to be fighting.
The weaknesses of the book are in some senses consequences of its ambitions. In particular, it's uneven in treatment and depth. As you would expect, the extensive material on Sierra Leone is authoritative, first hand research in Central America and Sri Lanka produces some useful insights, and the chapters on Afghanistan and Vietnam are conscientiously researched, and effectively linked to the general thesis. The discussion of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the other hand, is obviously based entirely on secondary sources, as is the coverage of Rwanda and the Balkans, where in addition many of the sources are out of date or of limited usefulness. The rich francophone literature on Africa is not used (the bibliography appears to be entirely in English). The chapter on the United States, whilst interesting, is journalism rather than academic research. The book also moves between thematic chapters and chapters on specific countries, and between the experiences of individuals and high-level political considerations, in a way that I personally found problematic. Finally (less of a criticism than a hope for a second edition) the implications for western post-conflict doctrines and policies of this analysis are so profound that they really need more detailed consideration in the final chapter.
All in all, and in spite of certain reservations an interesting and useful book with a convincing general thesis that should be read by all those hoping to understand how conflicts start and why they continue.
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