Useful Enemies: When Waging War is More Important Than Winning Them

By William A. Taylor Joint Force Quarterly 72

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Jan. 1, 2014 — By David Keen
Yale University Press, 2012
311 pp. $38
ISBN: 978-0-300-16274-5

Reviewed by William A. Taylor

Useful Enemies Cover

In Useful Enemies, David Keen (professor of conflict studies at the London School of Economics) explores both the causes of conflict and the varied factors that perpetuate war. Military leaders, policymakers, analysts, scholars, and general readers interested in the complex dynamics of warfare should find the work engaging. Keen’s thesis is controversial: “This book suggests that a great many wars are resistant to ending for the simple (but hidden) reason that powerful actors (both local and international) do not want them to end. . . . Very often, powerful actors may simply pursue other priorities that conflict with the expressed goal of winning (actions that may have the effectof reproducing the enemy, or that may simply take time, energy and resources away from ‘winning’)” (pp. 8–9).

Keen implores readers to consider why many contemporary conflicts last so long, especially given that often one side holds a significant military advantage. His answer is that winning wars in the military sense frequently takes a secondary priority to simply waging them for economic, political, or even psychological reasons. As Keen argues, “I want to stress that winning is only one part of war (and sometimes a surprisingly small part)” (p. 10). To make his case, Keen explores the underlying causes of conflict in such diverse places as Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Uganda, Angola, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, and Colombia. He utilizes evidence from his own wide-ranging travels including personal interviews with participants, journalists, aid workers, and human rights advocates. He also delves deeply into nongovernmental organization reports and scholarly works.

Keen organizes his book into nine chapters that collectively explore three alternative motivations for conflict other than the conventional explanation of winning wars militarily. First (chapters 1–4 and 8), he focuses on economics by exploring the role of diamonds in Sierra Leone, oil in Sudan, gold and coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, cocaine in Colombia, and the existence of “ghost soldiers” (p. 28) in Uganda whose pay was syphoned off by profiteering officers. Economically, he also examines the impact of international aid on conflict. Keen argues that in Afghanistan “it is very hard to channel large amounts of aid through corrupt and abusive regimes without reinforcing corruption and abuse” (p. 69) and thus prolonging war. Keen develops the intriguing concept of “international blind spots,” maintaining that “This ‘statist’ bias has been reflected in a much greater willingness, generally, to sanction abusive rebel movements than abusive governments” (p. 44).

Second (chapters 5–7), Keen examines politics as a cause of conflict. Countering common depictions of contemporary hostilities that focus solely on “ethnic hatreds,” he develops the useful concept of “political adaptation” that occurred in the former Yugoslavia when communism gave way to nationalism based on ethnicity as the currency of local politics (p. 103). He provides similar insights into the political (as opposed to solely ethnic) dimensions of the complexities of genocide in both Darfur and Rwanda. Keen perceptively reminds readers that policymakers often manipulate conflict for political purposes. As he contends, “Discovering the most important fault-lines in any particular conflict is made more difficult by the fact that a misreading is often intended. For example, the manipulation of ethnic divisions by elite groups will ‘work’ better when people see—and are encouraged to see—ethnic fault-lines as natural and inevitable” (p. 115).

Third (chapter 9), Keen explores psychological motivations for starting and perpetuating conflict, especially the role of shame. As Keen explains, “Crucially, the avoidance of shame—and conversely the pursuit of respect—represents another important goal that departs from the commonly assumed aim of ‘winning’” (p. 195). Keen connects this important factor to relative deprivation: “Significantly, it is not necessarily poverty that causes shame, but the interaction of poverty and wealth, the juxtaposition of ‘underdevelopment’ and a development effort that somehow manages to exclude huge sections of society” (p. 201). Shame then contributes to a cycle of violence where depredations to one side often demand retribution against the other side.

Useful Enemies is an enjoyable read that is global in scope. Keen contributes useful concepts, such as the role of “wars within wars” (p. 117) and “war systems” (p. 236). The first concept places local conflicts within broader wars and explains how this dynamic further fuels hostilities. Examples include combatants waging local conflict within broader civil wars and adversaries fighting national battles under the mantle of global wars such as the Cold War or the war on terror. The second concept illuminates the multifaceted nature of violence and therefore warfare. Conflict is not solely defined by its military dimension, but also by its economic, political, and psychological aspects. When analyzed in combination, conquering the enemy becomes a less exclusive explanation for the existence and duration of many contemporary conflicts. In the end, Keen asks a fundamental and sometimes uncomfortable question: “What ends are served by endless war?” (p. 175). In Useful Enemies, he provides many of the most compelling answers. JFQ