The author is the Professor of Conflict Studies at the London
School of Economics and has written several recent books about the nature of conflict in the late 20th
and early 21st
Century. His other titles include Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone (2006); Endless War (2006); Complex Emergencies (2008 ).
Our current understanding of the nature of wars, with clear “winners” and “losers”, has been shaped, Professor Keen suggests, by wars in the 20th
Century and before. He suggests that our understanding of war must change, and for foreign aid and international diplomacy to be effective, complex vested interests must be addressed. He poses the question: who benefits from wars? He analyses the pattern of post cold war confrontation, across a number of wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Yemen, and, of course, Afghanistan. He also offers an analysis of Vietnam War as a comparator with the conflicts in Afghanistan. His studies are not just on paper, as he has personally been involved during some conflicts in a number of countries.
By studying a number of conflicts and their political and economic systems, he says that the nature of modern conflict often results from a combination of weak, often corrupt, governance, and a desire for some economic or power advantage and several other factors. The economic advantage is often available from aid organisations, or natural mineral resources. This leads to a cycle that becomes self-perpetuating, hence the enduring nature of modern conflict. The post Cold War world is one, he suggests, where a number of actors, both state and non-state, are looking for the next threat; where that threat is not yet defined, there is a tendency to appoint a new “enemy”, regardless of its credibility. Coupled with that are attacks of “collective amnesia” where solutions are continuously re-invented despite their history of failure. This gives rise to the common media portrayal of modern conflict as “chaos”. This, he says, is misleading and fails to recognise the complex nature of current conflicts. He also notes that that modern efforts to win “hearts and minds” have a dual impact in both the nations in conflict and those supporting these actions. This can lead to action, not results, being the basis for propaganda.
Overall, this is an interesting read. It is short enough to make several, good, points, without being laboured in its analysis. Because Professor Keen has been involved in some of these conflicts, it gives him a particular credibility in his analysis. It is well written and carries the reader logically through nine chapters of analysis, with only faint glimpses of the author’s own political position. It can be dipped into or read continuously, without loss of coherence.
“There is more to wars than winning” is among the conclusions that he reaches. This is a book that should be available in military libraries, on every military and civilian planners’ bookshelf and be read by those with an interest in learning more about the nature of conflict in the 21st
Awarded 4 Mushroom Heads .