No Peace, No War: An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflicts

Article excerpt

Paul Richards, ed. No Peace, No War: An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflicts. Athens: Ohio University Press/Oxford: James Currey, 2005. x + 214 pp. Appendix. References. Bibliography. Index. $49.95. Cloth. $24.95. Paper.

In one of the rare photo-ops from the Ituri war zone, a couple of militias crouch before the camera. In front of them on the ground are the heads of their enemies. One man has placed his left hand on one of the heads to make it face the camera, while the right one is holding a severed arm by the hand, as if moved to offer a last handshake to his victim. Next to him is another militia man holding a gun in one hand and in the other a forearm hacked off at the elbow. He holds it close to his nose, as if the tangle of blood-stained ligaments, tendons, and pieces of flesh are a bunch of flowers. In another scene four human heads are neatly aligned on the ground. Huddled over these trophies are other militias, all holding AK47s, except one, whose hands are holding to his mouth a large chunk of freshly cut human flesh, ready to be eaten.

Are such chilling scenes to be treated as evidence of Robert D. Kaplan's "new barbarism"? Or the sinister incarnation of "Malthus with a gun"? Or do they reflect the perverse effects of the "greed versus creed" dialectic? None of the above, suggests Paul Richards in the opening chapter of this rich collection of case studies. War, he tells us, must be seen as "a social process," and "if we are to understand war and peace in processual terms we must first comprehend the practices of war and peace: how people mobilize and organize for war, and the role played by ideational factors in such mobilization and organization." The emphasis, therefore, must not be on "what triggered war" but "on exploring how people make war and peace" (13). The Ituri photos, in a word, need to be "contextualized."

The book is a testament to the quality of the research done at the Department of Cultural Anthropology of the University of Uppsala, until recently under the guidance of the late Bernhard Helander, to whose memory this volume is dedicated. Seven of the ten contributors are either Uppsala Ph.D.s or on the faculty of the same department. The case studies cover a wide gamut: six are from Africa (Burkina Faso, Somalia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zimbabwe), two from Asia (Cambodia and Tibet), one from Latin America (Guatemala), and another from Europe (Bosnia). For bringing such diverse cases into a coherent theoretical frame the editor deserves full credit.

Best known for his classic work on Sierra Leone, Fighting for the Rainforest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone (1996), Paul Richards offers a brilliant critique of some of the most influential explanations of African conflicts in the introductory chapter to this book. He successfully demolishes Malthusian theories, delivers the coup de grâce to Kaplan's long moribund "new barbarism" thesis, and goes on to tackle Paul Collier's "greed not grievance" theory. The nub of his critique is as straightforward as it is convincing: "[Collier's] analysis shows that internal wars are more likely where mineral wealth combines with poverty, and where there is high unemployment among young men with limited education, but (perversely) he considers neither circumstance grounds for valid grievance." As he goes on to note: "This seems very odd to anyone with on-the-ground knowledge of youth activism against oil companies in the Niger Delta or rebels facing mercenary-backed kimberlite concession holders in Sierra Leone. Why it is 'greedy' to want a basic education or a job Collier does not explain" (10).

Richards makes no effort to offer an alternative etiology of warfare. His aim is to sketch the outlines of what he calls "the ethnographic perspective." Drawing from B. M. Knauft's discussion of Melanesian warfare, he rejects single-factor explanations, while emphasizing the fact that "war belongs within society" and must therefore be seen as an aspect of a social process where the boundary between peace and war is blurred and periodically renegotiated. …