Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Ethnic Conflict: What Kind of War Is This?

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Ethnic Conflict: What Kind of War Is This?

Article excerpt

MENTION THE WORD "ETHNICITY" to a military officer, and there will be a visible cringe. The term has become associated with conflict arenas to which armed forces are sent without a clear idea of who the protagonists are, why they are fighting, and what the intervening forces are really supposed to accomplish.' One senior military officer coming out of a three-year experience in Bosnia remarked, "We didn't know whose side we were supposed to be taking.... [We] ended up hating everybody equally and feeling guilty for it. There were no good guys. Serbs? Croats? Bosniacs?"' No side had a clear claim to righteousness, justice, or truth. American military servicemen and women are basically uncomfortable fighting without a cause, and they want to be on the side of righteousness-to be a force for justice, democracy, equality, and freedom (and maybe even capitalism).

Part of the problem has been that U.S. military personnel have become involved in ethnic wars without a game plan.3 In the early 1990s, when the Defense Department decided to take low-intensity conflict seriously, it was already behind. There were at the time about sixty such situations, with the threat of many more as a result of the fragmentation of the Soviet Union. That disintegration was wholly unforeseen, of course; for forty years during the Cold War most internal disturbances in the developing world had been interpreted as manifestations of the superpower rivalry, hence treated as insurgencies against a "friendly" government or "freedom movements" against a communist tyranny.4 In addition, the cold war had become comfortable; ethnic conflict seemed messy in comparison. It was difficult for some of the Cold Warriors to move from the precise calculations of nuclear and conventional war gaming to these small, disturbing wars with their unfamiliar requirements and unconventional tasks. It required a whole new set of thinking and planning skills and even a level of risk to careers.

Reality eventually overcame reluctance, and there has been a slow but progressive realization by the military bureaucracy that these wars are important-because, like it or not, U.S. forces will be involved. The questions now are: What is an ethnic group? What are the causes of ethnic conflict? What is the proper role of intervening military forces?

War between ethnic groups is not new. What may be new is that the implications for warfighting suggested here derive specifically from the nature of ethnic groups and ethnic groups in conflict.

The literature on ethnic conflict is not very helpful. Whether produced by the academic or military community, professional writing on the subject has been fairly bewildering. Even the names given to "ethnic conflict" by the military, policy, and academic communities-guerrilla warfare, operations other than war, complex contingency operations, low intensity conflict, and irregular warfare--are confusing, overlapping, and of limited value in formal explanation. These categories are not based on a consistent description of protagonists, means, or goals of warfare.

This article will provide basic definitions that are useful for the U.S. military, describe how ethnic wars differ from other kinds of conflicts in basic ways, and discuss preliminary implications for warfighting. If the U.S. military wants operational success, it must have an operational definition of "winning" (or "prevailing") that can contribute to credibility. Credibility is a vital component in deterrence of future wars among ethnic groups.'

The first major issue is whether a specific ethnic conflict is of U.S. national security concern. Not all ethnic wars are or should be considered security concerns of the United States. Some conflicts are not on the national security 11 scope"-because they are not lethal enough (Corsica), are not in a "critical interest area" (Burma), or simply have not shown up on CNN (Togo). American policy makers may need a "criticality" list to prioritize possible demands for U. …

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