December 21, 2011

Allegiance in Civil Wars

Small Wars Journal has a thought-provoking post by Michael Cummings that takes issue with something I have often argued: 

[W]hen it comes to counter-insurgency, military theorists continue to ignore humanity’s underlying irrationality. Consider Andrew Exum’s article in the Daily Beast:


“Populations, in civil wars, make cold-blooded calculations about their self-interest. If forced to choose sides in a civil war—and they will resist making that choice for as long as possible, for understandable reasons—they will side with the faction they assess to be the one most likely to win.”

I dub this the “Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, the idea that in warfare--with death and subjugation on the line--mankind’s rationality trumps his unconscious thoughts and emotions. ...


We cannot pretend that killing people won’t cause emotional reactions. We cannot pretend that in a war zone people always act rationally, because people don’t. As a counter-insurgent, we must balance our views of insurgents and the population as both rational and emotional actors.

Cummings has a point, of course. But what Cummings calls the Chicago School would better be described as the New Haven School. For a long time, the scholarly literature on civil wars discussed political allegiance in civil wars as primarily exogenous. In 2006, though, a scholar at Yale named Stathis Kalyvas published a book called The Logic of Violence in Civil War
that argued the precise opposite. Anyone who knows my own work knows that I find the argument advanced by Kalyvas to be compelling. And a large-N analysis of population behavior in civil war environments would, I believe, lead to similar conclusions. But as many people know, I did my own graduate work in and on southern Lebanon, where all kinds of "irrational" factors like religion motivated the population. So what gives?

I heard Steve Biddle describe the state of civil wars scholarship well last summer when he said that what Kalyvas and his work did was to effectively swing the literature from the all the way from the exogenous end of the spectrum to all the way over to the endogenous end. As more work is done, Steve said (and I agree with him), the literature would likely end up somewhere in the middle. Or right back where it started, when Thucydides noted man is motivated to go to war by fear, honor, and interest -- only one of which is covered in most economics textbooks. For now, I have yet to read a good corrective to Kalyvas that would lead me to radically change my own views about popular behavior in civil wars in general.

(Cummings, alas, goes on to argue that "foreign occupation triggers suicide attacks." Let's all agree not to tell Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.)


The subtitle given to the Cummings article on the Small Wars Journal webpage was "It's time to stop listening to CNAS." So ... no Christmas card from Small Wars Journal this year?

Update: the original Michael Cummings post was here.