Stealth Conflicts: How the World’s Worst Violence Is Ignored

  • Published

Stealth Conflicts: How the World’s Worst Violence is Ignored by Virgil Hawkins. Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008, 248 pp.

Most good books begin with an interesting question, and this one is no exception. Virgil Hawkins attempts to answer the question, “How do you hide a war that lasts 10 years, involves armed intervention by seven countries, and kills approximately 5 million people?” In his monograph, Hawkins, whose background includes three years with an African nongovernmental organization (NGO), explores the reasons some of the world’s deadliest conflicts have received little or no attention from the four major types of actors in conflict resolution: policy makers, academicians, the media, and the public. The most egregious case, to which he frequently refers, is the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which, as of 2008, had accounted for approximately 5.4 million deaths over a 10-year period, making it the deadliest post–Cold War conflict (dwarfing the next deadliest and better-known conflict in the Sudan which accounted for only 1.2 million deaths). He defines 26 additional post–Cold War conflicts with death tolls ranging from 10,000 to 1.2 million and demonstrates that international attention and aid in these cases is in no way linked to the severity of the humanitarian devastation. Instead, most efforts seem to focus on such smaller wars as those in occupied Palestine and the former Yugoslavia.

To frame his argument, Hawkins first develops the idea of chosen conflicts, which reflect the trend of major actors to focus attentions on a small subset of the entire world’s ongoing conflicts at any given time. Examples of such chosen conflicts include Kosovo, East Timor, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He admits that such selective attention is natural and even necessary but that chosen conflicts are a problem because they rarely represent the deadliest wars and draw attention and resources away from potentially more lethal and destabilizing situations. A stealth conflict, by contrast, is largely ignored by most or all actors, and its existence may in fact be deliberately downplayed or hidden by some of the major actors. The covert nature of these conflicts drives up the death toll by the long-term effects of famine and disease. “Stealth conflicts,” writes Hawkins, “are those whose very existence is absent from the collective consciousness of the key actors in the outside world.”

The overarching reason that human suffering on the scale seen in the DRC can exist for a decade in the information age is due to the nature of what Hawkins terms as conflict consciousness—the limited ability of ordinary humans to perceive the world at large (and the subset of its ongoing conflicts) in totality. This is caused by such factors as a limited ability to process information, the narrow immediacy of impact (few in the Western world live next door to a refugee camp or have bombs falling in neighboring streets), and national identity filters (i.e., American casualties in Iraq are more important to the average American than African casualties in the DRC). People are most likely to care about violence that fits into such established frames as the Cold War, genocide, or a war on terror. Furthermore, conflicts between ethnically distinct groups are easier to process than one between the same race and religion. Stealth conflicts tend not to fit an established frame or to feature distinct groups that allow for easy identification of good guys and bad guys.

The world’s conflict consciousness becomes further skewed by where such major actors as governments and media focus their attention; the media in particular “in effect create a disaster when they recognize it.” Hawkins notes that this distorted perception extends even to Africa itself, where Zambian university students rated Iraq as a deadlier conflict than that in the neighboring DRC. In showing how consciousness of this distorted conflict is created, Hawkins devotes a chapter to each of the major actors in international affairs: policy makers, the media, academia, and the public. This group includes ordinary citizens, NGOs, advocacy groups, and corporations. These chapters show how the international system performs triage on the total number of ongoing conflicts, elevating a chosen few, and deliberately ignoring other (often deadlier) wars.

Hawkins is clearly dissatisfied with the way the current framework international system currently performs its triage, based on state security and economic interests, media and corporate economic interests, an academic focus on the state as the fundamental unit for analysis in international relations, and perceptions of how easily a conflict can be suppressed. He chooses early on to use overall death toll as his metric for ranking conflicts. But if total death tolls are indeed a valid measure of which conflicts should receive attention and aid from external actors, one of the keys to building a cohesive argument for changing the status quo is to convince the reader that nonviolent deaths (which make up the majority of the fatalities in the DRC) are a valid metric, and one that should trigger action by external actors. Failing to satisfactorily accomplish this represents a weakness in Hawkins’ book. Perhaps more importantly, there is no discussion of the policy implications of international intervention when large numbers of nonviolent deaths occur without the presence of armed conflict. These include the starvation and disease-related deaths of North Koreans and Iraqis under previous UN–sanctioned regimes.

In the end, Hawkins is only able to describe the problem, without positing any potential solutions. Selectivity in responding to foreign conflicts is inevitable, he concludes, and the best that can be hoped for is to reduce the extreme nature of the current response to such conflicts, which often sees disproportionate attention and assistance lavished on a handful of small-scale wars at the expense of more destructive conflicts. Nonetheless, this book represents a useful resource for strategists and policy makers interested in considering the effects of decisions regarding the allocation of attention and resources to the spectrum of ongoing conflicts in the modern world.

Maj Edward H. Carpenter, USMC

Defense Language Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."