Book Review – Stealth Conflicts

Stealth Conflicts Virgil Hawkins‘s Stealth Conflicts – How The World’s Worst Violence is Ignored is a necessary book that dispels quite a few myths regarding the current world’s conflicts.

While the world is currently focused on the collective punishment Israel is inflicting on the Gaza strip, and as 2008 draws to an end, there is not much mention that we are entering the 11th year of the conflict in the DRC, a conflict, that ,as of January 2008, had caused the death of 5.4 million people, mostly of disease and starvation. This is currently the deadliest conflict in the world, and there is not much of a fuss about it, not about many African conflicts either (with the exception of Sudan, and that came eight years into the conflict).

In the context of the war on terror, countries related to terrorism and US response to it, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, or conflict close to core countries, (former Yugoslavia) get disproportionate attention but the bloodiest conflicts are largely ignored but different institutions: governments, media, academia and the civil society seem to be of one mind when it comes to paying attention to conflicts, something Hawkins calls assimilation of agendas .

"Evidence points to the marginalization of most of the world’s deadliest conflicts, particularly those in Africa. It is almost as if the actors in a position to respond have by and large tacitly agreed on some form of global-level triage: They have somehow all arrived at the fatalistic and highly simplistic conclusion that Africa’s problems are too massive and intractable for the continent as a whole to be ‘saved’, and that attention and energies are therefore best devoted elsewhere." (3)

One reason often invoked is that Western institutional actors pay more attention to the Middle East than to Africa is oil: we need oil, it is largely in the Middle East, therefore, we get involved in Middle Eastern affairs. But Africa is resource-rich (including in oil), not a gigantic desert with nothing of interest to Western countries. And still, African countries are ignored. And this does not explain the assimilation of agendas from institutional actors with different interests and functions.

"Understanding the process by which conflicts are ‘chosen’ for highly concentrated levels of attention is useful not simply for the sake of understanding these conflicts and how we respond to them, but perhaps more importantly because it helps us understand how and why the vast majority of other conflicts are not given the attention they deserve – to the point that, in many cases, most major conflicts are almost entirely hidden from view. Consciousness of and attention to conflicts ranges from obsessive to virtually nonexistent, with a yawning gap between the two." (5)

These invisible conflicts, Hawkins calls stealth conflicts as opposed to chosen conflicts. Hawkins’s book centers on the factors that will put conflicts in one category or the other and how different actors end up with the same chosen and stealth conflicts.

One of the ways in which conflicts are categorized by death toll and Hawkins has an actually really interesting section on death toll methodologies that may affect our perception of conflicts. Focusing on the violent deaths versus the conflict-related non-violent deaths, Hawkins notes that the major stealth conflicts have an incredibly high levels of non violent deaths (94% for the DRC, 97% for Sudan, or 98% for Ethiopia). Most of these deaths tend to be invisible (contrast that to the horrific images of what is going on in Gaza but the lack of images from the DRC).

In addition to death tolls, another factor in conflict perception is whether or not conflicts look like conflicts. Many social actors still have a Cold War and/or conventional conception of war (as opposed to new wars,  with warlords and their unofficial armies, the massive mistreatment of the civilian population and their regionalization). The closer a conflict is to the ideal-type, the more attention might be paid to it, otherwise, a conflict might be labeled intractable and more likely to be ignored. That is, a lot of institutional actors still operate on specific frames (such as the Cold War or the War on Terror) in their perception of conflicts. With frames, attention is paid to what is within the frame and what is outside of it tends to be ignored.

Similarly, ethnicity (or "ancient tribal hatreds") is often invoked as explanatory factor in conflicts. For Hawkins, the impact of ethnicity is often exaggerated and misleading in explaining conflicts. More often, ethnic identities are invoked and manipulated by political entrepreneurs who might benefit from the resulting clashes.

"Of course, by the time conflict erupts, the notion of ‘identity’ has become very real for the perpetrators and the victims of what becomes a cycle of violence that serves to reinforce these so-called identities. It can largely be said, however, that ‘Inflamed ethnic passions are not the cause of political conflict, but its consequences’ (Berkeley 2001, 15). Emphasis on the role of ethnic or other forms of identity in observing conflict, results in the marginalization of the political and economic factors that are usually much more significant." (31)

To resort to ethnic explanation avoid having to deal with the complexities of new wars,

"The struggle for power and resources in an environment in which the power of the official state is in decline, resulting in an apparent blurring between state and warlord, ends and means, conflict and peace, and conflict and crime." (31)

More systematically then, how are conflict chosen or ignored? Hawkins distinguishes between individual and institutional factors.

On the individual side, according to Hawkins, selecting conflicts for our attention is a sub-process of the same social-psychological processes through which we integrate information: selectivity, generalization, simplification and categorization. For instance, our perception of the world is shaped by three specific distortions of physical distance:

  • Gravitational distance (distortion of distance by the economic, military or cultural power of a country)
  • Geographical distance (distortion of distance by the presence of other countries in between)
  • Attributional distance (distortion of distance by characteristics or values attributed to other countries or peoples)

The closer a conflict is located based on these distorted distances, the more likely it is we will pay attention to it, and vice versa. Similarly, perception of peoples are affected processes such as social categorization, social identification or in-group / out-group dynamics as well as stereotypes. The more we can identify, perceive ourselves in the same category or part of the in-group with the people involved in a given conflict. Identification or in-group perceptions can be based on a variety of factors such as ethnicity, religion, race or any other form of identity which will affect perception of the conflict.

The status of the people defined as victims also matters:

"The perceived innocence or blamelessness of the victims has considerable bearing on the level of sympathy, or the level of importance attached to their plight (S. Cohen 2001, 177). If a conflict is perceived as being ‘tribal’ or ‘chaotic’, victims are unlikely to attract sympathy, because they are seen as somehow tainted by a mutually sustained cycle of violence. From a political perspective, some victims may be ‘worthy’ and others ‘unworthy’." (41)

A conflict will indeed receive more attention if one can identify clear, worthy innocent victims to be saved from brutal oppressors, and even more attention if one can identify with these victims (such as Evangelicals raising the alarm for the plight of Christians in Darfur or in Iraq or the general Western attention to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia). If these innocent victims have a charismatic leader, so much the better as that leader will receive greater media attention. How these victims are killed matters as well, but not the sheer numbers, as Hawkins emphasizes repeatedly. Punctual, spectacular massacres will attract attention, but not the drip-drip-drip of conflict-related non-violent deaths.

Oh, and if animals are affected, you can bet that attention will be paid by Western audiences, because animals are by definition, the ultimate innocent victims.

Another factor affecting perception of conflict is whether it seems possible to do something about it. The more intractable or hopeless the situation is, the less likely it is that the conflict will be chosen.

On the institutional side of things, a different set of factors apply. Hawkins distinguishes between different types of actors:

  • Policymakers – international organizations, state governments and bureaucracies, executive and legislative branches
  • Media – print and broadcast, news agencies and the Internet
  • Public – general public, NGOs, interest groups ad corporations
  • Academia – Universities, think tanks and other research institutes

All these actors have their own structural demands, interests and agendas. They do not all have the same power: by and large, policymakers and corporations tend to wield more power to shape and focus attention or distract attention from certain conflicts than the general public. And although Hawkins does not mention it, one can see how these different actors wield certain types of power as defined by Michael Mann: policymakers wield political and military power, with sometimes also economic (through foreign aid or economic sanctions, for instance) as well as ideological power. The media operates mostly on ideological power, and more limitedly political power. Corporations wield mostly economic power. NGOs and Academia wield largely ideological and political power but not to the same extent as policymakers or the media.

In terms of focusing attention on specific conflicts (while ignoring others), access to information is key and obviously, in that department, the general public is at a disadvantage since it has to rely on the other actors as sources of information. For the other actors, especially policymakers, NGOs or the media, focusing attention on a conflict and raising awareness can be seen as part of three processes:

  • Agenda-Setting: making the issue salient
  • Agenda-Building: origin of salient issues in the first place
  • Agenda-Melding: merging of agendas among people within the same group / institution

With a multiplicity of institutional actors, these processes can be fairly complex and the bulk of Hawkins book is to detail how these actors function internally and how they are influenced externally by the other actors, and, as a result, how they decide which conflict become salient and which are ignored and remain stealth. Hawkins offers the model below to indicate all these intricate interactions and how the different agendas become assimilated. (Click on the image to embiggen)

From Drop Box

Chose and stealth conflicts are then the product of the multiplicity and complexity of interactions between these different actors (each painstakingly detailed in separate chapters). For all the reasons mentioned above, once a conflict has been ‘chosen’, several things happen:

"Policymakers will make statements about the conflict with increasing frequency and emotion. They may push for action in some form in the UN Security Council or elsewhere. The various media corporations will send more reporters and cameras and boost the quantity and prominence of their coverage, which is likely to become increasingly emotive. The general public will also become both knowledgeable and emotional about the conflict, with people privately and publicly expressing their concern and outrage, while NGOs will step up their humanitarian support for the victims of the conflict. Academics will be called upon to give their views on the political background and to ponder likely future scenarios, and articles will begin to appear in international affairs journals. The snowball effect takes hold across and within the various groups of actors and the ‘importance’ of the conflict grows exponentially." (52)

[My emphasis] As Hawkins indicates, this snowball effect is often accompanied by a bandwagon effect as no actor wants to be left out and irrelevant once a conflict looks like it will become chosen. But what’s wrong with emphasizing certain conflicts at certain points in time? According to Hawkins, choosing conflicts is problematic for several reasons:

"(1)The levels of attention given to chosen conflicts are so intense that they have little room for attention for all the other conflicts (it is a winner-takes-all situation), and (2) the chosen conflicts are rarely (if ever) among the more deadly, and may even be relatively minor in terms of scale. Both of these problems represent issues of proportion: chosen conflicts receive disproportionately large amounts of attention compared to all the others, and smaller conflicts receive disproportionately large amounts of attention compared to conflicts that are greater to scale. The level of disproportion can be staggering." (52-53)

There is no question, for instance, that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a chosen conflict. When it is somewhat dormant and no sensational violence occurs, this conflict may receive an intermediate level of attention (which is still more than what stealth conflicts receive), but when the conflict flares up (as it does now), then, it is back to chosen status with disproportionate amounts of attention. By and large, African conflicts never receive that kind of attention.

Hawkins identifies three reasons why the term "stealth" applies to the ignored conflicts:

(1) "It conveys the notion that these conflicts are knowingly deprived of attention and response: that is suits the interests of those in a position to respond not to do so. By depriving them of attention, these actors ensure that such conflicts steal along below the range of outside consciousness: unseen, unheard and unchecked, as they extract their deadly tolls. In the case of policymakers, keeping quiet on a conflict may stem from desire to protect allies and/or strategic or economic interests, while for the media, it may be because of an editorial decision that the conflict will not sell well as news or that it may even hinder sales. There is a wide variety of reasons, but for most actors, the failure to respond to major conflicts is not accidental or inadvertent." (55)

(2) "To a large degree, the world’s deadliest conflicts become so deadly precisely because they are marginalized or ignored. The vast majority of deaths resulting from such conflicts are nonviolent. (…) The more commensurate attention and response are with the scale fo the conflict, the greater the chances are, generally speaking, of limiting the extent of (or even stopping) the violence, reducing its adverse social effects, and raising the survivability of those displaced or otherwise affected by the violence. In the absence of attention and response, on the other hand, the silent results of violence are unchecked, and such conflicts typically become exponentially more deadly; thus there is a clear link between the act of choosing to ignore or downplay a conflict, and the level of death and damages it causes. Disproportionately high levels of nonviolent deaths are usually a tell-tale sign of the lack of attention and response to a particular conflict." (56)

(3) "Like the stealth bomber, stealth conflicts cause considerable amounts of death and destruction, while somehow remaining virtually undetected, in this case on the ‘radar screens’ – or consciousness – of individuals and institutions in the outside world." (56)

Overall then, when all is said and done, the assimilation of agendas and the choice of which conflicts receive the most attention comes down to, as perceived by all the different actors:

  • National / political interests
  • Geographic proximity and access
  • Ability to identify
  • Ability to sympathize
  • Simplicity
  • Sensationalism

These factors should be considered as a checklist: the more a conflict match these criteria, the more likely it is that it will be a chosen conflict. Conflicts that have some of these might receive an intermediate level of attention while conflicts that fit only a few, if any, of these criteria will remain stealth.

Hawkins book is rich in data that is impossible to reproduce here. As mentioned before, his case for the production of ‘chosen’ or ‘stealth’ status is extremely detailed and follows a systematic analysis of the internal dynamics and external interactions of each institutional actor (which leads to some repetition, to be sure). However, I have never read such a systematic account of the status of the world’s conflict that debunks quite a few myths in the process.

5 thoughts on “Book Review – Stealth Conflicts

  1. Wow! What can I say? Thank you very much for reading the book, and for your excellent summary and encouraging words!! It is most appreciated. I am sure this review will help people to get to think more about this critical issue, and hopefully act as well. Many thanks once again. By the way, I have started a blog on the same subject. All the best, and a very happy new year!

    • You’re welcome, Virgil. I am glad you recommended your book, otherwise, I might have missed it.

      And great blog! (I added it to my “global issues” blogroll) and to the Networked blogs application in Facebook… Are you on Facebook, if not, you should. It’s a free and easy way to give wider audience to your research.

      Happy New Year to you too!

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