Little Wars Come Out of the Shadows; The end of the Cold War brought forth a torrent of little wars. Nasty, complicated and often incomprehensible little wars. But not without their odd aspects. The things you don't normally hear about are the mercenaries, the aid bandits, the strange politics, bizarre tactics and much more. And many of these conflicts have been going on for generations. Some are basically centuries old family feuds. Others are an excuse to rip off foreign aid organizations. And then there are the odd characters who rape, loot, kill and sometimes win control of the country. You want odd? How about General Butt Naked (Joshua Milton Blahyi). More than a nickname, this Liberian revolutionary favored a minimalist uniform. Combat boots and an AK-47, nothing else. His troops were rather more modest, and most went into battle wearing dresses, wigs, purses, numerous weapons and a drug induced ferocity. When Blahyi's war ended, he became an evangelical preacher. A better dressed, and less violent man. General Butt Naked and his ilk are the future, get used to it.
There have been some four hundred wars in the last two centuries. Most of these conflicts were quite small. Little Wars, so to speak. Not so small for the victims, but not large enough to attract much attention from the larger nations that can wage a real blood bath.
For most of the last fifty years, we have had the impression that little wars had gone away. They were still out there. The cold war and the end of colonialism put a damper on little wars. For a few decades, anyway. The two superpowers got into a bidding war for the allegiance of factions in many potential hot spots. While the Russians talked world revolution, what they really wanted was good press. War was messy and more expensive than paying off their clients to just be still and say nice things about communism. The West was even more eager to keep everyone quiet. In the 1960s, European nations finally wised up to the fact that their many colonies were money losing propositions and more trouble than they were worth. So dozens of former colonies were turned into nations. Bribes in the form of foreign aid were poured in to keep the lid on festering disputes that colonial armies had policed for over a century. Moreover, the leaders of the new nations, taking possession of well appointed and lucrative colonial infrastructure, made a lot of grand promises that kept a lot of potential malcontents in wait and see mode.
After several decades of waiting, it was plain to see that everyone had been mugged. While the new rulers were making promises, most of the money was sent off to Swiss bank accounts. While most of us remember the early 1990s for the end of the Cold War, in many of those nations now hosting nasty little wars, it was the time when empty promises and dire conditions merged to produce civil wars and revolutions.
All those nasty conflicts in Africa followed this pattern, as did the unrest in places like the Caucasus (three wars), Afghanistan, the Balkans and Latin America. And crooked politicians, be they capitalist, socialist, communist or religious, all faced the same problem. They had no longer had a source of money, and occasional heavily armed muscle, from their superpower patrons.
There are still some more traditional little wars going on. Sri Lanka is a plain old fashioned ethnic conflict. Kashmir is a festering after effect of Britain giving up control of India half a century ago and leaving some loose ends dangling. But most of the current little wars are between gangsters and their victims. These conflicts are made more tragic, and inscrutable, by the face that few of the participants have clean hands. While most of us know of the plight of the Kosovo Albanians versus the more numerous Serbs, we don't realize that there are hundreds of situations like this in the world. Most are not as noisy or violent as in the Balkans, but the potential is there.
For centuries, these little wars have been starting and stopping (usually from exhaustion) Sadly, in many cases, if both sides had survivors, the conflict would burst into flames a few generations, or centuries, later. We see it all on TV, something not possible in centuries past. We demand that something be done. Good luck with that, for all the current peacekeeping and conflict resolution efforts are new and untried approaches to primeval situations. It would be real nice to find some innovative way to reverse many of these ethnic and religious feuds. But so far the only innovation that works is live video, via satellite, of all the murder and mayhem. History reveals that the only things that have stopped these little wars is massive repression, or prosperity. The empires of the past kept it all together by stomping on little wars with massive force and violence. In the last two centuries, another option has emerged; prosperity. Multi-ethnic nations like Canada, Belgium and Switzerland have eliminated most of the ethnic violence (although not all of the bad feelings) via economic growth and spreading the goodies around. Alas, this solution is too expensive to impose on the victims of little wars. Instead, the "peacekeeping" concept is all the rage. So far, this approach, while less bloody than imperial repression, and a lot cheaper than making the warring population affluent, peacekeeping has not worked. But the media driven need to do something, and the lack of viable alternatives, will keep variations of peacekeeping in use for some time to come.
The little wars have come out of the shadows, but they show no indication of going out of business.