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Useful Enemies: when waging wars is more important than winning them

David Keen
Yale Books (31 May 2012)

‘Our world is breaking apart, and we do not even know what is causing it. This is what is the most scary. You don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. You can’t even see the tunnel.’

This is what a senior worker with the Ministry of Health told David Keen about the enduring conflict in Sierra Leone that began when a rebel force crossed the border from war-torn Liberia in 1991. In the ten years that followed a few hundred rebel fighters in a localised conflict somehow mushroomed into a conflagration that displaced more than half the country’s population and saw civilians caught up in countless atrocities perpetrated by both sides. Disturbing reports that were too frequent to be dismissed as rumour suggested that rebels and soldiers were actually coordinating their movements and abstaining from direct confrontation with each other. How was this possible? Why did this war go from a localised conflict to a civil war that endured for more than a decade?

Useful Enemies looks beneath the surface to argue that the civil war in Sierra Leone and many other recent conflicts are not war as we have commonly understood the term but something rather different; not simply a contest between two sides but something more sinister and somehow just beyond the grasp of outside observers and indeed most of the civilians caught up in the crossfire. In recent living memory the pattern of endurance has been prevalent: Angola’s war lasted, with brief respites, from 1975 to 2002; Sri Lanka’s endured (again with respites) from 1983 to 2009; and Guatemala’s spanned the thirty-six years from 1960 to 1996. A 2007 article on Colombia noted that the country ‘had been effectively in a state of civil war for at least 42 years and there are no signs this will end soon.’ At a global level the Cold War has been succeeded by a ‘war on terror’ that continues to rage more than a decade after 9/11.

An expert in world conflicts, David Keen asks the often unanswered question: Who benefits from wars? It’s a disturbing story that takes in government officials siphoning off aid, militias ejecting civilians from oil-rich areas, companies looking for markets for arms and security products, and politicians reinforcing their powerbase by defining any opponent as the enemy. Amongst other things, this eye-opening book shows that in order for foreign aid and international diplomacy to be effective, the complex vested interests that fuel contemporary wars need to be addressed.

  • Professor David Keen is professor of complex emergencies at LSE.

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