can there ever be no war?

recently, i was asked whether we can stop all wars. for me, this is a (surprisingly) easy question to answer: all wars, for ever, you can not stop.

however, it’s not quite as grim and fatalistic as you might think either…

conflict is, i am tempted to say, a “natural” phenomenon – however, since i am not a big fan of the rather fatalistically sounding “it’s nature”-argument, let me rephrase it to say that conflict is a “normal” element of life (any life, not just the human world). within the human world, conflict stems from simple differences – where and when we are born, how we are raised, how we are socialised, how the world around us is organised and what are the moral and normative structures that guide different social beings at a particular moment in time. even if all of these variables where the same (same social context, same social class, same time, same socialisation…), people would still be different, simply because we perceive the world around us in different ways – this has genetic/biological, social, psychological and many other sources. it is simply unavoidable. (to the contrary, considering to and how to change this basis that all humans perceive the world around them in different ways, leads me to conclude a “brave new world”-scenario, which – at least to me – is a far scarier a thought than accepting that conflict is a part of life.)

so, once we recognise that conflict is never avoidable, we have to understand that every element of conflict is just a different stage at the same continuum – it starts with disagreements among family and friends, eventually aggression is added to those discussion and once you flip aggression into violence, this is where we start getting closer to what we consider the difference between “peace” and “war”. what is true in the small social context (i.e. family), is true in the big social context (i.e. society; the state) – not in every aspect of course (societies and states are much more complex due to the increase in actors and institutions and possible outcomes and options) but in the end, there are similar tendencies that remind of a “spiral” – and this can be a spiral towards aggression, violence and war as well as a spiral towards negotiation, appeasement and peace. the exact bar as to when we pass from “peace” to “war” in society is unknown. it’s an academically much debated grey zone and rather a philosophical question or a matter of individual interpretation than an obsolete truth and definition.

now, once we understand this continuum of different levels of conflict – some of which we consider being an acceptable part of “peace” and others not – and we understand the interconnected relationships of individuals/people/actors shaping society and society shaping individuals/people/actors, we understand that although conflict is “natural” and/or “normal” (in the absence of a better wording…), we can have an impact on the spiral along the conflict-continuum on each and every level along the way – by the way we treat conflict in the small setting already, by the norms and values we live and share everyday, by the stances we take in public debates etc., all the way up to the big institutions: which politicians we elect, which corporations we put our money into, which active or passive role we take ourselves in society, etc.

just as individuals can impact the spiral along the conflict continuum, so can states. one example? among the international relations theories, there are some who highlight the need for economic interdependence as a hindrance to war – the idea being that war needs to be so costly for both sides that neither has an interest in starting a war in the first place (see the european union). there are other ideas too – some highlight the need for non-violent norms, others highlight the need to put in “rational” hindrances to war (making war too costly an option to discourace actors – this goes from the mentioned interdependence theory all the way to deterrence – the idea that one nuclear power would not attack another becaus the hit back is too costly). whether the hindrance is normative, emotional and ethical or whether it is economical, rational and political, does not matter (much) in the end. what is – at least for me – relieving to know is that we as human beings, institutions and actors can actually mitigate conflict and put structural hindrances to the downwards spiral on the conflict-continuum.

to take one small sidestep: please note that all of the outlayed arguments are solely based on social sciences and completely disregards the business of war – namely, the fact that there are huge(!) corporations which – following every rule of the book of capitalism (and are therefore absolutely legitimate in our time and world today) – make money and increase country’s gdp by producing ever more deadly machines (yes, they also operate under the pressures of innovation and competition – and they are creative in developing ever more effective machines for warfare). these corporations sometimes work with the states but sometimes they act solely in a business interest – they sell to those who buy; and there we go again: how could one consider stopping war for always and ever as long as there are thousands of jobs and business interests at stake in exactly this business (however amoral you as individual might find it)? let me just reference one war-academic, to illustrate the depth of this issue: ilija stefflbauer, in his fantastic work “war”, shows painstakingly clearly that most wars could be avoided not by stoping to sell nuclear weapons or rpgs and tanks, but simply by stopping the selling of small arms. yet, why would business stop selling those weapons which are a) most requested by the international markets and b) rarely confined even by national bans on arms sales (because it’s only “small” arms … ). this would be against every logic of capitalistic corporates. they are not there to stop war or save the world. they are there to make money.

so, to conclude: we need to understand that a) conflict is unavoidable (the importance of this awareness should not be underestimated! it kicks us from a feeling of being passive victim to the happenings around us into an active awareness that this is an issue so we should and can act about it!), therefore b) war is – at least as a last resort – always an option for international actors and c) what we therefore need to do – and this we can do (on every level of society and at every stage of the conflict-continuum) – is establish mechanisms that hinder the spiral spinning all the way to war (whether though normative/ethical, rational/economic, or political levers).

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from 100 to 0 in less than a day – on life transitions

having worked a solid 40-60 hour week for the past three years, my phd was resting in a state of suspended animation. since monday, however, i am faced with the pleasure and challenge to return to academia full time in order to finish what i started several years ago.

returning to academia from a life filled with emails, meetings and constantly growing to-do lists, i have to admit, feels a bit like a car crash – from 100 to 0 in too short a time for the mind to catch on. in the case of a car crash it’s several seconds. in the case of ending an employment it takes approximately two weeks – one week in which you really feel the crash coming; then there is the ominous d-day (which you have been impatiently waiting for and dreading at the same time for the past months already); and last but not least it’s the first week of your new life which is, let’s be honest, the minimum amount of time your brain, soul and mind need to catch on to the new reality.

having experienced this ‘crash’ before (i also worked full time for two years during my bachelor’s degree and then switched to full time academia for my master’s), i knew what i had gotten myself into. so, this time, i came prepared: i made a plan and decided that the easiest way to re-enter academia – and arguably a smart one at that since it constitutes one of the core elements of academic life – was to read. read, read, read. to ease the access, i would not even limit myself as to what i should read in particular (obviously, my household is by my very nature predominantly filled with academic works of my field in any case), but i would rather leave it up to chance and daily interest to guide me through the first week. there was only one requirement for me to do: read for 4 hours every day.

coming from an 8-10 hour long work day, 4 hours seem easily doable. and they are, once you find the rhythm which works for you. in my case, i tried the ‘hammer’-method the first day: read 4 hours straight. as it turned out, i am not made for this type of reading. to the contrary, waiting for the alarm to ring (which i had set in a four hour distance to my starting point) actually demotivated me in reading even this simple book with big letter printing and easy content that i had picked out for the first day. instead, the next day, i switched from the alarm clock to a timer and simply pressed play and pause every time i started or stopped reading that day. and suddenly the 4 hours just flew by! the only hurdle that was left in my way now was the frustrating experience of some deeply unsatisfying books – but more on this in my next post.

to conclude the first week of #mynewlife, i have to stress the obvious challenge of transition phases, particularly if the difference is so stark as it is between a full time business schedule and the seeming emptiness of a self-responsible phd student’s day. however, contrary to a car crash -in which one can only hope for airbag and seatbelt to save oneself from the worst-, there are tricks and methods for life transitions to make the change feel less like a crushing halt but rather like a smooth sailing towards new horizons. reading flexibly for 4 hours every day and using the rest of the day to cook, clean and exercise certainly made my transition much smoother.

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paraphrasing macklemore: same god

when she was raised in the free world,

people told her she was muslim,

cause she wanted to wear a scarf, to cover her head from the cold stares,

she told her ma’, tears rushing down her face,

she’s like, girl you’ve been baptized since before pre-k.

“yeah i guess she had a point, didn’t she”,

a bunch of stereotypes in everyone’s head

she remembers doing the math, like “yeah i like christmas, pork and drinks”,

a preconceived idea of what it all meant.

but those who believe in a different god

have the characteristics,

the neo-conservative, right wing, think it’s a decision

and you can be cured with some treatment of “democracy”.

man-made rewiring of just a different man-made wire.

defining god, oh nah here we go, the “free world” still fears what it doesn’t know,

a guy who loves all his children is somehow forgotten

but we kill over the construct of nationalism and books written hundreds of years ago.

 

and i can’t change, even if i tried, even if i wanted to.

and i can’t change, even if i tried, even if i wanted to.

my god, my family, my tradition,

they keep me warm, they keep safe, they keep me alive.

 

if i was muslim, i think the world would hate me,

have you read the hateful comments lately?

“the arab terrorist” get’s dropped on a daily,

we become so numb to what we are saying.

a culture founded from oppression

yet we don’t have acceptance for ’em,

call each other “danger” behind the keys of a message board

all words rooted in hate, yet our generations still ignore it.

islam is synonymous with danger –

it’s the same hate that has caused wars from religion, gender or skin color, the choice of your dress,

the same fight that led people to walk-outs and sit-ins,

it’s human rights for everyone, there is no difference!

live on and be yourself,

when i was in church, they taught me something else,

if you preach hatred at the service, those words aren’t anointed,

that holy water you soak in has been poisoned,

and everyone is more comfortable remaining voiceless

rather than fighting for humans that have their dignity stolen,

i might not be the same, but that’s not important,

no freedom until we’re equal, damn right i support it.

 

and i can’t change, even if i tried, even if i wanted to.

and i can’t change, even if i tried, even if i wanted to.

my god, my family, my tradition,

they keep me warm, they keep safe, they give everyone identity.

 

we press play, don’t press pause,

progress, march on,

take down the veil hanging over your own eyes,

turn your back on hateful causes

to stand up avoiding muslims becoming our next jews.

history is written in blood, a warning,

will the next generation judge us for the crimes we commit today?

a world so hateful

people rather die for a cause than live where they are.

and welcoming integration is not going to solve it all,

but it’s a damn good place to start.

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syria started in libya

the war in syria is on everybodies mind – isis is portrayed to be yet the worst thing human kind has produced in its millenials of violent history, refugees are pouring the consequences of the war into otherwise so happily ignorant european faces and the media attention is so focused on syria that they even forget that iraq is equally in bits and pieces (well, we wrote about iraq for ten years already; syria sells better, despite the current ‘big war’ and potentially decisive battle being in iraqi mosul, but who will notice? itMs all ‘against isis’ anyways; plus, if we write about iraq people might start to assume it’s the americans fault … so let’s focus on syria!).

the thing is – yes isis is brutal, but not the most brutal the world has ever seen; yes, an ever growing amount of refugees in europe puts pressure on socioeconomic systems and societies, but at the same time ‘our systems’, our politicians and our weapons and steel companies are the ones who helped a lot in creating this f*cked up situation in the first place; and last, yes mosul is a decisive battle but syria started in libya and if you want to end syria, you also have to start in libya!

technically one could even argue, syria started in tunesia. do you still remember that at all? 2011, the arab spring. highly (over)celebrated in western media (and sadly picked up largely unreflectedly by an ever more populistic western academia) as the glorious starting point of democracy in the ‘middle ages stuck’- middle east. actually, history could still prove this analysis to be right – but just like in european history, democracy is not something that comes overnight, nor without a lot of bloodshed (remember the jacobines?). personally, i am not so concerned with the question whether this event is a move towars democracy or another shift in the balance of power; what matters is that the tunisian example spread like a fire and spilled over to -among others- libya. the reason why libya is so much more important to mention than the others is simple: because the ‘western alliance’ screwed it up royally! i can’t remember whether it was the europeans or the americans who had the gloriously brilliant idea to kill gaddafi; the brutal, yet stabilizing dictator of the country who for the past decades had been their trusted ally (if you want to throw values over board, this is how you do it!). either way, gaddafi was killed and every fan of game of thrones can tell you what happened next: when you remove the (illegitimate but) strong center of power, what you get is chaos, destruction, and decentralization of power. war, in one word. the state fell apart. local militias formed, townsmen picked up weapons to fight and to defend themselves, and in the mist of war everyone started killing for better opportunities.

the situation today
at the moment, in libya, there are three governments. (if you ask whether any of them are democratic, you missed the point entirely.) local warlords terrorize the cities and towns. people pull taxes, livelihoods, and children at will from those too weak to defend themselves. why? because they can. there is no law. there is no authority to control them. and before you judge – i really really wonder what the streets would look like in baltimore if you pulled out the police for just a few days and told the people to make their own laws. or try paris. people who have money, influence or weapons, try to climb the ladder of influence. power is a soothing drug. it makes you want it while believeing you deserve it. the law of the fist (or the firearm -lovingly supplied by their former official allies in the western countries) trumps all morale, religion, rhethoric, and law.
so when have we forgotten about libya? syria went really badly down the drains around 2013. isis became popularly known in 2014. by that time, war in libya had been waging for three full years. and yet suddenly we forgot about it. boring, let’s move on. but the power vacuum in this one country has created such a black hole of violence, human catastrophe, and weapons that it actually affects the entire region around them – and yet we (in the western world of media and biased perception) decide to completely ignore these inter-connectivities.

let me ask you a question – where does isis have its weapons from?
there is a group of people, some iraqi, some syrian, some from all regions of the world who pour in because they enjoy ‘a good ol’ scrap’ – they want to fight in the syrian war. they want to prove their own masculinity. they don’t have jobs to give them a future – so they look for a future in war: die in glory or fight for more money, women, and opportunity. war gives opportunity to those who have none – it’s the oldest trick in the book; and yet the western continent who (thank god and the european union) has been untouched by war for almost two generations now choses to blatantly ignore this fact based on their own self-image of civilization and somehow ‘higher’ stage of humanity that they then voluntarily and patronizingly export into the rest of the world. but people fight. willingly and voluntairly. and they need weapons to pillage and loot. so where to take them from? the local black market has good-old russian material from the cold war at best. the weapons are used and old and sometimes a bigger threat than the enemy. but isis has fresh weapons. modern weapons. heavy weapons. weapons only a state would (or should?) ususally have. where did they get them from? from libya.
imagine you being a military leader in libya. you’re wealthy above average. you are powerful and yet you still follow commands. what if the supreme command breaks away though? what if your army disintegrates? people leave; they steal a weapon or two on their way out. everything goes down the drains. do you stand and pull everyone together? do you punish those who leave? it might be easy with some but when it’s half your army things get tricky. so what now? do you start fighting yourself? you know how to. you have access to a lot of great weapons. but wait, if they leave, and steal, and get away with it, why wouldn’t you? but why steal a tank when you can sell it? sell it and take a long long vacation on an island somewhere; your bank account hidden on another island or between the swiss mountains. what do you think happened after the collapse of the soviet union? it’s the same story, always. and so the weapons from libya drippled into the black market and into syria.

so nowadays we are all so focused on syria that we forgot libya ever happened. but libya is in pieces. still. the human suffering, despite not being shown in youtube clips made by isis and hence not being quite as media effective in the west, is tremendously high and the laws against humanity will one day fill international court rooms and student’s theses as another ruanda that the west just overlooked. oops.
libya is forgotten. do we take refugees from libya? we don’t. in fact we actively act as though there was nothing wrong there. at max there is some who mention how annoying it is that ever since gaddafi is gone, the libyan state is the center of human trafficking to europe. well, let’s put up a big defence line of maritime patrols in the sea, let’s consider bombing refugee ships ashore in libya, and let’s bribe the new local warlords to not send us refugees – we give them a good deal on more weapons in return! oh glorious europe, the more you announce your values of human rights the more you prove your own hypocricy in libya. libya in fact proves the worry a kurdish major expressed to me just last week: “isis is not our problem. as long as isis is here, western attention is here. the real problem starts after isis, when hashti shabi and other militias will start fighting within iraq an no one will even care to look at their cruelty.”
what a statement. isis is not a problem; the problem ony start when the west choses to turn their attention away. well, we turned our attention away from libya – and people die as a result of our ignorance.

in the west, we uphold human rights. yet we treat muslims and arabs like second class people – ask the jews how that feels. we defend liberties and democracy and yet we support anything that keeps ‘those damn refugees off our backs’. should we shoot at them at the border?-when did it become okay again to even think like that let alone utter it in public?!
so, while europe upholds values of humanity, we forget to be human – because we forget the people behind the numbers and we forget entire civilizations and our own faults in the chaos. we even manage to forget an entire country five times the size of germany!
the thing is, even when you drop the humanity argument – libya is vital strategically too! as long as libya is in pieces, the entire region will be unstable. so if syria started in libya, you need to end it in libya too. but unfortunately people are no longer aware of the inter-connectivities in this world …

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kirkuk – a city’s frontline in the middle east

when i think of kirkuk, i see plastic bags waving in the wind, caught up in barbwire. kirkuk is made up of many walls, protected by barbwire on top. it is there that many lonely plastic bags have been caught; so many in fact, i wonder whether some were actually put there on purpose. they are black and blue, pink, white and yellow. and they dance in the wind as the cars drive bye.
it is this scene which is descriptive of kirkuk to me: it looks peaceful, colors flying, waving in the wind. soft hills of yellow flowers -at least when visiting kurdistan in spring, and men walking and sitting on the dusty streets off the tarmac. yet just as the plastic bags are caught in a barbwire, so are the people. the walls and fences are a symbol of the constant battle of the city and its people; from within and from without.

as i flip through the pictures with former brigadier general of the first front line i visited in kirkuk back in 2014, he keeps pointing at faces he recognizes: dead, dead, dead. the number of dead people on my phone increases. they are called “martyrs” among the kurds. some of their faces decorate the side of the street, usually along the military checkpoints. all of them decorate the memories of their brothers in arms. i have yet to hear a story of a front line without getting the toll of their dead and wounded. and yet it seems that the danger in kirkuk is not isis but their own internal fragility.

back in 2014, the war with isis seemed to have strengthened the security of kirkuk. kurdish soldiers flooded into the area, putting up check points and drawing the border to daesh carefully along the lines of ethnic belonging between kurds and arabs and turks in the historically torn city. bombing attacks went down. from three a day to one or two a week. the war seemed indeed to be pushed outside of the city towards the front lines. and everybody was involved in kirkuk – all parties and all nations. the governor is put up by the southern kurdish party, puk, who have a traditionally strong influence in the city. but the kurdish democratic party, kdp, is also present in kirkuk due to its historical importance for kurdish self-perception and identity as well as their better influence with the turks, who are in the area because of the high number of turkmen living in this city (nationality does not necessarily end by a different passport if one believes in ethnic-blood). also the kurds of iran are in the city, and a while ago, i also came across the pkk of turkey. and the sole presence of the puk can allow the assumption for a certain degree of iranian influence as well – something that is strongly confirmed by the kurds of iran who are equally as worried about iran in their back as they are about isis in their front. and with all of that, one can of course not overlook the arab elements which stirr up the already explosive mix in addition. tellings of history depart on the “why and how” of the arabization of kirkuk but no one disputes the fact that under saddam hussein’s regime, an influx of arab settlers spread across the kirkuk governorate and the city in particular. it is those elements today that are (often correctly) suspected of working with isis – harboring their soldiers, spying on the kurdish efforts, and even deploying like sleeper cells within the city. but just as not all arabs are bad and all kurds or turks are good – the balance within the multi-ethnic city is more fragile than ever.

at the moment, the city is split in three parts: kurdish, arabic and turkmen. two internal securities, so called assayish on both sides, patrol the streets. but despite the pressence of forces, the city increasingly breaks into ever smaller parts. it is exactly this tripartition that creates power vacuums which are increasingly filled by small gangs. the increasing economic difficulties in the entire region of iraqi kurdistan has left people to a level of despair that any method of income has become acceptable. street robbery and crime has increased massively – felt by myself only in the increased care my kurdish friends paid towards my safety in traveling through kirkuk. when a year ago i still drove in a private car with my translator, this time we had two personal guards on board. but just like last year, i hope that one day, the plastic bags can be replaced by flags and flowers, while at the same time fearing that this city has yet to see the fiercest fighting over every single inch of its territory. and so, in a fragile balance, towards an unknown future, life continues …

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talking to enemies

there is a certain challenge to working on military merging processes. for starters, the military is a sensitive matter in any nation. suspicions are high to look for spies and anyone who might use information against themselves. because, despite europe believing that we as a human kind have moved passed the ‘primitive’ instinctive power that is based on fists and sticks and guns to a time of human rights and values and morals, even in europe one only has to ask about the size of their fists and sticks and guns to realize their rhethoric does not fit their actions and perceptions. in the middle east, and other areas of the world, at least no one denies the fact that the forces are a vital part in personal and societal survival. it is therefore the most natural thing for them to be protective about information. the understanding of that fact as a researcher helps in chosing the most careful approach to the forces. the second and most important step following this first understanding is the building of trust.

the currency of trust
trust can not be put in numbers. there is no recipe to achieve it. trust is a matter of sensitivity to different characters, honesty in the intention, and humbleness in the approach.
i personally see it as my own honor to protect those who i approach. this is not just about journalistic morals of protecting ones sources; to me this is bigger than a job description. trust is a two way street. and since i am the one approaching them, asking them to trust me, it is up to me more than them to keep up my end of the bargain. and with the honest intention in my heart to truly understand the situation from their perspective and maybe, through the abilities of academic thought i have attained over the years, be able to find a new angle and maybe even a solution, i approach the delicate issue of building trust on a delicate topic like the armed forces. and in that effort, the protection of those who i ask to trust me for the pleasure of my own research and understanding is of the utmost importance.

yet among the trust building and the imperative of protecting those i speak with, i constantly balance on the edge of the sword. it is both the great risk and the excitement that comes with the job on top of the intellectual pleasure. the sword is my bridge between the different parties involved in the merging process.
no matter how careful i am; no matter how honest i mean it not to be interested in taking sides or in playing one against the other, eventually i will end up talking to enemies.
and this is where the balancing act begins. different from approaching one state’s military, politically divided forces, guerilla, and militias have their different groupings and with each one the trust building effort is its own task and experience. beyond that, however, a lot of the groups are interlinked in a manner that the increase of trust with the one group diametrically decreases the trust with the other.

examples of experience – how the balancing act works in practice
while in kurdistan in 2014 and ever since, for example, this need to balance the different sides, affected the way i traveled, the amount i chose to talk to people on different sides, and the company i chose to take research journeys with. to speak honestly, it is very tiring and probably the hardest part of the job to make people on the one side believe that just because you talk to people on the other side or spend some time there, you do not necessarily ‘take their side’ or buy into their ideology. and this goes both ways. but the idea of academic neutrality, or the ‘elfenbeinturm‘ as we call it in german referring to the detachment of any sides that an academic takes on by viewing the entire field from above rather than simply from one angle, is unknown to this part of the world (for a good reason as also the elfenbeinturm idea has been raped front- side- and backwards by european politicians and so called academics that hid their own agenda behind big moral values and loud proclamations of interest for the nations). it is therefore both a tiring and a delicate task to stay in the balance with all sides (consider that these sides are also constantly in flux and changing) to build the trust necessary for any kind of actual in-depth work of analysis. in talking with enemies, to me there is no recipe except the constant awareness of ones own work’s fragility… to be continued …

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Peshmerga: united in future?

Tell History is an awesome project which collects short stories about people’s experiences during historical events and processes.

To support this project, I was recently asked to talk about my experiences in Kurdistan – see: Visiting Iraq without Iraqi approval – discovering Kurdistan and my analytical assessment of the unification of the Peshmerga – see: Peshmerga: united in future?

I’m looking forward to comments, input, thoughts and reflections.

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