14 June 2018

Review: New & Old Wars by Mary Kaldor

Trade paperback, 268 pages
Published 2012 (1st ed.: 1998)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2017
New & Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era
by Mary Kaldor

Kaldor describes the phenomenon of what she calls "new wars," perhaps best explained via contrast to old wars. An old war is the war we imagine when we think of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, the Napoleonic Wars and World War II, "war involving states in which battle is the decisive encounter" (vi). Old war is fought by states, with a goal of conquest through military encounter.

By contrast, new war has different goals and different means. It is fought by a mix of state and non-state actors: regular armed forces, criminal groups, and paramilitary organizations. Its goals are population control and its ideologies are identity politics: a revolutionary wants to build a new society, but new wars are about labels, so the main goal is to purge undesirable labels. Mass relocation of civilians and ethnic cleansing becomes a goal, not a by-product. In some ways they're more rational than old wars-- many of their tactics are war crimes, but these new actors are unfettered by that: "These wars are rational in the sense that they apply rational thinking to the aims of war and refuse normative constraints" (106). New war is more like a social condition than old war, and thus new war breeds new war, like an infection, as areas collapse, they set up conditions that cause adjacent areas to collapse. New war is also globalized: modern communications technology means that a war in one country can be supported by a financial infrastructure stretching over the whole world.

Kaldor primarily explains the concept via the Bosnian War (1992-95), where she was an observer, and the contemporary wars in Afghanistan (2001-14) and Iraq (2003-11), but as you read, you can easily see how the wars of the Islamic State (which came to prominence two years after this edition was published) are an example of the phenomenon she describes in almost perfect detail. There are times the book gets into a level of detail that's more than is desired by the non-political scientist, I suspect, but I found it a compelling and useful thesis, making clear something I had not exactly seen before. I had hoped for some connections with my own (literary) interests in political violence, and I don't think there was much of that here, but it was still a worthwhile read for understanding the modern political landscape.

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