Chris Blattman is a professor in the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at the University of Chicago. His 20 years of researching war has taken him from a war in northern Uganda, to violent mining camps and urban slums in postwar Liberia, to meet leaders of drug cartels in Medellín, and even work with street gangs in Chicago. His new book argues that fighting is hard, and finding peace is easier than you think.
Below, Chris shares 5 key insights from his new book, Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace. Listen to the audio version—read by Chris himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Enemies prefer to loathe in peace.
Most people think war is easy and peace is hard, but it’s the other way around. That seems like a strange message when there is a massive, ongoing conflict in Ukraine, but that’s because we only pay attention to the conflicts that do happen. For instance, two weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, India accidentally launched a cruise missile at Pakistan—but calm ensued. War would have been unimaginably costly, so both sides strove to avoid it, as they have for decades.
Another example is that schoolchildren will learn about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan for the next two decades. However, almost none of them will hear about America’s 1994 invasion of Haiti. After a military general seized power from a newly elected President, Colin Powell, Secretary of State for the George W. Bush administration, arrived in Haiti with the backing of the United Nations. Powell showed the new dictator a video of dozens of American military planes taking off, full of soldiers and equipment. Powell explained that the footage was from two hours ago. The general capitulated right there.
Fighting is almost never worth it, but nobody writes books about the times we don’t fight, and we tend to overlook articles about quiet compromise. Focusing exclusively on the times peace failed is a selection bias that encourages most people to think that war is common, despite the reality that fighting is the exception, not the rule.
Imagine if a doctor only saw critically ill patients and forgot the normal state of human health. That doctor would misdiagnose the ailment and dole out ineffective treatments. War is too important to get so wrong.
2. War is rare because it is ruinous.
I saw the unimaginable destructiveness of war myself, in northern Uganda 20 years ago. Children abducted by rebels. The entire population thrown into squalid camps by the government. Violence so cruel and extravagant that I don’t want to talk about those stories.
We can see horrors like these playing out in Ukraine: deaths, fields untilled, cities that look like rubble, and empty treasuries on both sides. It’s because of terrible costs that most groups try everything possible to avoid all-out fighting.
“It’s because of terrible costs that most groups try everything possible to avoid all-out fighting.”
Even Putin tried to avoid war, in his own insidious way. For 20 years, he tried every underhanded means possible to co-opt Ukraine: dark money, propaganda, political stooges, assassinations, and support for separatists. As violent and costly as all these things were, not one of them were as reckless or ruinous as war.
3. There are only five reasons for war.
It might seem like there’s a reason for every war and a war for every reason, but most of the reasons are one of five ways that a society, or its leaders, come to ignore the costs of fighting.
The first is unchecked interests. Take Putin, for example. He can ignore most of the costs because he is not accountable to the people who pay them. As an autocrat, he is insulated from all that and can pursue his own private interests.
The second reason is intangible or ideological incentives. For instance, Putin’s imperial obsessions: a desire to make Russia great again, personal glory, and a place in history.
The third is uncertainty. Remember how uncertain all these things were a few months ago? The bravery and resolve of ordinary Ukrainians. Russia’s military strength. The West’s unity on sanctions. When circumstances are this uncertain, it’s easy to get the costs and benefits wrong, and Putin may have. War becomes a gamble.
The fourth is misperceptions. We process information in biased ways, such as when you hear that Putin is insulated, isolated, overconfident, underestimating costs of war. These seem to have been his misperceptions.
The fifth is a strategic concept known as a commitment problem. This happens when one side can’t trust the other to commit, so it has to lock in its advantage while it can. Earlier this year, Ukraine had acquired Turkish drones, and was building its own missiles. Invasion was only going to get more difficult for Russia, and the Ukrainians could hardly commit not to protect themselves. Meanwhile, they were getting closer to the West and democracy. Arguably, Russia was at its peak leverage. Amidst this commitment problem, it was time to lock in their advantage—now or never.
“We can only counter conflict if we comprehend the motives.”
To explain aggression is not to excuse it. We can only counter conflict if we comprehend the motives. That means understanding aggressors’ misperceptions, ideologies, and all the times they are coldly calculating, making their selfish but optimal choice in response to circumstance.
4. The five rules apply to all kinds of conflicts.
These insights apply to national rivalries, civil wars, ethnic conflict, and even gang wars. My day job is testing new ways to create peace in civil wars and violent cities. Why nations fight, and what stops them, helps us understand war and peace at these lower levels—and vice versa.
Let me use the example of Chicago, where (like many American cities) homicides have spiked for five years now. The gang leaders I know don’t want to go to war. After all, you don’t sell many drugs in a gunfight, and nobody wants to spend life looking over their shoulder. But sometimes they do fight, and at least three of the five help us understand why.
One reason is that they are unchecked: gang leaders aren’t accountable to their community, so they can safely ignore most of the damage their violence causes. They also have intangible incentives. Not nationalism or glory, but (typically) vengeance. They’re pursuing blood feuds—someone killed their brother, or best friend. They’re willing to pay the costs of fighting for their honor or revenge. Then there’s uncertainty—more subtle, but arguably more important.
One of the gang leaders I worked with told me about the first time he was robbed selling drugs. They had thought he was weak. He realized that if he didn’t do something, then he would done. So, he tracked down and shot the man who robbed him. He had to do that a few more times before he had built a fearsome reputation. By the time I met him in a gang exit program, he was a repeated, but regretful, killer.
Here’s the thing: he needed to construct a reputation because of uncertainty. There’s no need for a reputation in a world where everyone knows your strength. But in an uncertain world, sometimes fighting is your best way to signal that you should not be messed with—starting some fights to prevent others. That’s actually one reason why the U.S. stayed so long in Afghanistan. America wasn’t just pursuing revenge—it was building a reputation to serve as a warning to other rogue states or terror groups of what would happen if they attacked American soil.
“Mistakes and passions bring groups to blows, but there is usually subtle, strategic logic at work, too—cruel and self-interested—that we must learn to recognize and counteract.”
Mistakes and passions bring groups to blows, but there is usually subtle, strategic logic at work, too—cruel and self-interested—that we must learn to recognize and counteract.
5. Every path to peace tackles at least one of the five reasons.
There are hundreds of gangs in Medellín, Colombia—maybe 12,000 armed young men in the city. Yet the homicide rate is a third of that in Chicago.
One gang leader in prison told me about two rival groups on his cellblock. A fight broke out over a game of billiards. One side pulled out their guns and fired on the other. Over the next few days, there were revenge killings, and every group in the city took sides with one gang or the other. These unchecked gangs, thirsting for revenge, needing to burnish their reputations, could have launched a war—but it stopped there, because that’s when the razón leaders stepped in.
The razones (the city’s big crime bosses) hate when the street gangs fight. The razones are the wholesale suppliers to the gang retail drug operations. They lose money in a war, but more importantly, when blood fills the streets, the big bosses lose their shield of invisibility, and police and prosecutors come after them. So, they stopped the billiards war from ever happening.
If a gang is unchecked, pursuing an intangible like revenge, or misperceiving their mistake, then the razones are ready to sanction the gangs—with a gun to the head, if necessary. The mere predictability of the razón response helps avert a great deal of violence in Medellín before it starts. If the gangs are bedeviled by uncertainty, or unable to make commitments, the razones have some solutions, too. They created a bargaining table called La Oficina (the office). They get gangs talking, reducing uncertainty. They provide guarantees and enforce commitments. La Oficina is a little like the UN Security Council—powerful, unequal, and far too inconsistent in their efforts to stop violence. But when they do act, they usually make Medellín more peaceful.
Our international tools are similar. Sanctions or the threat of prosecution for war crimes try to compel unchecked leaders to consider the costs of war when nothing else will. Likewise, legions of mediators, monitors, weapons inspectors, and journalists do their best to reduce uncertainty and foster commitments.
All these tools are imperfect. To do better, we will need to counter the five reasons for war in more predictable, systematic, and equal ways. Still, if this century is less violent than the last (which even now it seems to be), then we have these interventions to thank. I hope people start to see all of the quiet compromises happening around them.
To listen to the audio version read by author Chris Blattman, download the Next Big Idea App today: