War is never about what they say it’s about

Observation #1: A war is never about what the combatants say it’s about.

War is more than people shooting at each other. It is a symptom of an underlying conflict that is usually complex and has political, social, and economic facets. The causes often boil down to real or perceived disparities in power and/or economics. However, they are often expressed in religious or political terms that mask the true nature of the issues.

There are good reasons for this: People are rarely willing to die for an idea. But they will die to feed their families. In any conflict, it is necessary to create a sense of imminent threat. Most Americans didn’t care whether an indigenous communist group took over a faraway country, but if they could be made to believe that the Commies were coming to America to take away their Buicks and force them to wait in bread lines, that created a sense of urgency that might convince them to join the Army and support the war. Likewise if someone can be made to believe that there is a threat to their religion, for example that the Muslim Infidels want to persecute Christians and take away their daughters, they may be convinced to risk their lives to fight the invaders.

Because combatants tailor their message to create this sense of urgency, it is often difficult to identify what the underlying conflict is. To take one example, the Sri Lanka conflict appears to be about independence for the Tamil minority, which the Sinhalese majority opposes. But the underlying conflict is quite different: it is about a power struggle within the Sinhala community that has little to do with the Tamils, and the resulting effort of the Tamils to live outside this intra-Sinhala struggle. There are, of course, many other complicating factors, including caste, class, and economic disparity. But the point is, it’s not simply an ethnic conflict.

Without identifying the true underlying conflict, peace efforts are unlikely to be successful. It would be like working on a vehicle’s carbuerator when the defect is in the ignition system— no matter how hard you try, the car still won’t run. And identifying the underlying conflict can require a great deal of study.


  1. The Iraq War would certainly be a good example of this. It wasn’t about WMDs or Saddam at all.

    The insurgencies certainly all want the US out, but have a multiplicity of causes and loyalties, as well as morphing constantly, so they have lots of agendas too.

    Maybe the first step in peace is when all the sides say we want it and they mean it.

  2. I wish it was that simple! As my following posts will demonstrate, that can’t happen because all sides participating have a vested interest in fighting. That’s why peace is a complex process that requires a comprehensive strategy by committed people and organizations. It’s not “just” a political problem.

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