Peace Studies vernacular becomes mainstream?

21 Dec

I’ve just spent the last few days at a very interesting conference run by the Changing Character of War Project at Oxford. It was heavily attended by the Land Intelligence Fusion Centre, who seem to be the part of the British Army that thinks about strategy and doctrine. Apart from the large concentration of impossibly shiny shoes, the most striking aspect of the conference was the extent to which the military are comfortable with the language and concepts that I associate with the critical perspective on peace and conflict studies.
This is a reflection of where the military find themselves. The Afghan campaign is now about ‘end states’ and ‘drawdown’. The British military must find a rationale for the task given to them by Whitehall – and ultimately by the Pentagon. And that task is to clear out of Afghanistan by 2014. So gone is talk of defeating the Taliban and of democracy and all of those other ideas that were current in the immediate post-2001 years. This has been replaced by a more measured language that is interested in passing responsibility for security and governance to (approved) local actors. And this is where the language associated with critical peace and conflict studies comes in. Terms such as ‘enablement’, ‘local participation’, and ‘local buy-in’ now pepper the military language in relation to Afghanistan. These terms have been staples in the vernacular of peace studies for a very long time as scholars and practitioners have sought to oppose the top-down bias that we have seen in many development and peace-support interventions. But now this language has been mainstreamed by the military.
Reports from military commanders were surprisingly sociological in that they focused on things like the quality and diversity of produce in town marketplaces. The focus on military objectives (e.g., areas cleared of Taliban) seem to have been replaced by more mundane indications of ‘normality’ connected with getting the kids to school and food to market. Again, this is very reminiscent of much of the language found in critical peace and conflict studies that wishes to see peace localized and is aware that peace made in diplomatic capitals often has little connection with peace experienced in towns, villages and valleys.
In one way it is easy to criticize this use of language as being expedient; scrabbling around for a face-saving language to suit a mission that is now about withdrawal and failure. But it is possible to see this trend in a more positive light. Yes, the use of language might be expedient, but there does seem to be a genuine understanding of the limitations of western power projection and a recognition of the agency held by local communities. This can only be a good thing and let’s hope that it can inform future policy.

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4 Responses to “Peace Studies vernacular becomes mainstream?”

  1. alanbullion 21/12/2012 at 5:00 pm #

    Sounds very novel Roger but I can remember British Army talk of wider peacekeeping and other concepts in the mid nineties
    Indeed the OU course I teach is positively infused with such language and was written almost a decade ago with soldiers etc specifically in mind
    Some of my army students from Afghanistan etc are the most heavy users of the lexicon of postmodern peacekeeping discourse in their essays
    This fusion is really nothing new but maybe academia has become more aware over recent years despite the gulf between theory and praxis?
    Hybridity indeed!
    Beer in Londinuim sometime?
    Seasons Greetings and Good Luck with the new Informa journal
    Alan B

    • rogermacginty 22/12/2012 at 11:57 am #

      Yes, I think you could well be right Alan. The military is probably temporarily using this language to come to terms with its new situation.
      Should be in the Londinium in Spring to viva a PhD so beer then hopefully!

  2. Darren Atkinson 21/12/2012 at 10:29 pm #

    This is interesting but I would suggest it is not particularly new or even related to the situation the military finds itself in Afghanistan. I always found it strange that the literature on peace and conflict was so rooted to the idea that western individuals, western institutions and western states had the right ideas but all they need to do is learn how to “build local capacity” or develop “good governance”. In my opinion the institutional instruments of western capitalist and democratic domination have been using this language for many years and it was only a matter of time before the military wing started using the same rhetoric. At all stages of history dominant powers have used a variety of language to cloak their hegemony, even and especially to themselves, and I would argue this is a just a modern example of that. I am certainly not optimistic that this will help inform policy.

    • rogermacginty 22/12/2012 at 11:59 am #

      I think you’re right about it not being particularly novel. Although the striking thing about spending a few days with the military was that they had a very slight capacity to learn from the past (like many other organisations I suppose). So the contemporary experience in Afghanistan dominated their thinking. Iraq was like ancient history, and as for Aden, Malaya etc … well that was pre-history.
      Anyway, send some sunshine up to the northern hemisphere.

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