The mechanism of war: Starting hell's engine

Previous sections:
1. The mechanism of war: Introduction
2. The mechanism of war: the components

Participation in a war is a matter of choice. A person will turn to war only when he or she thinks that this is the best option, compared to all the options that are available.

Since the politicians and the marginal types often see conflict and violence as appealing ways to achieve their goals, one can easily see why those two groups would likely engage in a war if a good opportunity arises.

But, long-term and large-scale conflicts cannot occur without the participation of the most numerous category – the producers. We know that the producers don’t not like conflict. They want to, if at all possible, avoid conflicts because conflicts can destroy the productive, family way of life that the producers are building.

On the other hand, we know from experience that producers not only participated in the war in the former Yugoslavia, but they were the most numerous group in that war. This war was, for the most part, a war of producers of one nationality against producers of other nationalities.

This is at first sight contrary to my initial assumption that the producers don’t like conflict and therefore don’t want to attack other people. If we asked people on each of the warring sides why they were participating in that war, we would hear the same answer - that this side only defends itself from others. If "our" side sometimes attacks, it is only to prevent the otherwise inevitable attacks of "their" side.

From this destructive and violent scenario, it is hard to recognize those original peaceful and productive producers. How did this transformation occur?

To understand the process of transforming the producers from peaceful cooperators into paranoid warriors, we must go back to the first phase of the war. This is the stage where the politicians, for whatever reason, decide that a violent conflict between their supporters could strengthen and deepen the politicians’ authority. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, that suitable moment came in the late 1980s, when it became clear that the Yugoslav economy was in a downward trajectory and that, as such, could not withstand the increased pressures of the IMF for repaying old debts that Tito's regime used in the process of industrialization of the fifties, sixties and seventies.

This seemed to be a suitable moment for political authorities of some republics (i.e., federal units, provinces) to combine economic reforms with the desire of a large number of people within those republics for achieving the statehood of the republics. Deteriorating economic conditions in the country served as a motive for the ever increasing number of accusations that the republic X was "robbed of its money" by the republic Y or Z. Quite frequently, one could hear from top political positions the inflammatory rhetoric that "things cannot continue this way anymore" or that "accounts have to be settled" or that "we want to take what’s our own".

Such rhetoric from the highest political positions was the first signal for the marginal types that the highest political authorities, on each of the opposing sides, might look the other way if any acts of violence occured. Marginal types understood this as their chance to be noticed, recognized, respected, a chance that someone finally takes them seriously.

The first abductions, tortures and murders in 1991 in the multi-ethnic parts of Croatia were the first tests by which the marginal types tried to sense the sentiment of the current political elite, on both sides. On either of the sides, there was no categorical condemnation of these, still sporadic crimes. I’ll avoid mentioning any names because the names in this story are irrelevant. The mechanism is what’s important.

Even then, many producers have recognized that these crimes were committed by the marginal types, not by working and peaceful people. Most producers still did not see the seeds of war in these crimes because they were not seen as an expression of ethnic intolerance, but as an expression of inhumanity of the marginal types. One could often hear the producers saying that those first crimes were not committed by a Serb or a Croat, but by a nonhuman, a criminal. Also one could hear producers saying that if someone had been harassed or killed, the cause of the attack was not the nationality of that person, but the fact that the attackers were criminals and nonhumans.

Thus, most of the producers, on both sides, still believed that they were not threatened by the producers of other nationalities. Therefore, for most producers, the cost of achieving the political goals of their leaders through war was at that point too high. So, most producers thought that avoiding conflicts with the marginal types of the other nationality was a better option.

But, once the marginal types felt they would not be punished for crimes, they did not stop. Harassment, abductions and killings continued. Over time, errors and misinformation in the mostly verbal information transmission process accumulated. It became less clear whether someone was killed because he or she was a Serb, Croat or Muslim or because he or she simply crossed paths with an unaccomplished, frustrated marginal type. It also became less clear in the minds of the producers whether someone committed a terrible crime because he or she was an inhuman marginal type or because he or she was a Serb or a Croat.

This uncertainty produced two powerful emotions in producers: fear and disdain - fear for the safety of their own families and disdain for "them". In the minds of the producers, “they” are no longer just marginal types but more and more, “they” include the producers of other nationalities. The distinction between marginal types and producers is blurred and the main distinction becomes between the people of ‘their” nationality and people of “our” nationality. “They" hate "us" and are ready to use any means against “us”, just like they abducted and and maybe killed my acquaintance or family member. This is how producers on both ethnic sides are now starting to think.

This process leads to the subjective experience of falling costs of participating in a violent conflict in relation to avoiding the conflict. Producers could lose everything in a violent conflict, but they are also increasingly getting the impression that avoiding the conflict could cause them to lose everything as well. The marginal types, encouraged by the political elites on both sides, are now starting to ask the producers of their nationality to choose sides. If you are not with “us”, then you must be with ”them”. There is no third option. This too increases the cost to the producers of further delaying their participation in the conflict.

At that point, many producers are willing to spend the night hidden in their yards to prevent the attack on themselves, their families or neighbors. After this, there is only a small step to becoming a watchmen with an AK-47 rifle, which was conveniently supplied by the political leadership of each ethnic side through their marginal types. With a rifle in his hands, the producer has become a warrior. He is being lead and organized by the marginal types, who are now boasting that they were "the first to take guns in their hands." Even now, with a rifle in his hands, the producer still sees his military commander as a marginal type and a bum, but agrees to submit to this bum's command because the producer thinks that this is now a necessary step in protecting his family.

Now, on each of the warring sides, there are producers filled with fear and contempt. And when they attack, and when they destroy and kill, in their minds, they are defending themselves. Each new attack is only an answer to a previous attack of "the other side". Every new atrocity, in their minds, is necessary to prevent future atrocities of "the other side ". The mechanism has been started, and it will stop only when at least one side is completely destroyed.

Next section: How to stop the mechanism of war?


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