ending mass atrocities: five-and-a-half lessons from jeff winger

If you didn’t watch Community‘s latest episode–or, worse, didn’t enjoy it–you’re missing something. Between the Ken Burns effect, the raw sound editing, and the cinematography, the episode was a visual masterpiece; add in the usual banter, and you have twenty-one minutes of Paintball-level quality. In addition to the episode’s cinematic value, the Pillows and Blankets motif functioned as an instructive manual for conflict resolution and atrocities termination practitioners. Here’s a brief guide, courtesy of Jeff Winger:

1. Local conflicts are often internationalized, and international conflicts are often localized: At its core, the Pillowtown/Blanketsburg civil war is a localized land conflict, characterized by short, brutal squabbles over small classrooms, former common areas, and stretches of hallway. Its root causes lay in the contested, yet transient identity conflicts between politicized Pillow advocates and Blanket enthusiasts. At the same time, Greendale’s ethnicized conflict is reliant on an international structure of political, economic, and social incentives. The Dean’s obsession with the Guinness record appears to be a sideshow, a system of political objectives imposed by meddling, predatory third parties. However, as the episode’s conclusion indicates, the international element of civil conflict was relevant to individual and collective motives for violence. Elites–Troy and Abed–continue to squabble, but their ability to mobilize civilian communities was highly dependent on the international political economy of warfare.

Political scientists have attempted to explain the ways in which local and international economies of violence operate, with recent works emphasizing the role of local violence in fueling long-standing, intractable patterns of mass atrocity. Indeed, basic conclusions from quantitative datasets indicate that even as international power dynamics shift, local conflict drivers may manifest themselves in conflict duration, onset, and severity. However, local political actors, conflict entrepreneurs, and opposition movements are keenly aware of the international dimension of intrastate war, often exploiting international social networks for political benefit. As in the Greendale civil war, neither the local nor the international dimension of civil war is an expendable element of conflict resolution and atrocities termination policy.

2. Asymmetric intelligence kills: In the Greendale civil war, the worst atrocity events are not caused by the willful deployment of a murderous, industrial infrastructure; rather, they are the result of significant intelligence failures. Philippe Silberzahn, from SCIP.Insight, captures the problem well: policymakers suffer from gaps in intelligence analysis, rather than collection. Greendale’s military operatives have access to broad sources of operational and strategic intelligence–Troy and Abed deploy diverse collection disciplines, including signals and human intelligence, to gauge the opponent’s military actions and political decision-making. However, analytic assumptions and biases cloud the respective military leaders’ understanding of opposing capacities, with perilous consequences for Greendale’s civilians. In contrast to the destructive, overpowering “juggernaut” Troy assesses, Abed’s Pierce-controlled, Michelin Man-like puff-monster is a weapon of limited effectiveness, as demonstrated by its non-decisive, fallible role in the Battle of Greendale. However, assuming a more powerful arsenal, Troy deploys the Changlorious Basterds, a rag-tag, pubescent group of blood-thirsty mercenaries. Troy’s mercenaries wreak havok on Pillowtown, destroying civilian pillow-structure, cutting off essential supply chains, and disrupting the state’s massage-circle-based, communitarian economy.

3. Decisive victory is often an insufficient approach to atrocities termination: The interaction between operational goals and strategic objectives is a crucial prerequisite to an understanding of decisive victory’s potential role in atrocities termination. Political objectives underline their military counterparts–in Clausewitzian form, military force is subordinate to policy. As discussed above, the Pillows and Blankets war has its origins in Troy and Abed’s parallel political objectives: the assertion of territorial control over Greendale’s indoor campus building. Force is instrumental, as are the mass atrocities associated with its use. In the Greendale civil war, force operates at the operational level, intended to strike at Troy and Abed’s centers of gravity–the resilience of the erstwhile-friends’ respective infrastructures and civilian populations.

Before the Guinness withdrawal, Troy appears to hold the upper hand, with the Changlorious mercenaries pummeling Abed’s fluffy juggernaut. However, even if the mercenaries and Blanketsburgian troops reigned victorious, atrocities would likely have continued, with Blanketsburgs’ civilians initiating reprisal violence against their Pillowtownian adversaries. The consequences of the shortest, most seemingly inconsequential atrocities can, in fact, have wide-reaching consequences, due to persistent perceptions of antagonism between Pillowtownian and Blanketsburgian civilians. Decisive victory may eliminate the short-term political incentives for atrocity mobilization, but over the long-term political, economic, and social foundations for conflict onset remain.

4. Unfortunately, so are negotiated settlements: Jeff and the Dean’s first negotiation round is a classic demonstration of a political “commitment dilemma,” an essential hazard of third-party policy intervention in intrastate wars. In contrast to the second round of negotiations (see point 5), external actors perceive few incentives for credible participation in multi-party negotiations, as demonstrated by the Dean’s half-hearted plea for Jeff’s mediation, as well as Jeff’s persistent cynicism. In the context of the first round, the lack of strategic consequences, instability spillovers, and human tolls create a non-permissive environment for preventive diplomacy. With few incentives for participation, Jeff and the Dean create a diplomatic space for status quo mediations, based on an unsustainable ceasefire, rather than inclusive, transformative mediation between Pillowtown and Blanketsburg.

Jeff’s settlement provides amnesty for political elites, with no punitive measures to coerce a mutual peace. Almost instantly, the negotiations fall apart, with Troy and Abed returning to solidify their divisions, stake out separate territories, and escalate atrocities against opposing civilian populations (Troy’s “all tomato” to Abed–easily the episode’s best pun).

5. Political elites respond to the darndest things: In his second round of negotiated talks, Jeff attempts to coerce Abed and Troy towards peace, providing them with dusted-off, imaginary “friendship hats,” which symbolize the restoration of long-standing, ultimately unshakeable camaraderie. Innovative conflict resolution strategies are frequent characteristics of civil war termination; indeed, the best approaches respond to unique contexts, allowing for flexibility, adaptability, and nuanced response. My favorite example: as late as 1994, Afonso Dhlakama, the leader of the guerrilla movement RENAMO, threatened to withdraw from Mozambique’s first post-conflict elections, damaging the country’s already-fragile political stability. In response, the international community sponsored a UN-controlled, $14.8 million trust fund for RENAMO’s elites, in order to provide personal incentives for political participation. As a short-term strategy, the trust fund worked, and Mozambique conducted the first of a succession of successful national elections.

5.5. No one likes Britta: ‘Nuff said.

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6 thoughts on “ending mass atrocities: five-and-a-half lessons from jeff winger

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