Economic collapse is driving today's ethnic hatreds

Georgie Anne Geyer

August 13, 1993|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Chicago -- No ONE who reads the papers needs to be reminded that we face a future of ethnic and tribal wars and the disintegration of one stable nation-state after another. No one has to be reminded that those fearsome wraiths followed immediately upon the collapse of communism.

But I have done on-the-spot coverage of most of these new "little wars" -- from Lebanon to Yugoslavia to Azerbaijan -- and what troubles me deeply is that the predominant analyses of their causes are so flawed that our responses to them so far also have been fatally flawed.

In the former Yugoslavia, for instance, the British Foreign Office has for two years acted on the ridiculous theory that the terrible wars there were inevitable. It's a wonderful excuse, of course, for doing nothing. The Europeans in general have treated the Bosnian war as an uprising of ancient hatreds that were so intractable that all one could do was treat the fatal disease of violence from the peripheries.

I have written before that these analyses are tragically wrong. Indeed, 140,000 people in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia have already died because of them. What will happen in the many unstable parts of the world if we keep up these kinds of foreign policy analyses and actions? Hundreds of thousands more will die.

So it was with joy that I came upon a remarkable article in the March-April issue of the Bulletin of the Field Museum of Natural History. "The Causes of War," by Jonathan Haas, curator of New World Archaeology at the Field Museum in Chicago, gives an extraordinary prism through which we can understand today's new-style wars. He offers us the invaluable and inviolable lessons of history, from an archaeologist who has studied ancient warfare.

The first two lessons from his archaeological studies:

(1) "If ethnic differences don't exist before a war, they are sometimes made up to justify a war," and (2) "The causes of warfare are not to be found in ethnic differences, but in the economic and demographic conditions at the time."

Dr. Haas has studied, among other cultures, the fascinating Anasazi Indian culture of the Southwest. He found that initially, in the first century A.D., the entire Anasazi region was culturally similar. By A.D. 1000, different peoples, such as the Mesa Verde and the Kayenta Anasazi, had been differentiating into groups but still all lived peacefully together; and by the 13th century, the entire region was struck by disaster: cyclical droughts, erosion of arable land and growing malnutrition.

"It is only under these circumstances" he says (my emphasis), "that we see indicators of warfare breaking out among the different culture groups of the Anasazi. We find burned houses, wrecked villages, headless skeletons and skeletonless heads." And the carnage goes on for 50 years.

"Note," he continues, "that the conflict arose only after the

development of discrete, culturally different groups." But most important, that conflict also only arose after the economic and environmental stresses came to be too intense for the social groups to bear.

"While cultural or ethnic differences are found as a precondition of warfare, they should not be interpreted as a sufficient condition or cause," he sums up. "For this we must look elsewhere.

"Returning to the modern world, we read every day of the breakup of Eastern Europe and the re-emergence of violence between different ethnic groups. The inference is often made in the press that the violent tension has always been there, but it has been suppressed by the power of the communist state. With the fall of communism, the inherent ethnic hate has bubbled to the surface, and the violence of Yugoslavia or Armenia or Azerbaijan results.

"But is the cause of this violence simply ethnic difference? Are the Croats and Serbs killing each other because of differences in their religion and linguistic backgrounds? Or are such ethnic differences a convenient dividing line in countries facing economic collapse and chaos? The silent and remote archeological record from the American Southwest suggests that economics and not ethnicity is the driving engine behind the warfare we see arising in Eastern Europe and recurring elsewhere around the world.

". . . 'Us' and 'them' together in a world of relative bounty became 'us' vs. 'them' in a world of stress and shortage."

Dr. Haas has it right. The few of us who bothered to cover Yugoslavia from 1988 and '89 onward, when the coming conflict was being meticulously crafted, and slumbering hatreds deliberately awakened, wrote of the economic collapse of Yugoslavia, which came first and swiftly upon the heels of the ideological collapse. Ethnic hatreds came long afterward.

It may seem now that this is all relatively unimportant. The dead are dead, after all. The truth, though, is that we are only at the beginning of post-Cold War conflict, that these wars are not inevitable at all and that we ought to start getting it right.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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