In Search of the Root Cause of Calamity

For more than curiosity, people will ask for the root cause(s) of events such as wars, accidents, and traumatic events. Perhaps they ask in hope of identifying preventive process or they to provoke meaning to a tragic loss of life. “Just tell me why” seems like a reasonable plea on the surface but the reality of an event betrays the simplistic nature of the request.

Root causes are a grail, a belief that if we can identify the one first cause of the event in question, then we can eradicate the possibility of this trauma every occurring again. Ending tragic death by the erasure of the elements that lead to strife, death and destruction is a lofty, noble goal yet a naive one. A simple argument is that humanity is far too enmeshed in the struggles for security of all types, the consequences of history, and the needs of the day to affect by the removal of one element easily and thoroughly. War and terror is always a combination of elements, of factors, of processes put into place some time ago and chance that all the prerequisites will align.

When they align, someone has to explain standing near the debris of the aftermath. Pundits hate non-specific explanations.  The person at the microphone, whether the person is the sheriff, head of an agency or investigative board, a district attorney, or the president of a country appears as defensive bureaucrat because they can offer no one concise reason. They declare in one form or another, “It is complicated; there are many reasons; the reasons are unclear; we have differing points of view, ideology or religion.” The presenters are condemned for hiding the answers when they do not have the answers or worse, there are no real answers to be had.

My example: Columbine was a terrible massacre. The reasons and explanations of motivations of the two shooters were a universe of opinions, innuendo, pseudo-science, and arm-chair punditry – and every educated speculation offered up in the first years, including many of the facts, were wrong. Only after ten years was a definitive study of the event, including an examination of all of the facts, published. The conclusions offered did not resemble anything presented in the first year and the reasons confounded most of the speculation of the early years. At the end of this thick tome, the reasons did not lend themselves to easy or satisfying solutions.

If Columbine was restricted to two shooters and one high school, and after a thorough, ten year examination there was no simple straightforward answer of why, then how do we turn to the greater events of the day, the Syrian Civil War, the so-called Islamic State, the massacres of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the slaughter by Al Shabab in northern Kenya, and expect explanations that lead to solutions?

The point is now clear: the simplistic hope of a root cause leads only to absurdity and despair. Even if there is a root cause, there are plenty of other elements, other causes that lead to outbreaks of war, invasion, revolution, and self-righteously justified slaughter of innocents. There is more than one root cause and the answers we need to seek are not going to be simple. Why indeed.

Precipitating the argument above is a paper released recently on the effects of climate change on the Syrian Civil War. A root cause, if such a thing exists, is a recent migration within the country. As the southern and southeastern parts of the country were consumed by an accelerating and expanding desertification of the land, the people who eked out a living on these previously marginal lands were forced to relocate in camps surrounding the urban centers of Syria. These displaced families, clans, and tribes received little or no support from the government and they became the fuel upon which the civil strife exploded into civil war. All of the fractures of economic, social, and civic struggle were already in place, a product of the al-Assad regimes but climate change may have been a root cause among many, many reasons.

The purpose of the paper was to demonstrate a larger thesis that climate change will exacerbate tensions and clashes across the globe. With the rapid expansion of the Sahara Desert, we should expect war and violence in the countries affected: Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Niger, Ethiopia, Chad, Somalia and so on. When resources such as water and arable land disappear, people will compete for ever-shrinking resources. Villages and tribes will migrate and fanaticism born of desperation will fortify them as they surge outward.

The hatreds and the competitions are already there. The battles between religions are millennia-long wars that may be the continuance of tribal wars that preceded the missionaries. The competition over resources, the best land or the water source or the salt pan is ancient. The xenophobia is ever present. By luck or by goodly intervention these points of friction were kept cool and calm for periods of time. If the thesis is correct, climate change will overwhelm the good luck and extinguish the noble efforts of peacemakers.

The solutions are easy to state and terribly hard to implement. In fact they sound like the prophets of the Bible railing against the kings of Judah and Israel. (Addressing climate change is essential but at this moment it is not the concern of this argument.) The solution is to support the peacemakers and pull back the warmongers. Feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Give the homeless shelters and to the displaced give jobs. Stop selling weapons overseas. Demand diplomacy first. Yet all of these reasonable solutions, all of which address fundamental causes, are nigh impossible to implement in part much less in full.

The time has already arrived when we need to stop asking “why” and start accessing “what can we do?” We are not helpless and we are not without possibilities. However, we are lacking time and we, the peacemakers and the repairers of the world, need to act.

Questions of War

The United States is back in the aerial war business again. We did manage to precipitate the fall of Muammar Gaddafi using aerial bombardment and the developing events afterwards have been nothing less than bloodthirsty and heedlessly violent. Now we have threat of Sunni extremists in the region of Syria/Iraq who go by the name of The Islamic State and we have been bombing them for weeks.

Our military learned in Afghanistan that an aerial war is far too indiscriminate to be effective. To see men digging next to a road at 30,000 feet is not the same as forward observers with binoculars. Afghani farmers share the scarce resource of water on a rigid timetable of shared irrigation. One digs up his valve and releases the water only to close the valve and bury it again on a fifteen or twenty minute schedule. The same farmer looks like a terrorist planting an I.E.D. from far above.

Does the new coalition have forward observers on the ground in Iraq and Syria? I doubt it. Then who are we bombing? Are we hitting the correct targets? Who is going to go out into this vast battlefield to identify targets and confirm misses and strikes?

The United States is not sending soldiers onto this battlefield. Who will?

Why is no one asking the hard questions?

The Terrible Calculus of ISIS

The drumbeat of war sounds loudly as the world turns its focus on to Iraq and maybe even Syria. The Islamic State, or ISIS according to its previous name, has taken terrorism, regime change, and war to new heights of violent gore. They have executed hundreds or thousands of captured soldiers. They have murdered, kidnapped, raped and sold into slavery persecuted minorities. They have beheaded prized foreign prisoners on digital media.

They oppose Bashar Al-Asad of Syria but that is not good although he is a mass murderer as well. The Islamic State opposes Iran and Hezbollah, enemies of the United States and Israel but this is not good either. What we have is a fanatical group of violent, well-armed men who butcher and maim at will with few strong enough to oppose them.

The permutations and complications are vast enough to fill a dozen books. Consider the list of those directly involved: Syria, Turkey, Kurds, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Hezbollah, Sunni tribes, Shiite tribes and Syrian militias. Add those who are just a half-step removed and list grows to contain the Druze, the Alawities, Israel, Hamas, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon, Kuwait, Western Europe and the United States. While confined to a specific geographic area, the implications are global.

Even without listing the specifics of every group, tribe and country given above, the idea of a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS seems remote. There are too many players with too many justifiable agendas for an elegant answer. Whatever the arising coalition chooses to do, the instruments will be blunt and create will many terrible consequences that will highlight the shortcomings of the decisions being made now. A lot of innocent people are going die.

Then again, if the nations of world do nothing, then a lot of innocent people are going to die. What a terrible calculus.