A cursory survey of contemporary media, policy, and academic landscapes suggests that we live in an age of militias, in which they are increasingly prevalent actors and a growing political challenge in contemporary armed conflicts. But are there really more militias now than ever before? Or is there just more attention given to them?
The answers to these questions are ambiguous. Missing from conversations about militias is any consideration of the politics of naming armed groups “militias.” The term is often assumed to have a neutral meaning when compared to other highly contested labels like terrorist, guerrilla, insurgent, or paramilitary. In reality, however, the moniker “militia” simultaneously elucidates and obfuscates.
This commentary seeks to understand what is driving the “militiafication” of thinking about mass organized violence. The legacies of “new war” theories and the emerging global order—in which North Atlantic powers no longer call all the shots—are essential to understanding the alleged age of militias.
New Wars Dogma
The meaning of “militia” in any given conflict is historically conditioned, contextually contingent, and highly contested. International humanitarian law is less concerned with defining militias than the question of whether or not they, like other irregular or auxiliary forces, qualify as lawful combatants. Western academic and policy discourses widely view militias as state- or self-armed groups—normally, though not always, composed of civilians—who are recruited by authorities or take it upon themselves to defend a community or an ideal, even if that act of defense pits them against a recognized state apparatus or a lawfully occupying foreign power.
While there are ways in which militias play an important role in constituting the global terrain of organized violence, this role does not appear to be proportionally larger in recent years than in previous decades. For example, a recently updated dataset focusing specifically on pro-government militias seems to suggest that all of the recent scholarly and policy attention centered on militias is warranted. Beginning in the early 1980s, there was an increase in the number of such militias worldwide (when they roughly doubled). The number of militias first peaked in the late 1990s and then rose again from 2010 to 2014, the last year so far cataloged. However, these trends simply mirror the number of ongoing armed conflicts across the planet, which also rose throughout the 1980s and peaked in the mid-1990s, followed by a brief decline in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The number of global armed conflicts then resurged in the 2010s, largely due to the spread and intensification of conflicts in North Africa, the Middle East, and Sahelian Africa. In parallel, the noticeable increase in the number of identifiable armed nonstate groups participating in conflicts tracks alongside the number of conflicts worldwide. Armed conflicts today are no more or less complex than they have been in recent decades, including those with markedly high levels of direct and indirect foreign intervention (such as the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria).
Armed conflicts today are no more or less complex than they have been in recent decades, including those with markedly high levels of direct and indirect foreign intervention.
How can we then explain the disproportionate intellectual and policy weight lately given to militias? One possible explanation is the “new wars” dogma, which holds that conflict can no longer be as clearly or neatly defined as in the past—a view that has not only captured the imagination of countless scholars, but also that of governmental and nongovernmental practitioners. As Hillary Clinton argued in a 2011 PBS documentary, when she was secretary of state: “It’s way past time that we redefine what we mean by war, because there are no front lines in the wars in today’s world. The fact is that, in today’s wars, the primary victims are women and children.”
With the outbreak of a significant number of new armed conflicts and episodes of mass atrocities in the wake of the Cold War, the idea that a new kind of war had emerged became increasingly commonplace. The most infamous and heavily debated of these is undoubtedly Mary Kaldor’s “new wars” thesis, which she put forward in her 1999 book New and Old Wars. New war theorists like Kaldor asserted that wars had become less restricted and more lethal, especially for civilians; that the participants, whether state or opposition forces, resembled criminal enterprises much more than disciplined militaries; that identity, rather than ideology, was the main driver of violence; and that these wars were as much built upon the technologies and opportunities of globalization as they were fomented in reaction to its rapacious colonization of the planet. New war theorists predicted a collapse of the modernist project of globally integrating multiethnic nation-states—they thought the project would cleave under the top-down pressures of transnational globalization and the bottom-up forces of identity-based particularism. New wars would be wars of state-unmaking, Kaldor argued.
It’s worth noting that Kaldor and other new war theorists arrived at their analysis because of the impact of the so-called low-intensity conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century. These conflicts—which were anything but low-impact for the millions they killed—stretched from the Vietnam War era to the proliferation of proxy wars in the late Cold War, particularly in Africa and Latin America.
The international political-economy of new wars and the “degenerate” forms of organization were less an effect of globalization than an adaptation to a world without a superpower rivalry.
But even if new war theorists drew on the real analytical challenge these conflicts presented, the empirical record they pointed to did not support many of their claims. Wars in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries appear to target civilians no more than in previous conflicts; overall, in fact, conflict has become increasingly less lethal since the Vietnam War. The extent to which identity appeared to be playing a role in triggering or sustaining armed conflict and mass violence proved to be less obvious than the new war theorists often asserted. The international political-economy of new wars and the “degenerate” forms of organization (criminal militias, nonprofessional soldiers) were less an effect of globalization than an adaptation to a world without a superpower rivalry to fund rebellion or repression.
There is also a widespread tendency, stretching back to World War II, to always view contemporary wars as different from those of yesterday. But much of the alleged newness of the late-Cold War conflicts was not, in fact, new. For the most part, the old-and-new-war dichotomy was actually extrapolated from just two extraordinary conflicts, World War II and the breakup of Yugoslavia, respectively.
The Work of “Militias”
If militias do not actually represent a new or unique political and intellectual challenge, why have they come to be a primary means through which conflicts have been understood in recent years?
First, we might ask what discursive work the label “militia” is doing when it is applied to an armed group. Highly contentious conflicts, particularly those that escalate to the level of organized violence, often, if not regularly, produce a “politics of naming.” This is hardly a surprising occurrence, nor is it an unrecognized phenomenon. The politics of naming just as often extends to, and entraps, external observers of conflicts, from those who have an interest in the conflict to those claiming academic, journalistic, or strategic objectivity. There are also cases where the politics of naming is imposed from the outside, and often in ways that are unrelated to how factions actually self-identify. For example, most of what the foreign press, policymakers, and researchers call “militias” in Libya do not view themselves as such, but rather see themselves as constituents of formal military institutions.
Secondly, there is the question of whether or not the term “militia” has an inherently normative meaning—in other words, whether or not it is a term with an objective, value-free meaning. Relatedly, analysts may use “militia” precisely because the term is assumed to not have a normative character. But this claim to neutrality or objectivity is, itself, a normative position. The field of terrorism studies, in both its mainstream and self-identified critical branches, continues to labor in the shadow of the normative underpinning of “terrorism” as a concept (in other words, as bad violence). “Militia,” on the other hand, only obtains its rhetorical moral shading depending on the context—the perspectives of the namer, the named, and the audience. We can easily imagine the term “militia” being a legitimating designation in some contexts, and delegitimating in others.
Lastly, and most importantly, the politics in the politics of naming should not be reduced to identifying contradictions, hypocrisy, or simply unpacking the contexts of annunciation, reception, or circulation. The growing interest in “terrorism” as a political problem and as an intellectual preoccupation in the 1970s and 1980s was, to a large degree, driven by a Cold War politics centered on the question of Palestinian statehood. Today, the origin of the intellectual and policy interest in “militias” is also worth investigating. Part of the reason for the interest is likely the continued impact of new war thinking, if not the general insistence that conflicts today must be different because the world is different. Through the lens of “militias” we see an increasingly disordered world, one that corresponds with heightened intellectual and political anxiety among the North Atlantic powers about their place in a global system that no longer seems to be organized according to their rules.
This commentary is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.
header image: Volunteers from the Badr Brigade gather after an exchange of fire with ISIS fighters on the frontline on April 11, 2015 in Ebrahim Ben Ali, in Anbar governorate, Iraq. Source: John Moore/Getty Images