I recently had the misfortune to flip through the pages of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Conflicts, by Steven D. Strauss (2nd edition, Penguin, 2006). I realize that the purpose of such a book is to keep things very simple and interesting so that those with little prior knowledge on the subject can understand and remain interested, but things really got out of hand in this book.
With a view to not getting out of hand myself, I will limit myself here to raising two major bones that I have pick with this book. (1) The content is so US/Western-centric that no semblance of proportionality in terms of conflict scale can be found – the ‘fashionable’ conflicts involving and affecting the white and affluent world are given much more space than infinitely larger and deadlier conflicts in the not-so-white and affluent world. And (2), in an effort to keep things interesting, the book goes overboard with references to conflicts as ‘crazy’ incomprehensible things, which seriously hinders understanding of the political and economic factors that are really at the root of these problems.
In terms of the first problem, the first lines of the book quickly lay out the focus of the book. “The world is a crazy place, and it seems to get crazier by the moment. If Islamic extremists aren’t attacking the United States, then the Serbs are attacking Kosovo, the Palestinians and Israelis are killing each other, or Protestants are blowing up Catholics…”. Note the strictly northern hemisphere/white/affluent focus, and note that, relatively speaking, these are all very small conflicts.
The structure of the book is also quite revealing. The opening three chapters set the tone for what is to come: ‘The World at War’, ‘East is East and West is West’, and ‘The War on Terror’. In the pages that follow, individual conflicts that are given their own whole chapter include: Iraq, Kurdistan, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, Russia, Indonesia, India-Pakistan, North-South Korea, China, Colombia, Haiti – anywhere but Africa. Never mind that African conflicts are responsible for almost 90 percent of the world’s conflict-related deaths; these conflicts have to share chapters – Angola (the world’s third deadliest conflict since the end of the Cold War), Rwanda (equal third), Burundi (eighth) and the DRC (the world’s deadliest) are lumped together in the chapter ‘Struggles in Central Africa’, for example.
How about numbers of pages? The Israel-Palestine conflict essentially is given two chapters – ‘The Middle East Mess’ and ‘Israel and Palestine Struggle for Peace’, totalling 26 pages. The chapter on Northern Ireland gets 11.5 pages. That’s roughly equal to the 12 pages that the whole of Central Africa gets (the DRC is given 4.5 pages). Let’s keep things in perspective here; conflict in Northern Ireland has killed fewer than 400 people since the end of the Cold War. Conflicts in central Africa since the end of the Cold war have killed almost 7 million people.
Interestingly, in the section on the DRC, the author mistakenly tells us that “…neither World War I nor II has anything on this war: An estimated four million people died during this five-year conflict. (Yes, you read that right.)” Now in fact, the World Wars were each far deadlier than is the conflict in the DRC (although conflict in the DRC has been called Africa’s First World War). But if the author knows that 4 million people have died in this conflict, and thinks that this makes it deadlier than the World Wars, why would he give 4.5 pages (part of a chapter) to this one and 11.5 (a whole chapter) to a relatively tiny conflict in Northern Ireland?
The frightening thing is, while this book serves as an extreme example, this kind of Western-centric focus (with no regard at all for conflict scale) is by and large representative of what is written in books on the world and its history. Flick through the table of contents of any ‘world’ history book and you’ll get the picture…
In terms of the second problem (references to ‘craziness’), the book appears to be peppered with words and phrases reinforcing the notion that conflict is simply about insanity. The opening line of the book about the world being ‘crazy’ and getting ‘crazier’ is a case in point. It can also be seen in the title of a chapter – ‘Insanity in West Africa’. There are numerous other such references throughout the book. At the end of each chapter, there is a list containing “the least you need to know” about that conflict or set of conflicts. The section for Central Africa gives us such insightful points as: “The Rwandan genocide is unfathomable” (far from telling us something we should know, it seems to be telling us not to even bother trying); “Burundi Hutus and Tutsis also kill each other”; and “The DRC continues to be embroiled in turmoil”.
For a book that one can assume is intended to promote understanding (even in a simple way), it seems to be doing a lot of getting in the way of understanding.