Christopher Blattman (right) speaks at the Rubenstein Forum on Tuesday, April 19. 

With the invasion of Ukraine about to move into its third month, it might seem like an unfortunate time to publish a book arguing that war is actually uncommon. But for Christopher Blattman, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, the striking thing about war is not how often it happens, but how often it’s avoided. 

Blattman discussed “Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace,” his new book published this week, during a talk this Tuesday at the U. of C.’s Rubenstein Forum. 

“Every history of every rivalry is riddled with a barrage of bullet holes, like poverty and grievances and guns. But the aggrieved seldom revolt, most poor young rabble-rousers don’t rebel, and the most heavily armed groups prefer a cold war to a hot one,” Blattman writes.

In the book, Blattman brings in case studies from across history and the globe: rival cartels in Colombia, the Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece, warlords in Liberia, the politicking of the Iraq War and street gangs in Chicago. 

Blattman points out that, whether the parties involved are rich or poor, the losses of war usually far outweigh any potential benefits, which serves as a major deterrent. More often, conflicts play out in short-lived skirmishes or long-running standoffs. Typically, victory is won through quiet compromises and begrudging settlements.

In Chicago, studies estimate that shootings cost between $3 and $5 billion annually when combining medical fees, policing bills and sentencing costs. The overwhelming price comes from imprisoning offenders, a cost that taxpayers pay heavily for. 

In his chapter on how uncertainty fuels fighting, Blattman looks at gangs that once operated in North Lawndale on the West Side. “A lot of these things that govern the decisions of nations also govern the decisions of these little firms we call drug gangs,” Blattman said on Tuesday. “It's the same reputation-based logic: they weren't sure how strong I was, I had to show them what I was made of.”

Specifically, he studies the rivalries between the Vice Lords, the Gangster Disciples, and the Black P. Stones that played out at the Henry Horner Homes public housing project in the 1980s. Blattman worked with Napoleon (Nap) English, a former leader of the Lords who now does violence-reduction outreach. 

Blattman recreates Nap’s days running the Lords to illustrate how competition is a constant game of evaluating the chances of fighting. When groups are uncertain about the strength of rivals — from the loyalty of their members and resolve of their leaders to the quantity of their weapons — they are often pushed to make decisions with incomplete information. Lack of certainty restricts the opportunity to bargain and come to a deal, leading groups like the Lords and the Stones to clash. 

Still, shootouts are not full-scale war. Blattman writes, “in a shifting and uncertain world, little salvos, gangbanging, and one-off battles are signals of true strength and resolve. They reduce uncertainty and make it easier to find a stable deal.”

In the 1980s, gang fighting reached peak intensity with the growth of America’s cocaine market. Since then, fighting in Chicago has shifted toward more individualized violence. “It's really much more fragmented and it’s not a group level conflict so it leads to a much more violent equilibrium,” Blattman said.

Where the public order isn’t enforced, cultures of honor usually spring up to govern conflict. The same is true in communities where the state power is oppressive and unjust. In Chicago’s Black communities, gangs provide self-protection and retributive justice in place of police that often focus more on punishing misdemeanors than solving major crimes (Blattman also cites Jill Leovy, whose book “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America” focuses on Los Angeles).

Blattman cites evidence from social studies that show violent crime falls when police presence is expanded. But he also recognizes the ways American law enforcement has been abusive and counterproductive. 

“We can be critical of counterproductive policing, and promote alternatives, without denying the evidence that enforcing laws creates order,” he writes. “America’s police would probably be far more effective at controlling violence in cities like Chicago if they earned the trust of poor and minority communities.” 

To reduce violence, Blattman is a proponent of social works that adopts the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to encourage emotional control and peaceful thinking. Becoming A Man, created by Anthony Ramirez Di Vittorio, brings clinical counseling to Chicago high schools to help young men heal from trauma and practice coping mechanisms. READI Chicago, the organization Napoleon English works with, combines CBT with job opportunities to support men who are most exposed to violence. 

“Some people and communities just need a little remedial help to acquire these skills or norms,” Blattman writes. “Sometimes this socialization comes from outsiders, but most of the time people remake their own societies.”

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