Professor at the London School of Economics Doctor Tarak Barkawi discussed the phenomenon of “small wars” during his lecture “Small Wars, Big Consequences” on Monday, September 7. In his lecture, Professor Barkawi explored various small wars, ranging from the First Italo-Ethiopian war to the Korean War.
A small war is a conflict waged between a western great power and a smaller country, often in a colonial context. The lecture commenced with an explanation of how war plays a role within the politics and ideals of both warring parties. In addition, Professor Barkawi expanded upon the notion that small wars gave rise to both modernity and capitalism.
Before launching into the key arguments of his lecture, Barkawi asserted
“In the West, we are really invested in a theory of politics that we are superior to brown/black people. When this is upset, there is political and cultural upheaval. They upend precious core identities,” Barkawi said.
For each country embroiled in a small war, these conflicts represent a “personal Vietnam” where the great power is often more transformed by the conflict than the country they invaded and warred with.
According to Barkawi, within every small war exists a drive to create a self-identity. Orientalism, a term coined by political theorist Edward Said, was used to explain the elaboration of a self-image by comparing oneself, specifically the Westerner, with the other, or the Oriental. Barkawi, simplifying this concept, described Orientalism as “how the West wishes the world worked.” This concept could be explored within every small war that has occurred.
Barkawi used the example of the First Italo-Ethiopian war where the Italians perceived the native Ethiopians as unequals, thus bolstering Italian self-identity as nation. However, after their defeat, Italian anthropologists lessened the blow of losing by stating that the Ethiopians were in fact equals, citing the similarity in their religious beliefs. The leader of the Ethiopians King Menelik II, previously depicted as an irrational savage, was now described as a noble king. These descriptions combined to hide the fact that the Italians had been defeated by a perceived-to-be inferior people, thus salvaging national pride and identity.
Barkawi brought his argument into the 21st century when he touched briefly upon the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Reflecting the kind of orientalism Barkawi mentioned earlier in the lecture, the United States supported a narrative that, under Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people were eagerly awaiting the introduction of American values and that the invading American troops would be “liberating” them.
Since the conclusion of that troubled occupation and with the rise of ISIS and the debate over intervention in the region increasing, Americans have reformulated their opinions on the Iraqi people to again show that orientalist bent and their belief in the superiority of Western values. According to Barkawi, between 2003 and 2015, opinions have shifted from the Iraqi people being ready and excited for democracy to them being unappreciative and unworthy of what the United States had done for them.
The majority of students present at the lecture were concentrators within the fields of Peace and Conflict Studies or International Relations. Junior Anan Hossain said that he attended the event because he had read one of the papers written by Barkawi for a class that he took for International Relations.
“I thought it was an interesting argument that he proposed. What was even more interesting was gauging the reaction of the audience, as I felt that a lot of them had difficulty relating to his argument,” Hossain said.