In today’s Q&A with Members we feature Jason Lyall, Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. Jason is also the inaugural James Wright Associate Professor of Transnational Studies and the director of the Political Violence FieldLab at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. His research examines the effects and effectiveness of political violence in civil and conventional wars. We asked him about the recent publication of his book, Divided Armies: Inequality and Battlefield Performance in Modern War, and about his reaction to comments made by the outgoing Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, regarding multiculturalism.
Q: You recently responded to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tweet, in which he railed against “woke-ism” and “multiculturalism,” by pointing to your recently published book, Divided Armies: Inequality and Battlefield Performance in Modern War. What do you argue in your book and how does it offer a counterpoint to Secretary Pompeo’s fears of how different “isms” can engender division and weakness?
Jason Lyall: Put simply, I argue that prewar ethnic and racial inequalities within an army have played a key role in shaping their battlefield fortunes for the past two hundred years. To date, we’ve missed the negative effects of inequality because we tend to view armies as functional organizations staffed by faceless, anonymous, soldiers. Yet, as the book demonstrates, the opposite is true: nearly every army that’s fought a conventional war since 1800 has been multiethnic. Indeed, the average number of groups in an army is five.
Diversity, then, is the norm, something I try to capture through an index of military inequality that takes a snapshot of each army’s ethnic demography on the eve of war. This index calculates each group’s proportion of the fielded army and the state’s prewar treatment of each group (which ranges from full inclusion to marginalization to violent repression). Much like a Gini coefficient measures income inequality, the military inequality coefficient ranges from 0 (perfect equality) to a 1 (perfect inequality, where all groups in the army are repressed). The higher this value, the worse the battlefield performance. As inequality climbs, armies begin to experience mass desertion and defection; lopsided casualties; and, at the extreme, actually turn their guns against their own soldiers to force them to fight.
Pompeo, then, is exactly wrong: embracing multiculturalism and deepening of inclusion for marginalized groups is the pathway to greater military power and better battlefield performance. Diversity, when paired with meaningful inclusion, is a source of strength, not weakness. Division within the ranks is sowed not by diversity but by failures to live up to promises to build more inclusive political communities. His nativist broadside would weaken the United States military by throwing away the advantages of diversity while stoking the fires of dissent within a multiethnic US military.
Q: Based on your research, what are the mechanisms through which inequality and the citizenship status of different ethnic groups within a country end up affecting a country’s battlefield performance in war?
JL: Three mechanisms are at work. First, exposure to prewar discrimination or violence by the state affects soldiers’ beliefs about a shared fate. Put simply, the more unequal a state’s treatment of a targeted ethnic group, the less likely its soldiers are to believe that the burdens of combat are being shared equally, that their sacrifice will be rewarded, or that the state actually cares about their group. As a result, their combat motivation plummets while their grievances against the state soar.
Second, unequal treatment also erodes inter-ethnic trust. The worse the prewar treatment of a certain group, the lower the trust between favored and targeted groups. This has several negative consequences, including reducing the flow of information across groups, lowering rates of inter-ethnic cooperation, and eroding (or throwing away completely) the diversity bonus.
Third, inequality at the hands of the state also increases intra-ethnic coordination within a targeted group. Intra-ethnic ties are strengthened, especially if the state uses violence, increasing the group’s ability to undertake collective action while also escaping detection by the state thanks to improved in-group policing. Taken together, victimized groups have both motive and capacity to organize collective action to escape military control, helping unravel armies in the field.
Q: Can you give a brief historical example of this dynamic based on your research?
JL: We see evidence of this dynamic from belligerents as diverse as the Khanate of Kokand and the Soviet Union to the Afghan and Iraqi armies today. One of my favorite examples in the book, however, is the rise and fall of the Mahdi state (1881-97). Located roughly in contemporary Sudan, the Mahdi state won its independence from stronger Egyptian and British forces on the strength of its inclusive army. Its leader, the Mahdi, cobbled together an army that initially scrounged for weapons abandoned by fleeing Egyptian soldiers after their first battles with rag-tag Mahdist forces. Encouraged by these earlier successes, and drawn by the Mahdi’s inclusive vision, the Mahdist soon swelled in size, driving first Egyptian and then British forces from the battlefield, winning the Mahdi state’s independence in 1885. Shortly after, however, the Mahdi contracted typhus and died.
From the ensuing power struggle, a new leader emerged, the Khalifa, who had a narrowly ethno-sectarian view of the political community. He unleashed near genocidal levels of violence against many of the ethnic and tribal groups that had flocked to the Mahdi’s banner. Yet the Khalifa continued to conscript soldiers from these now-marginalized groups. As a result, his army was saddled with an extraordinarily high level of military inequality; nearly two-thirds of his soldiers came from groups that had experienced repression at his hands. When Britain invaded in 1896, his army was plagued with high rates of desertion and defection, resorting to killing his own soldiers to force them to fight. He would live long enough to see his army decimated in some of the most lopsided battles in history before he, too, was killed on the battlefield, sealing the fate of the Mahdi state.
Q: Your research is based on extensive data collected as part of Project Mars. Could you tell us more about this dataset and what information it included?
JL: Yes, the cornerstone of Divided Armies is a new dataset, Project Mars, that examines the battlefield performance of 229 different belligerents in 250 wars fought since 1800. Project Mars was born partly out of frustration with existing datasets that privilege Western belligerents and wars, leaving huge gaps in our knowledge about global patterns of warfare. To capture these missing cases, I worked with 134 research associates who collected data from archival and secondary sources in 21 languages. We created measures for military inequality as well as new measures for regime type, army type, and a host of other independent variables. We also constructed new measures for previously neglected aspects of battlefield performance, including the incidence, timing, and scale of mass desertion and defection from these armies. We even collected data on the use of violence against one’s own soldiers on the battlefield. The result is a far larger and more representative universe of belligerents and wars that can be used to challenge and refine existing theories while also breaking new ground on wartime behaviors neglected in prior studies.
Q: Finally, what ultimate lessons should military and civilian leaders draw from this research and your book?
JL: There are several lessons that I hope policymakers draw from the book. Above all, hard-won evidence from centuries of warfare illustrate the power of inclusion for shaping the battlefield fates of armies. Political communities marked by openness and tolerance, that extend the benefits and protections of military service to all without consideration for ethnicity, typically field powerful militaries that escape the straitjacket that confines belligerents with divided armies. Old notions that diversity undermines unit cohesion should be abandoned. Instead, meaningful inclusion creates lethal armies; military inequality divides them, destroying them from within. Policy-makers should therefore tear down barriers to meaningful inclusion within the ranks. Diversity alone is not enough; marginalized groups must be included in decision-making, promoted to senior ranks, and made full members of both the military and the society that it is drawn from. Historically, states can backslide on inclusion — witness the treatment of African-Americans who fought in WWI and WWII but returned home to structural racism and the devaluing of their service — and so gains must be protected. In the end, racism is a national security threat. At a time of rising uncertainty in world politics, American policy-makers would do well to deepen their commitment to a diverse and equal military to safeguard the nation’s prospects of victory on future battlefields of still-unimagined wars.