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    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-34 – Dr. Erik W. Goepner – “Linking Trauma to the Prevalence of Civil War”

    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-34 – Dr. Erik W. Goepner – “Linking Trauma to the Prevalence of Civil War”

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    Audio by Kristen Taylor 

    U.S. Army War College Public Affairs

    This podcast argues the more trauma endured by a population, the more civil war the country will experience in the future. Drawing on mental health, trauma, and neurobiological research, it builds a new theory of civil war that fills existing gaps in current civil-war literature, and then tests the theory via statistical analysis of a large sample size (large-n statistical analysis). The conclusions will help policymakers and US military leadership better understand civil wars and the limits of American power to end them.

    Read the article:

    Episode Transcript: “Linking Trauma to the Prevalence of Civil War”
    Stephanie Crider (Host)

    Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

    The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

    Decisive Point welcomes Dr. Erik W. Goepner, author of “Explaining the Prevalence of Civil War,” which appeared in the autumn 2022 issue of Parameters. Goepner has a PhD in public policy from George Mason University. A retired US Air Force colonel, he currently works as a civil servant in the federal government.

    Welcome to Decisive Point, Erik. Thank you for being here.

    (Erik W. Goepner)

    Hi, Stephanie. It’s nice to be with you.


    Let’s get started. Your article argues the more trauma endured by a population, the more civil war the country will experience in the future. Lay the groundwork for us, please.


    Sure. The trauma theory kind of has its origins in the experiences and observations of my Provincial Reconstruction Team. We were in southern Afghanistan in 2010—height of the surge, give or take—and the president had said words to the effect of “You have 18 months to get it done.” So we were busy iterating. If we found something that worked, we would do as much of it as we could—kind of channel your Will Ferrell, “more cowbell” here. And if we were doing things that weren’t achieving objectives, we tried to, as dispassionately and quickly as we could, jettison them and just stop doing them.

    Not long into our deployment, we started to see different evidence that suggested trauma was having a huge, negative impact in Afghanistan and a significant impact on our ability to kind of achieve an enduring peace in the country. We’re in a culture—particularly, with the Pashtuns—where emotional control is like a really big deal. We’d go to shūrās, which are Afghan meetings where they have 20, 30, 40 village elders and government officials, and we’d see men going into hysterics. We would see examples of towns that were firmly under the control of insurgents rise up very briefly; push the insurgents out; and then, just as soon, kind of kowtow and capitulate to the insurgents again. But, perhaps most importantly, we’d see violence used frequently in everyday settings. You know, think of the idea of normalizing the use of violence in your everyday life.

    So we’d be with a district chief. The district chief would get angry at another official in the public setting, would just smack the official in the head—like, really hard. You’d have middle-aged, field-grade officers in the Afghan police or the Afghan army. And when they would have a dispute, instead of debating it or just maybe flipping each other the bird, they would actually get into a full-blown brawl, you know, right there at the police headquarters.

    And so that normalization of violence is kind of what got me thinking about this. Then, when I got back from my deployment, I had a chance to do some more focused research. And it turns out that the civil-war literature tends to ignore the threshold at which citizens will use deadly force against each other. And in the case of civil war, when they would use deadly force against their own government, it kind of gets either ignored or it gets treated as a constant, as if it doesn’t change from culture to culture or time versus other times. And despite any headlines that we’re reading, it’s really rare for one human being to take the life of another human being. The military’s done really interesting studies that show that even in combat, warfighters will go to fairly great extents at times to not kill in combat. So they’ll try to make it look like they’re participating, but they’ll take lengths to not actually discharge their weapon or discharge it in the direction of the enemy, hoping not to kill.

    So if you’re a wannabe rebel leader, you’ve got a lot of problems, obviously. One of the big problems is you need recruits for your rebel movement. But, more importantly, you need recruits who are willing to kill their fellow human beings. You know, very specifically, you need people who are willing to attack their own government, to include their government security force. And that’s not an easy task. So that’s kind of the background of the “hurt people hurt people” trauma theory of civil war.


    You talk about three ways trauma might increase the prevalence of civil war. I’d love to hear more about this.


    So first and most importantly is how trauma itself may be a cause of civil war. And so the theory in a nutshell is that people become more violent as they’re exposed to severe and repeated traumatic stressors. And if listeners are wondering what a traumatic stressor is, the most notable or most severe would be things like torture or being assaulted with a weapon. Those have really profound, negative impacts on people.

    So as people are exposed to repeated and severe traumatic stressors, it lowers the threshold at which they’ll use deadly force or which they use violence to kind of achieve their goals or to resolve their problems. And the pathway from the person to the trauma to the increased use of violence will typically go along three different dimensions. One, if you’re heavily traumatized, the likelihood that you’re gonna be a substance abuser increases, the likelihood that you will meet the criteria for one or more mental illnesses increases, and the likelihood that you will suffer from something called “diminished impulse control” also increases.

    And diminished impulse control: easy example, you drive into work, you get cut off. Somebody with good impulse control doesn’t do anything, or they mutter under their breath. Somebody with diminished impulse control does something really unwise like chases after the person or actually sort of hits their car in response type of thing. And I’d like to share a cool example if I may.


    Absolutely. Please.


    Alright. So for Doctor Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) fans, instead of the war room, think of the Afghan Operations Center. It’s the summer of 2010, and you have two Afghan colonels in a heated debate. One is the chief of police for the province, who all the Americans love. And the other is the chief of the (National Directorate of Security or) NDS, which is kind of like legacy KGB. So two Afghan colonels, both in their middle age, having a heated debate. And the colonel that we all loved—it’s worth pointing out that we also assessed that he had a substance abuse problem. He had spent all of his life in a war zone either receiving or meting out war-related trauma. And so he was like self-medicating was our interpretation. But we loved him. He was bold, daring, brave, and low on the corruption scale.

    So unfortunately, in this exchange, he, the colonel that we loved, is kind of getting skewered by the other colonel. And so, there in the middle of the Afghan Operations Center, the one that we all cared for, Colonel Jelani, kind of got to the end of his rope. And so they’re in front of his subordinates. He removes his firearm, ostensibly because he’s gonna kill the other colonel. And then, thankfully, there was a American officer that was there, and he really bravely stepped in between the two of them. The officer didn’t speak much Pashto. Colonel Jelani didn’t speak much English. But the American was able to use kind of gentle hand gestures and kept repeating, “It’s OK, Colonel Jelani. It’s OK.” And Colonel Jelani eventually holstered his weapon. And so that kind of became like my North Star for the research in terms of what trauma can do to somebody and how it normalizes violence in their life for a variety of reasons.

    The other two pathways: The traditional arguments for civil war have to do with grievance—like “I’m so angry with my government. I’m gonna take up arms against them.” And then, the other main theory is feasibility: “I’m gonna rebel against my government because I have the ability or the opportunity to do that.” And so trauma helps make those theories more robust. For instance, if somebody’s been heavily traumatized, it’s obvious that they have grievances. And those grievances typically can be focused at a particular person or a particular group. So that’s one argument. And then the second argument regarding feasibility or the opportunity for war is that when you think about a traumatized state like Afghanistan, and you think about how they recruit their security forces, they’re largely pulling from a really traumatized population. So the likelihood of getting an incompetent security force member’s pretty high. And so that makes civil war more feasible because it’s easier for a rebel force to fight against an incompetent security force than a competent one.


    Thank you. How does your paper test the trauma theory of civil war?


    So we’re gonna kind of geek out a little bit. I spent 23 years in the world’s greatest air force, so I may be a little geek, but I also have a little cool stuff in the history as well.


    I love it.


    First, I developed a trauma index, and I used four categories of variables. The first category relates to the most pernicious form of trauma, which is torture. The second category measured the amount of rape. Third category was war-related—and, here, we’re looking at like the length of wars; the breadth of wars across the country; and then, the intensity of those wars. And the fourth category of variables was more general forms of trauma, to include things like natural disasters.

    And so I looked at the universe of countries from 1990 to 2014 and basically assessed scores that could have been as low as zero for essentially no trauma to as high as 100 for, essentially, “you couldn’t have any worse or more trauma in your country if you tried” type of thing. Not hard to imagine, but countries like Finland and Iceland: very low trauma scores. For that 25-year period, their score averaged under five. And then you compare that to the average country, which was about 27, and then you compare that with trauma states like Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan, who were all up in the 70s.

    And so one of the interesting things that the research showed is that when you have a low amount of trauma, the risk of civil war is negligible. It’s almost nonexistent. And that low probability of civil war stays until it dramatically increases as a trauma score approaches around 50. At that point, a country has about a one in 10 chance that year of going into civil war. And then just bumping it up from the 50s into the 60s, that one in 10 chance becomes one in five. And so it’s kind of a parabolic curve where low to moderate amounts of trauma do not seem to be associated with much civil war, but, once that trauma intensifies, you really see a rapid increase in the probability of civil war.

    Stephanie, I’m gonna hit one more thing there, if that’s OK, on the testing.


    Yes. Please, absolutely.


    And so, in the actual testing, developed the index; kind of did correlations to show the different numbers and how they related to probability of civil war; and then, really kind of geeked out and did various statistical analysis. And I’m not gonna spend long on this because it doesn’t interest me much, and I can’t imagine it interests your listeners too, too much either. But the first analysis I used was logistic regression with something called “lagged variables.” And, basically, that’s just kind of the industry standard. So if you’re a civil-war researcher, you tend to use logistic regression with lagged variables. And so that’s kind of why I used those.

    But if you’re looking at what the best or optimal statistical technique is, it would be something called “instrumental variables,” which I also used. And, basically, that helps get rid of the circular argument. It’s obvious, noncontroversial to say that civil war causes a lot of trauma, and, here, I am arguing that trauma causes a lot of civil war. And so it gets very hard to disentangle that relationship, and instrumental variables, in a sense, helps you bypass that because the variable you use is only related to trauma. You can demonstrate that it has no relationship to civil war, and that’s the way to kind of break the circular argument.


    Got it. So in that same vein, talk to me about conclusions. What conclusions can we draw from this study?


    So five conclusions. The number one, which would be “foot stomp, foot stomp, footstomp,” is that the United States should not intervene in the civil wars of trauma states because countries with high rates of trauma—and Afghanistan would be the poster child—are going to likely experience more civil war because of those high trauma rates because the trauma has institutionalized or normalized the use of violence in daily life. And that use of violence is a critical threshold for rebel leaders when they seek to recruit their rebels. So those countries are susceptible to increased future civil war because that normalization of violence is kind of at the ready and is accessible to rebel leaders.

    The second one is “OK, if, failing number one, political leaders decide we still need to go in, then let’s estimate and plan for the negative effects of trauma on the host country before we intervene.” We do great planning as military warfighters, and so let’s incorporate that mental health angle, not in a soft kind of helping-agency perspective, but thinking about it from a security perspective. And that’s the third recommendation is that, yes, we all respect and have high empathy for mental illness trauma. But, in this context, we can treat trauma as a security concern because it does appear that trauma will have a certain impact or a certain effect on our ability as we conduct the war to achieve US goals.

    The fourth conclusion would be to deploy mental health capabilities to the trauma states if we do go there. And this would be directed towards kind of the key government or security force leaders to try and minimize or mitigate the negative consequences of trauma on them. Because when you think of like an Afghanistan or Iraq, we were there in large part to build up those indigenous forces and capabilities, and it’s going to be very difficult to get them to a certain level of performance absent some type of mental health intervention.

    And then the fifth is more predictive, and it’s the idea of including the trauma index in predictive models. So organizations like the CIA, (Department of Defense or) DoD, Department of State have a history of using predictive models to anticipate flash points across the globe. And my argument in the paper is that if we added the trauma index, that would help to predict potential hot spots—specifically with civil conflict, civil war—that the United States might find itself in in the future.


    I’m sorry—we’re almost out of time here. Can you give us your final thoughts on this topic?


    So two final thoughts. The first one is going back to recommendation one: The United States should not intervene in the civil wars of high-trauma states. It’s not a guaranteed losing proposition, but it’s really difficult, and there’s only so much that US efforts can achieve when you’re dealing with a population with high trauma rates, and the likelihood that they’re gonna slip back into future civil war is much higher than if they were a low-trauma state. And then the second and final thought is that we need to continue maximizing the use of America’s combat experience. We have 20-plus years of warfighting in different theaters, which has given us a lot of experience. When you think about warfighting, there’s a huge difference between the theory of warfighting. There’s a huge difference even in doing exercises related to warfighting as compared to the actual warfighting. So to the extent that we can get increasing numbers of America’s war veterans to share their stories, and, then, potentially, to combine those operational experiences with additional research and publish, I think America will benefit.


    Thank you for your time today. This was a really tough topic, but it was an absolute pleasure talking with you.


    Thanks so much, Stephanie. I appreciate it.


    If you enjoyed this episode and want to learn more about the connection between trauma and civil war, check out the article at Look for volume 52, issue 3.

    If you enjoyed this episode of Decisive Point and would like to hear more, look for us on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and any other major podcast platform.



    Date Taken: 09.30.2022
    Date Posted: 06.20.2023 15:09
    Category: Newscasts
    Audio ID: 74948
    Filename: 2306/DOD_109718209.mp3
    Length: 00:15:09
    Artist US Army War College Press
    Album Decisive Point – Season 3
    Track # 34
    Year 2022
    Genre Podcast
    Location: US

    Web Views: 34
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