The Psychology of the Warlord

Kent’s Imperative had a post up that would have been worthy of Coming Anarchy:

Enigmatic biographies of the damned

“….Via the Economist this week, we learn of the death of an adversary whose kind has nearly been forgotten. Khun Sa was a warlord who amassed a private army and smuggling operation which dominated Asian heroin trafficking from remotest Burma over the course of nearly two decades. In the end, despite indictment in US courts, the politics of a failed state permitted him to retire as an investor and business figure, and to die peacefully in his own bed.

The stories of men such as these however shaped more than a region. They are the defining features of the flow of events in a world of dark globalization. Yet these are not the biographies that are taught in international relations academia, nor even in their counterpart intelligence studies classrooms. The psychology of such men, and the personal and organizational decision-making processes of the non-state groups which amassed power to rival a princeling of Renaissance Europe, are equally as worthy of study both for historical reasons as well as for the lessons they teach about the nature of empowered individuals.

Prospective human factors and leadership analysts are not the only students which would benefit from a deeper pol/mil study of the dynamics of warlords and their followers in the Shan and Wa states. The structures which were left behind upon Khun Sa’s surrender were no doubt of enduring value to the ruling junta, and tracing the hostile connectivity provided to a dictatorial government by robust transnational organized crime is an excellent example of the kombinat model in a unique context outside of the classic Russian cases…”

Read the rest here.

There are no shortage of warlords for such a study. Among the living we have Walid Jumblatt, the crafty chief of the Druze during the 1980’s civil war in Lebanon, the egomaniacal and democidal Charles Taylor of Liberia, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the Islamist mujahedin commander and a large assortment of Somali, Colombian, Indonesian and El Salvadoran militiamen and paramilitaries. The history of the twentieth century alone offers up such colorful characters as “The Dogmeat General“, the ghoulishly brutal Ta Mok of the Khmer Rouge, “The Mad Baron” Ungern von Sternberg, Captain Hermann Ehrhardt and Pancho Villa among many others.

What would such a historical/cross-cultural/psychological “warlord study” reveal ? Primarily the type of man that the German journalist Konrad Heiden termed “armed bohemians”. Men who are ill-suited to achieving success in an orderly society but are acutely sensitive to minute shifts that they can exploit during times of uncertainty, coupled with an amoral sociopathology to do so ruthlessly. Paranoid and vindictive, they also frequently possess a recklessness akin to bravery and a dramatic sentimentality that charms followers and naive observers alike. Some warlords can manifest a manic energy or regularly display great administrative talents while a minority are little better than half-mad gangsters getting by, for a time, on easy violence, low cunning and lady luck.

Every society, no matter how civilized or polite on the surface, harbors many such men within it. They are like ancient seeds waiting for the drought-breaking rains.

Crossposted at Zenpundit

10 thoughts on “The Psychology of the Warlord”

  1. Ralph Peters, in a classic article, described the New Warrior Class that we would be confronting. Your rogues gallery (some of whom I had not heard of — and I am glad I will never meet them in person) reminds that the New Warrior Class is really the latest iteration of a very old class indeed.

    A thought occurs: Was Napoleon nothing more, or less, than the biggest opportunistic warlord of them all?

  2. Was Napoleon nothing more, or less, than the biggest opportunistic warlord of them all?

    I think Stalin would take that title. And he had the criminal connections to boot. Really, it’s quite wonderful how he took over the Communist party and purged all the old intellectuals that had surrounded Lenin. Masterful, really.

  3. They are the defining features of the flow of events in a world of dark globalization.

    Not exactly sure what that sentence means but warlords have been around forever. The last five centuries of globalization have merely connected warlords to the rest of the world just as it has connected everyone else. I think this will bring an end to warlord phenomenon. Warlords can only exist in areas without any other form of order. When warlords come to the attention of major powers they get wiped out. I think globalization will eventually spell the end to warlordism for just this reason. The great powers will be forced to extend law and order over their entire world just in self-defense.

  4. Lex,

    Was Napoleon nothing more, or less, than the biggest opportunistic warlord of them all?

    As historians and political scientist use the term, Napoleon would qualify as a warlord who succeeded in evolving into a legitimate sovereign. Stalin, on the other hand was not a warlord.

    All rulers come to power by violence either done by themselves or by those from whom they inherit. Warlords differ in that they rise to power based on no previously existing social structure. A warlord’s power depends solely on the efficacy of his use of violence. They need no previous rank, title or other cultural standard of authority. If a warlord succeeds in creating a stable structure for those who succeed him then we often regard him as transforming into a legitimate sovereign.

    Napoleon started out as a warlord in the classic model. He rose to power due to his military ability during a time of chaos. He ruled with absolute power based on a structure never seen before in his realm. Although he personally eventually failed to keep power, he did establish a lineage that inherited his mantle of moral authority so in the end he became a legitimate sovereign.

    Stalin by contrast inherited his power from Lenin. Lenin doesn’t qualify as true warlord because he simply replaced the previous sovereign and inherited the structure already in place. That would qualify him as a revolutionary. Warlords create their own system of order after the collapse of the previous order.

    Arguably, the domains of a warlord represent government stripped down to its ugly essentials. Such domains represents nothing more than an area of a force monopoly. Many of the world’s pre-industrial sovereign descended from warlord ancestors. Periods of social chaos open the way for merit advancement even if that merit is one of killing. People in a warlords domain may benefit by having only one brutal exploiter to deal with instead of the hundreds of random ones that chaos breeds. Self interest akin to that generated by private property leads successful warlords to systemize the ordering of their domains. This systemization eventually evolves into law and order enforced by custom. Descendants of such warlords always find themselves far more constrained in their actions than their forbearers.

  5. I think that there will be a lot more of these sorts of warlords in the future. Very interesting that it is tied to globalization… I would more tie it to the failure of the state and the end of empires. Warlords are de-facto ruling large parts of Africa today and many elements of the middle east. Hard to tell what is warlord based and what is tied to local ethnic politics. In the absence of state power and given the horrible choice of anarchy warlords can fill that vacuum. It is also tied with the “gangster state” mentality common in some of the ex-Soviet states and state-lets. Don’t forget South America (FARC) and the Philippines as other likely warlord statelets.

    I think our current situation in Iraq is going to make the US less likely to intervene in the future and no one else is likely to extend themselves (ha ha not the UN) and the Chinese, Russians and Indian nations, that have local power, are likely to utilize it to put out fires in their own immediate backyard rather than to extend themselves.

  6. “Very interesting that it is tied to globalization… I would more tie it to the failure of the state and the end of empires.”

    Two ways of saying the same, though, right?

    Globalization causes the gales to blow very hard. Weakly-founded states crumple.

    China is currently massively “extending itself” in Africa. India has a lot of issues at home (Naxalite rebellion, Kashmir, Maoists next door in Nepal, Tamil insurgents and the LTTE next door in Sri Lanka, etc.), but it is extending naval power throughout the Indian Ocean region. Russia is pretty much stuck with its own mess at home, and in its “near abroad”. China is more likely to coopt warlords than to take them down, ala Kitchener taking down the Khalifa.

  7. Lex – agreed. I was just mentioning those three powers (Russia, China & India) as those that potentially could intervene to impact the warlord trajectory outside their immediate borders and those of their “client” states. Given their own fires, they probably won’t intervene and the US has been singed enough that it won’t jump into that situation again for some time.

    Thus into this vacuum will step the warlords, and although they might receive some angry letters from the UN or Amnesty International or something like that, they pretty much will have free reign to implement their “one micro-step above anarchy” program of gangster-ism.

  8. I would be cautious about assuming that their are more warlords than in the past. Counting such things is difficult but I would hazard that more warlords existed during the past than the present. The major effect of globalization has been to bring them to our attention.

  9. Re. Napoleon, my casual knowledge about the emperor makes me think he was, to a substantial degree, very admirable. The creation of the Napoleon code and bringing a national administration and order to France was a huge task that he applied himself too unsparingly. He was a statesman.

    His rise to power – as an officer of artillery (if I recall he was a lower rank) he was asked by officials of Paris to quell the rioting of their “fellow citizens”. He used grapeshot to great effect.

    The French Revolution had killed or forced so many elite to flee into exile that one result was a shortage of capable people. There must have been a shortage of higher ranking officers and administrators and this paved the way for the ambitious Bonaparte’s carer.

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