You Can't Go Home Again

Soldiers aren’t the only veterans of war.

Not quite a decade ago, I met a nurse named Shirley Mangompia, a woman who was both dispensing assistance and in need of it. She was standing amid a group of tired adults and ragged children on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, in a town called Munai, which was not her home. Although she seemed determined to keep a smile on her face, there was no hiding the misery around her. Like as many as 400,000 people from the surrounding area, she had fled her home when fighting flared anew between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist rebel movement that had been battling for an independent homeland on Mindanao for years. Like the sick children she was tending to, Mangompia was a resident of a sprawling, squalid displacement camp -- and not for the first time.

Munai was cradled by green hills through which dirt paths ran to the various barangays, or small communities. Traffic was flowing only one way on these paths, though, away from the latest round of conflict. And amid the cramped conditions, under the flimsy tents and tarps where people were living, children struggled with lingering coughs, runny noses, skin and stomach problems, and worse.

Most of their parents had been in exactly the same situation when they themselves were children. People "get used to it," Mangompia said, describing relocating as if it were something of a rite of passage. Mangompia herself had been 8 years old the first time she'd been displaced by fighting, and she'd been displaced again a few years before I met her (when she was, I'd guess, around 30). The drawn-out, dirty war in Mindanao had killed more than 100,000 people and had crippled efforts to develop the most impoverished part of the Philippines. It had also created a huge movable bloc of people who were forced repeatedly to pick up and move, calibrating on each occasion how much time they had to gather what they could carry against how much time they needed to outrun the guns and bombs.

With the benefit (or perhaps the burden) of experience, Mangompia now had a much better understanding of what was at stake, what could be lost. As her own parents had worried mightily for her safety when she was young, she said, she now feared for her own children, in addition to the other children who were all around her, the ones she was determined to assist in the best way she knew how.

I thought about both Mindanao and Shirley Mangompia again recently after I read that the Philippine government and the rebels had signed a peace accord that could, possibly, bring some resolution to this deadly and prolonged standoff.


In the United States, the word "veterans" generally brings to mind men and women (though mostly men) who were deployed in combat to Iraq and Afghanistan, or, further back, to Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. But restricting the word to people who fought -- who picked up a gun, donned a uniform, and willingly put themselves in harm's way in the name of one campaign or another -- ignores an enormous, and enormously important, population of veterans of another kind. These are people like Shirley Mangompia and hundreds of thousands of others in Mindanao, who know as much as, if not more, about war as many soldiers who've taken part in combat.

These other veterans are civilians, and they include far greater numbers of women and children than the militaries of the world. They were never trained to wage war, but war is and has been waged around them. War is not something they do; war is something that happens to them, something that decides when and where they go and how much control they have over the integrity of their homes, their families, their bodies, or their minds. Survival skills -- when to flee, when to hunker down, what to take, what to leave behind -- were passed down to these veterans from their elders, or self-taught, through experience and instinct. Although they never know what might burst through the door or the roof in a given moment, they do know that the end can come with no warning.

Like many who have endured long periods of conflict -- be they in Kashmir, say, or South Sudan, or Chechnya, or eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Israel or Palestine or Iraq or Afghanistan -- Mindanaoans like Shirley Mangompia lived through circumstances that are now imprinted on them.

Over time, this has affected their behavior, their landscape, their sense of what opportunities, if any, exist beyond what happened or what is happening in the streets or hills around them. Throughout much of central Mindanao, war shaped a generation that knew no other way of being, people for whom calm (to say nothing of peace) was an occasional interlude between periods of terror.

Days after talking to Mangompia, I was in Pikit, a town in neighboring North Cotabato province. There I met another woman, Sinding Lumayong, who was standing near a fetid, cavernous warehouse in which dozens of families were huddled, hers included, and in front of which one young man stumbled around in a daze, having just been told that his baby had died. "I can't remember how many times we've evacuated," Lumayong said. In her telling, war had become something they anticipated, something they planned for. Evacuating was as much part of their routine as was living at home. People planted crops knowing they might have to flee, again, and sneak back, across front lines and checkpoints, to reach their fields when the harvest arrived.


In America, after a decade of wars, there is, at long last, a real conversation happening about helping soldiers, Marines, airmen, and seamen who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan (or, in many cases, both), who fought in conflicts with no front lines and who had to learn to adapt to weaponry they'd never seen and an enemy who blended easily into the population at large. This conversation isn't as prominent or urgent as it should be, but it stems from a broader, if not new, recognition of what war does to people, how it can impact the mind, body, and soul long after the last shot is fired. It comes from recognizing the difficulty of transitioning from a war zone into one's home and community without time and space to quiet the hyperalert, battle-ready mind that helps a person survive in theater. It also comes from a more utilitarian understanding that the military and the country must take care of their fighting men and women if they want to have an army that can fight in the future.

People like Shirley Mangompia, however, are not yet part of this conversation. They've lived with war for long periods of time, but you don't hear much about what needs to be done to get them off a war footing. A growing number of NGOs run mental-health programs, and there's been a great deal of talk about "hearts and minds" campaigns, but I've seen few instances where the non-fighting veterans of war were factored sufficiently into policy and planning before, during, and after wars. Iraq and Afghanistan were only the most egregious examples of this sort of oversight.

The populations were expected to see things as Westerners would see them, regardless of their own particular experiences under Saddam Hussein or through decades of civil war. That they might have a different perspective shaped by what they'd lived through was apparently not considered. This was a failure of both empathy and imagination, and it had disastrous consequences for a great many people in both countries, as well as for the ability of the United States to achieve its stated goals.

One hopes that people are treated fairly and decently during and after combat, and that those who've suffered from extended, intimate exposure to the horrors of war do get some assistance in finding a sense of harmony and balance. But I'm not really talking about altruism. I'm talking about getting results, about crafting policies and approaches that can help countries move away from war and toward peace and progress.

Just as George W. Bush's administration should have considered the psychic toll decades of fighting had taken on the Afghan population, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, if they want this accord to work, should try to understand people like Shirley Mangompia and others who've lived under, if not by, the gun for far too long. Similarly, anyone talking about peace deals or road maps or post-conflict development in places like Gaza or Libya or Congo, or Iraq and Afghanistan and, one day, Syria, should take into account the fact that these are nations of veterans -- old and young, male and female, grieving and filled with rage -- whose sense of the future and whose willingness to follow their leadership will be determined by where they've been and what horror and violence has been visited upon them. But who never got a parade or a ribbon or a medal for their troubles.

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Democracy Lab

The Orangutan in a Tuxedo

The good news: Colombia is stable. The bad news: Colombia is stable.

Note: This article is an abridged version of an in-depth country study produced as part of the Prosperity Index project of the Legatum Institute. Complete versions of all 12 are available on the Institute website.

Colombia has emerged from its violent, chaotic past, and is ready to join the club of nations that respect human rights, share power with the people, and offer a decent -- and rising -- standard of living.... Or maybe not.

Colombia is the embodiment of paradox. On the continent that has defined macroeconomic volatility, Colombia has managed incredible stability. Since the 1930s it never experienced a year of negative economic growth until 1999. And in the 20th century it has never had a problem with inflation. Moreover, while democracy was collapsing everywhere in Latin America in the 1930s, power changed hands in Colombia (from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party) in a free election. And, apart from a short spell in the 1950s, Colombia has neither been the victim of a political coup nor lived under the yoke of a military government.

Yet the gains that should have followed from economic stability and political pluralism never materialized. Though Colombia has been growing virtually non-stop since 1900, the pace has been deliberate. Indeed, on average it has grown no faster across the business cycle than volatile Latin American countries like Peru or Bolivia.

Moreover, while Colombian democracy has endured, Colombia hasn't fared well by other measures of societal stability. The murder rate has been the highest in the world for over the last half-century. But murder isn't Colombia's only symptom of social dysfunction. The country has been fighting a civil war with leftist guerillas continuously since at least 1964. And in the early 1980s, Colombia became ground zero for the international drug trade, home to the cocaine cartels. It should be no surprise, then, that Colombia ranks 136 on the Legatum Institute Prosperity Index's safety-and-security sub-index -- the lowest in the Americas by far.

Liberal Party politician Dario Echandía once quipped that Colombian democracy was like "an orangutan in a tuxedo." By this he meant that, in Colombia, the civilized and uncivilized, the orderly and chaotic, the legal and illegal, all coexist -- and the membrane separating them is often very porous. Indeed, opposites seem to interact in ways that perpetuate an equilibrium in which both exist. The tuxedo promotes democracy and macroeconomic stability, while the orangutan generates violence, civil war, drug dealing, and anemic economic growth.

So what exactly is this orangutan in a tuxedo? Where did these two very different sides of Colombian political culture originate, and how is it they can coexist?

The model for Colombia's political system is a form of indirect rule, common during the period of European colonial empires, in which the national political elites (mostly residing in cities) delegate authority over the countryside to local elites. Colombia's local bosses are given discretion to run things as they like in exchange for an implicit commitment not to challenge the authority of the center. International drug markets, organized crime, leftist guerillas, and rightist paramilitaries are thus not the causes of Columbia's problems; they are part and parcel of a dysfunctional style of governance. As the Colombian writer R.H. Moreno Duran put it: "In Colombia, politics corrupts drug dealing."

This explanation raises obvious questions in turn. Which interests keep this awkward, seemingly unstable system in place? How can chaos and order remain in equilibrium? Why do local elites find it in their interest to sustain the chaos?

The chaos in the periphery in Colombia simplifies the task of creating a winning coalition in the center -- or, to put it another way, it lowers the price of votes. Instead of having to win support the old-fashioned way (with patronage or popular policies), politicians can get elected by gaining the support of local bosses, or perhaps by becoming the bosses themselves.

Consider, too, that the orangutan-in-a-tuxedo system makes Colombian democracy very elite-friendly. One salient theory of the origins of democracy is that it results from concessions made by elites to avoid disorder, or even revolution. This does not, however, explain the origins of Colombia's democracy. It was, from the beginning, a means for elites to share power among themselves in a way that would avoid fighting. It didn't always work, though, so the elites came up with other political institutions to facilitate power-sharing. After the bloody inter-party conflict known as the Thousand Days War (1899 - 1902), the two political parties agreed to assign two-thirds of the legislative seats to the then-dominant Conservatives, but guaranteed one-third to the Liberals, however many votes they polled. In 1958, after another inter-party civil war, it was replaced by the National Front agreement that restored the fixed allocation of seats, adjusting the division to 50-50.

Yet another way the system works in the interest of the elites is that a high level of conflict in rural areas prevents the periphery from cooperating together against the center. This is hardly unique to Colombia: A common theory of African political dynamics is that the center foments chaos at the periphery in order to "divide and rule." Sudan and Congo are the classic cases.

In most places in the world, one would have thought that either the orangutan would have eventually ripped off the tuxedo and overwhelmed the more functional part of the country, or, that, at some point, the tuxedo would have straitjacketed the orangutan. (The metaphor is strained, but you get the point.) As suggested above, though, disrupting the equilibrium  may not be in the interests of those benefitting from the system.

However, the fact that everyone is better off without the ever-present specter of mayhem doesn't guarantee that reason will prevail. I think the real reason for the stability of the Colombian system is that it's largely self-adjusting: The incentives in place are adequate to sustain power-sharing without the need to periodically renegotiate the grand bargain between urban and rural elites.

The answer to why elites on the periphery keep the pot boiling at just the right temperature that denies them dominance over the center is also elusive. The best explanation is that regional elites turn over rapidly, making it difficult to identify collective interest or to act on it when they do.

Rural conflict is further exacerbated by the fact that the ownership of much of the land in Colombia is in dispute, making it difficult to legalize any particular status quo. The rise of the drug cartels since the late 1970s has further complicated conflict resolution, since a lot of illicit drug wealth has gone into acquisition of land (and elite status).

The system is not held in place by some grand Faustian pact or Machiavellian calculation, but has evolved organically over more than a century. Local elites find it in their interest to act in ways that keep the system from veering far off-kilter without understanding their role in general equilibrium. And this makes the whole system hard to grasp conceptually, let alone reform.

Despite this history, Colombia has seemingly turned over a new leaf in the last decade. After President Andrés Pastrana's drawn-out, ultimately unsuccessful effort to negotiate an end to the civil war with the leftist FARC guerilla army, Álvaro Uribe was elected president on the promise that he would intensify the fighting.

His offensive pushed the FARC and the ELN (the National Liberation Army, another leftist guerilla force) out of numerous municipalities and led to the killing of guerilla leaders Raúl Reyes and Mono Jojoy. (Moreover the FARC's commander-in-chief, Manuel "Tirofijo" Marulanda, died of natural causes in 2008). After Uribe was replaced as president in 2010 by his former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, the new leader of the FARC, Alfonso Cano, was killed by the army.

These military successes coincided with a plunge in both the homicide rate and the number of kidnappings. In 2005, President Uribe had also persuaded 30,000 members of paramilitaries to demobilize in exchange for reduced sentences and confessions of their crimes -- quite a considerable political feat.

As the security situation improved, so did Colombia's international image. Foreign direct investment rose from $1.5 billion annually to $13 billion in a decade, while investment went from 17 percent of GDP to 27 percent. Prudent as ever, Colombia ran budget surpluses that reduced the national debt from nearly 60 percent of GDP in 2002 to 43 percent today.

President Santos has been building on these positive developments since coming to office. While trying to maintain the military initiative, he has launched an ambitious attempt to "take the water away from the fish" -- to bring peace to the countryside by restoring as much as 12 million acres to owners and implementing a land reform program.

Have Uribe and Santos, in fact, succeeded in chaining the Orangutan? I'm skeptical. Despite all the gains under the last two administrations, neither made a clear break with the system of governance that created Colombia's problems in the first place.

President Uribe invested vast amounts of time and political capital attempting to change the term-limit provision in the constitution so that he could maintain his grip on power -- hardly the work of a devotee to democracy. He succeeded once, but only through an alliance with the politicians elected with paramilitary support in 2002.

The unaccountability of politicians, an important characteristic of the system, has also persisted. One telling example concerns Santos himself, when he was still minister of defense under Uribe, During his tenure, there came to light what Colombians have called the "false positive" scandal. In pressing the military to intensify the conflict with the guerillas, the government offered pay rises and promotions for verified killings. Though this no doubt led to the deaths of many guerilla fighters, it also led to the execution of some 3,000 innocent civilians who were murdered and dressed up as guerillas after the fact. Yet when the scandal broke, Santos did not take any responsibility for the acts of the soldiers under his command.

It's true that violence has fallen in Colombia and that the economy has been doing exceptionally well in the interim. But violence also fell in the 1960s, only to bounce back. Moreover, Colombia still suffers from the most unequal distribution of income in Latin America (with the possible exception of Bolivia). And the growth spurt is largely explainable by the temporary global boom in the price of oil and coal, which constitute 60 percent of the country's exports.

The Orangutan is lurking. In the local elections of October 2011, 41 candidates were murdered and countless others were threatened with violence. Perhaps the most revealing statistic about the state of the commonwealth is that the richest tenth of Colombians pay just three percent of their income in tax, while the poorest tenth pay eight percent.

I'd like to believe that good things will beget better things -- that declining violence and faster growth will create a virtuous circle of social progress. But I fear Colombia is still the Colombia where the tuxedo fits the Orangutan all too well.

Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/GettyImages