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Counting Bodies, Preventing War

AOAV interviews… Dr Johanna Rodehau-Noack

Dr Johanna Rodehau-Noack is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Her research focuses on conflict prevention, knowledge production around armed violence, and the role of emerging technologies in shaping such knowledge.

Our Chair, Professor Mike Spagat, had the chance to interview Johanna to learn more about her latest thought-provoking work.

Mike: The interview will focus on your article Counting bodies, preventing war: Future conflict and the ethics of fatality numbers. You conducted a lot of interviews building up to this paper so can you tell us a bit about who you interviewed and what you asked them? 

Johanna: Yeah, I’m interested in conflict prevention, and especially since I’m in the field of International Relations, international conflict prevention.  I’m looking specifically at international organizations that are involved in developing, implementing and assessing, conflict prevention on an international level by international actors.

So I interviewed folks who have either worked at various UN organizations or INGOs that are involved in humanitarian programming or prevention programming. They look at where something might flare up and then where to send resources: that sort of thing. Sometimes they might be just called ‘conflict leads,’ sometimes they’re ‘consultants’ or ‘advisors’ or ‘program directors.’ Names of the roles differ a little bit, but I’ve essentially selected people in these organizations who are involved in thinking about how to plan for conflicts that might come up or escalate. And when I say ‘conflict,’ this is always shorthand for ‘armed conflict.’ 

Mike: So, you asked them questions about planning for potential armed conflict and how to prevent armed conflict and how fatality numbers might play into this process: is that right?

Johanna: Not directly. The fatality count or estimate issue kind of grew out of the interviews in a more indirect way. My dissertation project was broadly about how the idea of war and armed conflict became something that can be governed on an international level—how armed conflict and war became an international problem for which we need that prevention agenda. So, the questions that I asked went more in a direction of knowledge production around conflict.  Examples of question would be; “How do you even know when you go into the field that something that is developing counts as a conflict? How do you know that a crisis is imminent? What are the assumptions and concepts that you work with in the field? That sort of thing. 

Out of this grew an observation that a lot of the analysts in the field, but also in the reports that are written later, have an unspoken assumption that the most important thing that characterizes armed conflict and war is that they are deadly, and that it is possible to  quantify this deadliness. This is how my focus on ‘body counts’ or fatality estimates emerged. 

I realized fatality counts and estimates are ubiquitous in the end products of international organizations, their international reports.

Upon further investigation I realized fatality counts and estimates are ubiquitous in the end products of international organizations, their international reports. Reports and resolutions by international organizations or NGOs that make a case for prevention usually cite fatality numbers, ideally large ones, right away in the first or second paragraph.

Mike: I see. Can you explain a bit about the role of quantification in governance more generally, perhaps with special emphasis how on this plays into the argument in your paper about death counts? 

Johanna: Right. So, I’m drawing here is a very established idea that came out of philosophy, starting with Adorno, Horkheimer and Foucault, etc., who argued that rulers of whatever kind make their actions legible through quantification, for example, of population, territory, or other things. 

The objects of quantification become accessible to governance in the sense that you can manipulate the numbers in certain useful ways. The easiest way to understand this is probably to think in terms of democracy with votes. You have a certain number of people, and you take an action to shift the votes in a certain direction: manipulating the number of votes in your favour. This is the idea behind using numbers for governance. 

In relation to prevention, the idea is that the prevention sphere starts from the premise that war is a bad thing because it’s deadly. And if we sit tight while the situation is escalating then those fatality numbers will go up. Actions can change the trajectory of the numbers.

Mike: How do these death counts affect conflict prevention efforts in practice? 

Johanna: This is a lot more subtle and implicit than one might expect. For prevention several systems work together. Early warning systems are one component of prevention, and early warning systems look at fatality numbers. For example, the number of people dying in a clash might contribute deciding whether there is a real conflict ongoing. 

Early warning systems are one component of prevention, and early warning systems look at fatality numbers.

It would be too easy to say that there are early warning systems that get automatically triggered after a certain fatality threshold is crossed. That’s not what happens. But I’ve observed through my interviews that analysts in the field operate with a sliding scale in assessing when a conflict is ‘bad enough’ that something must be done. And this is much more indeterminate and much more dependent on individual context and experience than a fixed threshold. Nevertheless, several people told me that for something to be ‘bad,’ for something to be recognised as a conflict, a situation that deserves scarce resources and attention, a certain number of people have to die and a certain amount of suffering has to happen. 

This is not surprising and goes back to what I said earlier that many interviewees expressed that we have an unspoken assumption that conflicts must be deadly. This is sort of the first and foremost characteristic of how armed conflict is understood. And it’s also not surprising because it’s also a function of just how the system is built. If you think of the international prevention architecture, the uppermost organ to do anything about a conflict that might escalate is the UN Security Council. This is the organ that has the power to deploy forces preventively, for example, under Chapter VII. At the UN Security Council, you need a) the political will to intervene and b) available scarce resources in terms of money and personnel. You can’t deploy preventively all over the place. In fact, Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, said that the UN Security Council can only act if it already sees conflict happening at a large scale, which usually means that many people have been killed due to conflict. So, it is not surprising that we have this expectation that conflict needs to be deadly. At a lower level, this means that analysts in the field must constantly grapple with the question ‘when is a conflict bad enough?’ Where’s the threshold that you have to work with to say, ‘now we have to sound the alarm’ or ‘this is something that we need to escalate further’? 

Mike: Can you talk a bit about the limits of the use of death counts in war prevention policy?

Johanna: I’m happy to answer this question and do so at some length in the paper although before doing so I want to emphasize that I certainly see the purchase in using death metrics for prevention advocacy.

In an academic sense, there are a bunch of limits, which I’m mostly summarizing from other people’s work in the article. Tanisha Fazal has done fantastic work in this regard, where she says that death metrics to describe conflict or war are essentially ahistorical measures, because what they don’t reflect is that war is becoming less deadly simply because things like improved battlefield medicine, extraction measures and body protection. That is, more people get wounded and fewer people get killed just because of improved technology. This doesn’t mean that wars are less violent, but they may be less deadly. This means that fewer conflicts meet certain battle death thresholds, which has led some people to conclude, perhaps wrongly, that war is on the decline. 

This is an example of the more academic limitations of fatality numbers, and I discuss a couple more of those in the paper. What I focus on in the second part of the article are also the ethical limitations. Another thing that came out of my interviews is concern about the  risk of emphasizing deadliness or lethality as the first and foremost criterion in defining armed conflict, as doing this can deprioritize other types of violence that might be important to understand the dynamics of conflict. For example, many sorts of deprivation, grievances, or sexual and gender-based violence are important to the dynamics of conflict and might tell you how the conflict might develop might be largely ignored amidst the emphasis on deadly violence. 

We also need the stories and the contextualization to make clear what it is that we really want to prevent.

Another ethical limitation is that death metrics necessarily decontextualize. In order to count things, you must abstract them into certain categories. This goes back to the earlier part of the interview when I talked about quantification. But quantification strips away important context: the stories of how the people have died, what the specific circumstances were, and this also means that you’re losing some context of the conflict and its dynamics. Here I use arguments put forward by others you’ve already interviewed, like Thomas Gregory, who are saying that we need to make the case for prevention not only in terms of the numbers and the deference to scientific authority and evidence in a statistical sense. We also need the stories and the contextualization to make clear what it is that we really want to prevent. It’s not only about manipulating the numbers, but about righting the wrongs that are happening. 

Mike: This last idea about the need for telling stories about and contextualizing violence relates closely to the mission of AOAV. Do you get a sense from your contacts in the conflict prevention universe that they place importance on going beyond the numbers to tell stories about individual victims of armed conflict?

Johanna: Yeah, I think none of them said we should tell the stories per se, or concluded that this specifically is what we should do differently. However, there were definitely people realizing—especially when we came to this part in the conversation—that it’s a little odd that they feel they must focus on lethality so much. I spoke with one person who said, ‘oh, now that you say it, the keywords that I looked at when I was scanning sources is, most importantly, “attacks” or “dead,” or how many people have died.’ Another interviewee said that the focus on lethality is masculine, suggesting that we have an ‘obsession’ with death when we try to define what conflict is, but this overemphasizes the male gaze because the next level of (non-lethal) violence is sexual and gender-based violence, which happens more to women. So, the interviewees haven’t said directly that we need stories, but many have halted or even explicitly recoiled at the idea that we focus so much on death metrics or on death numbers.