Civil wars do not start overnight. You do not simply wake up one morning in what has been a peaceful country only to discover organized armed forces trying to destroy each other. One of the great insights of genuine conservatism (not the vulgar market fundamentalism that tries to pass for sound political philosophy today) is that human beings have a strong yearning for order and stability, and will put up with unfairness, even gross injustices, rather than risk violent chaos. Even when civil wars seem to emerge suddenly into the world news–as in, say, Sierra Leone in the nineties or Sri Lanka the previous decade–closer inspection invariably reveals many years of groundwork, of deteriorating economies, weakening governments, ethnic or social discrimination, of a cycle of earlier riots, vicious repression, attempted or successful coups, revenge.
Civil wars are rare as well. What is surprising about the world today is not how many there are but how few. In the early 1990s, people on both the left and the right warned that some combination of globalization and its disruptive changes, worsening unemployment and inequality, the rise of ethnicity and the end of the cold war international system meant that killing of the sort taking place in the Balkans, say, or Somalia, was likely to spread widely. Yet there is no pandemic. There are a half-dozen or so conflicts in Africa (a continent of fifty-odd nations), and a few more in south and central Asia. And Latin America, which was ripped during the 1980s by violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and by an earlier dirty war in Argentina, is basically peaceful. Except for Colombia.
We are lucky to have an on-the-spot look at the war there from one of the best and most experienced Latin American correspondents around, Alma Guillermoprieto, as part of her important and topical new book, Looking for History. She includes a brief but touching description of a “lively and doll-eyed” young guerrilla named Claudia, whom Guillermoprieto met in San Vicente del Caguán, the small town on the edge of the rainforest in southern Colombia that is the main base for the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The FARC, in existence since 1964, is the largest left-wing insurgency in recent Latin American history and is the main target of $1.3 billion in American aid to the government, most of it military.
Guillermoprieto notices that Claudia “had taken to bumping up against me and squeezing me…with a persistence I was beginning to find alarming until I thought to ask how old she was. ‘Seventeen,’ she answered. And how long had it been since she’d seen her mother? ‘Four…no, five years,’ she said.”
Claudia is one of the 2 million Colombians already displaced by the growing civil war. Something has gone dramatically wrong in a country when a 12-year-old has to leave her mother and join a guerrilla army. Soon fifty American-made helicopters will join the Colombian military that is already trying to kill her.
Guillermoprieto is an indispensable corrective to the cool and fragmented mainstream reporting from Colombia, which, following the conventions of the genre, does indeed set down some of the facts. We do learn, approximately, of the rising number of political deaths (some 6,000 last year), the deepening economic crisis (20 percent unemployment) and the surface area of coca plants supposedly eradicated.