Fourteen years ago John Mueller published a provocative, and in my view, valuable article titled “The Banality of ‘Ethnic War’” (ungated pre-publication PDF here). In brief, Mueller’s thesis is that the conventional wisdom about “ethnic conflict” (especially as held by pundits and reporters) is all wet, and the truth is rather banal: small bands of violent specialists (i.e., ordinary criminals) are “let loose” on society by opportunistic politicians while police and military largely stand by, aloof or directing the “hoodlums” from afar. Mueller writes:
“[E]thnic war” is substantially a condition in which a mass of essentially mild, ordinary people can unwillingly and in considerable bewilderment come under the vicious and arbitrary control of small groups of armed thugs… the [1990s] violent conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia. These were spawned not so much by the convulsive surging of ancient hatreds or by frenzies whipped up by demagogic politicians and the media as by the ministrations of small—sometimes very small—bands of opportunistic marauders recruited by political leaders and operating under their general guidance. Many of these participants were drawn from street gangs or from bands of soccer hooligans. Others were criminals specifically released from prison for the purpose.
A group of well-armed thugs and bullies encouraged by, and working under rough constraints set out by, official security services would arrive or band together in a community. Sometimes operating with local authorities, they would then take control and persecute members of other ethnic groups, who would usually flee to areas protected by their own ethnic ruffians, sometimes to join them in seeking revenge. Carnivals of often-drunken looting, destruction, and violence would take place, and others—guiltily or not so guiltily—might join in. Gradually, however, many of the people under the thugs’ arbitrary and chaotic “protection,” especially the more moderate ones and young men unwilling to be pressed into military service, would emigrate to safer places. In all this, nationalism was not so much the impelling force as simply the characteristic around which the marauders happened to have arrayed themselves.
The mechanism of violence in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, then, is remarkably banal. Rather than reflecting deep, historic passions and hatreds, the violence seems to have been the result of a situation in which common, opportunistic, sadistic, and often distinctly nonideological marauders were recruited and permitted free rein by political authorities.
Because these people are found in all societies, the events in Yugoslavia and Rwanda are not peculiar to those locales, but could happen almost anywhere under the appropriate conditions. (pp. 42-3).
That is why the BBC’s article, “Ukraine crisis: Order breaks down ahead of Crimea vote,” captured my attention. Mark Lowen (@marklowen) writes:
They sprung up quickly and quietly across this rugged peninsula: impromptu roadblocks, well-manned and at times aggressive … The checkpoint was under mixed command – Ukrainian police who had defected from Kiev to Crimea’s pro-Russian autonomous government, heavily-armed soldiers wielding AK-47 rifles and a group of Cossacks – one of whom was ready to talk. “I’ve come from Russia,” he said. “We have the right to be here because the local people asked for our help, to protect them from the fascists of western Ukraine.” Beside him stands a man with the Serbian national emblem on his uniform: four Cyrillic “s” letters – the Serbian abbreviation for “Only Unity Saves the Serbs”. Having been based in Belgrade, I strike up conversation in Serbian. “Yes, I’m from southern Serbia,” he tells me. “I’ve come to help my Russian Orthodox brothers – we are the same and it’s normal that I’m here.” He denies being a paramilitary – but it’s clear he’s a Chetnik, the nationalist Serbs who fought in the Yugoslav wars and now sporadically appear elsewhere as mercenaries.
Those controlling the checkpoints argue they are needed to protect the local community – but many believe they are a serious threat to security and need to be reined in. They seem to epitomise the breakdown of law and order that is now gripping Crimea – one such group preventing a delegation from the OSCE security organisation from entering the peninsula, firing warning shots to make their point. It’s a situation that Roman Borodin and his wife Tanya want to leave behind. I visit their apartment in Sevastopol, now full of boxes. They’re preparing to move from Crimea to Kiev, worried for the future of their four-year-old daughter, Masha. They are ethnic Russians – but are a far cry from those here pushing Crimea into the arms of Moscow. “We’re leaving because the situation is so unpredictable”, Mr Borodin says … In reality Ukraine has already lost Crimea, now under the control of a rebel government, Russian troops, militias and mercenaries.
— Mark Lowen (@marklowen) March 8, 2014
It is a news report that Mueller might have ordered from a script mill and central casting. Yet, few if any news reporters or pundits are aware of the mundane mobilization processes that produce these events, and my sense is that the number of scholars who study these conflict processes have embraced Mueller’s argument is not terribly large. Due to this you will find few reports like Lowen’s, and even fewer discussions of the import of monitoring prisons, criminal gangs, and other groups of young males who are experienced in street-level coercion.
Is anything to be done? Mueller believes there is considerable opportunity to stop the killing, preferably before it begins, but importantly, the opportunity does not especially diminish once killing is well underway.
[T]here was nothing particularly inevitable about the violence: with different people in charge and with different policing and accommodation procedures, the savagery could have been avoided.
Because the violence in Yugoslavia and Rwanda was carried out chiefly by small, ill-disciplined, and essentially cowardly bands of thugs and bullies, policing the situation would probably have been fairly easy for almost any organized,disciplined, and sizable army. An extreme aversion to casualties and a misguided assumption that the conflicts stemmed from immutable ethnic hatreds, however, made international military intervention essentially impossible until the violence appeared to have run its course (pp. 43-4).
To be sure, Russia’s apparent troop presence in Crimea, and definite presence right next door, puts a different light on the situation there than the ones that Mueller discusses in his article. But regardless of other states’ beliefs about Putin’s willingness to order the Russian military to engage in battle with an international force of police and peacekeepers put in Crimea, Mueller’s argument is one that is not easily dismissed, and one that I believe all of us do well to consider carefully when events such as we have seen recently unfold in Ukraine take place.
A version of this post first appeared at the author’s blog.
 If you are up to watching a gut-wrenching, heart-rending, slow-motion train wreck that substantiates Mueller’s thesis about the banality of ethnic conflict as only a documentary case study can, set aside some time and watch We are all Neighbours (1993; low quality version here). Mueller’s description of bewildered ordinary people being unwillingly swept up in the violence of small bands of marauders will haunt you.  I say “apparent” only because I have not seen media reports which establish the the Russian troops in Crimea are not irregulars, paramilitaries, etc. wearing surplus Russian uniforms and gear. That said, it is very plausible that credible reports exist and I have simply paid inadequate attention.