Helga Malmin Binningsbø
Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
In a time with numerous reports about civilian casualties and tragedies, it is encouraging to read Oliver Kaplan’s book about how civilians during armed conflict protect themselves. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, Kaplan develops and tests a theory explaining why some local communities resist violence from armed groups while others do not. He emphasizes social cohesion, well-organized communities, and rebel groups’ sensitivity to civilians’ concerns. In a statistical study of all municipalities in Colombia, he finds that having many juntas is associated with lower homicide rates. Kaplan then uses quantitative matching techniques to select towns for in-depth qualitative studies. The book is best when it describes organization, violence, and resistance in the case study towns, showing how different characteristics of the local community affect how it manages, or not, to prevent armed groups’ violence towards community members. Through historical accounts of violence and organization since La Violencia in the 1950s, as well as interviews with civilians, village leaders, ex-combatants, etc., Kaplan finds support for his claims about local autonomy during armed conflict. Resisting War is more challenging when the theoretical argument is elaborated. Kaplan discusses when organizations arise, why organizations are important, which overall strategies and specific tactics communities (organizations) can use when facing armed groups, and how characteristics of the armed groups themselves influence violence towards civilians. The level of detail may be a bit overwhelming. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s book deserves a wide readership. If one has the slightest interest in how civilians cope, it is impossible to ignore this very interesting account of civilian agency in communities facing violent conflict. The lessons learned may inspire civilians around the world who face these challenges daily.