Wars of Plunder by Philippe le Billon is an account of conflicts which arise from the pursuit of profits from resources located in unstable countries, mostly in Africa, but also in Asia, where poverty and lack of institutions mean that wars are fought without rules, and lives become even shorter, nastier and more brutish. Thus, the emphasis is on eruptions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo and Cambodia.
The book is not about wars in general. Countries border on being "failed states", and resources are restricted mostly to diamonds and timber, so wars responsible for most casualties in the last centuries are not examined. Given this limited scope we get a picture of the horrors committed by Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh, rather than George Bush, Tony Blair or Donald Rumsfeld.
The mutilation of fellow humans, the amputation of children, the rape of women and other acts of gratuitous violence have justifiably attracted the attention of the media and international judiciary, and one feels that Charles Taylor and militia leaders from Congo, Sierra Leone and Rwanda got what they deserved in highly publicised trials.
Charles Taylor's use of "blood diamonds" to curry favour with supermodels is certainly more newsworthy than Donald Rumsfeld directing "smart" bombs at Saddam's palaces, but one wonders which one did more damage in terms of human destruction. Would Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia be less odious if he had gone to Princeton and had not allowed Thai generals to benefit from illegal logging?
The author makes academic distinctions between wars fought over compact and easily transported valuables like diamonds and more bulky timber, but do they allow us to judge between Congo warlords, British prime ministers and French and American presidents? Educated members of the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 to allow protection of civilians from Libyan weapons.
Using NATO jets, submarines, cruise missiles and sophisticated communications, Western statesmen and women degraded Gaddafi's armed forces so the country was captured by racist, fanatic, anarchic "militias" which detained tens of thousands of innocent sub-Saharan Africans in horrible conditions, and held representatives of the international judicial system captive.
Using NATO jets and communications, they helped Libyan rebels to capture Gaddafi, but instead of putting him on trial they stripped him naked, buggered and murdered him. Sankoh's torture and mutilation of opponents was barbarous, but he was an impoverished, illiterate, unsophisticated buffoon. Was similar activity by graduates of elite French, British and American universities nobler?
Philippe le Billon is undoubtedly sympathetic to the people of the Third World, and bemoans the tragedies they suffered at the hands of unworthy leaders, who used the fortunes plundered from their resources to buy luxuries abroad. But are their leaders more worthy of analysis and approbation than Western ones who used their sophisticated knowledge to kill for oil?
On the scale of plunder, was Charles Taylor guiltier than the directors of De Beers? For centuries, millions of black miners laboured in the apartheid system constructed by European statesmen, unprotected by human rights or health and welfare legislation. Was Charles Taylor worthier of 80 years in prison than Cecil Rhodes, Jan Smuts Henrick Verwoerd or British prime ministers?
War is the continuation of politics by other means. When there is conflict over resources, which is the essence of politics, statesmen may try to resolve these through argument, pressure, manoeuvre or other means of conflict resolution. When these fail war may break out, and this is not a picnic, but violence which attempts to compel the enemy to submit to your will.
War is not antiseptic or sterilised, but vicious, cruel, inhumane, murderous and without compassion. Clausewitz has written that in such dangerous things as war the worst errors are those which arise from a spirit of benevolence. Charles Taylor and Pol Pot should not be condemned for waging war with brutality and for not being well-educated, but for waging war at all.
Their wars, while dangerous for their own people, did not have the global consequences of the wars against Iraq and Libya. And the plunder they garnered was nothing compared to the treasures looted by Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Cecil Rhodes, the Oppenheimers or America's Robber Barons. In the realm of plunder, African warlords and Cambodian killers are petty thieves.
Killers in the modern world who get a really bad press tend to be from the Third World, to be improperly educated, to lack the accoutrements of modernity such as spin doctors, advisers, consultants, independent bureaucrats, judges, parliamentarians and the media. Their English, French and other European languages may expose their lack of culture.
But they tend to be trained and used by bearers of higher civilisations. Idi Amin was condemned as barbarous and homicidal, but he was trained by upper-class British soldiers to torture Kenyan freedom fighters. Bin Laden and the Mujahidin were trained by graduates of Ivy League schools to assassinate, behead and castrate Russians to terrorise them into flight.
Sometimes in our naiveté we condemn the little killers and praise the mass murderers who have better degrees. We should remember what Stalin said about murder: "Kill one individual and it's murder, kill one million and it's a statistic."
Patrick Wilmot, who is based in London, is a writer and commentator on African affairs for the BBC, Sky News, Al-Jazeera and CNN.