Know your enemy.
These three simple words, lifted from Sun Tzu’s 2500-year-old masterwork The Art of War, are the foundation of any viable military strategy. Writ large, as most conflicts are grounded in stubborn ignorance, they are often the key to finding a lasting peace.
They also lie at the heart of Will Plowright’s research, a bold initiative to understand – even humanize – the boogeymen of the world who have largely been written off as enemies of the species. Ever since he found himself face-to-face with members of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in 2011, Plowright has been intrigued by the limited understanding the general public has about the motivations of armed people in foreign lands. His research has since taken him into some of the darkest hearts of Africa, as well as Afghanistan, Colombia, Papua New Guinea, Myanmar, Palestine, and Haiti.
This is not what he was expecting to do with his life. A wanderer at heart, he had spent his teens and 20s bouncing between his native Vancouver and backpacking trips around the world, always noticing the pockets of misfortune he felt powerless to affect. After returning home and enrolling at UBC as a seasoned first-year, where he double-majored in history and political science, he continued his travels by volunteering for NGOs in conflict areas: War Child Holland, the Darfur Australia Network, HIV projects in Swaziland, a school for street children in Peru.
It was during one of these trips that Plowright’s academic future came into focus. He was in Northern Uganda on a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency to study psycho-social support for former child soldiers. A friend working on his PhD had set up an interview with two mid-level LRA officials who were considering defection, and he invited Plowright along for the ride. They met at a bar in the town of Gulu, where both the Ugandan government and the LRA had histories of brutal attacks against the civilian population. Plowright was in unknown territory. It was his 29th birthday.
“It was in a fancy hotel owned by an officer in the Ugandan military,” he recalls, “so it was quite a strange place to be meeting members of the LRA. It was odd to be in a nice garden of a nice hotel in a very poor country, drinking beer in a restaurant owned by the mortal enemy of the people I was talking to.”
The Lord’s Resistance Army, a mercurial Christian militant group, would soon come to the attention of Western media in the form of its leader, Joseph Kony, deplored for his practice of using child soldiers to achieve his aim of turning Uganda into an ethnically pure theocracy. Over the span of three decades, his Holy Spirit Movement has displaced more than 2 million civilians and turned 66,000 children into soldiers and sex slaves.
“They described their lives,” continues Plowright, “which involved a great deal of suffering and insecurity, as well as stories of them visiting suffering on others. At the same time, they seemed so nice and normal. I can’t think of any word to describe it other than surreal.”
Jarred by the unexpectedly polite reception in Gulu, Plowright began to realize how little we know our enemy.
He wanted to collect their individual stories, to trace the many paths that led them each to hell on earth. Where others saw evil, Plowright saw a cycle of victimhood.
“That was the defining moment,” he says from his temporary home in Holland as he prepares for new missions in Afghanistan and Central African Republic. “You read a lot about guys like that, and the dominant narratives of most conflicts – but especially people like the LRA – is that they’re monsters, they’re brutal, they’re cruel. But then sitting down and talking with them, they’re just normal people in sort of horrendous situations. They’re able to rationalize why they’re involved in conflicts. They don’t seem like inhuman psychopaths, just normal guys who got pulled into the conflict against their will.”
Plowright would spend the next six years trying to understand the nature of fighters in armed groups, focusing not on the dogma of the group, but on the motivation of the individual. Rotating between the field and the classroom – a master’s in conflict studies from the London School of Economics before returning to UBC for his PhD – he questioned the widely held assumption that these men and women don’t care what the world thinks of them, that they are willing participants in a game of unthinkable brutality. He wanted to collect their individual stories, to trace the many paths that led them each to hell on earth. Where others saw evil, Plowright saw a cycle of victimhood.
Sometimes they are born into war. When Plowright visited Myanmar, he discovered a country under harsh military rule for more than 50 years, locked in an ethnic civil war that has been raging longer than most Burmese have been alive. But most are re-born into war. They have ordinary lives: jobs, families, futures. And then a “barrel bomb” – an army of nails packed into 1,000 kilos of high explosive – indiscriminately falls into their living‑room, and they have nothing.
“I met guys who were fighting with groups like Al Nusra,” says Plowright, “and they were saying, Look, we would never have signed up, but our city’s being bombed, and people are being killed, and no one is trying to help us. These are the only people showing up to help us fight back. So in that kind of context, what do you say to someone? That they’re wrong for joining up with the only group of people that’s trying to help them? It’s heartbreaking for these guys.
This isn’t exactly new information in the conflict community. The ones who understand are the ones dodging the same bullets and hiding the same shrapnel scars, the humanitarians and mediators and other conflict workers who must negotiate access with the armed groups. Ultimately, these are Plowright’s allies and the most likely means for his work to take meaning – non-military and non-government organizations have little power to stop the carnage, but they can alleviate the suffering of those caught in the middle.
Plowright hopes to cooperate with humanitarian workers to address the use of child soldiers, who are far easier to kidnap and indoctrinate than adults, and who represent the cycle of victimhood he sees repeating itself – a tragedy not lost on the groups that employ them. He hopes by understanding why armed groups use child soldiers despite the international contempt the practice generates, he can figure out the how that would get them to stop.
We don’t ask the monsters their names. We only care about their brand, and that brand is evil.
But in most Western democracies, this knowledge doesn’t translate into political will. “You could imagine what would happen to most politicians if they came out and said what I just said,” offers Plowright. “No politician is going to stick their neck out to argue we should be humanizing people in armed groups.”
In the absence of leadership, we turn to our screens for the message. Even when the terrorist is homegrown, or when our own soldiers can’t tell the enemy from the populace, we blame the demons lurking in the rubble. We inform ourselves with a two-minute video on our news feeds – bodies piled in Paris and Orlando, hospitals bombed in Afghanistan and Syria – we see these atrocities and we blame it on monsters. The media stamp the monsters with theme music and dark graphics, and we respond with Pavlovian efficiency, doing our part by choosing the sad emoji over the simple like. We don’t ask the monsters their names. We only care about their brand, and that brand is evil.
“People don’t generally seek to be evil,” Plowright points out. “They do what they do because they think it’s right. Now of course whether or not we agree with what they do is a completely different matter. But that doesn’t mean it’s monsters or psychopaths that do these violent acts that we see in the media and get very upset about. The scary part is that it is just normal people who do these things.”
Understandably, his work is not always well-received. Summary keywords like terrorist and radical paint a dark picture that does not welcome the light. He’s been called naïve, a dupe, a fool. He gets random email from strangers questioning his judgment. During a radio interview in Australia, the host called him a terrorist sympathizer.
But he regularly puts his life on the line to steal a quiet moment with the devil. Tea with ISIS. Heinekens with Myanmar rebels. In Syria, he could hardly keep track of the number of fighting groups, and remained tethered to a duo of local handlers to keep him from looking in the wrong direction.
People in combat zones – soldiers, rebels, journalists, humanitarians, other – are there for a variety of reasons, and cope in a variety of ways. But one thing they have in common, especially the fighters, is that none of them really want to be there, a subtlety missed by the media when they report on non‑state armed groups.
Fear became the norm, but also a reminder of what normal is. “Anyone who works in conflict zones, if you’re not scared and upset about the violence around you, then you should probably think about leaving,” Plowright says. He focused on being conscious of what was going on around him and how it was affecting him emotionally. Explosions and gunfire aren’t normal things, but when you’re surrounded by them around the clock, they can seem routine, and that’s when people begin to take risks. He didn’t want to be like the journalists he saw in Aleppo, who, finding themselves in the middle of a gun battle, stopped to take a selfie.
People in combat zones – soldiers, rebels, journalists, humanitarians and others – are there for a variety of reasons, and cope in a variety of ways. But one thing they have in common, especially the fighters, is that none of them really want to be there, a subtlety missed by the media when they report on non-state armed groups.
Even in the academic literature, which Plowright dove into after his first encounter, he was dismayed by the lack of perspective. “People who are in armed groups, they’re seen as terrorists, they’re seen as greedy, they’re brutes, they’re thugs, they’re warlords. But it’s very rare that people are doing it out of a love for violence, or even just a lust for power, because most of the people involved in armed conflicts have little or no power. They’re not seen as human beings, and they’re not treated in a lot of the literature as human beings.”
It’s called pseudospeciation: the practice (often unconscious) of relegating others into non-human categories. It’s why conflict is so often articulated in racial terms, especially by soldiers, who lean on this coping mechanism to rationalize the sheer inhumanity of their mission. It’s what allows us to relegate armed groups – sometimes entire nations – to prey status because they are something other than human.
Plowright wants to bring this insidious narrative into the public discussion, to help us understand the people behind these atrocities and how they got where they are. “The entire point is to try to connect with people on a human level,” he says, “not just get data from people, but to try to understand them, what they think and feel about what they’re caught up in.”
In short, ignorance of one’s foe is the enemy of peace. It’s why we keep dropping bombs, landing troops, tripping over our own best intentions, regretting our lack of foresight, and then doing it all again. It’s no coincidence that ISIS and similar groups are targeting Western countries, says Plowright. “These things don’t just happen out of nowhere. We need to remember our own role in historical events. Over the last 10 or 15 years, the West has invaded, bombed, and/or occupied Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Libya, Egypt – the list goes on and on. We need to think about these actions and how our involvement in these conflicts justifies what these armed groups do. Because a lot of them see themselves as responding to something we started.”
War has never been a battle between opposing military forces. In terms of body count, war is simply the slaughter of innocents. In any given conflict, more than half of the dead are civilians – far more if you account for noncombatants who took up arms in desperation – with exponentially more forced into the night as refugees, a status that can last for generations.
Those of us who enjoy the relative safety of a superpower or a “peaceful” nation may be surprised to find out who we’re fighting. We see animals, and they want to hurt people, so we drop some bombs and then act surprised when they turn their attention our way. “Conflict rarely has a military answer,” says Plowright, “and when you engage the military in someone else’s conflict, that conflict’s going to follow you home.” Time and again, we repeat this fallacy that aiming missiles at ISIS or bombing a bronze-age populace into the stone age is going to stop the violence, but usually we just create more misery, more refugees, more armed groups. You cannot understand your enemy from the sky.
“The image most people in the West have is that they are rabid, brainwashed Islamofascists – they’re psychos, they’re crazy – no, they’re not,” says Plowright. “They’re a 19-year-old guy who wanted to go to university until a Russian bomb destroyed his household and killed his family. What is he supposed to do after that? What would you do after that?”
UBC Public Scholars Initiative
Although the fundamental approach to doctoral education has not changed significantly since it was instituted in the early 19th century as a means to regenerate the professoriate, most PhD graduates now pursue careers outside of academia, where they contribute immeasurably to the public good through diverse forms of scholarship.
The Public Scholars Initiative (PSI) is an innovative pilot program intended to explore how a top-tier university can support doctoral pathways that encourage purposeful social contribution, innovative forms of collaborative scholarship, and broader career readiness. It seeks to build connections, community, and capacity for PhD students who are interested in explicitly linking their doctoral work to an arena of public benefit and integrating broader and more career-relevant forms of scholarship into their doctoral education process.
Will Plowright was among 39 PhD students to be selected as the first cohort of the PSI in 2015.
What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?
Marrying the passions of academic research with the practical necessities of the real world.
In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?
I think the emphasis can be pulled back from the abstract and the purely theoretical, and challenge people to adapt their research to the real world, rather than the other way around.
How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?
I hope to become a successful academic, while continuing my humanitarian work with organizations like MSF.
How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?
I work directly with humanitarian organizations in order to investigate ways that my research can serve a practical purpose for those working in conflict zones, especially on issues related to child soldiers.
How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?
By producing materials for those working in conflict zones, as well as training programs for those going to work in violent contexts.
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
I wanted to increase my understanding of the dynamics of conflict from a more theoretical perspective. Whereas I have a large amount of practical experience on the ground, it has been amazing to complement that with a broader understanding in the trends of insurgency and humanitarian assistance in conflict zones.
Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?
I chose to come to UBC because it is an amazing university, with a very well-renowned Department of Political Science. That, and Vancouver is one of the most amazing places in the world.