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What do US soldiers have to say about poverty and conflict?


Is there a relationship between poverty and conflict, including terrorism? Does poverty have an effect on security, globally and/or nationally?

If we think about it, conflict tends to disproportionately impact poor people and those who are marginalized in society (based on gender, religion, ethnic categorization, etc.). Decreased opportunities for those who are already marginalized means that feasible jobs are few and far beyond. Therefore, joining an armed group might serve as a viable alternative to employment; in fact, many combatants in civil wars in Sierra Leone and Uganda had low levels of education and were very poor. I rarely used to think about basic needs as driving motivators for engaging in combat, but in an analysis on the interests of fighters in the Sierra Leone civil war, soldiers on both sides reported basic needs like access to food, security, and education as their main interest for joining.

You would think that it’s safe to say that poverty creates breeding grounds for conflict. Although the answer seems like an obvious “yes”, it’s not that simple. Actually, it's pretty complicated and there isn’t really a clearly agreed upon answer.

What’s the problem? There are a number of reasons and factors that play into why conflicts happen and why people join. It also doesn’t help that some of these reasons are conflicting. For example, people with higher education and standard of living were more likely to participate and become suicide bombers in Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad than those who were less educated.

So now we’re back to square one. As you can see, the relationship and potential connection between poverty and conflict is a complicated one.

Obviously there are some huge disputes and debates. It definitely isn’t an easy topic as it encompasses poverty (an already intricate concept on its own) and conflict, a situation characterized by instability and chaos.

While it’s important to analyze the link between poverty and conflict, another way to examine this issue is through firsthand accounts. For that reason, it’s important we take into consideration  the opinions and actions of those who interact with both of these complex issues across the globe- soldiers.

Soldiers don’t seem like they have an obvious connection with poverty, but in fact soldiers are often involved with poverty-related issues and often in poverty-stricken areas. For example, British military engineers were sent to Sierra Leone to fight the Ebola outbreak by building a medical treatment center.

Former US Marine Corps platoon commander, Jake Harriman, served in four deployments in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Through his personal experience fighting the War on Terror, Harriman was convinced that poverty was a contributing factor to the cause of terrorism.

Harriman has commented about his realization that poverty and conflict are interconnected and his subsequent departure from the US Marine Corps:

We fought side by side on the frontlines of the “War on Terror” – a war that has cost so many lives, including many of my closest brothers. But as we fought together in that war, I came face to face with an unnecessary evil that takes more lives each day than are lost in Fallujah, Gaza, Kandahar, Mogadishu, and Jaffna combined, an evil that is directly connected to the proliferation of the terrorism and insurgency that we were fighting: the evil of extreme poverty.

In the US, budget funds that are allocated to ‘foreign aid’ are divided into military aid and non-military aid (like diplomacy, food assistance, development).  In 2012, over 80 admirals and generals wrote a letter to the United States Congress discouraging  a decrease in the International Affairs Budget and reaffirmed that US national security, along with military intelligence, depends on diplomacy, development, and humanitarian efforts.  Echoing that sentiment, in a poll surveying over 600 active duty and retired military officers, a majority believed that increasing aid for non-military tools such as food assistance, support for education, health, and economic development would help US national security. From their personal experience, 70% of soldiers confirmed that non-military tools helped make their job more efficient or effective.

Thus far we may not have the answer to whether there is a causal relationship between poverty and conflict, as the relationship between poverty and conflict is obviously complex. We can’t make sweeping statements connecting the two at this time. However, according to the opinions and actions of military officials, poverty seems to play a critical role in making conflict a thing of the past.