The War is in the Mountains by Judith Matloff

Review published on June 9, 2017.

Mountains cover about a quarter of the earth and host one tenth of the population, but are the zones of conflict for over 85% of UN recognised wars. Do mountains, with their natural necessities and their surviving older traditions, breed a certain type of person that leads to conflicts? On closer examination, a number of modern problems, over-population, international land aspirations and arguments, water scarcity, water need for hydro electric power, the criminalised drug trades and other forms of terrorism (often re-enforced with increasingly totalitarian religious belief) exacerbate the difficulties of mountain living. They make it difficult for the indigenous communities to quell or manage problems, but mountainous areas are not easy to control even by armies of the super-powers.

Matloff, an experienced journalist, will explore these issues. To do this she re-visits a number of countries – Albania, Chechnya/Dagestan, Mexico and Colombia, Nepal, Kashmir and Afghanistan – to explore possible mountain/violence links. She explores attitudes and dissent – or not – in European mountain areas and then explores Norway as the “international experts” on cold weather warfare – identifying the Arctic Circle as the next probable major conflict zone.

In this impressive book, chapter by chapter she explores an area and a specific issue that occurs there. She explains in detail where she is, the route she is taking, the people she is mixing with, always creating vivid vignettes of each place. This is anthropological geography as she manages to meld descriptions of evolving landscape, history, geography and religion. By pairing countries that are relatively close together, but nonetheless different, she gives a bite to her queries as to why? Why does one country react or evolve in one way and another not?

These are the conflict zones. But in an increasingly “small” world the impacts will ripple out over huge areas elsewhere, destabilising even more communities and countries – those you hear about in the news seemingly every day now. For the American author, the impacts directly impact on her own country, and service personnel, so that too is touched on.

The scale of the problems and the range of conflict zones covered do not make this an easy read. But for the interested internationalist, it covers so much and places so many initially seemingly unrelated things in context. This understanding is deepened by showing just how closely linked we – the urban non-mountaineers – are to these upland areas people and not only when their problems spill out into our “peaceful “nations. But it must be said that Matloff never forgets that this is about people first, places second.

Due to the depth of the detail and the rigour of the analysis, this is an important book for anybody interested in any of the countries she discusses, but on a broader level it is essential reading for all intelligent people on cause and effect, or for anybody who thinks wars “finish” when the international media turn their backs and go elsewhere. Read it slowly, but certainly read it. Non-fiction book groups will have so much to discuss.

Hilary White 5/5

The War is in the Mountains by Judith Matloff
Duckworth Overlook 9780715651896 hbk Ape 2017

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