Humane crisis management – or lifestyle war?
Helsinki Times 10/2011

According to the Finnish Defence Forces’ recruiting campaigns, crisis-management operations give the Finnish peacekeeper the opportunity to experience adventure, get a nice salary and gain good background experience for the challenges of professional life, writes Noora Kotilainen.

Political turbulences, unrest, crises and war strongly determine the way we view our surrounding world. Currently, Finland is participating in nine different military crisis-management operations in conflict zones worldwide. Wars and political crises have different faces. They receive their respective meaning depending on the beholder’s point of view and everyday reality.

The people living in crisis areas are witnesses to war and chaos. They experience the decisive moments of world politics on a painfully personal level. Finnish citizens, who follow crises via the media, build their understanding of the events based upon their knowledge, emotions, attitudes and experiences. The political actors assess the situations and their gravity as well as their possible involvement from the perspective of their state’s international position and global power relations. Military strategy, tactics, efficiency and the different parties’ relative strengths are what determine the armed forces’ point of view.

Because of the multi-facetedness of crisis situations, their various aspects – such as the reality on the field, the challenge they pose and the risks that they represent – are communicated to different groups in distinct ways. How then, are the Finnish peacekeeping missions presented to different target groups?

The Finnish involvement in UN peacekeeping missions is often presented with national pride. Already in 1956, Finland participated in the international Suez crisis peacekeeping mission. Over the last decades, more than 40,000 Finns have served in international peacekeeping operations. Thus, Finland’s status as a “great power in peacekeeping” is a recurring theme in Finnish political rhetoric. Responsibility, honour and the necessity to take part in the international community’s efforts are widely used justifications for the involvement in expensive and sometimes tragic operations outside the country’s borders. The will to gain experience, to learn more and to uphold military preparedness are also commonly used rationales. The most important point, however, is the basic idea of crisis management: helping crisis-affected areas, improving living conditions, enhancing security and achieving the ambitious goal of enduring peace.

Rarely are the expectations of the peacekeepers and their views of their participation in international action discussed. The same applies to the ways in which the Finnish defence forces market the missions to potential peacekeepers in its public relations campaigns.

IN 2010, the Finnish defence forces launched a highly visual advertising campaign for recruiting peacekeepers. Information about operations, salaries, benefits and prerequisites for applying were presented with concise basic information and flashy, full-colour photographs. The campaign’s communication correlated strongly with the reasons the recruited peacekeepers gave for applying to peacekeeping service.

In a survey conducted in 2010, the major reasons for applying to peacekeeping missions were: gaining professional experience (36.46%), salary (20.83%), the desire for variation (10.42%) and the challenge of the task itself (9.38%). It is noteworthy that the desire to help the people in the field of action accounted for only 4.17 per cent of the answers. Only two per cent of the respondents wanted to improve the Finnish expertise in peacekeeping operations.

The Finnish peacekeepers are, on average, 27 years old and 99 per cent of them are men. Throughout history, the ideas of adventure, excitement and gaining experience have appealed to young men. Even today, these reasons seem to be of more interest than the reasons mentioned in political speeches: helping people in crisis areas and improving the living conditions there. At the same time, when crisis management has gone through changes compared with earlier missions, it seems that the grand narrative of Finnish peacekeeping has eroded.

“Experience. No money can buy it”, is the headline in one of the defence forces’ recruiting campaign’s posters. What is depicted are heavily armed, straight-standing young and handsome male and female peacekeepers. In the background, there is an Afghanistan-like landscape with slightly blurred local people involved in talks with peacekeepers. This adventure-theme implies that service in crisis-management forces offers for Finnish citizens an opportunity to gain the kind of experience and variation that cannot be acquired in a functioning, safe and organised society. Only crisis and war may give you this experience. The thrilling excitement and extreme experiences in foreign countries attract a young demographic. On the other side of the tempting coin, however, lurks the danger of violent death.

When comparing the peacekeepers’ expectations and motivations for applying to peacekeeping operations with Finnish political rhetoric, combined with the national narrative of the necessity of peacekeeping, it is clear that these two narratives don’t fit together.

The ethical side of the Finnish defence forces’ communication should be examined more thoroughly. The adventure-theme used in recruiting peacekeepers can be interpreted in a nearly macabre way if one examines the narrative on a global level and bears in mind how differently crises are experienced depending on the beholder’s everyday reality. On the one hand, wars and disastrous events destroy living conditions, diminish future prospects, and cause physical and economic insecurity for the locals of crisis areas. On the other hand, these events offer – according to the defence forces’ recruiting campaigns – the opportunity for the Finnish peacekeeper to experience adventure, to get a nice salary and to gain good background experience for the challenges of professional life.

It is interesting to reflect on how the themes used in the recruiting campaigns for peacekeeping missions relate to the ways in which the people of crisis-affected countries and how the actors in crisis management view their own life and position in the midst of a crisis. These reflections may open new ways of thinking about larger power structures of the world than crisis management only, such as how the value of humanity, as well as our possibilities and experiences in this global world, seems to differ in radical ways.

Noora Kotilainen (born in 1979) holds a Master’s degree in political science. She is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki’s Social Science History section and is preparing a dissertation about humanitarian geopolitics and political visual culture. Kotilainen works at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs as a visiting scholar and also as a researcher at the Academy of Finland’s research project, ‘Ethics, Politics and Emergencies – Humanitarian Frame for Co-option and Collaboration in World Politics’. Lately, she has been concentrating her work on the Afghan war, its strategic communication and politics of visual culture.