Swedish Chef
16 January 2022

How Bombing and Demolition Formulas Carved Illusions of Control

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Original blog post can be found here:

This is an excerpt from a design monograph that addresses design, NATO operational planning and Joint planning methodologies (NATO-OPP, JPP, and various service-specific deviations therein). This monograph is pending publication and was produced through the Joint Special Operations University where the author is a design educator (contractor) for the U.S. Special Operations Command. The title of the monograph is: Disrupting Modern Military Decision-Making: Deconstructing Institutionalized Rituals through Design Synthesis.”

ilitaries do love categorization models that can be remembered with useful mnemonics in the form of indoctrinated acronyms. We have ‘Centers of Gravity’ (COGs), SWOT Analysis, as well as ‘courses of action’ or COAs. We even assess COAs with yet another mnemonic, ‘AFDSC’ (acceptable, feasible, distinguishable, suitable and complete). Thus, COG and SWOT analysis are far from the only analytic-oriented, categorization models employed within modern military decision-making by NATO and Joint Forces. Within the targeting cycles and analysis in NATO-OPP and JPP, intelligence analysts perform elaborate calculations on what appears vulnerable as associated with enemy center of gravity assessments. COGs as a construct are foundational to most all other NATO-OPP and JPP activities (our preferred decision-making methodology), with a range of suggested or directed targeting models used to determine how to target enemy infrastructure, personnel vulnerabilities as well as facilities, units, cultural or symbolic structures or things deemed critical for enemy operational or strategic strength. We even establish our military targeting through more of these mnemonic, pseudo-scientific models that, like SWOT are entirely convergent toward group-think, reliant upon systematic and reductive processes.

Historically, the U.S. Department of Defense has employed two primary targeting models within decision-making. They both are acronym-based and use weighted matrixes to cumulatively determine “a relative value as a target or the overall level of vulnerability” to apply violence of action toward some tangible thing in war.[1] The first is called ‘CARVER’ and the second targeting model is called ‘MSHARPP.’ MSHARPP stands for ‘Mission, Symbolism, History, Accessibility, Recognizability, Population and Proximity.’ Like SWOT and MSHARPP, CARVER is an acronym as well and stands for “Criticality, Accessibility, Recuperability, Vulnerability, Effect and Recognizability.” Both are categorization models for converging analytical content so that planners can file and sort data to make subsequent value assessments via formulaic relationships through deductive logic. As MSHARPP and CARVER as structurally extremely similar and employed in Army planning doctrines as well as used in NATO-OPP and JPP activities, the older CARVER model will be examined in detail.[2]

The CARVER model predates MSHARPP and is extensively used by engineering, aviation, and special operations forces for targeting enemy structures, forces, as well as social networks such as terrorist groups or Improvised Explosive Device (IED) cells. All of these categorizing models employ matrixes and established values in order to quantify some cumulative number or score. The scoring goes to decisions for leadership and are directly linked to enemy COG vulnerability assessments. Once again, NATO-OPP and JPP processes are hierarchically nested and branched in a reverse-engineered, linear-causal mode of systematic logic. Quantifiable inputs link to historically established outputs. Destroying those critical sites linked to an enemy’s operational COG vulnerability in time and space should advance a campaign toward reaching strategic goals along clear lines of operation or effort. A wide range of objects might be assessed through a series of COG, SWOT, MSHARPP and/or CARVER analytical processes that branch and nest hierarchically from larger strategic contexts down into operational and subordinate tactical scaled contexts, cross-referenced by geographical and unit mission specialization. Special Operations Forces (SOF), the original creators of CARVER would use the model to demonstrate direct support of broader (non-SOF) and higher operational or strategic objectives. As of 2017, the Joint Staff employs various CARVER models and versions for aiding their targeting process.[3]

The CARVER matrix is a target acquisition system developed by the U.S. Special Forces during the Vietnam War (based off earlier World War II specialized warfare techniques). Essentially, it is a reductionist, linear and systematic heuristic aid (model) to identify and rank specific military targets so that offensive resources can be efficiently used. CARVER uses analytic optimization and again demonstrates the military preference to assign some perceived objectivity to as much of reality as possible in a deliberate effort to rationalize decision-making in warfare. CARVER matrixes use a table of numeric values assigned by analysts to a target with quantified totals that provide a ‘target score’ to each potential target. The better the score, the greater the expected military payoff; risk is put into a parallel assessment that corresponds with whether the increased risk meets leadership demands to accomplish the targeting promised payoff if executed. In the twentieth century, these formulaic models would render many warfare activities into elaborate, cold, mathematical problems where bombs, bodies or kilometers of controlled territory could be reduced into whether one side was increasing or decreasing their chances of imposing their will upon their opponent. In total war, the ‘totality’ could be quantified in a variety of ways that could always link to kinetic and tangible things that might be articulated using explicit knowledge of the modern warfighter.

Using CARVER, analysists determine a prioritization of resources under the assumption that targets with higher or larger totals likely require more unit resources (such as time, money, tools, personnel). CARVER itself is part of a military movement during the Cold War where systems analysis reigned supreme, and analysts sought to “quantify every single factor of a strategic bombing campaign…the vulnerability of the target, the bomb’s ‘kill probability’- and put them all into a single mathematic equation” as RAND researcher and father of systems analysis, Edward Paxson would attempt in planning for nuclear war against the Soviet Union.[4] Special Operations in the Vietnam War developed this targeting methodology directly from these systems analysis origins. A simplified version of the CARVER matrix is depicted below in contemporary U.S. Army doctrine.[5] More sophisticated versions have also been promoted across Joint Forces and Special Operations Forces that attempt to quantitatively strengthen the weight criteria of how CARVER categories are assessed.[6]

Headquarters, Department of the Army, Police Intelligence Operations (ATTP 3–39.20), 5–20.

CARVER was originally intended for analysts to determine where bomber pilots could most effectively drop their munitions on enemy targets, [7] with Special Operations aviation activities employing advanced technology, experimental methods, and sensitive activities against difficult or politically delicate objectives. Special operations bombing came with significant risk, and justification to execute dangerous, often covert missions required this mathematical rationalization in order to frame ‘risk’ to ‘reward.’ The level of destruction would factor in similarly, where destroying a hardened bunker in a high-risk location using covert assets (bombing or demolitions) would require a CARVER worksheet in order to meet leadership concerns for kinetic payoffs. Unlike SWOT which was developed in the business world for commercial enterprise and later adapted by the military, CARVER is the reverse of that, and while designed for analytical optimization in modern warfare bombing decision-making, it has now been snatched up by industry. Today, CARVER is frequently sold online as something that is both “qualitative and quantitative,” hawked by ex-military as they sell the concept so that corporate leaders might expect to learn secrets of how to annihilate industry competitors just like special operators and the CIA targeted the North Vietnamese.[8]The exchange of military and industry models back and forth across the professions has a certain irony when viewed in the historical context comprehensively.

CARVER as a method, functions to emphasize “criticality, recuperability, and the short- and long-term effect on the threat network,”[9] where examples of SOF units applying CARVER in the 1960s-1970s for bombing targets and demolition activities shifted in the post-9–11 period to social networks and far more complex security challenges. Small special operations teams would attempt to understand, map and target socially complex insurgent IED networks using the same mathematical and engineering logic of CARVER where the subjectivity, irrationality, emergent and nonlinear behaviors of human beings were analyzed as if they were, in fact akin to hardened targets.[10] This becomes problematic in that those elements that cannot be assigned a number or articulated in pure mathematical analytic terms or logical relationships will be excluded, ignored or marginalized.

The claim that CARVER supports qualitative and quantitative data is tenuous, as most existing CARVER literature available is exclusively written by CARVER advocates promoting CARVER certifications, CARVER classes, CARVER consulting, or CARVER programs to provide this methodology to corporate and defense organizations in a commercial sales manner.[11] There is limited legitimate academic research on the methodology outside of self-serving promotional documents, opinion pieces and non-scientific reports that are written by what appear to be special interest groups, or career military analysts emotionally invested in various models or practices. CARVER is a closed-system model for analytic optimization; Any appearance of mathematical precision outside of simple kinetic ratios is projected (usually inappropriately) upon a security context that exists well beyond determining the size of a bomb to collapse a bridge.[12]

A military force certainly can use CARVER to destroy a critical bridge, but expectations that the kinetic destruction of a bridge somehow leads to a behavior change of enemy forces in the area cannot be reduced to such over-simplifications.[13] Such models attempt to render complex security situations into vertical chains of linear-causal activities that can be isolated, knocked over like a row of dominos, and controlled by the stakeholder with superior technology, information and capability to act. This violates how complex systems are emergent. Emergence generates nonlinear processes and a dynamic complex reality where initial desired future frames (ends, goals) are often later realized as entirely wrong, counterproductive, or nested in a legacy system framing of which the emergent future has little to do with.[14] One can destroy the bridge, but how that action ripples through time and space cannot also be understood with the same quantitative targeting model used to seek and destroy the bridge.

CARVER instead works under a cognitive framework of reductionism and rationalism. “Traditional mission analysis, a hallmark of reductionism, is ineffective except perhaps for assuring that routine and engineered type tasks are performed in support of localized craftwork and emergent tasks” (those things that cannot be done exclusively with reductionism/rationalism logics).[15] Rationalism, working in conjunction with reductionism (breaking things down to seek out fundamental governing principles/laws and simplification) attempts to standardize actions into task lists and prescriptive doctrinal instructions. Rationally derived activities such as CARVER orient toward predetermined, objective ‘end-states’ where all contributing sub-actions (such as CARVER activities linked together in a chain of sensitive activities) will add up to the overall meaning for the action desired (the campaign, strategy, overarching goal). “The CARVER method is the prevailing Special Forces targeting framework related to center of gravity (COG) analysis,” which by extension draws JPP methodological frameworks into how Special Operations Forces as well as Joint Forces consider targeting.[16]

CARVER (and similar analytical models in JPP/NATO-OPP) emphasizes quantitative interpretation of data by artificially masking subjective and qualitative aspects of a complex system through renaming and labeling the phenomena in a purely analytical expression. This is an example of cybernetic thinking that originated in the technological advances of World War II and culminated during the Vietnam War where the CARVER technique first debuted. Cybernetics is not a traditional scientific discipline, rather it is “a convergence of engineering techniques, scientific ideas and philosophical principles under a common discourse that allowed the discussion and analysis of artificial machines, biological organisms, and social organization as equivalent systems of control and communication operating under a single set of principles.”[17] CARVER originated out of aerial bombing and later engineering applications for demolitions activities through special operations activities. This cybernetic logic for warfare developed in air and demolition applications because “the greater simplicity and homogeneity of the aerial and marine environments certainly played a crucial factor in the success of Operations Research (OR) since warfare in those milieus was easier to model mathematically than land operations.”[18] Yet today, NATO and Joint Forces (particularly in special operations, sensitive activities, demolitions/engineering and sabotage operations, and aerial bombing applications) apply CARVER to sensitive activities well beyond the narrow confines of the simpler and homogenous kinetic (strike hardened site with ordinance of certain size) contexts.

CARVER, originally called CARVE originated in the Vietnam War and first made its way into target analysis for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), special operations in the U.S. Army, and covert activities within the Vietnam Conflict. Leo Labaj, in one of the few military-oriented articles on CARVER, explains:

The CARVER Vulnerability Assessment Methodology was developed in the mid-1970s to meet the emerging threat of international (or global) terrorism. Originally designed for highly objective, analytical, and linear-causal applications such as destroying hardened targets with bombs as well as demolitions applications, it would later morph into a business model promoted by several advocates of the methodology for an increasing range of alternative military considerations. As the acronym implies, “CARVER” was born out of the earlier “CARVE” method. CARVE was defined as an offensive methodology used to identify a target or asset that, if compromised, meets a prescribed strategic or tactical objective.[19]

Labaj explains that CARVE examined potential targets to determine military/intelligence importance, priority of attack, and weapons required to obtain the desired level of damage or casualties. CARVE would commence with a statement of requirement. “A target analysis would then begin at the system (strategic) level and eventually work its way down to the asset of interest (tactical).”[20] This demonstrates a centralized hierarchical form (top to bottom linkages) and an implied systematic (input to desired output, linear/causal) logic of a closed system. We will expand on this reductionist, rationalist construct on the limitations of CARVER (as well as SWOT, COG analysis) later in this monograph. Labaj goes on to demonstrate further ‘closed system logic’ with the purpose for using CARVER today in the 21stCentury. “Global terrorism has become an unbounded reality, utilizing more aggressive, horrific, and deadly tactics. To meet this emerging threat, more advanced target, or asset, hardening is imperative.”[21] The term ‘unbounded reality’ illustrates a desire for a functionalist paradigm core belief- that reality can be stable, bounded, and uniform in structure for analytic optimization and knowledge curation that is cumulative, aggregate, and increasingly accurate over time and refinement.

Essentially, warfare must obey fundamental laws and rules, mirroring the classical mechanics of physics so that military ‘science’ can bring order and reliability to analysis, risk-reduction, prediction, and control through centralized hierarchical forms relying upon systematic logic. As the RAND Corporation’s Vulnerability Assessment handbook which features both COG analysis and CARVER offers: “A corollary approach [to answering the question of ‘center of gravity of what?’] is to imagine destroying a single element of the adversary’s resources and estimating how this would affect friendly ability to produce the desired end state.”[22] This again demonstrates systematic logic, where quantitative inputs are pared sequentially (linear causal) with expected outputs. These activities can be objectively linked together in time and space to move incrementally forward to pre-determined, pre-assessed and envisioned strategic end states. Army planning doctrine goes on to state that “targeting methodology [such as CARVER] is designed to facilitate the engagement of the right target, at the right time, and with the most appropriate assets to achieve effects consistent with the commander’s intent.”[23]

Original CARVE matrixes were, according to Labaj, “primarily qualitative in nature and were solely based on the experience of the assessor… no single methodology prevailed; as a consequence, there was no consistency in assessment results.”[24] The inability to quantifiably (instead of qualitatively) measure in warfare demonstrates an institutional bias towards hard science, endorsing the core logic of classical mechanics reasoning underpinning modern military decision-making. This is termed ‘Newtonian style’ for how society began to approach the world from the late seventeenth century onward.[25] Labaj offers that “what was needed was a more nuanced and quantifiable approach to the vulnerability assessment process to ensure that scarce resources could be applied where they would do the most good.”[26] Yet just as in SWOT analysis, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are entirely subjective value propositions generated by the organization through a shared belief system, and limited to largely immediate and simplistic causal rationale.

The systematic logic paired with reductionist models does not bode well for any security context outside of a simplistic or complicated one. For instance, if a Joint Task Force using a SOF asset encounters a potential target in a Mexican narco-cartel moving Chinese fentanyl through the U.S. southern border, a linear/simplistic assessment may look at destroying the shipment in convoy covertly. However, if that cartel is expanding territory and threatening the larger Sinaloa Cartel that is nested in broader strategic goals in that area, is it “most good”, “less good”, or perhaps “some other good” to consider not targeting it at all and allowing an intra-cartel territorial battle to damage the Sinaloa Cartel? This is where closed-system analysis and reductionist, categorical models tend to fail, to include the CARVER. As CARVER gives all decision criteria equal weights,[27] the organization employing this targeting model again rely upon internalized belief systems and value sets to rationalize how a commander or planner weighs or ranks the elements analyzed.

In a closed-loop form of nonreflective thought and action, a military force can identify the target, assess vulnerabilities, seek and destroy it and collect information to assess ideas of effectiveness of said lethal force. Yet only those things identified and of the multiple potential targets any Joint Force Commander might consider, the organization only conducts detailed analysis and assessment of those targets acted upon… while those not acted upon are considered outside the scope of focus. Further, all assessments are recycled through the same language, metaphoric devices, and targeting/assessing models in a vertical, hierarchically nested chain of linear causality. Targeting a first objective and destroying it advances the script forward, so that the organization might continue along the preplanned lines of effort to get to the next target in a series of many future targets (all identified and assessed by same models/terms/methods) to eventually reach strategic goals in the desired future state.

The Vietnam era CARVE model would become popular in the 1980s onward in broader military planning and doctrine despite the Vietnam War ultimately being criticized for overemphasizing kinetic actions and statistical analysis of objects (body counts, tons of explosives dropped, infrastructure destroyed, enemy captured). Despite this, CARVE was changed into CARVER by extending the original assumption that systemic effects could be factored into some pre-configured (before acting within a complex system) and systematic reasoning. CARVE became CARVER so that “effect was added to quantify consequences, Recuperability was changed to Recoverability and Espy (catch sight of) to Recognizability- CARVE was transformed and modernized to meet an evolving threat.”[28] Note that proponents of CARVER would attempt to extend the utilization of that model into future conflicts by seeking to ‘evolve’ the model so that it might parallel a suggested evolution in modern warfare.

The RAND organization would add: “CARVER focuses on the enemy’s viewpoint to enable an analyst or assessment team to determine the hardness or softness of assets in criminal or terrorist actions [emphasis added].”[29] Note that once again, a Newtonian physics epistemological position is demonstrated in the metaphoric devices and language used with CARVER. Despite how NATO-OPP and JPP acknowledge that dynamic, ever-learning complex systems require different ways of thinking in warfare, analytical tools within doctrine such as CARVER seek to categorize complexity in natural science descriptors such as ‘hard’, ‘soft’, or similar physical domain, tangible coding. This is, as Moore critiques, a failed approach to thinking about networks and warfare:

Unfortunately, this EBO like process has manifested itself in other ways, where U.S. forces inappropriately apply a CARVER matrix to terrorist and insurgent organizations, which resulted in the failed network approach where one attempts to destroy an insurgency by killing or capturing its so-called key nodes (important individuals). In limited cases this method will work, and most cases it is a key supporting role, but not at the expense of failing to protect the population. What worked in Iraq was large scale population control measures that the surge enabled, where the focus was protecting the populace.[30]

Military analysts likely fall right into this bias for rendering complex warfare into objective Newtonian stylings when considering the mental models and social framings/decision-making patterns of those adversaries outside their own culture, group, and social paradigm context. What we project (often falsely) upon others really helps reinforce our own belief systems therein. As science and technology have assumed a nearly unquestionable, indisputable status in modern society, “they have [also] acquired unprecedented ideological powers… the things, meanings and processes that are deemed normal, natural, and ordinary are rarely questioned.”[31] Military staffs, strategists and analysts not only fail to question whether a network of living, thinking humans can ever be assessed meaningfully using mathematical or engineering constructs, but often are pressured institutionally to obey and accept such ideas codified in military doctrine. The metaphoric devices exhibited in ‘hardness’ and ‘softness’ illustrate classical mechanics (Newtonian reasoning) that may have value in quantifiable, technological, immediate tactical aspects of weapon effects (for CARVER targeting), but likely are irrelevant or wild guesses in social, cultural, as well as systemic (strategic, complex, dynamic) contexts of the broader security challenge.

This excerpt is part of a larger monograph pending publication in 2022.

For more, follow Ben Zweibelson, subscribe to ‘Think JSOU’ on YouTube, consider JSOU courses, research and educational outreach by visiting , and also connect with Ben on LinkedIn to learn more about this monograph and the planned publication in 2022.

[1] Schnaubelt, Larson, and Boyer, Vulnerability Assessment Method (VAM) Pocket Guide: A Tool for Center of Gravity Analysis, 29.

[2] US Army Headquarters, Department of the Army, Police Intelligence Operations (ATTP 3–39.20) (Washington, DC: US Department of the Army, 2010), 5–18 to 5–20,

[3] Bradley Greaver et al., “CARVER 2.0: Integrating the Analytical Hierarchy Process’s Multi-Attribute Decision-Making Weighting Scheme for a Center of Gravity Vulnerability Analysis for US Special Operations Forces,” Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology, 2017, 9.

[4] Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War,” 91.

[5] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Police Intelligence Operations (ATTP 3–39.20), 5–20.

[6] Greaver et al., “CARVER 2.0: Integrating the Analytical Hierarchy Process’s Multi-Attribute Decision-Making Weighting Scheme for a Center of Gravity Vulnerability Analysis for US Special Operations Forces.”

[7] Luke Bencie and Sami Araboghli, “A 6-Part Tool for Ranking and Assessing Risks,” Harvard Business Review, September 21, 2018,

[8] Security Management International, LLC, “CARVERCON 2021,” private business LLC, Security Management International CARVER Services (blog), accessed September 21, 2021,

[9] Gunilla Eriksson and Ulrica Pettersson, eds., Special Operations from a Small State Perspective: Future Security Challenges (Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan Publishing, 2017), 167.

[10] Major Awe, “Trying to Work Smarter: Fusion Tools for A Small SOF TF Staff,” CTX 6, no. 1 (2016): 41–49.

[11] There is even an annual CARVERCON for those in the University of South Florida Sarasota-Mantee Campus area on Friday, November 12, 2021, hosted by the same company selling CARVER worldwide to militaries and corporations. See: Security Management International, LLC, “CARVERCON 2021.”

[12] Original CARVER, CARVE and other demolitions and bombing formulas are entirely objective and quantifiable. Scientists can determine the necessary explosive ordinance to use against a hardened target with proper information and calculations. Yet outside of this limited and technological setting, military forces have misused these targeting calculations against things that cannot be reduced to mathematical certitude.

[13] In classical military contexts purely expressed in physical domains, a destroyed bridge will force an enemy armor unit to find an alternative crossing point. Outside of these complicated, even simple system contexts of immediate, tactical and local ‘cause-effect’ dynamics, such logic becomes entirely inappropriate.

[14] Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys, eds., “Philosophical Perspectives on Emergence,” in Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science(Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2008), 7–18; Carl Hempel and Paul Oppenheim, “On the Idea of Emergence,” in Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science, ed. Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2008), 61–68; Stanley and Lehman, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective.

[15] Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design, 97.

[16] Greaver et al., “CARVER 2.0: Integrating the Analytical Hierarchy Process’s Multi-Attribute Decision-Making Weighting Scheme for a Center of Gravity Vulnerability Analysis for US Special Operations Forces,” 1.

[17] Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War,” 81.

[18] Bousquet, 90.

[19] Leo Labaj, “The CARVER Methodology: The Evolution of the CIA’s Offensive Targeting Methodology into the Security Industry’s Definitive Vulnerability Assessment Tool,” The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International, December 2011, 43.

[20] Labaj, 43.

[21] Labaj, 44.

[22] Schnaubelt, Larson, and Boyer, Vulnerability Assessment Method (VAM) Pocket Guide: A Tool for Center of Gravity Analysis, 21–13.

[23] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Police Intelligence Operations (ATTP 3–39.20), 5–20.

[24] Labaj, “The CARVER Methodology: The Evolution of the CIA’s Offensive Targeting Methodology into the Security Industry’s Definitive Vulnerability Assessment Tool,” 44.

[25] Tsoukas and Hatch, “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity,” 990; Haridimos Tsoukas and Kevin Dooley, “Introduction to the Special Issue: Towards the Ecological Style: Embracing Complexity in Organizational Research,” Organizational Studies 32, no. 6 (2011): 730; Gharajedaghi and Ackoff, “Mechanisms, Organisms, and Social Systems,” 290.

[26] Labaj, “The CARVER Methodology: The Evolution of the CIA’s Offensive Targeting Methodology into the Security Industry’s Definitive Vulnerability Assessment Tool,” 44.

[27] Greaver et al., “CARVER 2.0: Integrating the Analytical Hierarchy Process’s Multi-Attribute Decision-Making Weighting Scheme for a Center of Gravity Vulnerability Analysis for US Special Operations Forces,” 2.

[28] Labaj, “The CARVER Methodology: The Evolution of the CIA’s Offensive Targeting Methodology into the Security Industry’s Definitive Vulnerability Assessment Tool,” 44.

[29] Schnaubelt, Larson, and Boyer, Vulnerability Assessment Method (VAM) Pocket Guide: A Tool for Center of Gravity Analysis, 29.

[30] “Assessment of Effects Based Operations (Updated),” Small Wars Journal, August 14, 2008,

[31] Malešević, The Sociology of War and Violence, 334.

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