Friday, November 14, 2008

Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerrilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq, by William R. Polk

New York: HarperCollins, 2007, pp. 304.

As readers of the recent literature on guerrilla warfare, this is a highly contentious subject. It may be a mistake to overlook the role of non-material factors like politics and morale in any type of warfare, but in interstate conflicts, wealth, technology and numbers make themselves felt in a way that is not the case with guerrilla warfare, which frequently sees the weak defeat the strong. Additionally, what constitutes "victory" tends to be more ambiguous, so that there is profound disagreement over what to make of particular campaigns. For instance, is one to chalk up Britain's counterinsurgency efforts in Malaya as a victory or a defeat? (The Communists were prevented from taking over the country--but the British also departed.)

Accordingly some writers present the guerrilla as virtually invincible, others as inherently futile. Max Boot's The Savage Wars of Peace, a self-described history of America's "small wars," for instance, depicts a few thousand American soldiers, sailors and marines venturing out, pacifying a country in short order, and going home time and time again, with the implication that counterinsurgency is a relatively simple matter, and success historically routine. By contrast, when Martin Van Creveld's books address the subject, they tend to read like listings of great power humiliations. His latest, The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat From the Marne to Iraq, is no exception.

William R. Polk's recent study, Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerrilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq, leans strongly toward the latter view, albeit with important qualifications having to do with the fundamental assessment of the problem. Polk's book characterizes guerrilla warfare as a nationalistic response to the presence of a foreign occupier.

Unchecked, this response proceeds through three phases. In the first phase the insurgency, tending to begin with what may seem like a preposterously small number of active combatants "fight as terrorists" because they are "too few to fight as guerrillas." The actions they take may attract others alienated by the situation to them, and certainly generate government repression, reinforcing the process as embittered citizens also sign up. A successful outcome of this phase (for the insurgents) is their attaining a "critical mass for extended operations and achiev[ing] recognition as a national champion."

The conventional wisdom is that this "political" phase is eighty percent of the conflict, and Polk does not differ on that point. However, Polk offers a more nuanced view of the remaining twenty percent, which other authors often characterize as simply a military component, in his characterization of the next two phases.

In phase two-which accounts for another fifteen percent of the conflict-the guerrillas act to disrupt the functioning of the state as such, and substitute their own "counter-state" for it. They keep the government from being able to maintain order, collect taxes or operate basic services while the guerrillas may attempt to do some or all of these things. This is not a matter of holding ground for the guerrillas, the objective rather to "take control and win over the people."

The third phase-a mere five percent, though also entailing the bulk of the fighting-involves a turn to larger-scale military operations on the part of the guerrillas. This means an end to "small-scale, hit-and-run" and a shift toward regular warfare.

Polk's analysis is much stronger in its consideration of the first two phases than the third, and in particular what makes for a successful phase three. The selected historical examples do not clarify that part of the issue. Where many of these insurgencies met with success, as in the Spanish struggle against Napoleon, or the Yugoslav and Greek resistance during World War II, the guerrillas were often players inside of a much larger context of interstate conflict. (The same might also be said of the American Revolution, or the insurgency in South Vietnam.) In other cases, an exhausted and collapsing empire was fighting a rear-guard battle to hold on to its colonies (as with the Spanish in the Philippines, the French in Algeria and post-World War II Vietnam, or the British in Kenya). Little explanation is offered as to why post-World War I Ireland and Afghanistan-where in the 1980s, massive foreign support was certainly a factor-constitute exceptions to that pattern. (In the case of Ireland, a brief word about public opinion is presented as the decisive difference.)

Additionally, while this book's emphasis is on long-standing historical patterns, some more consideration would have been due the changes that have occurred during the two centuries of history this book surveys. There is virtually no discussion of the impact of urbanization, which has been strongly correlated with the prospects for rebellion and revolution occurring (as in Jack Goldstone's Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World), but which in the analysis of some observers, makes it almost impossible for guerrillas to win (as Anthony James Joes contends in his recent study, Urban Guerrilla Warfare).

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to linger on these shortcomings, because of the importance of what the book does get right, in particular its recognition that combat operations constitute a relatively small part of the conflict. In this, Polk's study echoes the assessment of contemporary conflict advanced by General Rupert Smith in his book, The Utility of Force (my review of which for Strategic Insights you can read here). Phase One is ultimately where the war is won or lost, the rest just a matter of putting off defeat-and so to be avoided barring a readiness to fight such a war indefinitely.

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