A captivating but disquieting examination of how insurgencies begin, grow, persist and either succeed or fail.
Former State Department advisor Polk (The Birth of America: From Before Columbus to the Revolution, 2006, etc.) accompanies a dozen accounts of national uprisings with eye-opening and remarkably similar explanations of their history. Initially, insurgents are too few for organized resistance so they fight as terrorists—American colonists’ opposition to British taxation in the 1770s qualifies. When the dominant government tries to suppress terrorism, it inevitably disrupts lives and kills innocent bystanders, thereby producing recruits seeking vengeance. Vicious Nazi reprisals, executing hundreds of civilians to avenge a single German soldier, only fed resistance in Yugoslavia, Russia and Greece. Despite a policy of not harming civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s immense firepower has accomplished the same thing. To succeed, a growing insurgency must win recognition as the nationalist movement. Ho Chi Minh’s forces had achieved this by 1945, Polk concludes, so American intervention was doomed from the start. Insurgents fail if, like the Irish Republican Army and the Basque separatists, they don’t win over most of their countrymen, and full-blown insurgencies disrupt the administration of the dominant power. By the 1960s, the Viet Cong had murdered so many local officials that South Vietnam’s government virtually ceased to function outside Saigon. The American colonies’ committees of safety expelled British officials and loyalists and set up their own local governments. After listing insults directed at insurgents (bandits, thugs, terrorists, anarchists, communists, religious fanatics), the author convincingly drives home his point: Nationalism trumps ideology. Marshall Tito in Yugoslavia was communist, but almost all his fighters simply hated Germans. Most Iraqi insurgents are no more religious than the average citizen. Once people see their rulers as foreign or dominated by foreigners, an insurgency that has achieved national acceptance is essentially unbeatable. Readers hoping America can win hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan will find no encouragement here.
A lucid, absorbing analysis of the theory and reality underpinning three centuries of insurgent movements.