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A loud pop culture

The more you suppress insurgency, the stronger it grows. But it can be beaten, as this book argues, if the insurgents are made unpopular, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

books Updated: Mar 28, 2009 23:43 IST

Book: Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism and Guerrilla Warfare
Author: William R. Polk

Publication: Hay House
Rs 395 Pp 274

There is a certain pleasure in seeing a scholar who has spent years, read acres and interviewed hundreds on one subject boil all his knowledge down to a few hundred pages. William Polk does that in Violent Politics with his life-long interest: insurgency.

Insurgency, guerrilla warfare and even terrorism are for Polk, ultimately, nativist responses to outsiders. “What is common to all insurgencies?” he asks. “No matter how they differ in form, duration and intensity, a single threat runs through them all: opposition to foreigners.”

Following from this, insurgencies are more about politics than actual fighting. In 1961 Polk addressed West Point officers heading off to Vietnam. He made himself unpopular by saying the Viet Minh had won 80 per cent of the battle because Ho Chi Minh had come to represent Vietnamese nationalism. When he next spoke at West Point, such opinions were taken for granted among the officers.

Polk picks his way through history, dissecting insurgencies. He starts with the Spanish war against Napoleon, the various Filipino insurgencies, the World War II resistance in Yugoslavia and Greece, and moves on to the anti-colonial struggles of the Irish, the Mau Mau, Algeria, the Viets and Afghanistan.

These movements began tiny: Ho started with 34 men. However, repression acted as a growth stimulant. In the “action and reaction”, what Polk terms a “climate of insurgency” is created and both sides lose legitimacy. If the insurgents become nationalist symbols because repressive tactics “impose upon a people a sense of identity” a sequential train of terrorism, guerrilla war and political victory follows. This process often happens “as it did in Algeria, Kenya and Vietnam” even as it seems the military struggle is going against the insurgents.

Nonetheless, guerrillas don’t always win. Polk takes a long look at the oft-neglected Greek EAM/ELAS insurgency. This was probably the largest partisan movement in Europe, yet its communist leadership was defeated by the US and Britain. Polk says the failure was an inability to hold on to the nationalist mantle. Moscow forced the leaders to take territorial postures unpopular with the public. And the British were seen as liberators not invaders. The weakest part of the book is Polk’s prediction of doom for the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Polk formula may yet come true in both countries.

At present, however, there is no evidence Iraqi insurgents look beyond sectarian loyalties: Sunni Iraqis treat al-Qaeda as the foreign interlopers. The same is true for Afghans: the country’s elections and numerous polls show little public support for the Taliban. Afghan nationalism, in any case, is a thin gruel. “The Afghan insurgency was motivated neither by nationalism nor ideology. It defined itself in terms of its enemy.” Who is the worse enemy in the eyes of both peoples is still to be determined.

Nonetheless, this is a book well worth the read. It is peppered with insights and unusual facts about political violence. Polk makes each case study a fast-paced tale, well worth reading just for the pleasure of the narrative.