Saturday, February 23, 2008

Book review: Violent Politics, by William R. Polk

TitleViolent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq
AuthorWilliam R. Polk
Tagsnon-fiction, insurgency, guerrilla war, violence, colonialism, imperialism, geopolitics
Your reviewPolk is one of my favorite authors on history and politics. In this volume, he turns to the problem of violence in politics, specifically insurgencies or guerrilla warfare. Polk believes that insurgencies share common characteristics. Most importantly, they boil down to the natives vs. foreigners. Though the foreign invaders may seem to have a military advantage in superior arms, numbers, and training, the only way, in the end, to beat an insurgency is to commit genocide against the people native to that land. They know the land too well, will attack and then disappear where the invaders can't follow.

The insurgencies have followed other patterns. They usually start with only a handful of people, and few arms. They first disrupt the government, then begin providing government-like services themselves. They organize on the local level. They are generally responses to incredible levels of brutality and injustice by the foreigners. The foreigners respond with more brutality, which drives more of the populace to support the insurgents.

Polk covers a variety of insurgencies. Interestingly, the first one he chooses is the American Revolution, which he counts as a guerrilla war, though Washington kept trying to turn it into a regular war, and when he did he was beaten by the British, who were, again, superior in men, weapons, and training. Then he covers the Spanish resistance to the French under Napoleon. the Philippine insurrection, the Irish struggle for independence, Tito and the Yugoslav partisans, the Greek resistance, Kenya and the Mau Mau, the Algerian war of national independence, the Vietnamese struggle against the French, the Americans take over for the French in Vietnam, and the Afghan resistance to the British an the Russians.

All of these have their unique features and their similarities. Polk draws lessons for the war in Iraq, and he is also highly concerned about the neoconservative conception of the "Long War" that envisions many American wars for much of the 21st century, which claim to want to spread democracy and is anti-Muslim. The last chapter includes an interesting analysis of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, edited by David Patraeus and James Amos, and shows where analysis of insurgency shows the manual to be flawed. For example, the manual speaks glowingly of nation building. But, Polk argues, "Look at the American experience. American forces have been sent abroad to fight more than two hundred times since our country was founded. But in recent years only sixteen times have we attempted 'the core objective of nation building...regime change or survivability.' Of these sixteen, Minxin Pei and Sara Kaper found in a study for the Carnegie Endowment, eleven were 'outright failures'. Two, Germany and Japan, can be considered successes, while two others, tiny and nearby Granada and Panama, were probably successful. Considering this record, John Tierney asked in the May 17th, 2004, International Herald Tribune, how could neoconservatives or any conservatives 'who normally do not trust their government to run a public school down the street, come to believe that federal bureaucrats could transform an entire nation in the alien culture of the Middle East?"

Polk talks some about his background in the first part of the book. He was not only an academic, but part of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and saw much of the intelligence and other government documentation on insurgencies while there. He was particularly involved in Vietnam, Algeria, and Afghanistan. He tells a fascinating story of studying all he could find on Vietnam in 1962, and not finding any study of guerrilla warfare, not even a definition. So he took six weeks off to study everything he could find on insurgency, and was invited to speak to a graduating class of senior military officers headed for combat in Vietnam. He told them at the time that the war was already lost, because Ho Chi Minh had won the political issue by becoming the embodiment of Vietnamese nationalism, and had already so disrupted the South Vietnamese government it had basically ceased to function. His military audience was furious, but when in 1967 he told them much the same thing they were listening and hearing what he had to say.

Highly recommended.
PublicationHarper (2007), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 304 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN0061236195 / 9780061236198

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