A US Apache helicopter lands on Salerno air field in Khost province of Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images
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Reviewed: Max Boot and Martin A Miller's books about warfare

Political violence, past and present.

Invisible Armies: an Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present
Max Boot
WW Norton, 576pp, £25

The Foundations of Modern Terrorism: State, Society and the Dynamics of Political Violence
Martin A Miller
Cambridge University Press, 306pp, £18.99

Calling up an image of pervasive mistrust and violence reminiscent of the totalitarian states of the last century, a celebrated historian records how many people “became informers even on trivial matters, some openly, many secretly. Friends and relatives were as suspected as strangers, old stories as damaging as new. In the main square or at a dinner party, a remark on any subject might mean prosecution. Everyone competed for priority in marking down the victim. Sometimes this was self-defence but mostly it was a sort of contagion.”

This sounds like a description of the frenzied denunciations of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, an impression reinforced when Martin A Miller, who cites the passage, writes: “Denunciations were frequently followed by suicide, to avoid the public spectacle of a humiliating trial in which one’s entire family could be ostracised or exiled.” Yet the great historian was not writing about the 20th century. The passage comes from a chapter on the emperor Tiberius in The Annals of Imperial Rome by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (c.56-117 AD), who entitled this chapter “The Reign of Terror”.

For Miller, Tacitus’s account illustrates a fundamental truth: political violence is per - ennial and any regime can become a vehicle for terror. We have come to think of terrorism as a type of insurgency in which disaffected groups operating beyond the control of any government use violence to attain their ends. In reality, it is states that have been the chief agents of terror:

 In any historical statistical investigation,  the results clearly show exponentially more victims of state political violence than the number of those wounded, tortured and killed by insurgent movements in all categories. During the 20th century alone, states were responsible, directly or indirectly, for over 179 million deaths, and this does not include the two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust and the atomic bombing casualties in Japan.

Following the 9/11 attacks, terrorism has been seen as an assault on democracy and liberal values. As Miller points out, history tells a different story: “Every kind of government (not every government), whether authoritarian or democratic, has been complicit in terrorising its own citizenry in various ways at some point in its history.”

During any discussion on the subject, someone is bound to say that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. With its flip relativism, it is a cliché that does nothing to explain why terrorism remains such a slippery concept. We may agree in thinking of terrorism as a type of political violence but that is where the consensus ends. Tiberius turned the state of Rome into an instrument of terror for a time but he was not a terrorist, if that means someone who practises terror as a method of unconventional warfare.

Yet lumping together every kind of irregular warfare into the category of terrorism, as is often done today, blurs the difference between those who have used terror as a tactic in guerrilla warfare (such as Native American tribes in their resistance to settlers) and networks such as al-Qaeda that have opted for terror as their sole strategy. Then again, there is a difference between states that have practiced terror at some time in their history and states whose very existence is based on terrorising their citizens.

Terror has served many kinds of goals and values, including some that are lauded as thoroughly progressive. As Miller astutely notes, “The watershed moment in which terrorism entered the politics of modern Europe was during the French Revolution when ordinary citizens claimed the right to govern.” When the Jacobin-controlled Committee of Public Safety inaugurated a selfproclaimed “Reign of Terror” in post-revolutionary France, it believed that terror was morally benign. As Robespierre put it: “Terror is merely justice, prompt, severe and inflexible. It is therefore an emanation of virtue and results from the application of democracy to the most pressing needs of the country.” For his comrade-in-arms Saint-Just, terror was not just a defensive reaction against enemies of the revolution. It had to be applied throughout society: “You must punish not only traitors but the apathetic as well; you must punish whoever is passive in the republic . . .”

Punishment in the Reign of Terror was administered by the guillotine, a novel technique of decapitation devised and promoted by the medical reformer Joseph-Ignace Guillotin as being more humane than other methods of execution. Guillotin hoped capital punishment would eventually be abolished but the beheading machine he invented was used to end the lives of some 20,000 people during the year of the Terror (1792- 93). Mass-produced and distributed around the country, the new device was one of several techniques of large-scale killing that, in the years that followed, produced around 200,000 to 300,000 casualties (in a population of about 28 million) in the Vendée and elsewhere in France.

If the Jacobins viewed terror as a benign type of state violence, for a subsequent generation of revolutionaries, terror was a method of resistance against the violence of the state. In The Terrorist Struggle, an influential pamphlet that was introduced as evidence in the trial following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, a member of the radical group People’s Will argued that mass revolutionary movements should be replaced by small groups carrying out targeted killings of government officials.

Later, Lenin – who in August 1918 was himself badly injured in an attempted assassination by the Social Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan – argued against this view in favour of the Jacobin idea of state terror, which he implemented when in power. Yet Lenin was at one with his would-be assassin in regarding political violence as a purifying force that could create a society better than any that had hitherto existed.

As Miller explains in his admirably lucid and comprehensive analysis, elements of these two conceptions are blended in Islamist terrorism today. An academic historian specialising in Russian revolutionary movements, he shows how medieval religious defences of tyrannicide evolved into secular justifications of political violence in modern European nationalism, fascism and communism. As he notes, some of these conceptions have resurfaced among Islamists. The cali - phate envisioned by al-Qaeda sounds like a medieval revival but it “would have to involve many governmental institutions carrying out Islamic policies, including the repressive security apparatus so familiar to the modern secular state it was designed to replace”.

It is not just the repressive apparatus of modern western states that Islamists have found themselves emulating. The Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), a widely influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, propagated a vision of the positive role of political violence in creating a new, semi-anarchic and harmonious society that owed more to Bakunin and Lenin than to medieval Islamic theology. Dreaming of returning to theocracy, Islamist ideologues and their followers are more modern and more secular than they – or their western opponents – care to admit.

Like the anti-colonial movements that came before them, Islamist movements are in many ways creations of the modern west that they so adamantly oppose. They have a far larger mass following than anarchist and Bolshevik movements ever did. Yet here, again, the west has been formative. Today’s violent jihadism has complex origins but probably none is as important as the war that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Entering the country in 1979 on Christmas Eve, Soviet forces aimed to prop up the communist regime that had seized power a year before and whose modernising policies had alienated much of the population. The effect was to trigger a holy war in which the jihadists had the backing not only of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia but also the US.

As the former editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal Max Boot writes in Invisible Armies, “In the 1980s American aid went to many hard-line Islamists who would one day become America’s enemies . . . This was a particularly notable but hardly unique example of ‘blowback’.” When the Soviets finally admitted defeat and withdrew in 1989, it was only after they had waged a campaign of terror that killed more than a million Afghans, forced five million to flee the country and internally displaced another two million. The eventual result was rule by the Taliban, orphans of war who in 1996 entered Kabul and imposed a fundamentalist regime without precedent in Afghan history.

Nearly all of the world’s wars, Boot notes, are now of the irregular, unconventional kind that defeated the Soviets. He sees Soviet defeat and the long conflict that followed as illustrating “the power of the weak” – the inability of powerful states to defeat guerrilla fighters. Given Boot’s earlier views, this is an interesting judgement. Writing in 2001 in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, he argued, in an essay entitled “The Case for American Empire”, that the only effective response to terrorism was for the US to “embrace its imperial role”. “Ambitious goals such as regime change,” he declared, “are also the most realistic.”

Recognisably hubristic at the time, triumphalism of this kind is absent from the current volume, a cool and balanced account ranging from prehistory through ancient China to the Ku Klux Klan – “one of the largest and most successful terrorist organisations in history”– to Hezbollah, Hamas and Chechnya. Unlike Miller, Boot chooses to exclude state terror from his account, while at times discussing terrorism and guerrilla warfare as if they were one and the same. Both moves are questionable but Boot makes an important point when he notes that irregular warfare was the norm for almost all of human history. A by-product of the modern state, industrial-style conventional war between professional armies of the sort that dominated the first half of the last century has become rare as nuclear weapons have made such wars more dangerous and states have lost their monopoly of violence in many parts of the world.

What Boot fails to do is explore how western policies have fuelled the rise of unconventional warfare. In practice, regime change has resulted in the creation of a succession of ungoverned spaces. First in Iraq and then Libya, western intervention has toppled tyrants only to create a weak or failed state in which Islamist parties and militias are the most powerful forces. The jihadist advance in Mali and Algeria is a knock-on effect of the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi that he himself predicted. “Free Benghazi” is now unsafe for citizens of the countries that toppled the tyrant. One might think that this would chasten supporters of regime change but the itch to intervene seems irresistible and, in Syria, the problem is not Islamist blowback but the west’s active support for the Islamist insurgents. Almost certainly, the result will be a longer, bloodier war, possibly spreading throughout the region, in which Syria becomes one more failed state or else a hostile fundamentalist regime.

Happily, we hear little these days of the absurd “war on terror”. Policies, however, have changed much less than rhetoric and the delusion still prevails that terrorism is an evil peculiar to anarchic networks and rogue states. Amorphous and continuously shifting shape, it is a permanent but not unmanageable threat to which the most effective response is better intelligence and security. Incessant military intervention only shows how far our leaders are from grasping the intractable realities of human conflict.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain