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

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle