Violent Politics by William Polk, former professor of history at the University of Chicago (and holder of many other posts as well), is a concise summary of the history and mishaps associated with insurgencies and counterinsurgencies running from the American Revolution through Algeria, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Balkans, Greece, Afghanistan, and of course, Vietnam.
Polk’s well-document contention is that insurgencies (internal attempts to overthrow repressive regimes) center on three elements: the political, the administrative, and the military. For him the political challenge usually involves an initial ten to fifty disaffected activists who are skilled in reaching out to a generally disaffected populace. Polk estimates that a successful insurgency ultimately is 80% political, adopting Mao’s dictum that insurgency (or revolution) is a mixture of fish (insurgents) in need of a sea (the public) in which to swim. Once the fish begin swimming, they must communicate their discontent--again, a political task--in such a way that their message is securely conveyed and that they are housed, fed, equipped, and hidden during their initial phase of weakness. This blends into the administrative task, which entails killing off the current government and providing substitute services, from health clinics to schools to sanitation. Administration is 15% of the successful insurgent’s job.
Then comes the remaining 5%, fighting. Here Polk observes--remember, he’s an historian, and a good one--the successful insurgent should hit and run, not confront a sitting regime or puppet regime or invading foreign force for as long as it takes to demoralize it politically. Head-on battles between insurgents and well-equipped, highly trained armies are not good for the insurgents’ health. What the insurgent must do is keep pushing, pushing, pushing...counting on the populace to feed it intelligence as well as food...steal the enemy’s arms...lure the enemy into a fatal show of force and then pounce...all the while hoping for an indication that somehow the insurgency will be able to obtain broad political recognition, inside and outside the country.
There are very few individuals as knowledgeable as Polk on this subject; that’s why he can be so detailed and yet so concise. This is a fascinating book for Americans who have recently been through the Iraq War, are winding down their failed efforts in Afghanistan, and contemplating future counterinsurgencies in Africa ...not to mention the raging civil war in Syria.
The bottom line is that insurgencies can be snuffed out by strong governments within their own borders, but they seldom can be stopped by foreign powers. The United States, Great Britain, France, and Russia, all great powers, have failed many times in trying to put down foreign insurgencies either directly or through puppet governments. The core reason for this is that in the final analysis the politics of a given country are determined by the people of that country. If a military machine only has 5% of the overall conflict to work with, no military machine can really succeed--not when deployed from abroad.
I’ve spent a lot of time working on the insurgency/counterinsurgency issue--once in a way that was very up close and personal (see my book Nights in the Pink Motel about Iraq)--and have nothing but admiration for Polk’s swift survey of how the world really works. In his final chapter, he properly debunks the verbiage contained in the U.S. Army’s new manual on counterinsurgency. There is no way a military machine, even one as gigantic as the United States’ defense establishment, can prevail in an internal conflict abroad. Diplomacy, backed by military power, can be helpful, but ultimately the neoconservative fantasy of the U.S. fighting a “long war” (forty years?) to put the world right is just that--a fantasy.
Violent Politics is the kind of book you can trust, read quickly, and measure based on your own knowledge, whether you are twenty-three or seventy-three. There’s essentially nothing in here that’s off-base. A good bit of it has happened in your lifetime, and it will keep happening, unfortunately. Often a great power’s best option is not to make things better, but try to ensure we don’t make them worse.
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