Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies

Beckett, Ian FW. 2001. Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and their Opponents Since 1750. New York: Routledge.

Ian Beckett’s Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies provides a sweeping yet surprisingly detailed, if rather conventional, historical survey of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Despite the book’s subtitle, one gets the sense that insurgency and counterinsurgency, as Beckett understands it, emerged as mainly a twentieth century phenomenon and that insurgency is practically synonymous with guerrilla warfare.

According to Beckett, the golden age of insurgency and counter-insurgency began with the start of the Second World War in which the hegemonic grip of colonial powers definitively slipped, while the Cold War helped entrench its global polarizations. Indeed, by the start of WWII “guerrilla warfare was beginning to change and to develop into something more than simply a tactical method. Indeed, some theorists and practitioners had recognized the possibility of using guerrilla techniques in the pursuit of overtly political ends” (21). The response by incumbent regimes was often (or, at least, at first) to dismiss them as “bandits.”

Although the history of counter-insurgency obviously does not begin with mid-century, Beckett shows that it is in this period that it takes on recognizable modern form. He shows that it took a while for military strategists to take “irregular” forms of warfare seriously; for a long time, such cruel little wars were seen as unglamorous distractions from “real wars.” But what came through strongest in the book are the colonial roots of insurgency and counterinsurgency.

Although Beckett does not explore the link theoretically, the dialectic of insurgency and counter-insurgency—the latter, encompassing “those military, political, socio-economic and psychological activities employed by authorities and their armed forces to defeat the threat in question” (8)—is deep-seated in the history of colonial encounter. They can’t be reduced to this, but from their earliest formative moorings in Ireland, Burma, Philippines, Kenya and colonial frontiers across the world the cumulative and relational process of insurgency and counterinsurgency has been colonial to the core. This is obviously no secret, but it’s interesting to think about in regards to how much colonialism and counterinsurgency share in terms of successfully “managing” populations.

“Reconcentration,” for instance, is a long-standing counter-insurgent practice in which authorities try to isolate populations—who are, presumably, sympathetic to the insurgents—from the guerrillas. The spatial concentration and segregation is meant to cut guerrillas off from their necessary civilian support networks, a practice commonly deployed in counterinsurgent campaigns in the Caucus, Cuba, Philippines, and South Africa. These programs also included civic action or military-civic projects, including roads, schools, clinics and other highly visible and practical projects (35-37). As Greg Grandin notes, “Counterinsurgency, above all else, is choreography”; as these examples show, it’s also consummately spatial.

The combination of nationalism and communism eventually proved a combustible mix for colonial authorities. It took a little while: A 1928 Soviet guide to insurrection had only one chapter devoted to guerrilla warfare; it was penned by a little-known author who would later go by the name Ho Chi Minh. After the Second World War, colonial powers tried to reassert control over their formal colonies, initiating a wave of wars for national liberation that became the veritable global “coming-of-age” parties of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Some of these groups were inspired by the new insurgent praxis exemplified by Mao in newly communist China.

Counterinsurgency was also learning, particularly from the English proving grounds of Greece, Palestine, and Malaya soon to be followed in short order by the French in Vietnam and Algeria. Meanwhile, early urban theatres of insurgency ended up for the most part proving Fidel Castro’s maxim of cities as the inevitable “graveyards of insurgencies.” But this seems to have changed, especially in recent decades. One of the things I appreciated about this book is that it tempers a bit the version presented by Grandin and Joseph’s volume on insurgency and counter-insurgency by showing that the latter is not always-already all-powerful.

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