The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Glory Days

Unknown Soldiers: How terrorism transformed the modern world Matthew Carr, Profile Books, London, 2006.

(In the US as The Infernal Machine: a History of Terrorism).

There are many good books about terrorists. There are very few good books about terrorism. This is one of them. The trail from Narodnaya Volya to al-Qaeda is long, tortuous and beset with pitfalls. Carr traces it while hardly ever putting a foot wrong. Along the way he shows that the book's subtitle is no exaggeration: terrorism, overblown by its opponents as a menace to society and by its proponents as a strategy for changing it, has shaped it to an extent that is easy to to overlook. Without the tactic invented by a handful of Russian idealists in the 1880s, the world today would be a very different place.

Carr's account begins with these self-described Terrorists of nineteenth-century Russia, and moves on through the anarchist dynamiters of the turn of the century to the Irish War of Independence. The guerilla campaigns of the IRA and the British state terror of the Black and Tans became the prototype of much subsequent insurgency and counter-insurgency, and the moral rationalizations of both sides the stereotype for later apologetics for atrocity. The tale continues from the Resistance movements in occupied Europe, through the savage wars of peace that followed in the colonies, to the futile left-wing terrorism in the West and the more consequent but no less disastrous romance of the urban guerilla in Latin America. In this history the Middle East gets proportionate, rather than exclusive, attention. In 1984, as the US withdrew from Lebanon after the marine barracks bombing, the USS New Jersey bombarded the mountain Shia villages with '40 percent of all the 16-inch ammunition in the entire European theatre'. One witness to this futile devastation was the then apolitical Osama Bin Laden. The rise of Islamist terrorism and the spectacular attentats of the 1990s bring the story, via 9/11, to the War on Terror and to the grim future it foreshadows. Carr tells a disillusioning and demystifying tale with verve and humanity. His central point is that terrorism is a tactic in political conflict and as such can be understood, and that in public it almost never is, being presented instead as a uniquely evil threat to civilised life. Carr urges that we, as citizens, ignore the rhetoric and deal with the reality.

There was a War on Terror before. In the 70s and 80s elements of the mainstream Right and the secret services lumped together genuine nationalist guerillas and their callow Western wannabes as 'international terrorism', a vast communist conspiracy orchestrated from the Kremlin and co-ordinated with liberal dissent, trade-union militancy and electoral Left advance. The response to this phantasmagoric hydra was to create its mirror image. One US theoretician of 'low-intensity conflict' is cited by Carr as justifying the carnage of the 80s thus: 'Revolution and counterrevolution develop their own morality and ethics that justify any means to achieve success.' The 1980s saw an unprecedented global paroxysm of counter-revolutionary terror: regimes and movements aligned with the Soviet bloc reeled under assault from the Khmer Rouge remnants in Indochina, the Afghan mujahedin, Renamo in Mozambique, UNITA in Angola, the contras in Nicaragua and the death squads in the rest of Central America. Far from being a tool of the Kremlin, much of the Western Left was oblivious to, where it wasn't complicit in, this offensive. Billions of dollars and millions of lives later, the Soviet bloc buckled - along the fault-lines of its notorious flaws, for sure.

Out of that conveniently-forgotten era, when 'mujahedin' and 'jihad' tripped favourably on tongues that now jabber about 'Islamofascism', when Maoist journalists from America trekked with the Afghan resistance, and Trotskyist militants smuggled CIA-financed propaganda past Soviet-bloc border guards, arose the terrors of today. There are credible reports, summarised here, that clandestine US support for various muj has resumed. Tomorrow's unknown soldiers will no doubt better the instruction.


Ken - interesting aside about the maoists and trotskyists who supported the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, is that talked about more in this book or do you have any sources you could point me towards please?

Always a subject I've found interesting.

It's not in the book. I was going by memories of the time. At least one US M-L paper sent a journalist to Afghanistan (embedded with the muj). Support for the muj by some of the Trotskyist groups was just general as far as I know.

Carl Davidson has a blog and you could ask him about the details, I think.

Thanks for the reply, interesting to see that maybe some people's politics haven't changed as much as it seems.

Ken, wrt Maoist journos in the land of the Afghans, was there anything similar in the Horn of Africa?

I once met an ex-member of the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Ireland), with whom I had the following delightful conversation:

Me: How do you know so much about Eritrea?

Him: Oh, I was in the CPI (M-L), we did a lot of solidarity work with them, and the southern Sudanese.

Me: 'M-L', eh? So you guys were Maoists, right?

Him: 'Well we thought North Korea had the right model but we were worried they were too soft'.

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