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How do Insurgents Retire?

By January 12, 2000 No Comments

Guerrillas and terrorists are a fixture in the modern world, but roughly half of the insurgencies begun since 1950 have never really come to an end.

For example, restive minorities in Burma have always been at war in one way or another with Rangoon since the British left. The recent dismissal of the new government in Ulster was the result of the Provisional Wing of the IRA’s refusal to yield up their weapons 29 years after taking them up in the first place. The F ARC guerrillas in Colombia are the direct descendants of die-hard Leftists from La Violenca – a period of chaos in the 1940s and ’50s in which 200,000 died.

Why do insurgents seem so reluctant to thrown in the towel? Put yourself in their combat boots ….

It is not easy to be a terrorist or guerrilla leader. To begin with, you have abandoned conventional politics and turned to violence, but except in self-defence (and often not even then) it is not easy to begin to fight. You have to learn to hate your enemy. If he was not much of an enemy to begin with, some convoluted ideological “reasoning” may be necessary. Marxism provides an easy framework for this, but it may not be suitable for your own emotional needs.

What worked for you should also work for your followers. Alas, once you get people to start fighting, it is sometimes difficult to get them to stop. Some of your followers are people who were inclined towards committing violence to begin with – which is why they were attracted to you.

In persuading people to fight through dubious means for your glorious cause, you had to persuade them that their acts are heroic and noble. Of course, it is easiest to bring young teenagers around to this way of thinking; so you tended to recruit followers while they were still impressionable. If your followers were first attracted by ideological concerns, you found convincing them to fight was easy – all you did was reinforce their preconceptions.

One of the differences between the soldier and your armed followers is their reaction to violence. The typical soldier who actually experiences conventional military combat (one in fifty usually) is not always personally eager to continue – but in describing his experiences afterwards, might confess that sometimes he found it to be exciting or exhilarating. Your terrorists rarely if ever saw the bodies of their victims or had to sleep in a water-filled trench under the threat of shellfire. The latter is also true for many of your guerrillas. An insurgent’s life as a “soldier” lacks the fear and fatigue that attends real wartime soldiering. As a result, the heavy counterweight to the excitement of combat is largely absent, and your followers found your “war” to be zestful (save for the few the authorities finally closed in on).

Almost invariably, your supporters and “revolutionaries” preferred to believe (with your urging) that their acts are of heroic and dramatic nature against an enemy that is vile beyond belief. So not only were they heroes, many of them were also deriving considerable personal pleasure from some of their acts. You know it too – listening to the detonation of the bomb that you placed a by a bus stop gave you a rush … a sort of combination of power and schadenfreude all rolled into one. The sense of personal power when you shot a kidnapped hostage “for crimes against the people” made you feel like a God.

Then, as the years rolled by and the sacrifices built up, you continued to rely even more heavily on the mental constructs that justified violence in the first place. Sometimes the perceived benefits of victory (once nothing more than an ill-defined dream of a fabulous future) had to be given even more importance. You were not alone in this. The Basque ETA, for instance, struck out at Franco’s Spain in the early 1960s. Since then, Spain has become a prosperous liberal democratic society – and ETA diehards have had to move beyond visions of a independent homeland in Spain to something barely short of a whole new Jerusalem.

Now, 20 years later, you are stuck with the results. Not only do your lads know nothing but struggle, but at 35 or 36, they have no wish to start over and no other skills to use. You taught them bomb-making, intimidation and a slanted political history: now what are they going to do? Sell computer software? Start up a Starbucks franchise?

You simply cannot tell your followers to give up the struggle. They have invested too much in it on an emotional and personal level. Can you turn to the killers you raised and trained and say “give it all up, lads”? At best, maybe you can string out a long series of negotiations so that there is a “victory” or two you point to as a proof-positive success. But there are other considerations.

Because you taught your recruits that arms-bearing was the sole respectable route to status, and that the Middle Class (or whomever) were contemptible for refusing to join your cause, how can you persuade your veterans to join them? You taught them to expect fulfillment through the struggle, and now expect them to give all that up.

There are material benefits to being an insurgent too. For a start, insurgency can mean money. You were trying to undermine your country’s government – and supplant their authority with yours. In addition, ammunition, safe houses and your personal prestige were expensive items, so you really needed lots of money. Ergo, you started sending your followers out to collect “contributions” or “war-taxes”. Alternatively, you did a bit of bank robbery or got involved in running drugs. The need for money never stopped, so you had to keep up the business.

Of course, peace is expensive too … and your followers know it. It may be difficult to pry them away from these moneymaking ventures. There is one honest consolation, if you can get them to drop the rest of the struggle, at least a gangster makes a more honest buck – because he is only in it for himself. But admitting this might be the most difficult step of all. It just might be easier if you continued your pointless struggle after all.