October 29th, 2008
We all complain about politics, but have you ever wondered what makes a person pick up a gun and start violently resisting the government? That was one of the questions I wanted to answer when I started writing The Army of the Republic.
Some of the factors that make fertile ground are already well-known: an elite intent on keeping and expanding its privileges, a State that refuses to incorporate or entertain alternative ideas, an economy where downward mobility has become the new rule. But those factors have existed in many countries without sparking violent resistance. Why, I wondered, did people in one country organize and fight, while others suffered on in silence?
It wasn’t an answer I could find in the United States. In spite of our long, sad history of state violence against minorities, we Americans have tended to work things out relatively peacefully in the last 140 years. Compared to Argentina’s 30,000 disappearances, or the hundreds of thousands killed in El Salvador, Guatemala and Columbia, our record for settling our differences in the last century is pretty good.
So, when I decided to set my book about urban guerrillas in the United States, I had to look elsewhere to try to understand why people resort to violent struggle, especially in modern times. I chose Argentina because it was (until recently) a primarily middle-class Western country with a high level of education, similar to the United States. I studied the Montoneros and the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army), two groups active in Argentina in the first half of the 70’s. I read biographies and autobiographies to get a general feeling for the rise, career and destruction of these groups, and followed it up with interviews of people who had participated on both sides.
The two groups had different reasons for fighting. The ERP began as a tiny Marxist political group trying to organize workers and build their strength with the goal of establishing a Socialist state. They turned to armed struggle in 1969, when the dictatorship had made their political organizing efforts impossible. The Montoneros were a far bigger and broader-based group. Their members initially organized under various banners to bring back the exiled former president of Argentina, Juan Peron. They finally turned to armed struggle as the Montoneros in 1970, and pursued a growing campaign of bombings, kidnappings, robberies and assassinations against the dictatorship and international business interests. Free elections and Peron’s return led the Montoneros briefly becoming a legitimate political party, with 500,000 members and elected officials at the state and national level. To their horror, though, Peron turned savagely on them and they were forced to go underground again in 1974, embroiled in what they had come to envision as a war against the Argentine state. By 1976 they were effectively annihilated by the Argentine government.
There are certainly things that could be added to the following list about what creates an insurgent, but these are some of the factors which shaped the American insurgents of The Army of the Republic.
1) REVOLUTIONARIES ARE YOUNG
No secret here: that’s the reason why authoritarian regimes often infiltrate, harass or shut down universities. Young people are most willing to take the risks and usually have no dependents. Young people are more apt to be uncompromising in their ideals. The average age of the ERP at its height was 23 years old. Reaching one’s mid-thirties made one a wise old man by revolutionary standards.
2) DEMOCRATIC AVENUES FOR CHANGE ARE CLOSED
In the America portrayed in The Army of the Republic, a psuedo-democratic regime controls the country. Elections are held, but the Party always wins, which leads tiny armed groups of every political stripe to make sporadic attempts that are as much acts of frustration as a coherent strategy.
In Argentina in the 70’s, dictatorships already had a history of coming in and snuffing democratic governments when things went against the ruling class. Both Montoneros and ERP started as political organizations, and turned to violence when they lost hope in achieving their goals politically. Truly extremist groups (such as that surrounding Timothy McVeigh) may act even in a democracy, because the lack of public support guarantees that they will never achieve their aims through organizing and voting.
3) VIOLENCE IS “IN VOGUE”
In the 70’s guerrilla groups existed all over the world. Fidel Castro had triumphed in Cuba after being reduced to 20 men, and the Communists had triumphed in North Vietnam and were winning in South Vietnam. For this reason, the idea of a tiny minority taking over the state through a combination of guerrilla strategy and iron will was widespread in Argentine and many other societies. Also, in the late 60’s and 70’s young people all over the world staged non-violent uprisings, even in wealthy France and the United States. This gave violent resistance an intellectual currency that encouraged people to take up arms. Armed struggle attracts most recruits when it is chic, whether that style is expressed in posters of Che Guevara or the funerary videos of suicide bombers. Once inside, revolutionary groups provide the same sense of teamwork and brotherhood as military forces, probably stronger.
4) REVOLUTION IS A MIDDLE CLASS PHENOMENA
The idea that the poor and the working class rise up against the state is a myth, propagated chiefly by the middle-class intellectuals that actually organize the insurgency. Poor people seldom have the education and organizational skills to coordinate the logistics and indoctrination necessary to create a group and keep it alive. Working-class people are too busy working, unless they are being organized through a labor union. In Argentina in the 70’s, nearly all the founding members of the Montoneros were students or young professionals. The founder of the ERP, Mario Roberto Santucho, was a public accountant. Beyond that, Castro was a lawyer. Mao had been a librarian, Che Guevara was a medical student.
That said, in the book, I do include working-class armed resistance groups. MacFarland, the leader of the Libertarian/Right Wing half of the Army of the Republic, is a mechanic. I based this on the existence of some radical right-wing groups like the Montana Freemen and the cell that pulled off the Oklahoma City bombing. Also, in the United States the difference between working class and middle class is often blurry, and people can be both working class, educated and informed.
5) ARMED RESISTANCE IS A LEFT/LIBERAL PHENOMENA
Some people have criticized the book as being a left-wing fantasy, (these people somehow missed the Right Wing half of the Army of the Republic), but in fact, I emphasized the Left because most armed resistance movements in the West in the last century have come from the Left, or from Liberals. At first I thought this was due to the fact that the dominant revolutionary idea of the 20th Century was Socialism, which is by definition Leftist. However, there was little or no organized Right-wing activity against the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe. Even in cases where heinous dictators were oppressing the whole country, such as Somoza in Nicaragua, the Right was usually late to the party in opposing the dictator, when they aren’t actively supporting him.
The Fascist takeovers of Germany and Italy before World War 2 somewhat fit the bill for a Right-Wing takeover, and the Secret Army Organization in 1960’s France, but the Right usually seizes power through coups or counter-revolutions, while the Left and Liberals are more apt to organize and wage a guerrilla war when democratic means are not available.
Even the American Revolution, cited by many Right-Wing people in the United States as their icon of violent resistance, was actually organized primarily by educated liberals like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who would likely belong to today’s Liberal/Left/Libertarian spectrum.
6) ONCE BEGUN, VIOLENT RESISTANCE HAS A LIFE OF ITS OWN
Once a group gets started, its momentum will sometimes keep it going even after it’s clear that the battle is lost or the cause has lost popular support. While both the ERP and the Montoneros began during a dictatorship, the ERP kept fighting even after its PRT party only gained a miniscule fraction of the vote in the 1973 elections. The Montoneros were ultimately forced to fight the very government they’d fought to have democratically elected.
Groups fight on for many reasons. One is simple institutional momentum. Another is that when people take up arms against the state, they are beginning such an uneven struggle that statistics or balance of forces no longer have meaning. In the revolutionary narrative, even major setbacks become part of the road toward ultimate victory, and part of the revolutionary ideal is the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a higher good. Another reason militants die rather than give up is that they feel they have to keep fighting to dignify the sacrifices of fallen comrades.
One big reason, though, which I think held true particularly with the ERP, is a refusal to recognize that the People you think you’re fighting for really aren’t on your side. The delusion sets in that some external factor is impeding you: government lies, lack of education among the people. There’s often the belief that just eliminating a given politician or group of people will at last open the floodgates of popular support. Indeed, the attempt to re-capture the public imagination with ever-larger military feats can lead guerrilla groups to devastatingly overreach themselves. The ERP’s last gasp in 1975 was one of their biggest operations, an attack on the Monte Chingolo military barracks that left over a hundred of their militants dead. The Montoneros tried a similarly grandiose attack on a military barracks, hijacking a jet to make their getaway. In both cases, the losses far outweighed the gains.
7) THE REAL BATTLE IS FOR THE STORY
While guerrilla groups are sometimes able to simply shoot their way into power against a weak state, most insurgent groups realize that if they can’t win the battle of narratives, their road will be longer and harder. One of the reasons rural guerrilla groups take and hold territory is to be able to proselytize the peasants and build support for their ideas. But the ERP and Montoneros, being urban guerrillas, couldn’t hold territory. Instead, both had a network of clandestine printing presses where they produced magazines and newspapers that told their side of the story to their own people and to the population at large. These publications explained their politics, gave news about operations or fallen members and made accusations against the regime they were fighting. Losing a printing press or mimeograph machine was a major blow.
Naturally, though, Big Media always sides with the State. Distribution of a clandestine newspaper might run to tens of thousands at most, while television and radio reach tens of millions, and nearly all of it is unfavorable to the guerrillas. For that reason, the Montoneros and the ERP saw their support drop as reports of their violent actions were broadcast far and wide, while reports of state terrorism were kept quiet.
All in all, taking up arms against the state requires a healthy dose of delusion, anger, hope, and insane bravery, all qualities we might admire in those we agree with, and condemn in those we don’t. The final conclusion I reached, though, and the conclusion which trumps all the others, is that once the road of violent resistance is undertaken, it brings in its wake devastating consequences that no one can control.