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The Seeds of Conflict: A Review of Guerrillas by Jon Lee Anderson

By posted at 6:57 pm on February 18, 2007 1

coverJon Lee Anderson is a top-tier foreign correspondent. Writing for the New Yorker, he has spent much of the current decade reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike many of his “embedded” colleagues, however, Anderson strays far from the relative safety of American protection into the homes and offices of people on the ground, talking to people from all walks of life, all the way up to heads of state.

But Anderson is at his best when he talks to the little guys who toil in the shadow of war, whether as participants or bystanders. His book Guerrillas is about those little guys. In Guerrillas, Anderson takes an almost anthropological view of five insurgent movements that simmered and raged in far flung corners of the globe: the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The book covers a three year period, December 1988 to January 1992, that Anderson spent traveling around the world, putting time in with those groups. The book is not divided up by geography, as I had expected it would be, but instead Anderson finds themes that are common among guerrilla movements and spends a chapter on each one, beginning with “Creation Myths” and moving on to “Earning a Living” and “Making War,” among others.

His point of view is steadfastly observant and unbiased. He chronicles in the same tone the atrocities committed by insurgents and their oppressors. Anderson’s viewpoint is an interesting one, though. He portrays these movements as being in the grip of a sort of madness, for example:

In the refugee camps of Gaza, the desert of Western Sahara, the hills of Chalatenago, and the teak forests of Kawthoolei, revolutions are under way, and the guerrillas dwell in separate realities, parallel to those they are rebelling against.

This madness, brought on by oppression or at the very least the deprivation of life’s comforts and a sense of safety, drive whole societies to embrace violence and killing as the only answer.

But Guerrillas is not merely a checklist of battles and conflicts, the book brims with bright characters, from mujahedin commanders in Afghanistan who slyly let their men blare outlawed music to bards among the compas in El Salvador who promote revolution through verse. Though Anderson does not share Ryszard Kapuscinski’s tone of wonder and eye for quirky detail when enveloped in a foreign culture, his observations have considerable depth and provide the necessary context to shine a light on these often misunderstood conflicts.

Originally published in 1992, Guerrillas is improved in a 2004 paperback edition by an introduction and an afterword. The introduction dwells mostly on the then burgeoning insurgency in Iraq, drawing parallels to the insurgencies Anderson covered 15 years prior. In his view, what happened in Iraq was utterly predictable when viewed against the backdrops of earlier conflicts. The afterword, meanwhile, gives a “where are they now” update of the five guerrilla movements covered in the book. Some have fizzled or become legitimate political movements, while two have had far reaching consequences. The Palestinian and Israeli conflict has provided an ever worsening backdrop of violence in the region, while the Afgan insurgency against communist invaders metastasized into a haven for al Qaeda, and ultimately changed the world. This last point underscores the importance of Anderson’s book. Upon original publication, the book must have seemed like a travelogue of dangerous places, but Anderson was really exploring the seeds of conflict that would grow to a global scale a decade hence.





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One Response to “The Seeds of Conflict: A Review of Guerrillas by Jon Lee Anderson”

  1. Kim
    at 3:02 pm on December 31, 2011

    I disagree that he is observant and unbiased. His view that they are in a sort of delirium or “madness” makes it impossible for him to do what he sets out to do: portray these people as understandable humans. He calls a Palestinian father “irrational” for fearing his child would be killed when abducted by Israeli soldiers (when your child is snatched from your arms and carried off by a soldier, are you supposed to assume they’re going to tickle him and feed him dinner?) In the first chapter especially, he is biased in his assumption that many of the stories are exaggerated, invented, or glorified – and tells the reader to make that same assumption. That’s not listening and reporting observations, that’s perpetuating close-mindedness. He also uses the term “myth” in a very careless way, switching back and forth between myth as cultural reference point or myth as a lie or untrue story. The result is that he portrays his subjects as blind to their own realities, “inventing” truth for themselves. This is shocking from an author who witnesses circumstances firsthand. In reality these groups do what all other human groups do – create their own culture and live as a product of it. His descriptions of the conflicts are great and seem to give insight into the resistance movements’ existences, but then he undermines that by pitching the guerillas the same way the news often does – as incomprehensible, bloodthirsty extremists. I think he is an obviously skilled writer but demonstrates a lack of understanding of both political science and sociology, because he constantly misuses terms like “legitimacy” and “nation” and his sloppy analogies to things like religious cults or even animals are highly ethnocentric, if not just racist. (His description of Saharawi people made me cringe -using the word “Negroid” and comparing them to birds and gazelles.) He seems to miss the bottom-up aspect of the movements completely, and sees their members as brainwashed followers rather than participants. The idea of this book is great, and it contains a wealth of knowledge on political events, but he was not careful enough in his rendition of guerillas to make them human to the reader.

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