The Army of the Republic:
Insurgency comes to America
Stuart Archer Cohen’s controversial new novel, The Army of the Republic, (St. Martin’s Press) is set in a near-future United States where economic collapse and a one-party “democracy” has spawned a violent backlash. The book centers around Lando, a Seattle urban guerrilla devoted to violent resistance, Emily, a political organizer in Seattle, and James Sands, a billionaire and government crony. Critics have called the book “brilliant,” “terrifying,” and “treasonous.” Here Cohen answers questions about the book.
Naomi Klein says “The Army of the Republic” is “one of the first works of art with the courage to live up to our historical moment.” What do you think she means by that?
We’re living in a changing country, and this book tries to address those changes. The world of The Army of the Republic is one where Corporations keep control through propaganda, sham elections and a mixture of public police and private “counter-terrorism” forces whose real job is to disrupt and neutralize citizen opposition. This country has very strong democratic traditions, but I think people of every political persuasion recognize the drift.
This book is about rebellion of all sorts, but it’s especially about democracy: what it means and what its bottom line is.
What do you mean by “what its bottom line is?”
I mean, where does the power of the people come from? Does it come from the barrel of a gun, as Mao said? Or does it come from an idea, or a sense of community? There’re a lot of characters putting all those ideas to the test in the book, with a lot of different results.
Why did you write a book about rebellion and the power of the people?
I’ve been traveling to South America on business nearly every year since 1984, and over time I became more and more fascinated by the revolutionary impulse. It intrigued me how a bunch of students, lawyers, and young professionals could develop the will and the skills to challenge the state. The same applies to organizers who are able to boot out repressive governments, as they did in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia and Serbia. I was curious why some people just grumble about politics while others pick up arms or work to overturn a state with no violence at all. I started to wonder what similar movements would look like here in the United States, so I talked to a wide variety of people, including former revolutionaries in Argentina, Buenos Aires police who were active in the 70’s, CIA people, former 60’s radicals and present-day student activists, to get an idea of how and why an insurgency forms, the course it can take, and the effects on the individuals within them.
Also, as the new century progressed, I started seeing more and more echoes of the problems of Argentina, Mexico and other Latin countries in the United States. There’s a growing sense of unease here, both on the Left and the Right. Check out either Left Wing or Right Wing websites and you’ll see a lot of anger and confusion. Combine that with a severe economic downturn, as I’ve portrayed in the book, and you have the ingredients for the kind of political violence present in The Army of the Republic.
Argentina and Mexico are both renowned for their systemic injustices. Can you give specific examples of what similarities you see in the US now?
The same cronyism at the highest levels of government. The same failure of any scandal to have any significant impact on the people who perpetrate it, other than to make them richer. That’s very Argentine, and we see it here in things like Vice President Cheney making tens of millions of dollars by bouncing from Secretary of Defense, to being CEO of Halliburton, and then back to being Vice President while the Pentagon awards huge contracts to his old company. It’s right out there in the open and it’s all perfectly legal.
Privatization is another example. The privatizing of the public assets and functions was imposed on South America in the 70’s and 80’s, and that’s started to happen here, beginning with Bush Sr, continuing with Clinton, and going into hyperdrive with Bush Jr. I’d say the whole country is being sold off to the highest bidder, except that much of the time they’re no-bid contracts arranged from the inside, so it’s not even the highest bidder. Again, Halliburton is the gold-star example of that kind of profiteering, and very Latin American in that Halliburton wrote the specs for privatizing the military under Bush Sr. and then happened to get the contract under Bush Jr. Most Americans don’t realize how deeply penetrated our government is by Corporations, right down to the most sensitive aspects of Intelligence and Law Enforcement.
So this book is about Left Wing versus Right Wing?
No. The Army of the Republic is composed of both Right and Left wing militants. And I think that’s a plausible portrayal. If you talk to many gun owners about the government taking their guns away, they immediately start talking about violent resistance, paraphrased by “They can take my gun away when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” Charlton Heston said this to great applause at the NRA convention some years ago, which is pretty mainstream. For the Left, violent resistance is more of a fringe idea, but it is regarded as an option by some.
In The Army of the Republic, I wanted people to play out the fantasy and see what it would really look like. If there is one thing I would like people to take away from this book, it’s that despite the polarization that’s been consciously engineered in this country by people like Karl Rove, Rupert Murdoch, Newt Gingrich and hate-speakers like Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter, we all still have too much in common as citizens to stop working together.
There have been some angry reactions to this book. What’s that all about?
Well, the word “treasonous” has popped up, and I’ve been accused of advocating violent revolution and romanticizing terrorism. Terrorism is a big scary word that stops all thought, but the political violence in the book is far more complicated than simply “terrorism.” Some of the characters are doing some very bad things, like assassinating Corporate figures and blowing up buildings. Some critics seem to assume that since I’m portraying them as real human beings who aren’t necessarily evil, I’m condoning their actions – but I’m not. And when I sympathetically portray characters who are hiring death squads as real human beings, I’m not condoning their actions either.
Armed guerrillas, death squads--Is there anyone I can root for in this book?
I always feel you have to love your characters, even the evil ones. I think people root for all the main characters, even the ones who are essentially enemies of democracy.
James Sands is this brilliant entrepreneur who built a billion dollar company from scratch. He donates money to charitable causes, has a wife who teaches underprivileged children in Washington DC, and yet is also a government crony who’s hated by a lot of people. The book finds him as his empire is beginning to teeter; he’s got all these civic groups and armed militants attacking his business from the front, and at his back he’s got predators trying to engineer a hostile takeover of his business. So, even if you don’t agree with what he does, you can understand him and sympathize with him.
Another character is Lando, one of the young leaders of the Army of the Republic. Lando is driven to save the country from itself in an almost religious way. He’s smart, funny, charismatic, and fully aware that what he’s doing is very dubious on a moral level. He’s a great talker, and very adept at linking diverse people together with the power of an idea and a sense of shared goals. He’s close with MacFarland, a former Special Forces guy who’s formed his own militia in the failed logging and farming towns outside Seattle. McFarland comes across as this hardworking mechanic who doesn’t have an extremely sophisticated analysis but who has a strong sense of what’s wrong with the country. He’s the one who provides the firepower and the know-how to pull off the AOR’s first assassination. Lando and McFarland may hate the government in different ways, but they both share a belief that We, the People need to take control again, and they’re both willing to pull a trigger to do it.
The third important character is Emily, a political organizer in Seattle. She’s in her late twenties, living on almost nothing and totally consumed with trying to reform the government through democratic means. She’s a workaholic-her colleagues have nicknamed her “The Nun,” and as her friends progress in their careers and start families, she’s wondering where her life is going. She’s a peaceful person who’s forced to confront a not-so-peaceful regime, and she has to persuade thousands of other people to confront it, too. On top of that, she’s in over her head as a liaison to the guerrillas. Like all the characters, she’s confronted with a set of choices that range from bad to worse, and these are the choices that define her.
Is this a “political” book intended to affect the outcome of the upcoming Presidential election in the US?
It would be nice to think that a novel could influence an election, but, realistically, fiction just isn’t important enough anymore for one book to have an immediate impact.
However, the judicial, legislative and propaganda infrastructure that’s been constructed to facilitate the kind of Corporate takeover depicted in the book will still be in place after January 20th and it will still have billions of dollars behind it. So, I’m hoping that all people, Left or Right, will stay tuned in to these issues no matter who wins, and that my book will help them do that.