CREATION OF AN URBAN GUERRILLA
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.”
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.
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
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,
now embroiled in what they envisioned 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 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 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
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
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 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
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 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
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 keep 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 groups 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.
Finally, while taking up arms against the state requires a healthy
dose of delusion, anger, hope, and insane bravery, it usually takes something else
for that final push to violence: 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. Let’s hope we never see it here.