Lethal ideas and insurgent memory

A review of Neville Bolt’s The Violent Image.

The violent imageInsurgency is as old man’s first effort at organised government in the ancient river valleys of the Near East and Asia. Wherever some men imposed what they reckoned to be civilised order, other men saw only tyranny and took up arms in rebellion. The unequal contest of state and insurgent has raged episodically for three millennia, frequently to the detriment and death of the latter until the second half of the twentieth century. With the end of WWII, the scales began to tip to the side of the guerrilla in a world locked in a Cold War and rocked by the rapid postwar decline of war-weary and bankrupt European empires.  Mao ZeDong’s triumphal declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, after decades of Communist insurgency and civil war was a harbinger; while counterinsurgency carried the day in Malaya, armies of irregulars defeated Western Great powers in Algeria, Vietnam and a swath of African countries. Then once victorious, former rebels as rulers began behaving much like the corrupt, autocratic, regimes they had toppled or set up methodically brutal Marxist-Leninist police states.

With the retreat of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, the usual pattern did not assert itself in the victory of the Afghan Mujahedeen. Far from seizing the state, the anticommunist rebels brought only decades of anarchy and civil war. This was the onset of an entropic trend that accelerated with the Soviet collapse in 1991 and emergence of globalisation, a perfect storm that led military historian Martin van Creveld to declare in 1996 “The state…is dying”. Other irregular groups from the period and later – Hezbollah, HAMAS, Aum Shinrikyo, the Lord’s Resistance Army, al Qaida, the Taliban and Mexican narco-cartels  – resembled less and less the Maoist model of guerrilla warfare or 1970’s PLO and IRA Marxist-inspired nationalistic terrorists. In the 21st century, insurgency was changing its character as a form of warfare, most dramatically in Iraq, Mexico and Afghanistan– whether COIN experts were willing to acknowledge it or not.

One expert who does acknowledge a paradigmatic shift and posits a powerful explanatory model for the behavior of what he terms “the new revolutionaries” is Dr Neville Bolt of the War Studies Department of King’s College, London and author of The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries. Taking a constructivist view of irregular military conflict as the means by which insurgents weave an enduring political narrative of mythic power and shape historical memory, Bolt eschews some cherished strategic tenets of realists and Clausewitzians. The ecology of social media, powered by decentralised, instant communication platforms and the breakdown of formerly autarkic or regulated polities under the corrosive effects of capitalist market expansion, have been, in Bolt’s view, strategic game changers “creating room to maneuver” in a new “cognitive battlespace” for “complex insurgencies”.  Violent “Propaganda of the Deed”, once the nihilistic signature of 19th century Anarchist-terrorist groups like the People’s Will, has reemerged in the 21st century’s continuous media attention environment as a critical tool for insurgents to compress time and space through “…a dramatic crisis that must be provoked”.

As a book The Violent Image sits at the very verge of war and politics where ideas become weapons and serve as a catalyst for turning grievance into physical aggression and violence. Running two hundred and sixty-nine heavily footnoted pages and an extensive bibliography that demonstrates Bolt’s impressive depth of research. While Bolt at times slips into academic style, for the most part his prose is clear, forceful and therefore useful and accessible to the practitioner or policy maker. Particularly for the latter, are Bolt’s investigations into violent action by modern terrorists as a metaphor impacting time (thus, decision cycles) across a multiplicity of audiences.  This capacity for harvesting strategic effect from terrorist events was something lacking in the 19th and early 20th century followers of Bakunin and Lenin (in his dalliances with terrorism); or in Bolt’s view, the anarchists “failed to evoke a coherent understanding in the population” or a “sustained message”.

Bolt’s emphasis on violent action being less important as a discrete tactical action than as emotive symbolic imagery for the nurturance and amplification of grievance and empathic solidarity within a community feeling itself ‘oppressed’ or “under siege” has a deep political resonance in modern conflicts. Indeed, this kind of totemic referencing is used not only by aggrieved subject populations, such as the Palestinians or Belfast Catholics but also by states and powerful majorities. Slobodon Milosevic’s Serbia made a morbid cult of Serbian defeat by Ottoman Turks in the 14th century at the Field of the Blackbirds, the former Apartheid regime of South Africa honored the Trekboer narrative-national myth, while Iran’s theocratic system is rooted ultimately in Iranian Shia being the Shiat ‘Ali – the “Party of Ali” – of the righteous Caliph Ali, martyred by his enemies, succeeded by a Supreme Jurisprudent as a kind of regent who defends the revolutionary community.

This kind of narrative-making process described by Bolt is very empowering for extremists because it works at what the late military strategist John Boyd termed the ‘Mental’ and ‘Moral’ levels of war, rising above mere physical action and providing a motivating purpose for justifying all of the bloodshed and chaos and sustaining the political will to fight. This theory explains why tactics that otherwise are fundamentally abhorrent, like suicide bombing or beheading hostage, and are essentially militarily futile and horrifying to most observers, can nonetheless be considered successful, if they manage to unify or radicalise the target community into a loyal base of support for the insurgents. Control over the base or the community by wielding the dominant narrative becomes the true objective (or the short term one) rather than military victory over the enemy. This ploy does not always work. Radical insurgents can, in their extremism, badly misread the mood of their base and alienate them with ill-timed atrocities, as Bolt explains the Real IRA did with its disastrous Omagh bombing in 1998. Another example would be the ghoulish antics of AQI terrorist ’emir’ Abu al-Zarqawi whose shocking beheading videos in Iraq earned him a rare public rebuke from (then) al Qaida number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Violent Image is an important book, one that explores an area of conflict in which states are regularly bested by their non-state insurgent and terrorist adversaries – strategic communication and narrative construction. It may be that bureaucratic states are ill suited for such a game in the first place, that it takes, as John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt wrote, “ a network to beat a network”. Bolt himself asks if “whether governments can create flatter, rapid-reaction, communication forces” or whether the state is by nature incapable of doing so?  That answer is unclear but that the revival of Propaganda of the Deed is critical for statesmen and generals to understand in crafting strategy is something Neville Bolt has made clear as crystal.