partisans of civil wars
Beirut, Saturday, July 26, 2003
It is now certain that what Gen. Abizaid had only a week ago labeled as a “guerilla war” against the coalition forces in Iraq, presumably organized by the old régime’s thugs, and estimated at 160,000 (which is roughly equal to the coalition forces), is not exclusively “Iraqi” or “national” anymore. According to coalition sources, all kinds of unidentified “mercenaries” and “foreigners,” whether belonging to “groups” and organizations or not, whether paid and unpaid, professionals or amateurs, are pouring in from all over, and profiting from Iraq’s porous borders (in particular Iran and Syria), they’re organizing the sporadic “resistance” that we’re witnessing on a daily basis. If such an assessment proves correct, it implies a “resistance” composed of all kinds of heterogeneous “bands,” cut from any “Iraqi” concern per se and fighting on a territory with a poorly structured “civil society,” where the “combatants” are organized in small dislocated units, and are moving in and out of that territory without much local bonds. More importantly, the further implication is that a Vietnamese-style resistance, which had strong rural underpinnings, and which eventually led to a reunification of Vietnam under a strong central state, is even lacking here. In the Iraqi case, the links between “territory” and “resistance” is uncertain at best, making it hard to detect a rationale of action that would foster common bonds with the local populations, in conjunction with a political program with a social agenda for the combatants in action. Besides generalities of the kind, “the fight against American imperialism and capitalism is our main goal,” the non-availability of a disciplined “party,” an “enemy” with a “face,” a political and social program, and a purpose and motivation in order to foster social bonds, the general “silence” of the unknown and unknowable “mujahidin” brings back to mind the “secrecy” of the 9/11 events (“le 11 septembre,” as the French would say): the targeting of symbols through highly symbolic and spectacular actions, an “enemy” that never reveals itself and has nothing to openly declare (presumably because the action takes place in lieu of the discursive declaration), which leaves it up to the “victims” to guess and decide what to do next.
A debacle in the Iraqi case could therefore prove even more harmful than Vietnam. For one thing, Iraqi society, after decades of brutal régimes, lacks even the minimal institutional frameworks to survive on its won. In itself it’s pretty much characteristic of many countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, and it is precisely such a general failure that is alarming, and which has prompted the U.S. to take action in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the civil war was the biggest event for the U.S. military in the second half of the nineteenth century, the twentieth century was one of external wars fought mostly in Europe, and then later in Asia (Korea and Vietnam). The last decade of the previous century was one of transition in that it prepared the U.S. for unwanted wars in territories that are by far less structured than anything the U.S. has encountered thus far (Iraq and Somalia), paving the way for even riskier operations and nation-building from scratch that many think are impossible. Yet, the truth of the matter boils down to this: that many countries, whose states (or whatever would fit under such a noble Hegelian name) are as corrupt as any mafia group in the world, are unable to perform nation-building on their own. Unless they get some radical help from the outside world, they’re becoming more and more like cancerous artifacts, posing a danger to themselves and the world at large.
From Afghanistan and Iraq, to Liberia and Angola, most countries today are not nation-states and live under protracted civil wars. Because the nation-state has never been fully implemented, only its postcolonial shadow exists: the “state” as an agency that feeds upon all those internal civil wars, sometimes (as is the case in the Republic of Congo) creating inter-state relations through civil wars. Under such conditions, political life loses its public function, which in turn pushes the arts, sciences and humanities into autonomous disciplines of their own, lacking the courage to criticize and propose. If you happen to be one of those individuals who were born in a nation-less society with no active public sphere, and where the daily routine is one of civil war, it is hard to produce and live as a citizen.
The concept of nation-state received its maturity in nineteenth-century Europe and implies above all a process of pacification of civil society by the state. Pacification took place through the legal and political fiction of democracy, which implies a non-violent participation in public from all those concerned or all who would like to. The British, French, and American democracies—all of which being core liberal and capitalist democracies—went through short periods of civil wars, which in hindsight were crucial for the survival and enforcement of the nation-state. Internal divisions could therefore go bloody, and the nation-state thus implies a recourse to violence, both symbolic and real. To understand the pitfalls of the nation-state today we need to question why divisions in core capitalist countries, which eventually led to civil wars, pushed towards a pacification of society by the state (or its partisans) through a deepening of liberalism, capitalism, and democracy, even though that often implied the use of force by the central or federal state; while today in most of the third-world the state has become the most mistrusted agency, unable even to create a minimal pacification, spur economic growth, and bring democracy. As Tocqueville repeatedly pointed out, democracy is not only a system that guarantees a form of interaction in the public sphere, but also one that provides a parallel form of interactionism among individuals at the private level.
If the classical notion of nation-state implied the management of internal civil wars, which grew out of civil conflicts that were internal and had thus to be extirpated by the state, external inter-state wars, by contrast, did not follow the logic of protracted civil wars, and were rather subdued to the princely art of making war, acknowledging defeat, and accepting peace as a compromise. It was like a gentlemen’s agreement among states whose institutions were already in control of their own societies through pacification. Such was the classical notion of aristocratic war and peace, which was probably dismantled by the bourgeois notion of universal capital, creating notions of class interest that were not solely mapped to the national territory.
That’s the classical picture, which will grosso modo survive until the French Revolution. In the wake of the Napoleonic wars, the French army, which was the quintessentially first modern army in Europe, began to be confronted by unusual phenomena of resistance towards which the regular European armies were by and large unprepared. Military doctrine, structured on notions of princely inter-state relations, did not anticipate the status of paramilitary groups who would act on their own—and at times with a deliberate political motive—and would pose a threat to a regular army outside its national territories. In effect, and prior to the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the European states and their armies were used to corsairs, pirates, brigands and bandits, and occasional unrests among their peasantries. But, besides the fact that none of these movements were directly political, or represented a threat to the political order, their ambition did not go beyond few material benefits and motivations, some of which directly sponsored by hostile Mediterranean states (e.g. the Ottomans or Habsburgs). It was probably in the wake of the Napoleonic campaigns in Spain in 1808-13 that a shift occurred for the first time. In effect, the French army, which conquered Spain in 1808, began being targeted, first randomly, and then systematically, by Spanish paramilitary groups that were not acting on behalf of the state. That was undeniably a new phenomenon, which in retrospect, is only two centuries old, and has since then progressed to such a degree that it has been globalized to become mainstream guerilla action in most of the third world today. The German jurist and political philosopher Carl Schmitt, who placed the Spanish Napoleonic campaign as a turning point in military European history, labeled such resistance movements as “partisans.” The term “partisan” (or partizan) generally refers to “a strong supporter of a person, group, or cause,” a kind of person that “does not listen to other people’s opinions.” Still more generally, and that’s the definition that best fits our purposes here, a partisan is “a member of a group that has taken up armed resistance against occupying enemy forces.” Both the English partisan and the German Parteigänger originate from the French partisan, which in turn is based on parti, a paramilitary group detached to fight in the countryside. The point here, and which historically constituted the groundbreaking military phenomenon in early nineteenth-century Europe, is that aller en parti implies going to the countryside with the specific mission to accommodate the enemy. All such groups, it should be emphasized, were outside the regular bodies of the various European armies. (The verb partir means “to go,” and the mission of partisans was primarily to go from their homes, cities, occupations, to the countryside to fight the enemy. Their paramilitary activity thus led them to lead an irregular life, always in the countryside, which constituted the terrain par excellence for fighting a regular army of the occupier/colonizer.)
It is no coincidence therefore that the “partisan” terminology in the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic cultures derives its origins from equivalent French notions. To begin, the French Revolution, by abolishing the absolute power of the monarch and positing “the general will” of all “citizens” (citoyens) as the foundation of the new political order, has inadvertently perhaps paved the way for social divisions inside the body politic to find leeways for representation and expression. Marx’s and Engels’ Communist Manifesto was without doubt the most remarkable pamphlet to have openly theorized social divisions, based on class struggle, and to have provided them with a coherent discourse of socio-political significance. The importance of such a discursive shift is that the capitalist bourgeois societies of western and central Europe became perceived as producing—by virtue of the logic of commodity exchange and capital accumulation—social divisions that translated into class antagonisms. Hence social and political instability were at the heart of every European country until socialism comes at the rescue, and until the state, perceived as the agency that reproduces class divisions, withers away. The novelty here is that, with the demise of all absolutist systems based on divine rights and a hierarchy of orders, the cohesiveness of society comes from itself, based on the logic of production (capitalism, in this case), rather than from a monarchy that produces a semblance of a unified social order and signs of prosperity. Moreover, because the state was an agency in the hands of the dominant class, the bourgeoisie, hence reproduced social inequalities, it was not perceived by Marx and Engels as a body politic representative of society as-a-whole. To be sure, it was that “wholeness” of society, which was central for the feudal order and the absolutist states, that became impossible. The authors of the Manifesto had even famously reread all world history as one of class struggles, hence looking at the old feudal orders as more ideological than real.
Once the internal civil order has been shattered by new notions based mostly on class interests, the external inter-state relations on war and peace were drawn along similar lines of thought. There isn’t, however, in the fifty volumes that constitute today the collected works of Marx and Engels much thought to either a theory of state or inter-state relations for that matter. By portraying the state either as a puppet for the bourgeoisie or as an outcome of class struggle, the founders of Marxism mistrusted the heritage of the French Revolution whom they portrayed as “ideological,” which in their language implies a sort of “inverted consciousness,” one that places values for their own sake rather than ground them in production. The theoretical counterpart to the Marxist class struggle for the moments of war and peace in inter-state relations was mostly completed by Prussian generals, and the quintessential work for that period was obviously Clausewitz’s On War. Having been intrigued by the guerilleros movement in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat of the official Spanish army in 1808, the Austrian and Prussian generals first thought of reproducing the Spanish experience once the Napoleonic interests turned east in 1809-13 towards the Germanic countries. But such a “guerilla” movement (to use a modern terminology), however, saw no light in the German-speaking lands, and the few episodes witnessed in the first year of the Napoleonic occupation in 1809 died quickly. And while the final episode of the French occupation was decided in an official and classical battle in October 1813 near Leipzig, the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 reoriented European war and peace relations within the classical notions of inter-state relations. What was remarkable about the Vienna Congress was its willingness to reinstate war and peace within the boundaries of inter-state relations, which implies that the war of the jus Publicum Europaeum was only an inter-state war, fought with regular armies, and whose codes ought to be respected by all the parties involved. Within that international and European jus Publicum, a civil war was defined as an open insurrection against the official state institutions led by known or unknown belligerents whose claims, whether explicitly stated or not, the state refuses to acknowledge. It was up to the state institutions to pacify their own territory and avoid civil war. Finally, even a colonial war was conceptualized within the classical European (and hence universal) notions of inter-state relations. To begin, the distribution of colonial territories among the European colonial powers took place peacefully beforehand in bilateral arrangements (Berlin, Sykes-Picot, Versailles, Malta, etc.). It was then left to the colonizing power to pacify the territory under its control. The open and more crucial issue here was—and still is—how to classify various movements of so-called “resistance” against the colonizers. Perceived as “national”/“revolutionary” and “heroic” to some, they’re pure acts of “terrorism” to others. The point, however, is that all such qualifications are generally poorly conceptualized and rarely take into consideration the juristic and political history of western and central Europe. More importantly, the question that needs to be raised is whether the European notions are universal, and whether they could be applied to non-western societies and civilizations whose state and societal institutions are weak and eaten by a myriad of internal feuds and civil wars. Finally, a multitude of “partisan” groups and organizations are now fighting the western powers—particularly the U.S.—and at times fighting one another—on grounds very much different and outside the classical and two-century old European notion of jus Publicum. Such groups and organizations, and their supporters all over the world (including in Europe and the U.S.), portray the “wars” of such “partisans” as “national” and anti-imperialistic, hence justified in the eyes of their beholders. Contrary views to such claims are perceived as “reactionary” and “imperialistic,” not to mention the accusation that they’re naïve for thinking that the Euro-American notions on war and peace are universal: they’re in effect primarily ideological since they justify the expansion of western capitalism and the liberal and democratic life-style.
One can see, for instance, the dilemmas that the U.S. is presently facing in Iraq these days. By declaring May 1 as the end of the war per se, Bush was probably unaware (but maybe the more articulate and educated British prime minister was) that he was thinking within the classical notions of the European jus Publicum: you declare war—Operation Iraqi Freedom—and then declare peace (May 1), that is, the end of all military hostilities. But in doing so, the British and Americans behaved as if the Iraqi state and society would fit, and accept as part of their “national” heritage, the (universal?) European notions. There was, however, no one on the Iraqi side to even acknowledge defeat. One wonders whether the fifty or so most wanted on the card-deck (out of which close to forty have been arrested or killed) ought to be considered ex-“civil servants” of the now defunct Iraqi “state,” or were they perhaps, more accurately, part of a ruling caste that simply took control of the apparatus of the state?
Beginning with Lenin the communists’ attitude towards the European inter-state relations was one of pure contempt. The communists’ strategy, from Lenin and Mao to Ho Chi-minh and Fidel Castro, was to launch revolutionary partisan struggles that would undermine the authority of the bourgeois state while creating their own shadow of a state. Once the revolution is complete, the movement would then turn into a socialist state, meeting the demands of the conglomeration of forces that fought within its ranks. The communists thus still assumed the existence of a state, one that would possibly justify a certain mode of inter-state relations, but the socialist state, however, is one with a much broader social base, one that integrates deep layers of urban and rural movements that the bourgeois state typically leaves out.
Like all partisans movements, the communist ones flourished in countries whose social integration lagged behind those of the core capitalist nations, and in which vertical social stratification and the horizontal integration between city and countryside were (and still are) very loose. Those were (and are) predominantly agrarian societies where manufacturing and small scale industrialization created weak and unprotected groups of entrepreneurs, whose capitalist ventures often come in conjunction with foreign capital. Engels once noted that the integration of Spain took place on a regional basis, and it took a century for each region to become part of the “union.” The Napoleonic campaigns thus triggered rural partisan upheavals precisely because the process of integration of the peasantry was very much incomplete (in the sense that regions integrated poorly with one another and with their corresponding urban centers). The communist movements of the past century had for their part very much capitalized on the weaknesses of the bonds that hampered most state formations in eastern Europe and central Asia. If the European doctrine of jus Publicum assumed that each state successfully pacified the society under its control, to the communists “pacification” was artificial and coercive, hence every society was in a potential state of civil-cum-class war. Thus, the communists would not acknowledge that such partisan scenarios would not hold for the core capitalist countries, and that they only prove operative in much weakly structured societies.
In both Korea and Vietnam the U.S. met a resistance that was organized on a regional and class basis, one that played on the weaknesses of such societies. The resistance always had a purpose, motivation, and a program, and acted like a revolutionary state-in-exile. Already in World War II, upon the liberation of Italy, France, and Germany, all of which suffering from internal partisan-cum-civil wars, the U.S. was behaving like a partisan power itself, as the classical European inter-state system could not possibly hold amid the fascist and totalitarian movements that swept Europe in the interwar period. For a superpower to behave “like a partisan” means that it is unable to limit itself to the role of a state and fight its “opponent” within the norms of the jus Publicum: partisan wars make the following of such norms impossible. Thus, since the Second World War, the general rule for the U.S. has been to “neutralize” partisan movements in countries like Italy, Germany, and Japan, then restore the integrity of their national states (e.g. through de-Nazification), prior to bringing them back to the European jus Publicum. In other more troubled areas like Latin America, the U.S. attempted at times to create its own partisan movements, hoping to neutralize opposing partisan guerilla movements in order to pacify state and society. The point here is that the U.S. often finds itself in a partisan role not much different from the one expressed by Napoleon to general Lefèvre on 12 September 1813: Il faut opérer en partisan partout où il y a des partisans, One must operate as a partisan wherever there are partisans. That was the military doctrinal shift in early nineteenth-century Europe.
The “Iraqi resistance” today does not possess any of the organization and tactics of the classical partisan wars of the last two centuries, and cannot be even described as “partisan” of anything. As such it poses a huge challenge—military and doctrinal—for the U.S. and the region precisely because it lacks a purpose, a structured organization, and a socio-political program. That’s precisely the reason why Iraq is no Vietnam and there’s absolutely no correlation between the two. The protracted Iraqi “civil war” is a different kind of animal, one, to be sure, that would determine the future of U.S. foreign policy for the decades to come, and also the fate of “pacification” of societies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa on new grounds.
copyright © 2003 zouhair ghazzal