Armies Can Crack

Mike Gonzalez & Houman Barekat (eds.), Arms & the People: Popular Movements & the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring

Pluto Press, 292pp, £17.50, ISBN 9780745332970

reviewed by Ian Birchall

The British government is planning an elaborate and expensive commemoration of the First World War for its centenary next year. We shall doubtless hear a lot about what Wilfred Owen called ‘the pity of war’; we may be told that the war was a tragedy, and even a mistake. But I am prepared to wager a substantial sum that we shall hear very little about desertion, mutiny and the shooting of officers. So we should enthusiastically welcome this new book which offers an alternative history of armies and wars. The editors have collected 13 short essays from a radical perspective which sets armed forces and armed struggles in context, showing that they cannot be understood apart from the totality of society, and in particular from class divisions. Topics range from Europe to the Middle East, and from the Far East to Latin America, from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the streets of present-day Egypt and Venezuela.

One thing David Cameron will not want to remember about World War I is that it ended with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors determined to change the social order that had sent them and their comrades to the slaughter. As Megan Trudell shows, ‘the war widened, rather than healed, divisions in Italian society.’ In 1920 a mutiny in Ancona saw officers chased and thrown in canals. In Germany, despite Social Democratic backing for the war, Volkhard Mosler argues that ‘workers’ patriotism was wafer-thin from the beginning.’ In 1918 workers’ and soldiers’ councils brought Germany to the brink of revolution. In Russia the breakdown of discipline in the army and the conscious intervention of political organisations – Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries - led to a successful revolution.

Armies have, of course, sometimes played highly reactionary roles. In Indonesia in 1965 the army took part in the massacre of some half a million Communists and their supporters; in 1973 in Chile the army overthrew a reforming socialist government. Yet as Nathaniel Mehr and Mike Gonzalez show in their analyses, these horrific defeats were not inevitable, but resulted from political choices - the Indonesian Communist Party’s willingness to let itself be co-opted by the Sukarno regime and Allende’s repeated conciliation of the army and refusal to arm the people.

For armies can crack. In a wonderfully vivid account of the US army in Vietnam, based on testimonies of participants, Jonathan Neale shows that US soldiers, faced with heroic and tenacious national liberation forces and a mass anti-war movement back at home, came increasingly to feel the war was wrong; by 1971 a US Colonel described the army as being ‘in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous.’ And since Vietnam no US President, however right-wing, has dared reintroduce the draft.

In some situations, armies have played a radicalising role. Anne Alexander describes how the Free Officers in Egypt and Iraq brought Nasser and Qasim to power, liberating their countries from pro-British monarchies, though these power shifts failed to spill over into genuine popular revolutions. In Portugal in 1974 it was radicalised army officers who overthrew Caetano’s fascist regime and opened up a momentous upsurge of working-class revolt which, sadly, has now been largely forgotten. Peter Robinson, who was an eye-witness and participant in the events, relates both the achievements of this movement and its ultimate failure.

Not all armies are the instruments of repressive states. In many situations the oppressed have created their own armed organisations to challenge existing power. Mike Gonzalez examines, sympathetically but critically, guerrilla struggles in Latin America after the Cuban revolution. Despite the enormous influence of Che Guevara’s writings, the particular circumstances that made revolution successful in Cuba were not repeated elsewhere. And Guevara’s position was ultimately a dangerous voluntarism, the belief that a revolutionary minority could create the conditions for revolution. Andrew Durgan studies the achievements and weaknesses of the republican militias in the Spanish Civil War, concluding that ‘the militias, with the necessary leadership and organisation, could have been converted into the army of the revolution. That this did not happen was due to the political orientation of the main workers’ organisations.’ Donny Gluckstein tells how, when the French army collapsed in 1870, it was the Paris National Guard which created the basis for the world’s first, short-lived workers’ state.

The problem of the armed forces remains for those aiming at social change. Philip Marfleet examines the role of the Egyptian army over the last 60 years and concludes: ‘It is only a matter of time before the revolutionary movement confronts a military command at the heart ... of the structures of economic privilege.’ And veteran Venezuelan guerrilla leader Douglas Bravo makes a surprisingly harsh assessment of his former ally Hugo Chavez, whom he accuses of seeing ‘the role of the masses as there to applaud but not to act with their own consciousness, hearts and hands.’ Our global economic system has in no way diminished the drive to war. For those who want to put an end to war, and are prepared to fight to do so, this little volume offers a wealth of ideas.