What’s the best way to understand insurgency, terrorism, and irregular warfare?

When the still ongoing insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq erupted after the U.S. invasions, the U.S. government and military seemed both surprised and befuddled, as if they had never dealt with such things before. This was a repetition of the response in the 1980s, the previous time insurgency became a national security issue when the lessons of the 1960s had to be relearned. But the 1960s was not the first time the U.S. had dealt with this kind of warfare—or forgotten its past experience with it.  In the 1960s, it was as if the Marine Corps’ experience between the World Wars in the Caribbean and the more than two centuries of Indian fighting had never happened. Revolution and Resistance aims to remedy such historical shortsightedness by showing that the proper historical scope for understanding contemporary insurgency and terrorism is not decades but centuries. The irregular warfare we face today, the book argues, is best understood in the context of the rise and fall of Euro-American imperialism, beginning in the 16th century and continuing around us today.

That imperialism is often portrayed as a matter of technology, firepower, and disease.  Those certainly played a role, although their role is more varied and complex than often thought. As Revolution and Resistance argues, morality was at least equally important. The moral revolution of the 16th century encouraged European empire. The moral revolution of the nineteenth century (the rise of humanitarianism) undermined it, by discrediting the claim that any group of people had a right to rule another. As humanitarianism gained popular support, it became harder and harder for imperial authorities to wield the force until then always an essential part of imperial rule.

As force had to be curtailed, imperial powers had to find alternatives to it.  This is the reason that so-called population-centric counterinsurgent doctrines have come to the fore.  Winning hearts and minds, in the standard phrase, had to replace overwhelming them with violence. British officers with experience in imperial policing were writing of the need for this changed approach in the first decades of the 20th century. Militaries have found it difficult advice to follow, however, since they are designed to apply force.

Christianity or a politicized version was essential to both the rise and decline of imperialism, as it played a role in both of the moral revolutions essential to the story of Euro-American imperialism. Islam too has been an essential part of the story, since Muslims resisted European power whenever they encountered it, just as before Europeans had resisted Islamic empire. However, unlike some who faced European empire, Muslims found in Islam ample resources to mobilize resistance. In examining this religious aspect of imperialism, Revolution and Resistance shows the historical roots of the current struggles in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Deliberately, the book does not tout a set of policy prescriptions to improve the American response to irregular warfare.  Its purpose is to uncover the underlying dynamics and dilemmas of such conflict, in the hope that such understanding might prepare the way for better practice.



David Tucker is a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center, Ashland University. He is the author of The End of Intelligence: Espionage and State Power in the Information Age and Illuminating the Dark Arts of War: Terrorism, Sabotage, and Subversion in Homeland Security and the New Conflict. His latest book is Revolution and Resistance: Moral Revolution, Military Might, and the End of Empire

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