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Weighing the History of 'Violent Politics'

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Last week, General David Petraeus, an author of the Army's revised text on counterinsurgency, testified on progress achieved through the surge and the application of his doctrines in Iraq.

General Petraeus is up against the conundrum that William Polk addresses in his latest book. How is it that the Army that has the power so often loses the war when its enemy is homegrown and practices guerrilla tactics and terrorism?

A H: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism and Guerrilla War from the American Revolution to Iraq." And there are chapters on insurgencies chronologically in between those two conflicts in Spain, Greece, Algeria, Vietnam and elsewhere.

He started studying the subject when he was a U.S. diplomat back in the 1960s. Polk says he found that insurgent movements tend to develop in three stages.

WILLIAM POLK: The first of these was political. The insurgents are very few, so they fall back on the tactic of the weak, which is terrorism. The insurgents had to prove that they were the nationalists in their countries. The second part was administration. And what we saw in Vietnam was that the Viet Cong virtually killed everyone in the South Vietnamese administration. Then they have to replace it.

Those two things amounted to something like 95 percent of the total capacity of the insurgency. The third stage is simply fighting. As I suggested, that amounted into something like 5 percent. And that was what we devoted all the years of our involvement in Vietnam with.

SIEGEL: One phrase comes to mind. In your book, you cited Donald Rumsfeld had spoken of fighting the long war. The lengths of some of the conflicts you describe in Algeria, with its roots deep in the 19th century; in Ireland, which you say you could've been the longest war in history - we're really talking about long wars in history.

POLK: Long wars. And of course, many of them - we talk a lot today about staying the course, we stayed the course for 16 years in Vietnam. The French stayed it far longer. In Ireland, as you mentioned, the Irish fought intermittently against the English from the 11th century on. In a way, they're still fighting it.

SIEGEL: How much can one generalize, though? As you relate in writing about Greece during and after the Second World War, British forces who occupied that country with the most cynical imperialist motives, were received as liberators by the Greeks. If you apply those lessons - I gather they were applied in Vietnam - you would get totally different inferences about what can be achieved against an insurgency.

POLK: I don't think we like to believe that. I don't think that's quite true. I think the difference in Greece is that the Communists split. And the Communists really killed each other off. So the movement virtually committed suicide. It wasn't so much that the Greek government or our people won as that the Communists lost. And of course we couldn't apply that in Vietnam because there was never any hint of any dissension within the Viet Minh organization.

SIEGEL: Today in Iraq, a war of which you've been critical both of its conception and its execution, General Petraeus is enlisting traditional leaders, tribal sheikhs and local alliances. He's keeping U.S. troops in the neighborhoods day and night and for longer times than they were staying before. Can what he's doing work?

POLK: The short answer is no. What he's talking about is counterinsurgency. And that is a wonderful buzzword and sounds very impressive, but it's not new. We tried it in Vietnam. It didn't work for us there. It didn't work for the Russians in Afghanistan. We both tried the whole range of techniques that he's talking about. In Vietnam, we put virtually the entire population about seven of ten Vietnamese in some 6,800 barbed wire-encircled hamlets, assassinated or imprisoned thousands of suspected guerrillas, obliterated whole areas with massive bombing and defoliation. In short, we used a whole range of counterinsurgency techniques. What was the result?

Listen to what the editors of the Pentagon papers who, after all, drew on the most impressive range of intelligence documents that I suppose has ever been collected. They said, the program was, in short, an attempt to translate the whole newly articulated theory of counterinsurgency into operational reality. The objective was political. Though the means to its realization were a mixture of military, social, psychological, economic and political measures, the long history of these efforts was marked by consistency in results as well as in techniques - all failed dismally.

SIEGEL: There's a moment in your chapter on Ireland that I could imagine giving statesmen and policymakers all sorts of ideas. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, having lost a million men in the First World War, decides to impose in 1918 conscription - the draft - on the Irish. It is, as one might expect, wildly unpopular. His cabinet backs down. And you say that led many of the Irish to figure out that perhaps you could make the English back down.

POLK: Well, of course, the same thing happened in our revolution. And Benjamin Franklin pointed out that the first major battle before the revolution was against the French and the Indians. The British fought and their military force was virtually wiped out. And he said, this gives us the feeling that perhaps the English are not invincible.

SIEGEL: Of course, the lesson that might impart to statesmen is never show any give, because they'll read that you're weak; they'll figure out that you could be beat.

POLK: I think that that's a snare and a delusion, unfortunately, where we are in Iraq, because if we had some kind of a political strategy that was aimed toward the position that we could ultimately get out, yes, that could be an arguable position. We did that after all in Vietnam until Tet. And Tet made it possible, indeed, made it imperative that the American government begin to get out.

SIEGEL: That was early 1968? (Unintelligible)

POLK: '68. Right. And we brought back General Westmoreland, with all of his stars and medals and uniform and so forth, to convince the American public that the Viet Cong were finished and were starving to death and were unable to fight anymore, and all we had to do is mop them up. And then, of course, two months later, came the Tet offensive in which they almost captured Saigon.

But after we had decided to get out, we took four years. And that was a very critical period. In the four years, we lost 21,000 more American soldiers, almost as many as we lost in the entire fighting part of the war.

And I think what we need to do is to figure a way out of the dilemma that you pose, which is a real one. And the suggestion that I have made on this is that we turn over a part of the task to an international stability force, which we would agree to pay for. And it would cost us about 4 percent of what it would cost us to try to do it ourselves. And of course, we wouldn't have our people killed. And that group would work for the Iraqi government, and would be a kind of a transitional point between our leaving and their being able to take over. And I think this could be made a viable alternative.

SIEGEL: William Polk, thank you very much for talking to us today.

POLK: Thank you, Sir.

SIEGEL: William Polk is author of the most recently of "Violent Politics." And you can read more about Polk's three stages of insurgency in an excerpt from his book at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.