Monday, November 04, 2013

Proposal for a Book on Comparative State Terror during the Cold War

I am currently reading Frederick H. Gareau, State Terrorism and the United States: From Counterinsurgency to the War on Terrorism (London: Zed, 2004). The book argues that a number of states engaged in state terrorism, the US supported this terror, and that the claims that such extreme violence was necessary to fight against guerrillas or terrorists were largely unjustified. He has specific chapters dealing with El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and Indonesia. In so far as proving his three rather simple and at this point not particularly controversial points he does a good job. But, it is apparent that his selection is only telling part of a much larger and more interesting story. His most interesting point is that the reasons used to justify terror in Latin America were largely provided by the military regimes to get support from the US and that the real reasons were more complex and derived from domestic concerns. Unfortunately, he does not really investigate this point. But rather leaves the point without examining its basis. That the threats pointed to by these regimes to justify their use of terror were largely imaginary and that everybody involved was aware of this fact is not nearly so interesting as knowing what were the real reasons for the use of state terror. Alas these are largely glossed over. So there is an image of the military dictatorships in Central and South America engaging in shadow boxing against a largely imaginary threat of communist terrorist insurgencies backed by the Soviet bloc. While in reality the real war is being conducted against the civilian populations of these countries. He doesn't analyze what is the real motive for this massive violation of human rights, however, and instead the book reads like a combination of Amnesty International reports and a harsh critique of US foreign policy for supporting the regimes guilty of these crimes. Indeed the metaphor of shadow boxing is one I came up with and does not appear in the book.

It has occurred to me, however, that the shadow boxing went on in a lot more places than the five examples given in Gareau's book and not all of them were regimes supported by the US. The Soviet bloc conducted its own reigns of terror against civilian populations that it too justified by references to largely imaginary threats. The real reason for the violence again like in the case of Latin America stemming from the domestic goals of these governments. Among such Soviet mirror images in the 1970s and 1980s were Vietnam after unification, Afghanistan following the 1978 coup, and Ethiopia after the 1974 revolution. Inclusion of these examples of state terror by Soviet backed regimes would have greatly improved Gareau's book. Instead of just US supported dictatorships using the threat of Soviet communism to justify state terror employed largely for other reasons there were also Soviet supported regimes engaged in mass violence under the pretext of fighting against US backed counterrevolution. So in point of fact there are two blocs of states engaged in shadow boxing each other while in reality waging war against their own civilian populations for predominantly domestic reasons. This is a much more interesting and intriguing set up than Gareau's frankly one sided and limited approach.

I don't have the ability to write such a book on my own. But, I could definitely compile and edit one written by a variety of  experts. For the Soviet backed regimes I would definitely want to include Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia. I am more flexible regarding which US backed governments to include. But, I definitely would want a geographic balance that included a representative sample from Africa and Asia and did not overwhelmingly focus on Latin America. If there is anybody who specializes in state terror in any of the states that might be included in such a collection who would be interested in contributing a chapter, contact me. Maybe I can make this project a reality.


Withywindle said...

You should include places where everybody concerned uses terror, and neither are (particularly) American or Soviet. To wit, Algeria, the FLN vs. the French, and the FLN (a generation later) vs. the Islamists. Or Maoist China--Great Famine, Cultural Revolution, Tibet. Or Indonesia in East Timor. Or Saddam Hussein against the Kurds and the Shi'ites. Which, I think, would tend to dismantle the notion that the Cold War more than marginally affected state resort to terror after World War II.

J. Otto Pohl said...

A good idea. I just came up with the idea recently while reading Gareau because his treatment is so limited. There are quite a few instances of state terror in Africa after the colonial powers left where the perpetrators were not linked very closely to the US or USSR. What I am interested in is what were the domestic concerns driving terror and how similar these are across regimes of different ideologies. But, the main determining factor of exactly what would be covered is who I can get to write chapters for me. If I can get people to submit on Algeria, China, and Iraq that would be great.