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Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq 1st Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0061236198
ISBN-10: 0061236195
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About the Author

William R. Polk taught Middle Eastern history and politics and Arabic at Harvard until 1961, when he became a member of the Policy Planning Council of the U.S. Department of State. In 1965, he became Professor of History at the University of Chicago, where he established the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His many books include The Birth of America and Understanding Iraq.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (September 18, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061236195
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061236198
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #418,518 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Steven Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 8, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a book about insurgency and some of its major tools--terrorism and guerilla warfare. William Polk begins by observing that one factor is common to insurgencies (page xiii): "no matter how they differ in form, duration, and intensity, a single thread runs through them all: opposition to foreigners. Occupation by outsiders creates the conditions for insurgency, then. That is the central thesis of his book.

Throughout the book, he explores his thesis by examination of a number of case studies--some well know and some less so. The first case study has an ironic twist to it--it is the American Revolution. He then considers, in order by chapter, the Spanish resistance to Napoleon, the Philippine insurrection, the Irish case, Yugoslav partisans in World War II, Greece after World War II, Kenya and the Mau Mau, Algeria, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

One commonality across many (but not all) of these examples is that the insurgency begins with a ludicrously small number of militants. However, there are circumstances where this small group will expand and, in the end, triumph over the occupation. Other trends: as the small bands successfully carry out ambushes and otherwise annoy the foreigners, others within the occupied country begin to pay attention. Often, the dominant government then seeks to suppress the rebellion. Sometimes, they become so oppressive and repressive that it begins to trigger larger and larger numbers of people joining the insurgency.

Another factor that is important is Mao's famous argument that in a successful insurgency, the rebellious ones are like "fish" in a "sea" of sympathetic people, able to hide among and operate within the supportive masses.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an important book. William Polk reviews important insurgencies from the American Revolution to Iraq. He lays out principles of successful and failed insurgencies and equally importantly why interventions fail. Shelby Foote, the great Civil War historian, relates a brief story about a Union officer interrogating a captured Confederate soldier that summarizes an important part of William Polk's thesis. The officer asks,"Why are you rebels fighting so hard?" The Confederate responds, "Because you are here."
The most disturbing aspect of this book is the repeated failure of governments to learn the lessons of insurgency, despite repeated costly failures that have been widely recorded. A common line currently about the Iraq war is that if the U.S. had only planned better, we would have a better result. William Polk argues otherwise. In addition, he is rightly critical of the Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which is riding such a wave of popularity that it was published by the University of Chicago Press. On the other hand, "Violent Politics" has had very few reviews.I do not believe it has been reviewed by a single major newspaper.
Each of the books chapters is a worthwhile read, but perhap the most intertesting is Chapter 1 on the American Revolution. It is the best brief discussion of the American Revolution that I have ever read. The chapter on Iraq and Afganistan are very painful.
Doug Wilson
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Former Kennedy appointee William R. Polk traces the history of guerrila warfare from the American Revolution through the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon, the Philippine inserection against the US, the Irish experience, Tito in Yugoslavia, Greek civil war, the Mau Mau, Algeria, and Vietnam involving French and Americans.

Polk offers incisive observations, although faltering in denying the accuracy of the Domino Theory that motivated our involvement in Vietnam. The execution of the Domino Theory may not have been neatly accomplished following the fall of Saigon, but why should it be? The point is, it did happen with Laos toppling, Thailand unsuccessfully (!) invaded twice, and Cambodia falling to the Khmer Rouge whose legendary incompetency was outdone by the government which led to the Killing Fields, certainly the strongest possible evidence of the accuracy of the Domino Theory concept.

Polk seeks to draw conclusions about what each of the guerrila wars have in common and the means that seemed acceptable in some guerrila actions as applied unsuccessfully in other wars (as in the attempt to sue the strategic hamlet relocation plan that had worked in Malaya to Viet Nam where it was doomed to fail because of the deep idenitification of people with their village.

Polk identifies three stages of guerrila warfare.

First, establish the right to speak for the nation often by simply becoming the opposition. In the process, establish unity by eliminating challenges. In the American Revolution, the struggle between rebel and loyalist actually took precedence over the struggle against the British at times.

Second, destroy the administration which is where the wave of VC-inspired assassinations of government officials and teachers came in.
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Format: Hardcover
Foreign Service and State Department people are immensely knowledegable about their areas. It means learning an odd language or two, absorbing many volumes of history and past international relations, becoming respectful of myriad social customs and religious practices and consequently forming a political astuteness that will be useful to the boss in Washington. Of course, when the boss communes with God and gets direction from a higher authority, all this can be ignored. Just bring'em on.

William Polk examines eleven insurgencies from 1776 to the present. This is a short book. The author has distilled hundreds of books and many years of service into 223 refined pages of text. The simple message is that occupiers are always unwelcome. Supression may succeed temporarily, but the day of reckoning eventually arrives. This book is filled with important history lessons that our leaders have ignored.
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