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August 18, 2005

Terrorism and the Military Historian

Posted by Jeremy Black

What challenges does terrorism - or rather the study of terrorism - pose to the military historian? Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter and a leading military historian - offers his thoughts.

In the midst of a vicious and highly-dangerous terrorist campaign, the issues facing military historians are scarcely at the forefront of attention, but two are of clear importance, first how to define terrorism and, secondly, how much relative attention it merits.

The extent to which the struggle with terrorism can and should be defined as war has important legal implications, but is also seen as significant in terms of public awareness and unity. If terrorism is seen as war, there is the risk that this exalts the status of the vicious individuals involved, but presenting it as extremely-violent criminality can lead to an underrating of the challenge. This is also a contentious issue as far as the presentation of past examples are concerned because some of those terrorists in the past have subsequently become national leaders and, indeed, icons. Without suggesting any equivalence this can be seen with liberation or independence struggles, for example in South Africa and Israel.

The relative attention terrorism merits might appear clear-cut, but there is contention over the degree to which concern about radical Islamic terrorism, and indeed the Iraq war, has led to an underrating, particularly for American strategists and for commentators more generally, of the geopolitical and military situation in East Asia, specifically the nature of Chinese and North Korean strength and intentions. North Korea appears more immediately a problem, but China is a more potent one. This is not an either/or situation, as there are links, not least in the shape of weapons proliferation. The possibility that weapons of mass destruction will be acquired by terrorist movements is particularly alarming, but the military threat they pose is at present far less than that possibly offered by states that possess long-range delivery systems.

Although the regular forces of states such as North Korea and Iran could not stage an effective, offensive war against the USA, such weaponry enables them to threaten overseas American forces. They are even more threatening to nearby states. Most terrorism is in fact aimed at states in the Third World, but its challenge is felt particularly strongly by powerful states as they have less practicable need to fear attack from other states than their weaker counterparts do.

Definition and threat are related in the issue of the monopolisation of violence by states. Terrorist organisations are potent NGOs (non-government organisations). They challenge the principle of force as the prerogative of sovereign power. So also, for example, do pirates, brigands, unofficial militias and private forces of mercenaries. As such, commentators face the long-running problem of how best to define and assess such forces and their practices. A stateless entity does not need to respond to the constraints that arise from claims to sovereign power, although such groups are also in a competition for legitimacy.

A state system focused on the legitimacy of sovereign power is the implicit basis of much of the military history of recent centuries, but it is not clear that this is an adequate account. Military historians need to think about the variety of uses of violence, and to move away from the concept of an ideal type of warfare focused on readily-defined conflict between regular forces. The porous and contested definition of war suggested by its current usage - as in war on drugs or war on terror - complicates understandings of force and legitimacy, and makes it difficult to define the military. If the "war on terror" is crucial, then the Saudi security forces carrying out armed raids against al-Qaeda suspects in which combatants are killed on both sides, or the Indian Border Security Force resisting the United Liberation Front of Asom in Assam, are as much part of the military as conventional armed forces. Similarly, troops are employed for policing duties.

Looking at present circumstances invites consideration of past instances. Terrorism as a method has been used by a variety of forces, but common practices have included the assassination of leaders or other key figures by relatively weak terrorist forces and, in contrast, the use of terror against entire populations by stronger forces, including those of states. The latter tend not to be seen as terrorist, but that reflects the ambiguous use of the terror. To restrict the term terrorist to a small-scale movement is inherently to suggest that their impact can only be limited, but the very breach of civic peace and peaceful political processes that terrorism represents has been difficult to repair, particularly in societies that are not governed by coercive means.

The challenge from terrorism at present is at once insidious, because it threatens social cohesion and - in the case of the radical Islam - is nihilistic in character, and yet also, for the last reason, totally pointless. As a consequence of this nihilism and the absence of any basis for viable negotiations, there is no alternative bar ruthless suppression of the terrorists combined with policies designed to isolate them from domestic and international support. This combination has always been most effective.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter and the author of Introduction to Global Military History, Routledge, 2005.


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