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The Return of the People’s War

Tuesday 20 April 2004

Iraq Shows the West and its New Liberal Imperialists
have Forgotten the Lessons of History

Two very different innovations have dominated warfare
in the past 60 years. The first was the invention of
nuclear weapons, which brought to an end 150 years of a
military system based on total war. Nuclear weapons
have, at least until now, been the preserve of an
exclusive minority, headed by the United States. Even
today, only eight nations admit to possessing them. The
second innovation could not have been more different.
It was, as Jonathan Schell points out in his new book,
The Unconquerable World, the development of a new kind
of people’s war against foreign invaders. Whereas
nuclear weapons were an expression of the very latest
technology, and therefore the preserve of the rich
world, people’s war belonged to the opposite end of the
scale. People’s war could not afford the latest
technology, or anything like it. Instead, it depended
on mobilizing popular support.

Schell argues that the first example of people’s war
was the resistance displayed by the Spanish to
Napoleonic conquest during the peninsular war at the
beginning of the 19th century. But its defining moment
was probably the guerrilla war fought by the Chinese
communists against the Japanese occupation of north
China in the late 1930s. It was in this cauldron that
Mao, the first philosopher of successful people’s war,
expounded the centrality of grassroots support and the
primacy of politics - rather than violence - in
achieving it. However, it was not until after the
second world war, with the tidal wave of anti-colonial
struggles, that people’s war really came into its own.
As empires crumbled - the Japanese, British, French,
Dutch and later Portuguese - people’s war became the
weapon of choice of many independence movements, from
south-east Asia to north Africa. In the face of
overwhelming military power, it delivered self-rule to
hundreds of millions of people.

The classic exponents of people’s war were the
Vietnamese communists. The Vietnamese struggle pitted
the world’s most powerful military machine against a
profoundly poor nation of 80 million, whose only weapon
was people’s war. It was the epic conflict of the past
50 years. It is, perhaps, not surprising that every
imperial nation during the past 60 years has profoundly
underestimated the ability of a poor people to resist
overwhelming military force. With wealth not only goes
military power but also overweening hubris, a sense of
arrogant superiority in the face of the backward and
the uncivilized, the alien and the Other. No doubt this
largely explains why no imperial power ever gave up its
possessions voluntarily.

What lies at the core of people’s war is the desire of
people to rule themselves rather than be governed by
foreign countries, often from thousands of miles away,
that are possessed of utterly alien values and their
own self-serving priorities. This is a principle that
the west has found extremely difficult to learn. And
even when it appears to have finally learned the lesson
- always the hard way, by defeat - it seems to suffer
another bout of amnesia: how could this country not be
served better by adopting our values and our
institutions, even if the ministering of the medicine
does require application with more than a little force?

The Vietnamese proved, with extraordinary courage and
intelligence, that people’s war could triumph against
the most formidable and frightening odds. The Americans
may have possessed awesome weapons, but the Vietnamese
commanded the hearts and minds - and eventually even
managed to convince the American public that the war
could not be won. Their victory was to transform the
conduct of American foreign policy for a
quarter-century - until the arrival of the Bush regime,
which declined to accept the verities of the Vietnamese
conflict and preferred to believe that defeat was a
consequence of a lack of US military resolve.

Epochal change inevitably brings into question old
assumptions. The end of the cold war clearly belongs to
this category. The Americans regarded the war against
North Vietnam as a crucial plank in the fight against
communism: if South Vietnam should fall, the domino
effect would surely follow. Self-determination, though,
was no creature of communism. True, the great
anti-colonial struggles historically coincided with the
high tide of communism and some of the most effective
protagonists of people’s war were communist parties.
Moreover, the Soviet bloc gave sustenance and support
to these struggles, while the west was almost
invariably arraigned as their enemy. But
self-determination and people’s war were, and remain,
utterly distinct phenomena, quite independent of

This lesson seems to have been forgotten by the
Americans and by many others in the west as well. Come
Iraq, it was as if the power and virtue of
self-determination and people’s war belonged to
another, bygone era, without application to the times
in which we live. They had gone the same way as so much
else during that absurd decade of the 1990s, when
everything of worth was "new", and history was only
relevant to the past. Perhaps also the western mind was
diverted by the fact that, following the heroic
achievements of the Vietnamese, many self-determination
struggles took the form of extremely bloody and
unpleasant ethnic wars, with minority national groups
seeking independence from what they saw as their new

A year ago, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, few
anticipated, least of all the Bush administration, that
there would be any sustained resistance. On the
contrary, Bush and Blair expected the "coalition"
troops to be embraced as liberating forces: after all,
with good old western imperial hubris, were they not
the bearers of our own infinitely superior values? The
new breed of liberal imperialists, refugees from the
left, swallowed that whole and forgot the lessons of
half a century of history. Even when the resistance
began to get under way, it was almost invariably
described - by governments and media alike - as the
remnants of the Saddam regime, together with foreign
terrorists, and thereby summarily dismissed.

It is now clear to everyone - apart from Donald
Rumsfeld and his cronies - that, far from being a rump
of Saddamist malcontents, the resistance enjoys broad
based support among the Sunnis and increasingly the
Shias too. The old truths are alive and well. People do
not want to be ruled by an alien power from thousands
of miles away whose interests are self-serving. The
resistance in Iraq bears all the hallmarks of a
people’s war for self-determination.

Iraq is far messier than Vietnam. The latter enjoyed a
very long history and ethnic (if not religious)
cohesion. It was also lucky to have an inspired
leadership, whose moral virtue was far greater than
their would-be American conquerors. Iraq is a much more
recent and cynical colonial creation, has been ruled by
a brutal dictator and is deeply divided along ethnic
and religious lines. While Vietnam survived and
prospered, even fighting off an opportunistic Chinese
invasion in 1979, Iraq could, in contrast, descend into
a bloody civil war and split asunder. For the time
being, though, what increasingly unites Iraqis, with
the exception of the Kurds, is their opposition to the
American invasion - and rightly so. Will the west never

. Martin Jacques is a visiting fellow at the London
School of Economics Asian Research Center

(c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004