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Insurgencies Old and New

Insurgencies Old and New: The CCHS Graduate Conference Wrap-Up
Charles Keenan | April 15, 2015

Last Friday CCHS held a graduate student conference on the theme of “Insurgencies,” organized by T. H. Breen fellow Alex Hobson. Featuring presentations by graduate students from Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, and Loyola University Chicago, as well as comments by professor Paul Chamberlin (University of Kentucky) and a keynote address by Martin A. Miller (Duke University), the conference explored the challenges of studying the history of insurgency across time and space, investigating the similarities and differences of different forms of political violence over the years.

The first panel began with a presentation by Nathaniel Mathews (NU), who analyzed two insurgencies in the mid-twentieth century: one successful (in Zanzibar), and one unsuccessful (in Oman). Mathews highlighted the transnational connections between these events, noting how the migration of minorities between both regions raised questions of sovereignty — the individuals in question struggled to obtain passports that would be recognized by foreign governments, and they unsuccessfully appealed to the United Nations for recognition. William FitzSimons (NU) explored the connections between counterinsurgency tactics employed by the British in colonial Uganda at the end of the nineteenth century and those enumerated by General David Petraeus in the twenty-first century. Daniel Knorr (Chicago) also explored the structural similarities between different insurgencies, looking at four case studies: the Los Angeles massacre of 1871, the Jinan Missionary Case (1881-1891), the Tacoma uprising in 1885, and the Boxer uprising at the turn of the century. Knorr pointed out the difficulty in assigning a single name to these events, whether “insurgency,” “uprising,” or “rebellion,” and called for historians to appreciate the global factors that have shaped different insurgencies over time.

In the second panel Alex Hobson (NU) offered a new perspective for studying the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Although the PFLP is often studied in relation to Israel, Hobson suggested that the PFLP’s “Operation Airport” was a plan to remove American imperialism from the Arab world, and that the “invention of the ‘airport guerilla’ was a move away from a geographically-bounded liberation war and toward transnational insurgency.” Laila Ballout (NU) investigated the taking of Western hostages in Lebanon during the 1980s, illustrating the cooperation between Iran and Hezbollah in hostage-taking as an insurgency tactic. However, by the late 1980s, Syria — seeking rapprochement with the United States — began to call on Hezbollah to stop taking Western hostages. Wen-Qing Ngoei wrapped up the panel by describing how American officials in the 1960s became very interested in the counterinsurgency tactics used by the British in southeast Asia, pouring over British manuals and adapting them for their own campaigns. At the same time, Ngoei pointed out that British officials did not supply the Americans with full copies of their reports, instead producing special versions for the U.S. government. In commenting on the panel, Prof. Paul Chamberlin (Kentucky) underlined the difficulty historians face in trying to disentangle ideology from practical necessities when studying insurgencies. In response to Hobson, Ballout, and Ngoei, Chamberlin reflected on the number of people harmed in these insurgencies, noting that most “successful” insurgencies are extremely bloody, and he urged the speakers to pay attention to competition between different insurgent groups during their campaigns.

Following lunch, Prof. Martin A. Miller (Duke) gave the conference’s keynote address, entitled: “Writing the History of Entangled Terrorisms.” In a wide-ranging talk covering events from the French Revolution and Russian Revolution to insurgencies today and engaging in political theory from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt, Miller argued that there are plenty of examples of what he called “entangled terrorisms,” with interlinked state and insurgent violence directed against one another. In turn-of-the-century Russia, for example, Miller described the violence used by Russian youth against the tsarist apparatus as the Russian government, in turn, created new security agencies directed against those forms of resistance. Both insurgents and state security agents make appeals to the public to win support, he said, and in both cases, the narratives become self-fulfilling, so that violence perpetuates itself.

In the final panel, Myisha Eatmon (NU) proposed taking a broader view of “insurgency,” describing how African-Americans used tort law to obtain legal redress of injuries in the late nineteenth century. Despite the structural constraints that faced blacks during Reconstruction, Eatmon suggested that at least some African-Americans were able to use the legal system to their advantage in that period, and she described how some judges, even those who were white supremacists, believed that the law should function independent of race. Tariq Khan (Illinois) then investigated the U.S. government’s treatment of anarchists in the late nineteenth century, arguing that the language of “savage reds” was applied both to anarchists and American Indians and that the tactics employed by the U.S. government against anarchists grew out of its treatment of Native Americans during the Indian Wars. Lastly, Anthony Di Lorenzo (Loyola Chicago) described the shared concerns about “popular radicals” in the early United States and Revolutionary France, as well as in Saint-Domingue. Di Lorenzo suggested that elites’ handling of this democratic impulse could be described as a type of counterinsurgency.

The day-long conference thus highlighted a number of commonalities in recent studies of insurgency. As Chamberlin noted: “These papers challenge us to reconsider what we call an ‘insurgency,’ which function best when they blur categories,” including those between war and peace, and civilian and combatant. Many papers also called for a global perspective, arguing that insurgencies cannot be properly understood without an eye to the international context. In sum, the CCHS conference presented a number of innovative approaches to the histories of violence, and participants agreed that they benefitted from conversations with one another on the study of insurgencies.

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