Jon Lee Anderson
Jon Lee Anderson is a biographer, author, international investigative reporter, and staff writer for The New Yorker, reporting from warzone locales such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Uganda, Israel, El Salvador, Ireland, Lebanon, Iran, and throughout the Middle East. Anderson has also written for The New York Times, Harper's, Life, and The Nation. Prior to gaining international renown for his definitive biography of Che Guevara and his firsthand reports on the war in Iraq for The New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson wrote Guerrillas, a daring on-the-ground account of five diverse insurgent movements around the world: the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and a group of young Palestinians fighting against Israel in the Gaza Strip. From within the war trenches Anderson holds out his fist full of words and gives us a cool and detached dissection of gruelling guerrilla life and beliefs. Here a selection from his book, published with the kind authorization of the author.
Late one night in Chalatenango, when all the compas are asleep in their makeshift shelters, the army breaches the darkness with long-range weapons. Like the hand of God reaching over the mountains in an act of terrifying malevolence, three rockets scream in out of the blackness, tearing into sleep…
.…To make war one must confront death, and it is the routine prospect of killing and dying that makes a guerrilla´s life different from other people´s. In war, humanlife becomes expendable, and respect for it is made contingent on many factors: the war´s objectives, the enemy´s behaviour, the physical condition of the battleground – and, perhaps most important, cultural traditions and beliefs. In the end, the value men place on human life determines how wars are waged.
“You learn to live with death, you become intimate with it,” says Augustín, who works with Haroldo on Radio Farabundo Martí. “But the fear never goes away. If anything, you feel a stronger love for life. But, above everything else, there is a decision to surrender it at any moment for the cause.”
The collective ethos of self-sacrifice places each fighter upon the altar of revolutionary consummation, like a blood offering to the gods of war. The feeling Augustín describes is called mística, “mystique” – but mística means much more. It is the fusion of ideological belief, camaraderie, and emotion that impels the guerrillas to continue fighting; it is the core ingredient in the revolutionary alchemy. In a poem called “Wounds”, Haroldo puts this feeling into words.
In the worst year of the war
and in the best of battle,
holding his open wrist
before his eyes, exclaims:
“My hand, I´ve lost it.”
But looking around him
where the warm blood
of his brothers
he shakes himself and says:
“It doesn´t matter, I´m still alive”
- and takes another step forward.
.…A fat, yellow January moon rises in the night sky, and red tracer bullets flash and flicker like lethal fireflies against the massif´s dark silhouette. After a long moment watching this, seemingly lost in his own reflections, Mullah Naquib says suddenly, “Do you know what we do with all communists?”
Pausing for dramatic emphasis, he pulls a revolver from his vest – the captures Russian revolver he always carries – and, resting its blunt muzzle easily against his right temple, aims it at his brain. Beaming wildly, he whispers, “This. This is what we do. We kill them all.”
The yellow moon bursts free of Khybara and, like a luminous Chinese lantern, ascends into the black night sky. The gun gleams silvery against Naquib´s head. After a few seconds, Naquib breaks the spell, laughing deeply, and returns the weapon to his clothes.
Just as they can be harsh in deciding the fate of other people´s lives, the Afghans can also be stoic when it comes to their own. This stoicism comes out of their culture, in which war enjoys an exalted status, and from their faith in the Islamic idea that after death, a better life awaits. If they are to die, so be it, as long as they do well in battle and the eyes of God. They are mujahedin, holy warriors. They live to make holy war, to kill the enemy, and if necessary be martyred themselves. These are facts they accept. Most of them would have it no other way….
….The shabbah of Gaza also believe that their violence is spiritually sanctioned, beyond reproach. Here too, the enemy is an alien occupier, non-Muslim…
…Without recourse to arms, the Palestinians instead summon up a collective fury so intense it becomes a weapon in itself. It wells forth, producing a spontaneous violence in which so many people take part that afterward no one individual can be held responsible….
….Here is Palestine: It exists in the instant of violence where human imagining bursts its confines, in the bravura of the riots, the beating of chests, the ululations of the women, the treacheries and executions of traitors both real and imagined, in all the tragic horrors, the heroisms, and the fatal mistakes of the people of this place. And, somehow, Palestine rises up above this squalor, because the camp and its people are at once shields, swords, and battlegrounds in the struggle for freedom; and its fate is sometimes beautiful, and sometimes ugly.
Each battlefield imposes its own conditions on the guerrillas. Like the intifada, the Saharawi struggle has had to adapt to its unusual circumstances. But while in Gaza the enemy is up close – just a few feet away – in Western Sahara the enemy is virtually invisible, almost beyond reach. How to fight such an enemy?
For the Polisario, the appearance of war has become nearly as effective as the real thing. Since Hassan´s wall has prevented the Polisario´s fighters from waging an effective guerrilla war, they have had to content themselves with a kind of military pantomime….
….Like it or not, the Polisario is bound to its present course: talking, negotiating, and only when things seem to bog down, launching attacks on the wall. Rather like circus trainers getting wild animals to perform tricks by prodding them with sticks, the guerrillas must constantly poke and prod, measuring the distance between themselves and their enemies, always careful to avoid provoking an attack, but keeping them moving at the same time….
….The assault is over, and Kawmura has held firm….
….Much more than Kawmura hangs in the balance for the KNU every time the Burmese try and take the place. Kawmura has become an important test of the KNU´s ability to hang onto Kawthoolei as a whole, and so it is defended as if the survival of the entire community depended upon it. With such high stakes, battles are fought with real ferocity. No quarter is given, and none is expected. Prisoners aren´t taken. Enemy soldiers cartured or wounded in battle are pumped for information and then killed….
….The hatred between the Karen and the Burmans is centuries old, stemming from the time when Burman overlords suppressed and enslaved the Karen. To the Karen, Burmans remain the personification of evil, and to judge from the medieval cruelty displayed by the government troops, the feelings are not without justification….
….Given this ongoing history of enmity between the peoples, it isn´t susprising that the Karen are ruthless fighters. Their war is aimed at killing their enemy, not at winning him over. They know that the only alternative to fighting is a dismal future either as an occupied people or as refugees. Under these circumstances, the Karen´s borrowed motto, “Give me liberty or give me death,” has acquired a newfound resonance….
….In war, death becomes the means to an end, and the people doing the killing develop a whole range of justifications for bringing it about. History, culture, battlefield conditions, political objectives, enemy behaviour – all are factors that have influenced the conflicts in El Salvador, Burma, Afghanistan, Gaza and Western Sahara.
At times, for years even, these influences may be unchanging in their characteristics. At other times they become fluid and flexible, and the wars also change. Wars, like people who wage them transform over time.
Whatever course wars have taken, if in the end they cannot be muted by negotiation, they become duels for survival….
“Guerrillas: Journeys in the insurgent world”, Times Books 2006.