Jon Lee Anderson is a top-tier foreign correspondent. Writing for the New Yorker, he has spent much of the current decade reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike many of his “embedded” colleagues, however, Anderson strays far from the relative safety of American protection into the homes and offices of people on the ground, talking to people from all walks of life, all the way up to heads of state.
But Anderson is at his best when he talks to the little guys who toil in the shadow of war, whether as participants or bystanders. His book Guerrillas is about those little guys. In Guerrillas, Anderson takes an almost anthropological view of five insurgent movements that simmered and raged in far flung corners of the globe: the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The book covers a three year period, December 1988 to January 1992, that Anderson spent traveling around the world, putting time in with those groups. The book is not divided up by geography, as I had expected it would be, but instead Anderson finds themes that are common among guerrilla movements and spends a chapter on each one, beginning with “Creation Myths” and moving on to “Earning a Living” and “Making War,” among others.
His point of view is steadfastly observant and unbiased. He chronicles in the same tone the atrocities committed by insurgents and their oppressors. Anderson’s viewpoint is an interesting one, though. He portrays these movements as being in the grip of a sort of madness, for example:
In the refugee camps of Gaza, the desert of Western Sahara, the hills of Chalatenago, and the teak forests of Kawthoolei, revolutions are under way, and the guerrillas dwell in separate realities, parallel to those they are rebelling against.
This madness, brought on by oppression or at the very least the deprivation of life’s comforts and a sense of safety, drive whole societies to embrace violence and killing as the only answer.
But Guerrillas is not merely a checklist of battles and conflicts, the book brims with bright characters, from mujahedin commanders in Afghanistan who slyly let their men blare outlawed music to bards among the compas in El Salvador who promote revolution through verse. Though Anderson does not share Ryszard Kapuscinski’s tone of wonder and eye for quirky detail when enveloped in a foreign culture, his observations have considerable depth and provide the necessary context to shine a light on these often misunderstood conflicts.
Originally published in 1992, Guerrillas is improved in a 2004 paperback edition by an introduction and an afterword. The introduction dwells mostly on the then burgeoning insurgency in Iraq, drawing parallels to the insurgencies Anderson covered 15 years prior. In his view, what happened in Iraq was utterly predictable when viewed against the backdrops of earlier conflicts. The afterword, meanwhile, gives a “where are they now” update of the five guerrilla movements covered in the book. Some have fizzled or become legitimate political movements, while two have had far reaching consequences. The Palestinian and Israeli conflict has provided an ever worsening backdrop of violence in the region, while the Afgan insurgency against communist invaders metastasized into a haven for al Qaeda, and ultimately changed the world. This last point underscores the importance of Anderson’s book. Upon original publication, the book must have seemed like a travelogue of dangerous places, but Anderson was really exploring the seeds of conflict that would grow to a global scale a decade hence.