Ever since the announcement in 2003 that Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic agitprop film The Battle of Algiers was getting a revival screening in an improbable location—the Pentagon—21st century Americans have had to consider the form and function of counterinsurgency warfare. For a populace that equally relishes its power around the world and its own roots in insurrection against empire, it’s an unpleasant prospect. Historian Michael Burleigh’s lengthy, speedy account of just two decades of “little wars” doesn’t pretend to answer how, or if, these wars should be waged. That’s its value.
Burleigh of course didn’t foresee that his book, released in 2013, would become even more relevant with the rise of ISIS, but then, he’s careful to avoid any false equivalence between very different wars. The book begins with a scene-setting sketch of how Japan’s imperial ambitions were defeated in World War II, and then moves on to the chain of wars that erupted afterwards, considering each in turn. Burleigh shows armed uprisings that succeeded (such as by Mao’s Communists in China, Zionist groups in Palestine, and the FLN in Algeria) and failed (by the Huks in the Philippines and Communists in Malaysia.) The last, fought by the British from 1948 to 1957, is now held up as a model for how powerful countries can defeat insurrections in a—relatively, arguably—humane way, but Burleigh is more concerned with showing how specific, and unrepeatable, that country’s conditions were.
Behind all of the wars covered is the specter of colonialism, and its gradual, painful, ambiguous death, at least in the “traditional” European variety. Burleigh is right-leaning politically, but he doesn’t have any of the nostalgia for old-school imperialism that’s appeared among some conservative supporters of the War on Terror. If anything, he shatters the Eurocentrist assumption that—I suspect—is shared even by many self-identified liberals, that the end of World War II was the beginning of more or less universal peace around the world. The book makes clear that no war is “small” to the people within it. What Burleigh does have is a knack for capturing character and using just the right detail—whether it’s how Filipino soldiers drained the blood from a captured rebel to convince his comrades they were being hunted by vampires, or the name of one of the British establishment’s favorite watering holes in Palestine: the Sodom and Gomorrah Golf Course.