Life During Wartime

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Book review by Nemeton

Kristian Williams, Will Munger and Lara Messersmith-Glaving, eds. Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency. Oakland: AK Press, 2013.

The 439-page book Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency is a collection of articles organized thematically that elucidate the central argument that the doctrine of counterinsurgency (COIN) deployed by the US government and military in international arenas such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been concurrently executed in the US mainland by a myriad of local, state and federal policing organizations and security apparatuses against political dissidents and activists. Various articles focus on the theories and deployment of COIN strategies, as well as methods of resistance, from diverse perspectives of individuals, groups and networks in Occupy, ecological, anarchist and anti-globalization struggles, as well as activists against border control, gang injunctions and the prison industrial complex. This book is an important contribution to the wider discourses about the domestic security state and political organizing, and has clear, continuing relevance given the ongoing deployment of COIN, current and pending trials, and ongoing diverse political actions. The book was published prior to the exposure by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and others, based on leaked documents provided by Edward Snowden, of the NSA’s international and domestic spying regime on all electronic, internet and phone communications, as well as a plethora of other personal information. It would be very useful to have updates by the authors of these articles and activists about how they view COIN in relation to those revelations. There appears to be no mechanism, as of yet, for how activists or targets of COIN could discover if they were subject to NSA spying, and learn how that information could have been used against them, but certain articles in this book elucidate methods of FBI, police and COIN methods in spying, surveillance and infiltration. This book is the culmination of work started at the “Counter Counter-Insurgency Convergence” at Reed College in Portland, Oregon during 2011. The book articles are reworks of the conference presentations given by activists, researchers, academics, organizers and others. Two of the editors have gone on a networked book publicity tour around the US, including in Los Angeles, where I saw them give talks based on their articles.

Life During Wartime is organized in five parts: concepts & contexts; police & prisons; territory/population; information/domination; conspiracy charges and terrorism trials. This is a major advantage of the book, in that diverse perspectives are presented on very specific topics in each thematic, which are clearly connected to elucidate how all aspects of lived experience in the ‘neo-liberal’ state are controlled, documented and abrogated. The first section “concepts & contexts” opens with the “Introduction” by Kristian Williams, who argues that investigating counterinsurgency and its implementation provide us with a deep understanding of state repression and the methods of those in power to maintain control and legitimacy. This assessment of COIN can only be briefly summarized here. The US military definition of COIN is “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency” (6). The insurgency cycle is described in military terms as proto, small-scale, and major insurgency, for which COIN is deployed in order to “restrict the spread of ideas, prevent radicals from achieving influence, and disrupt their efforts to establish political organizations” (13). Williams outlines the important point of how COIN is outsourced by the government to private contractors, companies, non-profits and non-governmental organizations for co-option, infiltration, and to influence civil society. Information is the backbone from which various strategies of repression and disruption are instituted, including: police and military operations; the provision of public or social services to further COIN; and the coercion of individuals for cooperation or infiltration (17). Williams concludes that the antidote to the political process of repression is more resistance, and knowledge of how to counter or minimize the deployment of COIN against activists.

Another article in the first section is by Chip Berlet, the VP of the National Lawyers Guild, who argues that left organizations should fight against constitutional rights abuses implemented by the state against right-wingers. Like the ACLU, which has defended the KKK and other right radicals, Berlet maintains that ‘democratic rights’ must be preserved for everyone, the state (as well as leftists) should “be neutral with regard to ideology” and fight COIN abuses against anyone in court (63). The article discuses examples of right wingers who were ensnared in COIN through charges of criminal sedition, repression, grand jury abuses, and informers and entrapment. Berlet concludes the controversial article with the point that the government uses COIN repression on activists of every political persuasion, thus the left cheers its own demise when they support the use of those tactics against the right. The author clearly maintains the legitimacy of the capitalist democratic system and attempts to argue that through legal litigation and social struggle infrequent abuses can be ameliorated.

The second section, “police & prisons”, has several interesting articles about how local, state and federal police forces implement COIN in particular communities, against specific targets like gangs, and how community organizations are coopted, manipulated or voluntarily further COIN. Will Munger contributes a detailed, site-specific investigation of the theoretical framework behind the operation by the Salinas, California Police Department, the Naval Postgraduate School and the city to implement COIN with the goal of decreasing gang violence and murder. According to the police’s theories, COIN is more successful when community organizations and members give information to the police, and the community groups have initiatives like social services or meetings that network people together into various strategies of community self-policing and info gathering. The use of COIN to target a large number of people is a sobering example of its wider application in society, and is a productive comparison to other articles that focus on smaller COIN operations.

The third section, “territory/population”, has two long articles on the Occupy Movement and the ELF, which are more well known and predictable targets for COIN. An important contribution by Fatima Insolacíon assesses how the militarization of the US-Mexico border and borderlands are part of larger COIN operation that targets whole communities and groups as ‘the enemy’ and ‘criminal’, with an estimated 6,000 undocumented people dying attempting to cross into the US. (Concurrently, the Obama Administration has deported 2 million people.) The writer-activist has a somewhat clearer political position outlined than some of the other contributors, underpinning her article with an anti-statist, anti-nationalist perspective, and implores the readers to recognize how citizenship and its privileges legitimize the state’s war against so-called “illegal aliens”. The expansion of the border infrastructure; the use of military strategies to monitor, inflict suffering, and arrest migrants; the streamlining process of prosecuting migrants with a federal crime, and the so-called ‘secure communities’ initiative that sends so many people to ICE detention, public or private jails, are all strategies of this low-intensity COIN war.

The article by Evan Tucker in the fourth section “information/domination” is probably the most general contribution with hardly any interesting or new insights into government spying and harnassing of social media platforms to further COIN operations, which is surprising considering a lot of great reporting by journalists on the topic of the national security state. There are a few general examples of the danger posed to activists who use social media platforms, a point which is reiterated in several other articles that focus on anarchist, animal and earth liberation activists who had their social media posts, contacts or other info used against them in trial.

The fifth section, “conspiracy charges and terrorism trials”, focuses on recent examples of anarchists or other activists who were entrapped, arrested and prosecuted through COIN strategies. This important section of the book details a lot of practical information about how government agencies have recently carried out COIN operations against specific groups and individuals, which is analyzed and reflected upon by fellow activists. The article “Building Conspiracy” by activist Jenny Equivel analyzes COIN through the successful use of the FBI informant “Anna” to entrap three activists accused of being ELF members, who were charged with conspiracy to destroy public or private property with fire or explosives, and the flipping of two of them during the criminal trial through cooperating plea details including snitching, lying during the trial, and giving evidence against Eric McDavid in order to receive lesser sentences. The whole article is quite useful with the author’s extensive discussion of the informant “Anna’s” behavior and warning signs that can help identify informants in other groups. This article is part of a larger movement to expose current and retired informants who have infiltrated groups and contributed evidence used to prosecute defendants. Another detailed and useful article in this last section analyzes how the FBI and other agencies ran an extensive COIN operation in Long Island in 2001, which ended with the innocent defendant Conor Cash acquitted by a jury during the trial (although several other activists who were named as ELF sympathizers were convicted of other charges). The activist-authors detail how community organizing and a wide network of support in the larger community was vital to their solidarity campaign to counter the post-repression phase of the COIN operation. In a critique of the “Green Scare” label, the writers acknowledge the vital point that COINTELPRO was predominantly deployed against people of color and indigenous communities. Since 2001, repression, spying and COIN tactics are used with overwhelming force most pervasively on Muslim American communities. Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency is a useful book that exposes the contemporary strategies of counterinsurgency used by the militarized state and police forces to repress, persecute and prosecute a wide array of different activists and groups. 

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