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Home > Reviews > Paramilitarism


Author Uğur Ümit Üngör

ISBN No 9780198825241

Review date 15/08/2022

No of pages 208

Publisher Oxford University Press

Publisher URL

Year of publication 22/06/2020


Our Review


£ Hardback, 30

As a way of saying how excellent this study of Paramilitarism is, let's consider how bad it could easily have been. It could have got lost in detail - because much of the world has seen paramilitarism within living memory. Loyalists and Catholic-republicans in Northern Ireland; in the former Yugoslavia; in such wartorn places as Iraq, and Darfur; deniable Russian troops in Ukraine; and across Latin America. The author, an historian of modern Turkey, gives himself even more to cover in an early chapter on paramilitarism's 'long 20th century'.

The book could also have got bogged down in theories by other academics, all the more so because the subject is a hard one to uncover evidence about, making it tempting to fill the gap with big but not very useful words. Instead, the author pulls off quite a feat - covering no end of ground, showing command of his subject and sources, making serious but not portentious points, and - last but not least - keeping quite succinct.

The sub-title, 'Mass Violence in the Shadow of the State' and indeed the simple but powerful cover are apt from the start, as we're told the remarkable and vivid true story of a nephew of Syrian President Assad shooting an air force colonel - that is, a regime loyalist - in a car downtown one day. The nephew gets away with murder. Paramilitarism, then, is about crime; but also about the military, and politics. Early on (page 9) the author Uğur Ümit Üngör calls the subject a 'broad umbrella phenomenon'. It can range from lynch mobs and self-defence groups, to guard forces for gated communities, to deniable militia 'death squads' that do the state's bidding. It's violence, delegated, but by 'subcontracting' (page 15) violence, the state is giving up some control, and runs the risk of losing control altogether.

Is paramilitarism a sign of a weak state? After all, if militias are killing rebels (Syria), nationalists (Ukraine), or drug-gang criminals (variously across Latin and central America), that does imply that the state - and certainly its police and courts - are powerless to resist. If indeed police and judges want to.

By beginning with the historical approach, the author does make the neat point that paramilitaries go way back - he quotes (page 22) the famous Rembrandt painting The Night Watch. Citizens were armed and took turns on watch, in case of attack (whether from outside the city or within), or fire or a visiting VIP. Before and after the First World War was the 'heyday' (page 26) of the paramilitary, including British uniformed 'Black and Tans' seeking unsuccessfully to stem Irish rebellion after 1918. Nazi Germany, the author describes as 'a paramilitary state' (page 30). The Cold War, too, spawned paramilitaries. US President Richard Nixon in 1970 authorised 'covert action operations' (page 43).

As a sign of how widespread the phenomenon has been, China's Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution get less than a page (page 49), and the enormous literature on paramilitaries during the Troubles in Northern Ireland - including collusion by British troops and the state with loyalist paramilitaries - gets a little more. As the author says, the region's paramilitaries have had a 'volatile' (page 52) and criminal afterlife.

The author usefully writes of the 'outsourcing' of illegal violence (page 62) and with yet more nuance, that the state may 'upcontract' and 'downcontract' (page 191) - that is, the state may back (and arm and pay) militias that have sprung up locally, besides set its own up for some purpose. For paramilitaries are about how the state devolves power - which includes allowing crime, and the influence of criminals over culture.

Hence the chapter on organised crime. A state is not necessarily weak to allow thugs, because they can stand as 'a permanent guarantee of emergency security' (page 113). The state may be 'smart' (page 190) to do so. Yes, militias may kidnap, and torture victims and have contempt for citizens - even quite senior and respected regime members, as the story at the beginning shows. It's the cruel violence of the underworld, where groups are competing. As the author puts it, 'modern banditry is very much alive' (page 112). Intriguingly, late on (page 182) he suggests that paramilitary violence gives 'a broader message to society'; that the militias are a law unto themselves. That if you cross the militias, you suffer, and are seen to suffer, without justice.

The conclusion (page 194) is that paramilitarism is 'here to stay', making this book absolutely one for the corporate private security manager. That manager does not need to know why militias are still flourishing, or how and why they form and how hard it is for states to do without them, and how easy it is for a state to hide behind a militia (and vice versa).

That the author dwells on the contracting out of violence - as a way of stamping on political threats to the elite, whether minorities or student or other protesters - implies that paramilitaries may merge into 'private military contractors'. To leave the book for a moment, then; the risk for the head of corporate security, then, is not only that business travellers come up against militiamen at a checkpoint on some country (or indeed city) road, but that a militia is the guard force for hire for a mine, oilfield or pipeline.

In 2014, when Iraq was in grave danger from ISIS, the Iraqi state in effect sanctioned paramilitaries old and new. As in Colombia, Serbia and Turkey, 'competing networks' have armed groups. In such countries, paramilitaries are 'here to stay and we have to deal with it' (page 186).

As an aside, while it's not the author's job to pass judgement, while he has among his sources the International Criminal Court, and the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia), it's a moot point whether paramilitarism is waxing or waning; where are the international institutions, firepower and public opinion to right wrongs? To set examples?

About the author

Ugur Ümit Üngör is the newly-appointed Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and as he states early in Paramilitarism, he is writing a related monograph on mass violence in Syria.