Paramilitarism: mass violence in the shadow of the state
By Uğur Ümit Üngör
Oxford University Press, 2020
Paramilitarianism is both a continuous and a poorly understood presence in world history. These two characteristics are related: Because of the ubiquity of paramilitarianism in such a wide range of historical and geographical settings, it was difficult to formulate a common language and set of principles through which scientists from different backgrounds could communicate their common characteristics. Additional problems of interpretation have to do with the tendency to allow paramilitarism to be condescended as a peripheral or residual mode of violence compared to state institutions such as regular armed forces or security forces. And there is a tendency to romanticize paramilitary traditions and actors, often a process carried out primarily by past or current paramilitaries themselves, who usually exaggerate their own roles in national liberation struggles and (importantly) their appeal to societies and states from which they emerged. These interrelated issues have made paramilitarism difficult to study at virtually every level of analysis, local, national, regional, and of course, global. Uğur Ümit Üngör’s impressive synthesis goes a long way towards solving and overcoming these problems. The author has conducted a considerable amount of research on paramilitarism in its many forms across space and time, and has incorporated his work into this remarkably condensed and insightful brief study. Anyone who has worked on paramilitarianism in any context will want to read this, and future scholars wishing to address this topic would be unwise to ignore its insights and ideas.
The author takes a historical-sociological perspective and combines the empirical observation of paramilitary case studies with the existing theoretical reflection. The emphasis here is on the former, or Üngörs, theoretical and analytical understanding that emerges from his impressive study of paramilitarism around the world in modern times. This report is the most comprehensive that I have read on the subject and includes all relevant case studies and their histories with an impressive linguistic scope. The sections dealing with ex-Yugoslavia and what is now the Middle East (specifically Iraq and Syria, the latter being a subject of an upcoming book by the same author) are particularly detailed. Üngör concludes that the most important relationship for paramilitaries is with the state. This relationship is not understood in the traditional sense of an asymmetrical hierarchy in which paramilitaries appear as appendages of a more powerful and organized state and its institutions (although they certainly do at times). The relationship is quite dynamic, paramilitarism is often present and active in the emergence of state projects (e.g. in modern Turkey, the Balkan nation-states of the 19th century) and remains entangled in their institutions and leadership (Üngör’s examples are contemporary Kosovo and Northern Ireland). Paramilitaries can provide states with additional resources of military power or expand their capacities for violence beyond legal and moral restrictions by giving civil leaders or regular armed forces (sections on ex-Yugoslavia and the difficulties in overcoming the burden) a “plausible denial” offer evidence of violent criminals there underscore this phenomenon).
The second key relationship that Üngör highlights is between paramilitarism and crime, an area in which paramilitaries are often the most dexterous and convenient per se. Paramilitary violence usually violates the legal and moral rules of the society in which its perpetrators operate. It is almost a natural and necessary environment for paramilitary actors, where violence and coercion are paramount and where economic, cultural and political payouts can be disproportionately lucrative. Üngör’s examples abound, including Ulster loyalist Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair, the Serbian gangster who became warlord Željko ‘Arkan’ Ražnatović, and the Indonesian death squad leader (and ‘star’ of Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning 2012 documentary) The act of killing) Anwar Congo. These are all men who also show the authors that petty crime is also a fertile ground for recruiting paramilitary actors.
The book is divided into four chapters. Üngör’s introduction poses the problem of studying paramilitarism, reviews the literature and defines the historical-sociological approach and the central relationships between paramilitarism, the state and crime. The second chapter offers a historical overview of paramilitarism in the “long 20th century”. In the third chapter, Üngör delves into the nature of the relationship between organized crime, the state and paramilitarism. Chapter 4 deals with the organization of paramilitarism, again taking the state as a starting point and drawing the conclusion that paramilitarism is “a praxiological phenomenon that is a consequence of para-institutional constellations” (p.169). The final, concluding chapter recounts many of the book’s key findings and points to the author’s upcoming study of Iraq and Syria, which is sure to be of considerable interest to many readers of this present work.
There is a lot to consider in this book. The author’s emphasis on empirical observation and analysis means that he usually avoids abstracted “ideal types” of his study objects in order to judge according to their actions, ie their “practice”. This means that many of the stereotypes about “weak states” and other phenomena are skillfully avoided. Chapter four contains a fascinating discussion of the now infamous “trophy video” of the Serbian paramilitary forces, “The Scorpions,” which massacred Bosniak civilians during the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. I wondered if there was no longer any longer talk about the performative character of paramilitary violence and violence as a means of establishing family ties and gaining cultural prestige. Prestige also plays a role in the often popular memory of paramilitarism in the societies they come from, and I want to read more studies on the role of memory in both securing social privileges for paramilitaries and as a recruiter for the future generations ( Üngör deals with the question of paramilitary traditions in its last chapter – it reminded me of Serbian paramilitaries of the 1990s who imagined a connection between themselves and the Chetniks of World War II or even the anti-Ottoman national liberation struggle). Relations between paramilitaries and non-state actors, civilians, are certainly important too, a discussion that was in large part taken up by Stathis Kalyvas. Üngör’s excellent book becomes the starting point for many new studies on the phenomenon of paramilitarism in modern times.
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