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Guerrillas: The Men and Women Fighting Today's Wars.

Guerrillas: The Men and Women Fighting Today's Wars. Jon Lee Anderson. Times, $21. Guerrillas is a very good piece of battle reporting, but it suffers from battle reporting's classic problem: It says little about the context of the war. Anderson, a magazine reporter who has spent most of his career torturing his family, friends, and insurance company with his travels in strange and dangerous places, profiles five guernlla groups. One, the Salvadoran FMLN, he got to know well after years of living in El Salvador. The others he visited: the Afghan Mujaheddin, the Polisario fighting Morocco to liberate a strip of the Western Sahara, the ethnic Karen guerrillas in their 40-year battle with Burma (now officially Myanmar) for their independence, and Palestinians in the Breij refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied Gaza strip.

One cannot fault Anderson's enthusiasm. The reader loses count of the number of times his immediate surroundings were pounded by helicopter gunships, MiG fighter-bombers, mortars, bazookas, rockets, or just plain bullets. After such hair-raising research it seems petty to quibble. Anderson does write well, and his descriptions of scenery are especially vivid. And he does offer some insights, such as the depth of the young Palestinians' hatred for the Israelis.

Ultimately, though, the book is unsatisfying. It falls to make the guerrillas into real people. For one, there are too many of them. Instead of a few main characters, Anderson presents dozens, and they blur together. More important, little of what they do is interesting or unpredictable. Salvadoran women pat tortillas. The youngest Afghan boys spend hours cleaning their Kalashnikovs. The men do calisthenics and recite hymns of praise to the appropriate deities, be they Che, Allah, or Polisario martyr Luali. These could not possibly be dull fellows, but most seem like it here.

Nor does Anderson use his reporting to explore larger issues. His main points--that guen'illas are willing to sacrifice themselves, that they justify violence in the names of their causes, and that they invent their own worlds with their own gods--are not particularly profound ones. He offers little commentary or interpretation of his own; the reader never knows if any of these groups have won Anderson's sympathy.

And he fails to explore some of the important questions he raises. For example: when to give up a futile fight and turn to politics, or the longterm effects of wartime brutality. Regarding the latter, since Anderson left Afghanistan, the Mujaheddin, freed from the necessity to shoot at Communists, began to turn their rocket launchers on each other. This was predictable, but Anderson does not predict it. He presents, without comment, stories of guernllas killing civilians and summarily executing suspected spies. But he fails to address how such behavior shapes the kind of government they would run if given the opportunity. Anderson's account would have benefitted from more context and perspective-- explaining why, as Polish dissident Adam Michnik said, "those who begin by storming the Bastilles end up by building their own."

--Tina Rosenberg
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Author:Rosenberg, Tina
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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