The legal framework of war may be the only place where a serious and spirited debate over the differences between revolt, rebellion, and insurgency can occur.
The legal framework of war may be the only place where a serious and spirited debate over the differences between revolt, rebellion, and insurgency can occur. However, for those who happen to be leading a revolt, planning a rebellion, or participating in an insurgency, the subtle distinctions between the three can be important. A revolt is defined as an attempt to break away from or rise against established authority. Rebellion goes further, suggesting the manner and extent to which that person will resist those government demands. Insurgency is that state of resistance which, while clearly a challenge to established order, lacks the organizational aspects of a revolution. History is full of examples of all three.
While it would be easy to dismiss revolt, rebellion, and insurgency as events cut from the same cloth, there is a slight, but nonetheless important, distinction. Only insurgency would seem to offer any outside credibility, which might entitle it not only legal recognition from other nations but also material support, and quite possibly legal protection in the event of failure. If one is facing a well-entrenched opposition and the odds of success appear slim, being able to win acceptance as an insurgent movement could offer some very important perquisties, including the chance of avoiding execution in the event of failure.
No doubt Roman leaders in charge of the security of their empire spent more than one sleepless night worried about the Middle East, and with good reason. The
In 1066, the
Revolutionaries defending barricades in Paris during the July, 1830, revolution.
Britain had controlled the area in the Middle East known as
Although it signified the birth of a national identity, the revolt was unsuccessful in many ways. The general strike, which was called off in October, 1939, had encouraged Palestinian Jews to become more self-reliant, and the Arabs of Palestine were unable to recover from their sustained effort of defying the British administration. Their leaders were killed, arrested, or deported, leaving the dispirited and disarmed population divided. Palestinian Jews, on the other hand, were united and cooperated with British forces in fighting the Arabs. In the end the revolt failed because of a leadership vacuum and inability to articulate a vision for a political structure to supplant the British authority.
If revolts are the poor relations of forceful change, rebellion may be their more successful cousins, but just barely. Like revolts, rebellions involve open defiance of the established order. Rebellion, however, also involves a clear use of armed force and attempts to publicize its objectives so people know what the ruckus is all about.
In the eyes of the world–or at least in the eyes of those who recognize international law–insurgency may be the most legitimate form of resistance to an existing order. To engage in insurgency is to participate in a revolt against a government in a manner less organized than a revolution. Revolutions are more cerebral; they leave paper trails of those who have spoken of them, written about them, and even planned them. Insurgencies are more action-oriented, headed by leaders sometimes characterized by dedication, swagger, and daring and pitted against seemingly overwhelming odds.
The question of how insurgents should be dealt with in the event of their success (or failure) is at issue: Recognition by third parties? Summary execution? At the very least, international law has instructed its adherents that insurgencies can be recognized as wars against the established order. At the same time, recognition of an insurgency expresses the belief by third parties that the insurgents should not be executed if captured and that they should be entitled to prevent the opposition from gaining access to supplies from neutral nations. In their insurgency against the French, Ho Chi Minh and his followers enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and they diligently attempted to deny France the supplies it received from a seemingly neutral party, the United States. In the end the insurgency prevailed, and Ho went on to bigger things.
In the tangled maze of revolts, rebellions, and insurgencies, with their confusing mix of terms, one thing seems clear: It is how others see them that really counts.
Brinton, Crane. Anatomy of a Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1965. Takes the theories developed in international law and applies them to specific cases that have become the benchmarks of twentieth century political upheaval. Defronzo, James. Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2007. Offers a modern look at the subject Brinton discussed four decades before, suggesting that the changing global political environment offers some subtle yet important changes to the picture Brinton originally limned. Fenwick, Charles. International Law. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948. Good for a legal understanding of the terms. Fenwick gives helpful insights into how the international community defines and responds to revolt, rebellion, and insurgency. Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin, 1997. Takes a comprehensive look at how the Vietnamese insurgent movement developed, back to the time when China was the country’s chief nemesis. Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. New York: Vintage Books, 2001. Provides further proof of the difficulties inherent in executing a victorious revolt or rebellion by examining the various Jewish-Arab conflicts over control of Palestine prior to World War II. Moss, George Donelson. Vietnam: An American Ordeal. New York: Prentice Hall, 2008. Insurgency is explored both directly and indirectly. Touches briefly on the insurgent struggle in Vietnam, first against the French and then against the United States. Rocca, Samuel. The Forts of Judea, 168 B.C.-A.D. 73. New York: Osprey, 2008. Reconstructs the particulars surrounding the first Jewish-Roman War, sometimes referred to as the Great Revolt. Astute readers will note that between the lines Rocca provides a cautionary tale on the difficulties of staging a successful revolt in the absence of a broad base of support and effective communications. Schultz, Richard. Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Offers contemporary commentary about conflict. Smith, Sebastian. Allah’s Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya. London: Tauris Parke, 2001. Examines Chechnya’s insurgent movement and the Russian response.
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