It feels fitting to be writing this from America, a land which holds historical militias in such high esteem that some pseudo-commandos, would-be warriors and even active personnel form their own. Militias predate the firearm, but the images of the Minutemen struck a particular chord with the American heart. Elsewhere in the world, militias are an everyday part of life, serving military and police roles which both offer hope against state tyranny, and threaten the lives of political and ethnic opponents.
Whereas oppressive police and military forces tend to be drawn from various regions, militias are closely linked to the local area.
ISIS and the opposing Shia militias dominate the news at the moment – the Iraqi army which the West installed has come down with all the speed and elegance of a wounded cow. Look to the Ukraine, and pro-Russian supporters clash with a Ukrainian army which claims to be crowd-funding a drone. The brigades of the Libyan civil war bring to mind their American counter-parts from the mid-19th Century – though, of course, these volunteer forces are unlikely to throw down their arms at a presidential command. In nations where the regular army is distrusted, disliked or even downright weak, militias are offering a semblance of discipline – one all too often at the price of massive reprisals against those on the other side. These are images straight out of the 90s, a period which saw over a hundred conflicts at the tail-end of decolonialisation and the Cold War. The Rwandan genocide, the slaughters perpetrated by the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone: these battles are being played out across diverse battlefields, and innocents are caught up in them.
Militias are unstable, unprepared, and all too often unreliable.
More frightening still is the collaboration of governments with armed militias, even in nations friendly to the West. In India’s Chhattisgarh, a state battling Left Wing Extremists (LWEs), the state government issued a strategy called Salwa Judem, roughly translated as ‘Purification March’ in the local Gondi language. Arming tribal children with firearms, the government effectively replicated the policies pursued by the LWEs who have for years been kidnapping school children, indoctrinating them, and setting them on their communities and the police. The net result has been more deaths, and lasting damage to community cohesion. Whereas oppressive police and military forces tend to be drawn from various regions, militias like Salwa Judum are closely linked to the local area. Recent court cases have concluded that Salwa Judum commanders killed in the fighting were responsible for gang rapes. These are not chance incidents, committed by an offensive army seeking revenge for imagined sleights; rape apologists cannot even attempt to rationalise them as a weapon used to instil fear. The rapists were teenagers, or at most a few years into adulthood – given power and given weapons but without training, discipline or a great deal of accountability, they simply went wild.
Elsewhere in India, caste-based politics is tearing apart villages. Ranvir Sena, a group based in another Communist-infested state, Bihar, is composed of local landlords – by and large of the Brahmin group. Using the lack of law and order to their advantage, their campaigns explain the murders of members of various lower social groups by claiming that they simply support LWEs – or, in the case of children, that they will grow up to join them. Whilst unsanctioned by the government and listed as a terrorist organisation, it is difficult to imagine that officials desperate to rid themselves of Communists who kill policemen with terrifying regularity would not mind aiding even the most questionable of allies.
There is a reason that militias have often been distrusted throughout history. The line between a self-defence unit which seeks to protect the local area, and a political or religious group using self-defence as justification to commit violence is not very thick at all. Either possibility demonstrates the loss of control by forces of order – which, whilst not necessarily a bad thing, is hardly necessarily conducive to free and democratic politics. The Mexican self-defence groups achieved what the army and police could not – or would not – do, with regards to fighting cartels. Whether all the armed civilians, and possibly rival cartel members, will willingly submit to the rule of law under a government which has failed them before is questionable. On the other hand, militias have just as often been the tool of occupying forces seeking to utilise local people’s knowledge to their advantage. In France, the milice forces under the Germans are still hated, and distrust sown over 60 years ago has not healed. Colonies which gained their independence at the end of the 20th Century have even rawer injuries, as in Angola or Mozambique. The final throes of the Estado Novo were brutal for the colonies, and the use of local irregular forces has undoubtedly retarded the process of repairing these lands.
In America, the images of the Minutemen strike a particular chord with the peoples’ hearts.
The rise of the public in arms has a wonderfully Enlightenment ring to it, particularly around the 4th of July – but there is little hope to be found in the mere arming of people. Armies and police forces routinely carry out abuses against their people, of course, but at least in their training there is some preparation for peace-time duties. Militias, unstable, unprepared, and all too often unreliable, simply pose greater problems in the long run.
Sid Venkataramakrishnan is a Deputy Comment Editor, with an interest in further work in journalism. He has previous experience working at OxPolicy, the student think tank, and the OxStu. Find him on Twitter @SVR13.