Shame and war

The most significant question was: why did they want to join the IRA? The same simple reasons cropped up all the time: the Brits were killing our people; the army, police and legal system were biased against Catholics; they felt as Catholics that they were discriminated against generally in society and nothing was ever done about it. ALmost always they expressed personal experiences of harassment and intimidation from the Crown forces.

That is Eamon Collins, a onetime IRA intelligence agent, in Killing Rage. It’s a memoir and meditation on why certain northern Irish Catholics turned to terror and violence. This is easily the most readable book on war I’ve encountered in some time. Collins gives an incredible insider’s account of the IRA–a history, a guilty confessional, and a search for an explanation why so many people would turn to terror for a political cause.

I pulled the book from a new civil war syllabus from some Yale colleagues–Stathis Kalyvas and Paul Kenny. Economists and political scientists who study war fret over the ‘participation problem’–why some would risk everything for a goal they may not live to see reached (especially a revolution from which they can reap benefits without actually fighting).

Collins would have us believe that shame, humiliation and injustice lead some to fight. The same argument has been made by Libby Wood in El Salvador. I find myself increasingly persuaded.

7 thoughts on “Shame and war

  1. My take on Wood's argument is that the utility gained from taking action, independent of the outcome of that action, is what was particularly novel and important in her study – this is related to humiliation, injustice, etc. but it isn't quite the same thing…

  2. There is "selection on the dependent variable" here. I believe that in all societies with state repression there are many more "humiliated" people than there are insurgents.

    Suppose 90% of all fighters were humiliated, but only 1% of humiliated people in the population became fighters. Then you can say that "humiliation and injustice lead some to fight" but clearly it is not a satisfactory answer to the participation problem.

  3. I'm glad you liked the book. If you want to get another perspective, an equally fascinating but less well-known autobiography, this one from a British agent who infiltrated the IRA, is Raymond Gilmore's "Dead Ground: Infiltrating the IRA". To my surprise, several IRA men recommended it to me, saying that one couldn't disagree with much that was in there.

  4. It seems most terrorist groups and/or insurgents play on feelings of persecution, humiliation etc. Tareek-e-Taliban's proposals for Islamic courts was welcomed by local populations in large part because the actual legal system was barely functioning and deeply corrupt. We see the claims of humiliation and persecution crop up in Liberia, Turkey, North Caucasus, Lebanon, Afghanistan, marginalized Muslim populations in Europe, etc, etc, etc.

    There are always a multiplicity of factors, but when a violent group claims to be standing up against corruption and tyranny, in situations where there is systemic corruption and discrimination, those particularly angered by this and willing to fight, as young, frustrated men and women often are, can be sometimes easily persuaded by perhaps more calculating leaders.

  5. Economists and political scientists who study war fret over the 'participation problem'–why some would risk everything for a goal they may not live to see reached

    Then they really must not think too deeply. Young men like to fight. If there was a study on why 45-60 year old men became terrorists or soldiers would be interesting. A study on young men fighting, not so much.

  6. I am not sure I buy this 'shame and humiliation' argument – although as someone who has been detained under anti-terrorist legislation I agree that first-hand experience of injustice was probably a motivating factor that caused many people to join the IRA.

    Sinn Fein have just come out as the largest party in Northern Ireland in last weeks Euro elections – albeit due to a particular split in the Unionist vote that is unlikely to be repeated – and so you cannot dismiss supporters of Irish republicanism as a fringe force.

    I would also say that people like Dr Laurence McKeown, Dr Ella O'Dwyer, Dr Féilim ó Hadhmaill, Dr Anthony McIntyre and dozens of others I could think of are far more representative of the average IRA volunteer than Collins and Gilmore.

    That is not to romanticise the physical force separatist tradition – but it would be wrong to infantilize it as well.