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BOOK REVIEW : A Revealing Portrait of Guerrilla Culture : GUERRILLAS The Men and Women Fighting Today's Wars by Jon Lee Anderson Times Books/Random House: $22; 271 pages

March 17, 1993|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"If there is liberation, I'd like to be a doctor," says a 16-year-old Palestinian youth named Dasir in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, "and, if not, a commando."

These ominous and yet somehow poignant words reveal one of the uncomfortable truths that we learn in Jon Lee Anderson's "Guerrillas," a patchwork survey of five guerrilla movements around the world.

Whether they are the shabbab of the Breij refugee camp in Gaza or los muchachos of the FMLN in El Salvador, the front line soldiers in any guerrilla war are likely to be high-spirited teen-agers for whom armed resistance has become a kind of drug against the harsher realities of day-to-day life.

"The gods and ghosts of war, its heroes and villains and its moments of daring and defeat--all of the transcendental moments that make up a war's history--are invisible to outsiders," explains Anderson, "but they inhabit the land in the hearts and minds of the guerrillas and their followers."

Anderson is a war correspondent who first came into contact with underground armies in Central America during the 1980s, and "Guerrillas" is a kind of homage to the men and women whose lives and struggles have clearly captured his imagination.

His book ricochets between the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara and the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador and the Karen guerrillas of Burma, but somehow it is the adolescent "ninjas" of the intifada who seem to inspire Anderson's most impassioned words.

The author dutifully searches out the commonalities among these disparate groups, but the differences seem more pronounced. The FMLN are old-fashioned Marxist revolutionaries; the mujahedin are fundamentalist Muslims; the Karen National Union is an ethnic minority that has been making war on the central Burmese government for more than four decades.

Sometimes it seems that a guerrilla movement can become the victim of its own success. The Polisario Front, whose sovereignty is recognized by 70-odd nations, has created a kind of mini-welfare-state in the Sahara Desert which offers cradle-to-grave security for its people.

It turns out, though, that security may be insurrection's worst enemy: "The Polisario Front has always been caught in a peculiar bind: how to care for its people's needs," Anderson explains, "and yet not make them so comfortable they forsake the dream of returning to their own land."

Anderson uses such oddities and ironies of guerrilla culture to dress up the personality profiles and political reportage that are stitched together in these pages.

On Sundays in the encampment of the Karen National Union, when the Baptist church services are over, the young men repair to the office of the "prime minister" to watch "Rambo III" on a VCR. The young men and women of the FMLN, their weapons still slung over their shoulders, are seen dancing to the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival. And we eavesdrop as one mujahedin leader complains to his overlord that another unit has been favored in the distribution of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

"Mullah Naquib has three," he whines. "Why can't I have one? Aren't I a good commander?"

What exactly are we supposed to learn from "Guerrillas"? Anderson concedes that the headlines have overtaken his reportage: "Wars change," he shrugs, "and so have the situations portrayed in this book." And so he urges us to look on the men and women (and children) in his book as emblematic of "guerrillas as they might be found at any time or in any place."

Anderson seems to suggest that guerrillas thrive on self-deception: "20th-Century Quixotes" is how he describes the Polisario guerrillas of the Western Sahara. But, more often than not, he appears to be caught up in some of the same dreamy enthusiasms that he observes in the adolescent warriors and the preachers and propagandists who lead them.

Thus, even as he cautions us against the folly and the excess that one finds in guerrilla culture--even as he observes that the Palestinians have "mythologized" their lives--Anderson seems to embrace the myth itself:

"Here is Palestine: It exists in the instant of violence where human imagining bursts its confines," he writes. "And, somehow, Palestine rises up above this squalor, because the camp and its people are at once shields, swords and battlegrounds in the struggle for freedom; and its face is sometimes beautiful, and sometimes ugly."

Almost inadvertently, Anderson reveals the point of his own book: the power of a guerrilla movement is not measured by the sophistication of its armaments or the wealth of its patrons or the number of calculating governments that have recognized its flag. More important, as Anderson demonstrates, is the power of its myth to inspire the powerless.

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