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War, States, and Contention

War, States, and Contention by Sidney Tarrow. Cornell University Press. 2015, 314 pp.


Sidney Tarrow’s War, States, and Contention addresses a challenging subject: how a state’s population reacts to external conflicts and how those contentious encounters shape later development. Examining societal power flows from the historical to the current-day conflicts ravaging the Middle East frames the basis for Tarrow’s exposition. He explores governmental emergency powers enhancing external success and limiting internal struggles through either hierarchical or infrastructural applications. The work provides three historical cases as a basis: revolutionary France, Civil War America, and pre–World War I Italy. It then focuses on US responses to contention in World War II and the Cold War. However, the main focus emphasizes how the US government contained contention following the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda and the resulting 2003 Iraq War. This text introduces a large subject matter and evaluates some difficult issues which are contentious on their own behalf.


The book’s initial intention explores how contentious politics and social movements affect war-related processes and how contention entices states to wage war while managing internal disagreements. These processes and shifts are noted through the three historical cases and the emergency powers applied by each government. The conceptual framework and the book’s thesis do not emerge until almost halfway through, when Tarrow shifts focus to how the United States reshaped liberal constitutionalism to support a global conflict based on countering a social movement, al-Qaeda (p. 117). Four areas are emphasized: the change from a rule of law to a rule by law, expanded media use to influence public support for war-making, a transition from a national industrial complex to a national intelligence complex, and the inability of traditional contention strategies to influence the state. However, before any elements are examined, the text cycles back to how the three historical cases dealt with contentious social movements.


The three cases are traditional conflicts viewed in an alternative lens. France appears as a state emerging from a movement, the French Revolution, only to confront continuing movements challenging the new state. The American Civil War example moves from contention over slavery from abolitionist movements to habeas corpus suspension during wartime as suppressive examples. The cases highlight Jim Crow laws as the government’s hierarchical power example in reducing black contention. In the third historical example, Italy shows contentious groups using infrastructural power to obtain government positions only to use their new hierarchical power against emerging social movements. Each case shows hierarchical power use through an emergency script. Those societal limitations create the conditions for contentious movements to use infrastructural power to obtain governmental positions before restarting the cycle. Throughout the text, hierarchical power notes authoritarian states use despotic means to control the population while contentious movements primarily use infrastructural power to control civil society through internal pressures.


The text leaps from the pre-modern conflicts to what Tarrow calls, “composite conflicts” (p. 105) in illustrating early twentieth-century wars and then the Iraq War. These conflicts show states warring against movements with both sides employing irregular and asymmetric warfare forms. A typical conflict process is characterized as radicalization by a movement, encapsulation, state emergency measures combatting the movement, and then shifting to transnationalism to escape state limitations. This process allows a movement to expand, be fought back, expand, and be fought back again only to escape the state-control boundaries through fleeing into the global commons. Tarrow highlights several issues with this cycle; the growth of a national security state, the use of infrastructural power to support a national security state, and the US government’s increased surveillance despite Church commission controls. In another excellent list, three contention strategies emerge: using official access to challenge government credibility (Snowden), counterintelligence practices to uncover information such as WikiLeaks, and second-generation movement growth from those who originally supported violent, antigovernment movements including Students for a Democratic Society. All three strategies support the book’s core argument, suggesting how the US government abused citizenry during the Iraq War to limit contention and shape future development.


The book’s core explains how the American government achieved an attack on Iraq following the 9/11 attacks through implementing hierarchical and infrastructural power elements against the US population. Of course, from a historical perspective, the 9/11 attacks led directly to the war in Afghanistan, with the Iraq conflict as a secondary consequence—despite this work’s assertions. Tarrow pictures the Bush-Cheney administration as subverting the media, creating military commissions, and driving a national change from a rule of law to a rule by law. This legal change is defined as when the government uses legal processes to shape opinion. Contradictorily, Tarrow states, “Using the law and the legislative process to protect rights is slow, frustrating, and reversible, and it provides the government with infinite opportunities for evasion, dissimulation, and stretching the use of permitted practices into shadowy areas of the law” (p. 198). He seems to argue for both the need to contention to implement infrastructural and legal controls against the government while being frustrated in how those laws may protect the populace. During the entire time the United States confronts terrorism from 2001 to 2013, the author sees no positive activity. He documents three contentious strategies to oppose government power: antiwar movements that oppose through protests, legal groups that uses courts, and civil activists who publicize government activities. Each approach is suggested as a legitimate approach to foster antigovernment contention and dilute hierarchical power. 


The lists in War, States, and Contention are both strengths and weaknesses. Tarrow cannot pass more than a page or two without more lists. While these lists initially advance the case, at a certain point, they become overwhelming and occasionally contradictory. Each list thoroughly covers subject matter; the problem emerges when lists are compared. Even in concluding the study, the author adds seven new cases, each with new lists. The text also suffers from Tarrow’s clear opposition to the US war on terror and frequent ad hominem attacks against the Bush-Cheney administration.


Overall, the text provides substantial references for how contentious movements influence wartime states. Tarrow does an excellent job showing contention affecting states in mobilizing for war, making war, and recovering from war. The book’s early sections are more beneficial to develop one’s theoretical grasp as later sections descend into the exhaustively argued but scantly supported argument against the Iraq conflict. Several sections documenting modern events fail to provide contention examples to emphasize perceived governmental power abuses. I think Tarrow’s book is interesting theoretically while lacking a clear focus. Those who study movement politics or who work with counterterror analysis could benefit from adding it to their shelf, while the average reader should give it a pass. 

Lt Col Mark Peters, USAF




"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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