Ammon Bundy in Oregon Standoff

The Oregon standoff has included the frequent use of the word “terrorism” to describe the Bundys and their associates. Because of my research into revolutionary warfare, I’m not surprised that words like “terrorists” are used as tools to delegitimize political actors.[1]  My research projects have included insurgencies into the Late Roman Empire, samurai warfare in medieval Japan and the Chinese Civil War from 1927-1934.[2] (The latter of which is my proposed dissertation topic at Kings College London.)   In every period I found that the use of the term robber or bandit connoted specific differences in power between the central government and the perceived illegitimacy of new actors and centers of power.  As a result, this led to the use of words that were far more emotional than accurate.

What was most interesting is that the new powers were often a mix of local officials with private soldiers that gained autonomy in the chaos, invading barbarians (or revolutionaries) that were alternatively courted and opposed by the government and often given official titles, protective groups of war bands, and some old fashioned predatory robbers that fit the traditional idea behind the term.  To cite one example, Mao Zedong actively courted local groups of bandits, and echoing Giddiahni’s letter located in the Book of Mormon (3rd Nephi 3), he even offered their secret societies forgiveness and an oath of friendship in exchange for rejoining the revolution.[3]

Roman elites had private soldiers called bucellarii loyal to them and not the government, because those armed bands operated independently of government control historians often called them robbers.[4]  As de facto power holders the far off Eastern Roman emperor eventually courted these leaders and granted many of them official status, including such war lords as Childeric, Clovis, Alaric, and the Scourge of God Attila the Hun. and he eventually rose to become an official governor of the provenance.   In medieval Japan, local power holders jealously guarded their rights, and often labelled agents of the Shogun as “akuto” or “evil gangs.” Those that were labelled Akuto sometimes formed economic cartels to strengthen their power, and used hired muscle to ensure the cooperation of local farmers, collect taxes, and resist rival akuto. Despite these activities, often their only crime was being an agent of a government not recognized by local court officials![5]

In short, there is a great deal of confusion between illegal bandits and rival armies and the legitimate use of force directed by government officials. As Susan Mattern said in describing anti Roman insurgencies,  “The difference between a bandit, a tribal chief, a petty king, or the leader of a rebellion could be open to interpretation; many individuals are located in more than one of these categories by the ancient sources.”[6]  Often times, especially in ancient history, but always in contested lawless regions, the only difference between a robber (bandit, or member of an evil gang) and a tax collector was the perceived legitimacy of the actors.  Chiang Kai Shek for example found his strongest tactic during the Fifth Bandit Suppression and Encirclement Campaign was to harness the locals’ ability to shakedown merchants to and from Communist base areas and call it a tax.[7] Despite most of the “robbers” having at least some form of legitimacy they were stigmatized with the dismissive and often inaccurate term.

These terms are used in such non clinical ways because as historians John Shy and Thomas Collier wrote that:

Words themselves are weapons…Language is used to isolate and confuse enemies, rally and motivated friends, and enlist the support of  wavering bystanders… Revolutionary soldiers are often called ‘bandits’, in effect denying them the legal status of combatants, and their supporters described as ‘criminals’ or ‘traitors’. Government forces become ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘mercenaries’ the government itself being ‘fascist,’ corrupt,’ or a ‘puppet regime’….In revolutionary war there can be no neutral, apolitical vocabulary.[8]

We see the potency of words today as well.  Policy makers debated over whether to call anti-American forces in Iraq “insurgents” or “terrorists.”[9]  Many Americans felt a great deal of frustration when the sectarian conflict in Iraq was labeled the demoralizing term “civil war.” It explains why the surge led by General Petraeus was labeled an escalation by some critics who were trying to invoke the ghoul of Vietnam. A blockade during the Cuban Missile crisis would have been an act of war, but a quarantine of the island prescribed the same action without the accompanying baggage.  In the prelude to the Bosnia deployment, each side avoided the term “genocide” to evade the treaty obligations associated with it. Thus policy makers use the rose-by-any-other-name term “ethnic cleansing” instead.

In conclusion, most people who accuse the Bundys of terrorism do so utterly unware of the long history of using emotionally charged words that obscure more than they clarify.  I certainly disagree with their actions, but I’m even more bothered by the casual use of emotional charged words that do little to accurately describe behavior or prescribe public policy. They instead simply seek to incite public opinion by using emotionally charged words instead of marshalling clear evidence and thoughtfully articulated positions.

[Morgan Deane is a historian that teaches at BYU-I and the author of, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon. His is currently pursuing his PhD and working on Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: A Revisionist History of the Book of Mormon.]

What are your thoughts regarding use of words to describe the people in the Oregon Standoff?


[1] For the record, I think their general demeanor, lack of education, radical militant libertarianism, and attempted revolt do plenty to deny them legitimacy.

[2] Morgan Deane, “Groping in the Dark: Reassessing the Military Leaderhips of Mao Zedong during the Jiangxi Period; 1927-1924, New Research in Military History Conference, London September 25th, 2015.

[3] CCP Kwang-Chang Central Committee, A Few Words to the Brethren of the Big Sword Society, December 22nd, 1933. Chen Cheng Collection, Reel III, no. 16, Hoover Library, Stanford California.

[4] Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 6.45; Sevirnius, The Life of St. Sevirniua, 31, 42.

[5] Lorraine Harrington, “Social Control and the Significance of the Akuto.” Court and the Bakufu in Japan: Essays in Kamakura History (Yale Press, 221-250). Ed Jeffrey Mass and William Hauser.

[6] Susan Mattern, “Counterinsurgency and the Enemies of Rome,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, Victor Davis Hanson eds (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 169 (163-184).

[7] Notice the use of the term “bandit suppression” in what were essentially campaigns in a civil war.  William Wei. Counterrevoluation in China: Nationalists in Jiangxi during the Soviet Period. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985) 120-130.

[8] John Shy and Thomas W. Collier, “Revolutionary war” in The Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age Peter Paret Ed. (Princeton, Princeton University Press 1986) 815-862, (821).

[9] In reality there were a mix of trans national terrorists aggravating local insurgencies, see David Kilcullen,  The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of Big Ones (Oxford University Press: 2011).