A Million Shays' Rebellions: The Global Challenge of Militia Demobilization

You remember learning about Shays' Rebellion in high school, don’t you? In 1786 in western Massachusetts, Daniel Shays led a group of former American militia volunteers in a rebellion against what they saw as a corrupt, indifferent, and ungrateful government. Shays had served as a captain in the American Revolutionary Army, fighting at Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga.  He resigned his commission after being wounded and returned to farming without receiving any compensation for his service. Like many others who had fought, Shays soon found himself badly in debt. Massachusetts’ state government seemed beholden to commercial interests, rejecting peaceful petitions for economic policies aimed to alleviate rural poverty. Shays and his fellow veteran-farmers began marching on local courthouses, blocking foreclosures and preventing the imprisonment of debtors. By winter, 9,000 men had joined Shays' band and this small army was poised to storm an armory at Springfield. With an effective national army still yet to be created, the Boston politicians panicked. Government forces massed on Shays' army, attacking them with cannons and killing four men, effectively crushing the rebellion.

As revolutions unfold or unwind in Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia, expect to see more and more Shays-like moments. Revolutions necessarily entail extraordinary mass mobilization. These struggles bring together people to take enormous risks for a variety reasons, ranging from the personal to the political to the pecuniary. Once the leader has been ousted, the task of the new government becomes very different, shifting from deposing the old leader to containing the disorderly masses and returning to ‘normal’ politics. The image of protesters in Benghazi demanding the dismantling of independent militia groups following the assassination of the U.S. ambassador was heartening to Americans, but it also illustrates the challenges of cleaning up and clearing out the very armed groups that were so instrumental to unseating dictators like Momar Quadaffi. As Stathis Kalyvas argues, a variety of motives drive young men—and they are almost always young men—to arm. A handful are political sophisticates, ideologues of various political flavors. Some, on the other hand, are opportunists, sociopaths and criminals, who see in the revolutionary moment the chance to loot, steal and kill. The bulk, though, are drawn to the fighting because the state has deteriorated to the point that it no longer exercises monopoly over force and they are the only ones left who can defend their friends and loved ones. Once such armed groups emerge, leaders at the national level try to knit them together to make a revolutionary army, just as the groups themselves vie to don the revolutionary mantle—even if their initial impulse to fight had little to do with national politics.

When the fighting stops, these forces expect a place at the table—and have the military might to demand it. Militias can become deeply ingrained in a state’s military infrastructure following revolutions.  When it comes to demobilization, three policy approaches stand out:

  • Pensioning off fighters or finding them jobs in the civilian sector works especially well for those whose primary motivation for fighting were local security or economic gain. Shays himself was eventually granted amnesty for his role in the rebellion and given a pension. The overall goal is to give militia groups a financial incentive to behave peacefully and put down arms.
  • Absorbing militias into a newly reconstituted national army is another option. Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, the new Islamic government created an entirely new organization—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps— to take over and coordinate the activities of the various militia groups that had emerged to overthrow the Shah. The IRGC was deliberately kept separate from the old imperial army, which was suspected of royalist leanings. The IRGC emerged as the favored institution during the course of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), a position it still holds today.
  • Defeating a militia is the most obvious, but probably most difficult, way to achieve demobilization. Still, there are precedents, most of which highlight the importance of divide-and-rule strategies. For instance, after its guerrilla war against the Dutch from 1946 to 1949, the new Indonesian government offered to pension-off or absorb the hundreds of thousands of men who had fought for the revolutionary cause. Even into the 1960s many fighters in Aceh and elsewhere refused to stand down. By creating specialized, highly-trained, heavily-armed mobile strike forces, the Indonesian government was able to isolate and defeat these less-organized foes one by one.

The problem is that all of these approaches presume a reasonably effective state is available to perform them. Without the bulwark of a national army to back it up, none of these measures are permanent. Instead, they amount simply to changing a militia’s wardrobe without affecting its ability to use force independently. Shays' Rebellion helped spur demands for a stronger federal government capable of raising a national army, but it took seventy years and a civil war for the powers of this new central government to be defined.

It is still uncertain, though, whether the U.S. even wants militia demobilization to happen at all in states such as Libya. Officially, the U.S. is committed to the goal of state-building and the elimination of all armed non-state actors and has devoted the money, technical expertise and even military support to help emergent states create disciplined armies. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, the U.S. recognized that weak states can pose as great a danger as strong ones. At the military doctrinal-level, the vaunted 2006 U.S. Army & Marine Corp Counterinsurgency Field Manual warns on page 3-12 that militias must be disarmed, even if they are the only source of protection for common citizens. In practice, however, the U.S. has accommodated and even encouraged militias in weak states, such as during the Awakening movement in Iraq in 2006 and in the case of tribal militias in Afghanistan, when central governments seemed to be faltering. The absence of a strong state is not necessarily a harbinger of anarchy. In some cases greater stability can be found in a devolved system of feudal fiefdoms balancing against each other as opposed to a single, centralized entity holding all the reins of power. Such a pragmatic stance may be best suited for dealing with the question of when and where to pursue demobilization.



Ariel I. Ahram (@ariel_ahram) is associate professor of government and international affairs (GIA) at Virginia Tech. His substantive research focuses on issues of security and development, particularly in the Middle East. His book, Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State-Sponsored Militias (Stanford University Press, 2011), examines the emergence and evolution of armed non-state actors that collaborate with governments. Dissenting from current policy orthodoxy, he argues that efforts to fix weak and frail states are unlikely to reduce the power of militias and that human and international security can often be improved by empowering, not repressing, armed non-state forces.