Lycabettus Press (2015), 413pp.
Reviewed by Chris Deliso
In the concluding sentence of his comprehensive new study of Greece’s most legendary urban guerrilla outfit, November 17, author John Brady Kiesling notes that “the world record 17N set – 27 years of deadly political violence before the first arrest – is unlikely to ever be broken.”
Something similar goes for Kiesling’s book. At once a work of scholarship, deep investigation and contemporary history of Greece’s political evolution, Greek Urban Warriors is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon. Because of the personal involvement of the author (a former US diplomat in Athens during the terrorist arrests in 2002 and thereafter), the book benefits from intimate and detailed local knowledge; it will thus remain the gold standard for such studies, especially since the passage of time diminishes scholarly capabilities to investigate first-hand.
In addition to diligent comparisons of practically every media utterance regarding the many protagonists of Greece’s “armed struggle” over a four-decade period, Kiesling sorts through copious court trial logs, secondary studies and the revolutionaries’ recent memoirs (in addition to his own personal interviews) in a determined effort to disentangle the truth of the armed struggle from the many urban legends, myths and sheer disinformation that have accrued over time concerning it.
The cumulative result is a major study comprising 29 chapters, six appendices, various charts and acronyms, along with a timeline of key events. Greek Urban Warriors is meticulously assembled, and is thus not light reading- but for keen students of the subject, the careful attention it demands will be well rewarded.
A Devotion to Fairness and Accuracy
While other writers might have been tempted to trespass into the genre of popular history, fleshing out the personalities behind 17N, this book is certainly not the basis for the ‘film version.’ Kiesling makes a conscious effort to avoid sensationalizing the subject. Indeed, what is most notable perhaps about the treatment is a general respect for fairness and truth; while the author shows deep sympathy for the victims (to whom the book is actually dedicated), he avoids simplistic depictions of 17N and their confreres as evil incarnate. He documents the ordinary Greek-ness of much of their lives (camping vacations on islands, running music clubs, painting icons and raising children), a fact that makes their armed activities seem both more jarring by the contrast and, for anyone experienced with the country and its trends, understandable within a uniquely Greek context.
The result of this devotion to fairness and accuracy is best revealed towards the end of the work. The more or less chronological study documents the ideologies and activities (bombings, assassinations and robberies) of all known (and sometimes, just alleged) left-wing armed groups in Greece during and since the 1968-74 Junta. Until the final chapters covering the more recent 17N trials, the perfunctory descriptions of each attack – characterized by minute facts and contemporaneous witness testimony, more than on definite identifications of the perpetrators – may seem formulaic and unnecessary; however, the significance of this literary approach becomes clear during the coverage of the trials following the 17N break-up in 2002.
In this manner, the author notes several key elements: the pressure on police to obtain a positive result so as to allay foreign fears regarding the safety of the 2004 Olympics; the oftentimes erroneous, but expensive intelligence collected by local and foreign services over the years; the notorious unreliability of witness memory and perception, as well as the deliberately conflicting testimony 17N defendants gave to protect one another, and their colleagues who had escaped arrest.
In this context, Kiesling chronicles that:
“Three months of the trial were consumed in a parade of prosecution witnesses, but not any of the police involved in the 17N investigations. These witnesses had read the pre-investigation statements and had seen the defendants on television. They knew what they were supposed to have seen. When the examining magistrates showed them photographs of the defendants late in 2002, they had little difficulty picking out the ‘correct’ ones, even when they had forgotten basic details of a decade-old incident. They then bridled when defense lawyers read the very different descriptions they had given police in the hours following an attack” (p. 317).
The Armed Struggle as a Classically Greek Adventure
For historians, one of the major services Kiesling does is to identify each armed group (there were many), and their unique ideologies and major members. This is important because it allows readers to distinguish between old-school entities like ELA and 17N and today’s anarchists and anti-authoritarian groups present in Greece’s big cities. In contrast to the latter’s often vague, randomly violent goals, 17N had specific and rather tame ambitions for an ideal Greece of self-managing factory workers.
However, given the prevailing condition in society, fulfilling the dream would require an armed struggle on behalf of the people. In a sense, then, 17N considered itself as providing a legitimate social service, one with its own code of ethics and rules of engagement.
Born of opposition to the junta, and hardened by the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, 17N also had at its core a nationalist sentiment as victim of foreign high politics that was shared by many Greek citizens on this issue. (Notably, the author mentions that 17N was not apparently interested in the ‘Macedonia issue,’ despite the hyper-nationalism the issue generated in the early 1990’s, and he offers some possible reasons to explain this lack of engagement). In the big picture, the armed struggle sought to drive out the ‘Western imperialists’ retaining military bases in Greece, to punish their banks and corporations, and to prod corrupt and incompetent politicians to change their ways. Later on, when environmentalism came into vogue, that became another cause worth acting for.
Ultimately, however, the goals of the armed struggle were not achieved and, as the author notes in his eloquent last chapter, this organized violence ironically brought about the kind of repressive security laws and violations of civil liberties that had initially sparked their anger in the years of the Junta.
What also makes the adventure truly Greek is the roles that society played in reaction to 17N, and the public discourse of the revolutionary class itself. The press felt a certain duty in doing its part, printing what were often long and turgid manifestos written to justify attacks. The rationale for these attacks would change with events. Sometimes they were backdated for effect, and sometimes subsequent events would interfere with their intended effect. It was often exasperating for the revolutionaries, though their well-worn typewriters bore the brunt of it. After a bombing or shooting, Greek journalists would be on standby for yet another anonymous call directing them to a trash bucket on some random street, from where said manifestos could be retrieved. No doubt it was exciting for everyone, including the police looking for clues (while also criticizing, and even legislating against, media that published such manifestoes).
Revolutionaries could also be petulant sorts, angered by media that did not represent them as they would have liked, and jealous of each others’ successes. The main rivalry discussed is that between 17N and ELA, which in the early days shared certain members. This less-famous group never quite resonated in the public imagination, though, due perhaps to its preference for symbolic bombings that left few casualties, and possibly a certain lack of ironic humor that made their lengthy manifestoes more brittle and ideological. Further, the tirades and broadsides between various revolutionaries, all dutifully presented by some mainstream and alternative press, reveal a typically Greek polemical streak that can just as easily be encountered in the diatribes of rival Greek intellectuals in 15th-century Italy.
Indeed, even the author’s deep analysis of linguistic patterns in revolutionary proclamations is not his exclusively; he notes the many cases when Greek media conjectured on ‘who could have written what’ based on close attention to the specific language used. Language is perhaps the strongest uniting characteristic of the Greek identity historically, as has been witnessed from the time of Homer to the Koine to Katharevousa and beyond. And the popular identification of discovered 17N documents, given names like the ‘Parnitha Archive’ (a group of documents discovered on a mountainside in 1977), or the group’s carefully hand-written notebooks, discovered in an Athenian safe house much later, present the experience and history of the revolutionary struggle in the surreal classical contexts of palaeography and archaeology.
Another distinctive aspect that separates the Greek revolutionaries from others elsewhere was a certain sense of humanity. One of the major justifications for attacks on Greek targets (like shipowners) was fatal accidents involving workers, which the armed struggle sought to avenge less as a vendetta than as a warning to industrialists about the working conditions of their exploited laborers. In operations, the targeting of ‘innocent’ victims was discouraged, to the extent that operations would routinely be cancelled or delayed due to the presence of non-targeted bystanders. Bomb threats were almost always called in well in advance, and the mostly symbolic targeting of Western banks, companies and Greek state entities was almost always conducted late at night, when no one would be injured. This kept collateral damage to a minimum and became such a part of the social fabric that Greeks today are hardly concerned when news of a random explosion at a shuttered bank is announced.
As the author relates, 17N members were profoundly shaken on the two instances (only!) in which their attacks led to the deaths of non-targeted individuals. These cases provoked anger and disapproval among the Greek nation, that population which 17N felt duty-bound to serve. The author does not attempt to confer any moral legitimacy on the group, but discussion of it does serve again to reflect a certain unspoken understanding Greek society about who might be considered fair game, and who would be definitely off-limits. If this was terrorism, it at least had clear rules, which is often not the case with most terrorist activities past and present in the world.
Tactics and Methods: the Historic Legacy of 17N
Arguably the most interesting and important aspect of Greek Urban Warriors is its documentation of 17N operational tactics and methods. Possibly because of his legal obligations as a former diplomat, the author does not rely on US records or assess the country’s own intelligence and investigative efforts in any detail. The oft-inept Greek services, discussed in somewhat more detail, do not get a ringing endorsement. The British – who entered the picture following 17N’s last big hit, the killing of the UK defense attaché in 2000 – are noted for their more effective approach, which sought to win more public sympathy and involvement, based on their experiences in Northern Ireland. However, the fact remains that were it not for one mistake (the injury and hospitalization of a senior 17N member while handling explosives), the group might still be intact today.
In any case, the purpose of the book is not to approach the story by focusing on the methods of the authorities- that would require a whole separate volume in itself. Rather, the author concentrates on how a rag-tag bunch of partly village-born revolutionaries transformed itself into a highly effective and lethal organization, marked by secrecy, cunning and daring. Indeed, reading about the 17N network of safe houses, secret meetings (and ‘Plan B’ secret meetings), surveillance methods, covert communications, ruse and disguise, one wishes to know even more about the inner workings of the group.
While its astonishing robberies (relieving a museum of its rocket launchers, robbing banks in disguise and sipping coffee on the way out, stripping a military base clean on Christmas Eve undetected) make 17N seem something like the revolutionary version of the Pink Panthers jewel thieves, there are major differences. Unlike the latter, whose multi-ethnic members have had serious military training (many with experience in the 1990s Yugoslav Wars) and vast amounts of funds to play with, 17N was a chronically poor revolutionary group that had to rob the occasional bank just to survive, and that did not have serious military backgrounds or foreign collaborators. They did not recruit mercenaries, and they kept a deliberately small and self-contained entity. They were a reflection of their broader social ideal: self-reliant.
Indeed, even if one cannot feel a moral or ideological sympathy for 17N and its political murders, what this book shows, in its minute description of its operational methodology, is a certain professionalism that emerged over a long process of trial-and-error, self-criticism and ingenuity. The group taught itself how to retrofit ordinary household items for explosive purposes, to deceive and elude authorities on a regular basis, to organize its finances, and to be patient enough to cancel long-planned operations when necessary- all remarkable achievements given the context. Most incredible, though, is the ‘world record’ Kiesling notes at the end of the book. Not only did 17N avoid arrest for 27 years, for much of that period key members were completely ‘underground’- hiding in plain sight, yet invisible to the police who hunted them. To have done this, in a country as small and as close-knit as Greece, is a truly astonishing achievement.
As he concludes the book, Kiesling does note that, in fairness to the authorities, the now bygone period of the ‘armed struggle’ was also characterized by primitive policing capabilities and an absence of the all-pervasive surveillance system that the world has come to accept in the wake of 9/11. Subsequent technological ‘progress’ that also increasingly is eliminating privacy, it might be said, is another limiting factor for aspiring revolutionaries and terrorists. The restrictions imposed by this total change of systems, the author alludes, means that future would-be revolutionary organizations are foredoomed to short careers.
Thus, in an unusual (and probably unintended) way, the chronicling of modern Greek history in Greek Urban Warriors can also be understood as a requiem for an earlier and simpler time, when political violence was more predictable and its progenitors more charitable than is the case today.