College Quarterly
Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3

No Frills Learning

The No-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism
Jonathan Barker
Toronto: New Internationalist/Between the Lines, 2000

The No-Nonsense Guide to the Arms Trade
Gideon Burrows
Toronto: New Internationalist/Between the Lines, 2002

Reviewed by Iain Munro

Here we have two more "guides" in the "No-Nonsense" series, which has now numbers at least sixteen. These books follow nicely the keystone volume in the series, the No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization (Wayne Ellwood, 2001), which was previously reviewed in the College Quarterly by Anna Kim (Fall 2003, Volume 6 Number 1). The 'teach yourself' tradition has an honourable lineage, a movement that began in earnest, early in the twentieth century, as pocket-sized books which self-educating individuals could carry with them wherever they went. Little Blue Books in the United States had thousands of titles on issues from "How Comic Strips Are Made" (No. 519) to "How to Choose a Mate Scientifically" (No. 1814). Just before the Second World War, Teach Yourself Books began publishing in Britain to offer practical help in support of the war effort (with titles like "Pig Keeping" and "Air Navigation") and are still around today, offering self-instruction help on topics from Czech to Chi Kung. In France, the first "Que sais-je" guides were published in 1941, in a size format only slightly smaller than the No-Nonsense guides under review, and have now burgeoned to over 3,600 titles in 43 languages, with hundreds of millions of copies world-wide. Since then, these ground-breaking series have spawned innumerable imitators. In Canada we have the ubiquitous "Coles Notes" which, although universally despised by academe, have helped countless students through the last minute essays and exam preparation. As pedestrian and uneven as they are, Coles Notes were often 'ghost written' by some surprisingly competent educators and, if we were all a little more generous (and honest), we would have to agree that they did have their place.

In the last few decades, we have the creative educational use of cartoons in the enjoyable "Beginners" series, as in Marx for Beginners and Yoga for Beginners. But perhaps the most successful permutation has been the astounding fecundity of the self-deprecating "… for Dummies" series—some traditional titles such as French for Dummies have blossomed into Sex for Dummies, Knitting For Dummies and Grant-Writing for Dummies. And a rival "… for Complete Idiots Series" offers such esoteric possibilities as The Complete Idiots Guide to Simple Living and the The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam. Does anyone know a head of state that might find this last one useful?

All kidding aside, I'll state my bias in advance—I love these books—not just because they promote the concept of taking charge of your own education, but also because they support the essentially democratic notion that education can and should be freely available to all, which is an idea fundamental to our view of education's role in any modern democratic society. There are many nineteenth century precedents. Out of Scotland were born the Mechanics Institutes, which rapidly expanded throughout Britain and thence to Canada and Australia. Here were the opportunities for a seminal education for workers—albeit provided after-hours, and often financed by the factory owners themselves. When these owners discovered to their dismay that a little too much learning might be a dangerous thing, the support for these endeavours passed on to the unions. As well, institutions such as Britain's Open University, and Canada's Frontier College, are progeny of these earlier initiatives.

This brings me to a review of these two "No-Nonsense" guides. This is a wonderful series—from the aforementioned volume on globalization, to Islam, world media, HIV/AIDS, world poverty, indigenous peoples, democracy, sexual diversity, and international migration—sixteen titles so far, and counting. Each of the "Guides" is organized encyclopaedically for intelligent and easy reference. I found that the comprehensive indexes worked well and the accompanying bibliographies, although short, were both current and carefully chosen. I especially liked the "Contacts" list of addresses and phone numbers of those organisations, both international and Canadian, that were directly related to each book's theme. Additionally, all books in this series provide an abundance of charts, maps, photos and 'side-bar' case study discussions whenever appropriate. The mini-discussions are especially helpful in elucidating arguments made in the accompanying text. For example, in The No-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism, Jonathan Barker's chapter on the character and history of state terrorism is poignantly illuminated by a mini-overview of the Inquisition's methodical and ruthless extermination of the Cathars in thirteenth century France. And, in The No-Nonsense Guide to the Arms Trade, Gideon Burrows provides a concise and disturbing overview of the gradual insinuation of the anti-democratic global surveillance trade into every aspect of our lives—an expansion that has only accelerated since the attack on the World Trade Center.

In the No-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism, Jonathan Barker takes the clear position that it would have been much more desirable for Bush and Blair to have treated terrorism as an international crime rather than as the object of a world war. If the attacks of al-Qaeda had been treated as an international crime, the traditional and extant global police agencies could have cooperated effectively in meeting that threat. Multi-national coalitions to fight these horrendous crimes would have been certainly much easier to form than was G.W. Bush's rather leaky 'coalition of the willing.' It is also interesting to note the extent to which Barker's views intersect and reflect those of Noam Chomsky. However, Jonathan Barker is not as US-centric as Chomsky and confronts events such as the Pinochet's reign in Chile as being at least partially 'home-grown.' This is perhaps not surprising considering Barker's own earlier academic investigations into the nature of local responsibility in healthy democracies.

For Barker, September 11 was not the start of a new era, but only a particularly gruesome incident of a continuing historical reality. He correctly recognizes that one of the chief problems in the debate is one of definition, and in the danger for misuse of such dicta as 'one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.' The Guide then is founded upon the simple and straight-forward definition of writer Boaz Ganor, which contains three concrete elements, which I underline: "terrorism is the intentional use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims."

Using this definition as an analytical filter, Barker makes it very clear that terrorism can be equally applied to governments as well as to non-governmental groups, while at the same time excluding all non-violent political actions like civil disobedience and violent guerrilla actions against military or police forces. This approach provides the basis for a provocative and insightful analysis from both a global and historical point of view. Also useful is Barker's recognition that counter-terrorism itself often can be a form of terrorism.

Barker covers his ground well. He warns that terrorism is still only one of the many ways that humans have harmed one another. In 1998, for example, there was a worldwide total of 6,694 deaths from terrorist acts, while in that same year there were 16,970 murders in the US alone—along with 41,501 road traffic deaths. What separates these crimes from say, the military bloodbaths on the Somme, or at Verdun, however, is terrorism's particularly despicable brand of violence against the defenceless. Non-state varieties range from actions of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation in the United States, to terrorism of the Front de Libération de Québec in Canada, the Neo-Nazis of Europe, the Aum Shinrikyo in Japan—and of course the terrorism of ubiquitous al-Qaeda. Paradoxically, the latter has only grown in prestige since President Bush's declaration of a "war" on terrorism elevated the reputation of Osama bin Laden to almost mythic proportions. Since then, groups as disparate as Colombia's FARC and Palestine's Hamas are now talking with one another for the first time.

State-sponsored terrorism however has an even bloodier past—ranging from the distribution of small-pox infected blankets to North American aboriginals in the nineteenth century, to the Nazi and Stalinist terrorism of their own people in the twentieth, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions. And so it has continued—with the legions of death squads of Latin America (often CIA sponsored and trained), the parallel murders of a million of their respective religious minorities by India and Pakistan at the time of their birth as independent nations, the Indonesian government's repression in East Timor and in more recent times, the horrific events in Rwanda—as we all stood by and watched.

Following separate chapters devoted to both group and state sponsored terrorism, Barker places both in a broader historical context, from the state sponsored varieties like the French Reign of Terror in the 1790's to the Argentinean disappearances in the 1970's. Using this broad definitional template, it soon becomes apparent that the 9/11 of General Pinochet (1973) is not unrelated to the 9/11 of al-Qaeda (2001). In a chapter on "Morality and History," one can review with fresh eyes events like the intentional mass killing of civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima by the democratic allies. In these cases, arguments over the legitimacy of consequences do not change the fact that these were both terrorist acts. Wherever innocent non-combatants have intentionally died, regardless of the long-term political motives and justifications for it, those events indisputably will remain acts of terrorism. Until we all face up honestly to this reality, there can be no frank discussion of these events. Barker, in a personal plea regarding our reactions to the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks, says this is not the time to shut down debate on these issues, "we need to feel, we need to talk and we need to think." His little comprehensive guide is an excellent start.

Gideon Burrows' The No-Nonsense Guide to the Arms Trade is likewise rich in universal detail and historical comprehensiveness. Again this review is directly resonant with the events of 9/11, as well as being a powerful exemplar of the dark side of globalization, a key theme in the whole No-Nonsense series. Here we learn about some of the most frightening and ominous facts about the multi-national players in the arms trade, players, to put it bluntly, who depend for their success on the perpetuation of state-sanctioned war, murder and general universal mayhem.

In the author's own words, his Guide is a work of passion and not just a textbook. "Its value is as a tool for spreading information and for future campaigning." When al-Qaeda struck New York and Washington, Burrows tells of protesting outside the biggest arms exhibition ever held on British soil and of being told by the police that the protestors must be "sick"—"for continuing to be here after what happened." To any reflective individual, that protest was now even more appropriate. And naturally the arms exhibition continued as well, in an exhibition hall full of sworn enemies eagerly buying up the toys with which to kill and maim each other's children.

What drives Burrows' passion is the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of the arms trade. Of the ten largest arms dealers, at least eight are Western democracies, with the US trade in arms more than triple that of its nearest competitor, Russia. Here we have modern democracies, four of which are also permanent members of the UN Security Council and which ostensibly are committed to human rights and civic safety, simultaneously aiding and abetting their own multi-national agents of death. In the US alone, an average of 4.37 million small arms is produced annually. There is now at least one gun for every 11 of the world's people. Burrows also tells us of how electro-shock devices, the weapons of choice for the torturer, are used to terrorize captive individuals in over 76 countries. A leading manufacturer of the stun 'belt' (the US firm, Stun Tech Inc.) proudly claims that its belts have been worn by over 50,000 prisoners worldwide. And even the despicable landmines, in spite of a universal ban, are still being manufactured and traded covertly at international arms fairs.

Gideon Burrows then takes us on a tour of the world's worst victims of the global arms trade, from Sierra Leone and the Congo to the Balkans, India, Pakistan, Israel and Sri Lanka. The Guide is especially helpful in detailing the ghastly impact this continues to have on human rights and national development in the recipient states. Burrows is explicit, "Earth is a planet at war, and to a large extent this is a consequence of the illegal and illicit sale of arms." He quotes Art Buchwald who succinctly asks, "How can we work for peace when we are preparing so many countries for war?"

Moreover, the hypocrisy continues within the context of aid to the underdeveloped world. Tony Blair, in a rousing speech at the start of his second term in office following 9/11, vowed to make Africa, this "scar on the face of the conscience of the world," a major focus of his crusade against world poverty. We now know that nothing much has changed and that the arms trade, largely subsidized by complicit democratic governments (which means indirectly by you and by me), continues to fuel a "never-ending, vicious cycle of poverty and debt," especially within those very countries and regions that can least afford it. The poor are poor largely because of their monstrous, unsupportable debt loads—much of it derived from their international arms purchases.

Finally, in chapters entitled "Dirty Deals" and "The Business of Death," Burrows explores such topics as the hideous brutalization of child soldiers, the pathetic stupidity of "smart bombs," and the continuing horror of the countless millions of live mines and "bomblets" lying in wait for innocents worldwide. The classic rebuff to criticism from these merchants of death is that they are only looking after business, and that it is governments, and not them, that make the rules. Burrows points out that the complicity is jointly shared, mainly because of the 'revolving doors' of government officials, both elected and unelected, moving easily, and often continuously, in and out of senior government and arms trade positions. Never before have moguls of big business, many of them arms manufacturers as well, had such a lock on the control of senior posts in the US Pentagon. This is a world that, since the events of 9/11, remains "as murky, secret and immoral as it always has been." And this is not a James Bond script. This is for real.

In the foreword to each No-Nonsense Guide, the book review editor for The Independent of London, Boyd Tonkin, praises the whole series, which together "hint at a resurgence of the grand educational tradition" of self-directed learning. The No-Nonsense Guides "target those topics that a large army of voters care about, but that politicos evade. Arguments, figures and documents combine to prove that good journalism is far too important to be left to (most) journalists." Tonkin is right and, if it were in my power (and pocketbook), I would provide every politician, journalist and teacher with a full set of these guides for reference and illumination.

Iain Munro is Associate Professor of Education at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. His principal professional interest is in democracy and human rights. He can be contacted at (613) 533-3049, ext. 33049 or


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology