"The guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog's disadvantages: too much to defend, too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with." Robert Taber's 1965 warning of what America was about to face in Vietnam proved unfortunately accurate. But the efficacy of guerrilla warfare had not always been so formidable an obstacle to Western soldiers. British and French regulars met and defeated countless guerrilla groups throughout the colonial era. Americans had done the same in the Philippines at the turn of the century. In the last half of the twentieth century, most experts agreed that the difference was provided by the melding of a powerful communist political doctrine with a well-conceived military scheme, producing a seemingly new way of war. It seemed as though the West was in for a serious decline of fortune. Indeed, the publisher of Taber's book, The War of the Flea, made the somewhat immodest dust-jacket claim that the new brand of fighting being waged by Third World peoples "... could overrun the United States itself tomorrow!" But, two decades before the century was out, it was the Communist world that was beset with guerrillas while the West was thriving. Like the flea, the guerrilla did not appear to discriminate between its victims.
This form of warfare derives its modern name from Spanish. Guerrilla (little war) described the campaign of persistent, small-scale encounters waged by the people of Spain against Napoleon's ill-fated attempt at conquest during the early years of the nineteenth century. But this type of conflict has a long history. The Greek historian Herodotus described the difficulties faced by the Persian king Darius during his bloody invasion of Scythia (modern Bulgaria) in 512 b.c. The Persians were lucky to escape with most of their heads still attached after constant clashes with the nomadic and mounted Scythians, a people who vanished after lightning hit-and-run raids. More often than not, Rome was engaged in a military endeavor to put down yet one more group of guerrillas. There was the uprising of Salvius the soothsayer (109? b.c.) in Sicily, a countryside struggle lasting five years. The Thracian Spartacus (71? b.c.) managed a brutal conflict of ambush and raid against the legions in Italy itself for two years. And Julius Caesar had his hands full trying to subdue the elusive Britons. Caesar's description of this campaign bears a close resemblance to much of the guerrilla warfare writing of the 1960s. The Roman leader said his legions were incapable of countering guerrillas because "the enemy never fought in close array, but in small parties with wide intervals; and had detachments posted at regular stations, so that one party covered another in turn, and fresh, unspent warriors took the place of the battle weary."
Until the 1950s, the great bulk of these "small wars" had an identical outcome--the counterguerrilla force won. There were exceptions. For example, the American Revolutionary War guerrilla Francis Marion was successful against the British. T. E. Lawrence (see Lawrence of Arabia) and his band of Arabs triumphed against the Turks during World War I. And Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States successfully supported hundreds of thousands of guerrillas against the Axis powers in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia, France, Italy, Burma, Indochina, the Philippines, China, and Malaya during World War II. But in these cases, guerrilla campaigns were ancillary to the more conventional military and naval efforts sponsored by major powers. As in the case of popular Spanish resistance to Napoleon, the ultimate outcome depended more on allied regulars than on the farmer-guerrillas waiting to spring a cleverly concealed ambush. And plenty of guerrilla forces operated on losing sides. In the American Civil War, John Mosby and William Quantrill's guerrillas represented the failed Confederate cause. From the Roman Empire until the mid-twentieth century, the deck appeared to be stacked against the guerrilla.
Mao Tse-tung brought change. His 1938 treatise, significantly entitled On Protracted War, advocated three novel tenets that gave guerrilla warfare new potential. First came an admission that guerrillas alone could not win. Mao therefore envisaged a progressive effort to create regular forces while the guerrillas waged their hit-and-run tactics. At a later phase, guerrillas and regulars would coordinate their campaigns against the opponent. Both styles of fighting, both organizations, were needed to win.
Second, and just as important, Mao demanded a mammoth effort in organizing popular political, logistical, and moral support for guerrillas and regulars. The entire population had to be enlisted in one organization or another, actively joining and giving to the cause. Youths, farmers, teachers, workers, artists, both men and women--every conceivable human group was pointed at the common cause of waging war. The Chinese leader envisioned a symbiotic relationship: he spoke of his guerrillas as being fish and the people as being water. It did not matter if the cause was truly desirable among the people; mass support was so vital that coercion and orchestrated hatred directed at selected scapegoats was encouraged from the start.
Finally, Mao's scheme depended on a refreshing piece of in-your-face honesty: the war would be a long one. There was no crowd-pleasing promise of quick victory, but only the idea that the goal was so worthy that it merited prolonged sacrifice--for generations, if necessary. The notions about not holding ground, concentrating for actions, and dispersing immediately thereafter had been germane to guerrilla warfare long before Mao's appearance. The Chinese Communist leader simply preserved what was worthwhile and added facets, such as developing a support structure among the peasantry and boldly acknowledging the length of the struggle, that gave this ancient form of armed conflict modern potency.
Remaining faithful to his principles, Mao survived the Japanese threat of the late 1930s and early 1940s. By melding guerrilla operations with the efforts of regulars, he defeated Chiang Kai-shek's U.S.-supported Nationalists after World War II, and inspired emulation by many insurgent leaders in the postwar period. Time and again during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Third World guerrilla forces took on Western or Western-supported conventionally armed and organized forces; on occasion, they emerged victorious. French and Portuguese colonialism proved particularly vulnerable, mainly because these two nations failed to create extensive indigenous governmental organizations to produce a native class with a stake in the survival of the colonial regimes. Indochinese, Algerians, Angolans, and the people of Mozambique gained independence from France and Portugal after prolonged guerrilla campaigns. And Western-supported governments were not alone in experiencing severe trials at the hands of Marxist insurgents. Fidel Castro's guerrillas triumphed over Fulgencio Batista's regime in Cuba after the latter was abandoned by the United States. By the mid-1970s, Communist guerrilla warfare gave alarming indications of invincibility.
Politically, the tide turned, but militarily much stayed as the Chinese leader had left it. Marxist regimes themselves began either falling to or being besieged by guerrillas. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Communist Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Angola, Afghanistan, Mozambique, and Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia became engaged in counterinsurgency. These Marxist regimes proved as inept in dealing with insurgents as had the Western-supported governments a few decades earlier. What remains is the stark fact that Mao-style guerrilla warfare is a logical choice for those seeking to overthrow a government. Mao himself said, "Guerrilla strategy is the only strategy possible for an oppressed people."
Robert Asprey, War in the Shadows (1994); Mao Tse-tung, On Protracted War (1938).
The Reader's Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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