Skip to main content

Guerrilla Warfare


[clock] 8-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 1978
Guerrilla: A Historical and Critical Study, By Walter Laqueur. Little, Brown. $17.50.

Perhaps the ablest guerrilla leader of the American Revolution was a South Carolinian named Francis Marion. The regulars of the American army laughed at the sight of Marion’s ragtag forces. The British did not find them so amusing, Exasperated by the harrassment of the elusive “Swamp Fox,” they challenged Marion to “come out and fight like a Christian.” Some years later a Prussian officer fighting with French regulars against Spanish guerrillas confided to his diary: “Wherever we arrived, they disappeared, whenever we left, they arrived—they were everywhere and nowhere, they had no tangible center which could be attacked.” Any regular soldier who ever fought against guerrillas could have written this sentence.

Guerrilla techniques were already ancient at the time of the revolutionary wars that closed the 18th century in Europe and in North and South America. But in the 19th century only colonial officers and such eccentrics as Colonel Le Miere de Corvey, better known in his day as a second-rate composer than a first-rate military writer, paid guerrillas much heed. European staff officers were preoccupied with making plans for the deployment of the gigantic citizen armies that hurled themselves upon each other in 1914. In military circles, neglect of the guerrilla phenomenon persisted down through the Second World War.

Then, after 1945, wars of national conquest gave way to wars of national liberation. Challenges to the established order came from Francis Marions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Western soldiers and social scientists subjected guerrilla warfare to intense scrutiny. In the United States in the 1960’s, the fascination with guerrillas reached its height. Myths and misconceptions sprang up like Indians in a Western movie, Walter Laqueur has set himself the task of separating the facts from the myths.

It is a myth, for instance, that Lenin is the century’s leading theorist of guerrilla warfare. It is a fact that in all his published works he devoted only one short article to the subject, and in it he had nothing new to say. But the Lenin myth, and similar myths about Mao, are characteristic of the scholarly literature and the folklore (sometimes it is hard to tell one from the other) on guerrilla warfare. Much of the writing consists of do-it-yourself manuals of revolution and counter-revolution, exemplary tales on wickedness and virtue, and theory-seeking social science. But so varied, Laqueur believes, has the guerrilla experience been not only between different times and places but also from province to province in the same time and place, that it doesn’t lend itself to the formulation of general laws.”In view of its unique character,” he says, “[guerrilla warfare] is a topic for the historian and not the sociologist.”

A leading historian of contemporary Europe, Laqueur has produced, he claims, the first “critical interpretation of guerrilla and terrorist theory and practice throughout history to the present age.” This was a tall order. What began as an essay turned into a three-decker, of which Guerrilla is the first deck. A volume of documents and a volume on terrorism are to follow.

Laqueur makes plain how badly the obsessions of our own times have distorted historical understanding of the guerrilla phenomenon. Guerrilla warfare has been made to seem an invention of the radical left, yet nothing intrinsic to guerrilla tactics keeps a radical right from making resort to them. Guerrillas have fought countless wars unmoved by any ideology worthy of the name. For guerrilla warfare is not a set of military techniques derived from a given body of political ideas, It is a set of techniques, period—and a limited set, at that. Historically, the war of the guerrilla has been as much a desperate way of fending off defeat as a confident strategy for winning victory. It has been an application of the maxim, “He who fights and runs away shall live to fight another day.” It is a tactic of hit and run, hook and crook, wait and see, in the hope that outlasting the enemy will be as good as defeating him in the field. As Lieutenant T. C. H. Frankland, of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, put it: “Guerrilla warfare has as its object the exhaustion of the invader, for the primary aim of driving him away can only be brought in this way; unable to bar his progress to any part of their country, or to prevent his occupation of what territory he chooses, the guerrilla can at least dog his steps, delay his progress and sap his strength until exhaustion or intervention causes the invader to withdraw.” Geronimo understood the principles of guerrilla warfare as if by instinct; so did the Kurds, victims of great-power politics if ever there were any, fighting against the Iraquis for 20 years before giving in to despair and the odds against them.

Laqueur doesn’t deny that thinkers have made a substantial contribution to guerrilla warfare. In a long chapter on the origins of guerrilla doctrine, he discusses figures many readers will never have heard of. Carlo Bianco, for instance, an early 19th-century Italian nationalist, Laqueur credits with establishing the link between guerrilla warfare and radical politics.(Laqueur has a penchant for the obscure. Between Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, and Lettow-Vorbeck of East Africa, he will take Lettow-Vorbeck every time. Lettow held off the British for most of the Great War, an episode that, according to much writing on guerrilla warfare, should never have taken place. As for Lawrence’s exploits; “seldom in the history of modern war has so much been written about so little”.)

Laqueur works by the case study. His book sweeps from the numerous guerrilla actions against the Romans to the decline of the Tupamaros in the early 1970’s, The case-study method has its drawbacks. At times one cannot see the generalizations for the details, and more than one reader will find out more about some guerrillas than he cares to know,

Because Laqueur does attend to so many cases, Guerrilla will make an excellent reference work. But it is more than that. Laqueur devotes entire chapters to the Resistance and to the revolutions in China and Vietnam. These large cases enable him to illustrate large themes. He joins such historians as Gordon Wright in regarding the significance of resistance to the Germans as mainly political. His study of Vietnam is a useful reminder that guerrillas had little to do with the outcome of that 30-years war. The defeats that caused the French to get out in 1954 and the government of South Vietnam to collapse in 1975 came at the hands of regular North Vietnamese troops. Vauban, the 17th-century French army engineer, would have been quite at home at Dien Bien Phu.

Reading Laqueur is not likely to encourage a revolutionary to take up his rifle and head for the hills. In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, it became fashionable to think of guerrillas as invincible. This idea had already been done great damage by such studies as Chalmers Johnson’s Autopsy on People’s War and J. Bowyer Bell’s The Myth of the Guerrilla. Laqueur lays it to rest. His book is a tale of disappointment and defeat, miscalculation and betrayal. The faith of the radical left in the efficacy of guerrilla warfare is an odd phenomenon. From the so-called Battle of Algiers, for example, radicals extracted uplift and instruction for “urban guerrillas;” they chose to ignore how handily the French smashed the terrorist apparatus of the FLN.

In the late 1960’s, revolutionaries in Latin America concluded that the strategy of “two, three, many Vietnams”—the defeat of the city by the countryside—was not going to succeed. Reverting to what amounted to a Blanquist tactic, they attacked power at its urban source. This didn’t work, either.

In discussing the failure of the Tupamaros in Uruguay, Laqueur lays bare the dilemmas of both revolutionary terrorism and liberal democracy. Restraints on the use of the power of the state, a chief tenet of liberal democracy, enable terrorists to get away with murder. The removal of these restraints puts terrorism in jeopardy, but it also jeopardizes liberal democracy. As the case of Brazil makes clear, all that is required to defeat terrorism is utter ruthlessness on the part of the state—the deprivation of civil liberties, the resort to torture, officially-tolerated murder, and so on. The Tupamaros learned this to their cost. But the price of defeating terrorism was the surrender of the institutions of a liberal democracy. Or as the French radical Régis Debray put it, “in digging the grave of liberal Uruguay, the Tupamaros dug their own.”

Guerrilla is a convincing demonstration that the ways men take to the bush have been as endless in variety as their reasons why. Lettow-Vorbeck and Che Guevara, to take only two such men, had in common the mastery of a tactic. For the causes in which they put guerrilla warfare to use, each might gladly have had the other shot.

Laqueur is one historian who doesn’t mind speculating on the future. The most successful guerrilla wars of modern times have been those working to overthrow the rule of the foreigner. But the end of European empire has left few foreigners to overthrow. Prospects for the continued success of the ancient tactics have dimmed. This is not to say that conditions impossible to foresee will not once again make times propitious for the guerrilla (in Rhodesia and South Africa, the times may remain propitious). Nor does it mean that such groups as the South Moluccans in Holland will not continue to seek by terrorism the fulfillment of desperate dreams.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading