Commentary Magazine


Guerrilla, by Walter Laqueuer

Insurgency

Guerrilla.
by Walter Laqueur.
Little, Brown. 462 pp. $17.50.

The notion that Mao Tse-tung either invented or somehow perfected guerrilla warfare is a myth—one of a number of myths punctured by Walter Laqueur in his new book. Laqueur, a contributing editor of COMMENTARY and the author of, among others works, A History of Zionism and Weimar, has written a historical and critical study which throws a great deal of light on recent insurgent movements and the leaders they have spawned; its insights have much to teach those nations that are threatened by guerrilla movements and guerrilla tactics.

Laqueur begins by examining the history of insurgency since ancient times, providing thereby an overall picture both of guerrilla techniques and of the conditions which favor the growth and prospering of guerrilla movements. Prior to its recent enshrinement in the ideology of the radical Left, he argues, guerrilla warfare was simply another violent means of reaching for mostly political ends. And until the postwar era, when they came to be recognized as an effective fighting tool in their own right, guerrillas were merely considered a nuisance. What changed everything, especially in the lands dominated by the European imperial powers, was World War II, which, among its other effects, “undermined the confidence of the European ruling classes, led to deep economic and political unrest, and created revolutionary situations the world over.” The upsetting of the balance of power in the colonial areas issued in an enormous explosion of guerrilla activity.

But, as Laqueur’s argument shows, the military potential of guerrilla forces remains vastly overrated. Strategically, today’s guerrillas are as inferior to regular armies as they ever were. Harassment and obstruction are the hallmarks of guerrilla tactics, yet these alone cannot reduce an enemy’s army, something that generally must be done if the enemy is to be overthrown. “The Chinese Communists [under Mao] were not revolutionaries in the military field,” Laqueur writes, “for the simple reason that the possibilities and variations of guerrilla warfare are limited.” What defeated the Kuomintang was a regular army, not a band of doughty guerrillas; insurgency alone, as Mao well knew, could not win a war.

Vietnam is another example of the same rule. The Vietminh shifted back and forth from guerrilla to regular operations as conditions in their war with the French permitted. By 1954 they had resumed conventional tactics; the battle of Dien Bien Phu was a full-scale military engagement fought by two identifiable armies. France lost the battle and left the war. This pattern of fighting did not change much when the United States became involved in Vietnam. The Vietcong, unable to win on their own, accepted conventional military support from the North. Laqueur notes that “the number of North Vietnamese regulars who had been dispatched to the South by 1967 was estimated at 70,000.”

Insurgents succeed, Laqueur concludes, when they abandon their tactics for conventional methods, or when they join with conventional forces—or, alternatively, when their enemies do not or cannot defend themselves. The Batista dictatorship in Cuba, for example, was so weak and disinclined to resist that it crumbled at the first challenge; Castro won Cuba without a single major confrontation in the field. A weakness of a different kind is presented by liberal democratic governments, whose susceptibility to public opinion and those who shape it renders them perilously vulnerable to guerrilla tactics.

Laqueur stresses that there is no single political formula which explains the cause of recent—or ancient—guerrilla rebellions. In many African countries, the nationalism lit by Europe’s disavowal of colonial ambition had great effect; events can also be set in motion by charismatic leadership à la Castro or Zapata; agrarian reform was at the heart of some insurrections and had absolutely nothing to do with others. Common to all is some dissatisfaction or other, though the list of grievances is as long as the list of actual guerrilla insurgencies and parallels the gamut of human misery itself.

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The “myths” of guerrilla warfare to which Laqueur addresses himself—that it is an agent of radical change, that it is invariably successful, that it is always undertaken to replace inequality with equality—might be described a bit less charitably as delusions, delusions that are peculiarly characteristic of our time. Today the very word “guerrilla” carries an aura of legitimacy about it, which may be why it is the favored self-description of hostage-takers and murderers-with-a-cause who are really not guerrillas but terrorists. Insofar as people in the West accept such idealized but inaccurate views, their willingness to resist insurgents, or help others resist them, becomes diminished. In this respect, not the least of the virtues of Laqueur’s book is its deflation of Mao-Tse-tung’s reputation as a guerrilla leader. Mao is often given credit in the West for the discovery or first use of a new or different and highly successful instrument for the seizure of power. By showing that this credit is undeserved, Guerrilla takes a step toward thinning the general esteem still reserved for that late tyrant.

In his thorough and commendably impartial way, Walter Laqueur has done much to clarify the nature of guerrilla warfare—what it is, and especially what it is not. His masterful book is neither rhetorically charged nor tendentious—although it is an implicit comment on the extent to which the myths about guerrillas have become embedded in our way of thinking that such clarification should be needed in the first place. One hopes that this book will become a standard text both for students of military and political history and for those in and out of government who must deal with the guerrilla phenomenon either as an actuality or as an idea.

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