Commentary Magazine

Grandeur and Misery of Guerrilla Warfare

My title paraphrases that of Clemenceau’s war memoirs. It is intended to suggest the central ambiguity of guerrilla fighting—its combination of petty and even squalid means with a level of personal heroism far above what is customary in orthodox combat. It may also bring to mind Clemenceau’s other and more celebrated phrase that war is too important to be left to the generals. In the activities of guerrillas, the professional soldier and the civilian blend: it is often difficult to tell one from the other. Here the talented amateur has traditionally had a free field; a few lucky hits, and he may find himself almost overnight established as the expert to whom the professionals defer.

I have before me no less than seven recently published books in the field of guerrilla warfare. Doubtless there are others that have escaped my notice. Most of them are brief and professional in tone, and all devote major attention to Communist use of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla tactics. Of primary interest are the classic works by revolutionary leaders themselves—Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara—which are now for the first time made readily available in English translation. Two specialized studies deal with Russian guerrilla activities in the Second World War and with the protracted (and continuing) postwar struggle in Indochina.1 An un-classifiable book is the dignified and pathetic account by an exiled Lithuanian of partisan resistance in his country against the imposition of Soviet rule. 2 Finally there are a pair of general works that try to acquaint the American reader with the whole range of irregular military experience—Peter Paret’s and John W. Shy’s Guerrillas in the 1960’s3 and a volume of essays edited by Franklin Mark Osanka under the title Modern Guerrilla Warfare. 4

Of these, the latter is by far the more helpful and complete. Its contributors, totaling over thirty, include several of the authors of the specialized volumes, and it conscientiously tries to cover all important Communist-led movements, plus the military campaigns directed against them, during the past two decades. Necessarily there are many overlaps and repetitions of material; an additional difficulty is that a number of the essays, which originally appeared as articles in military journals, have not been adequately revised and brought up to date. These criticisms aside—and with allowance for the militantly anti-Communist attitude of most of the contributors—the Osanka volume will doubtless take its place as the standard work on contemporary guerrilla warfare.



Why this flurry of interest? Apparently our countrymen have suddenly awakened to the importance of irregular armed formations; after long neglect and obscurity as the stepchildren of the American military establishment, the various types of unconventional forces have emerged into an unexpected blaze of public attention. In May 1961, President Kennedy told the Congress that he was “directing the Secretary of Defense to expand rapidly and substantially . . . the orientation of existing forces for the conduct of . . . para-military operations and . . . unconventional wars.” Shortly thereafter one of the President’s intellectual advisers, Walt W. Rostow, in an address to a graduating class of counter-guerrilla trainees, “saluted” his audience “as I would a group of doctors, teachers, economic planners, agricultural experts, civil servants, or those others who are now leading the way in the whole southern half of the globe in fashioning new nations and societies that will stand up straight and assume in time their rightful place of dignity and responsibility in the world community.” This speech—the most extensive and authoritative administration statement on the subject—appropriately figures as the concluding essay in the Osanka volume.

What has happened, of course, is that our government has discovered that it has run out of military policies—or rather, that none of the policies devised thus far has proved capable of meeting the real Communist challenge. We tried “containment” first, then “massive retaliation,” then the present “mix” of “deterrence” and “counterforce” which has ended by confusing nearly everyone. In each case—with the exception of the first two years of containment—the strategy was too cumbersome for the end in view. It carried too many risks of “escalation” into all-out nuclear war. In brief, it proved itself powerless to deal with Communist and semi-Communist “nibbling.” And this was the only form in which Communism was making advances throughout the 1950’s. To our grieved surprise, we discovered that we could not stop jungle guerrillas with the threat of hydrogen bombs.

This is the central problem to which the authors of the present studies—roughly half military and half civilian—address themselves. The dilemma is cogently put by Samuel P. Huntington, who writes in the introduction to the Osanka volume: “In the future the United States may find itself forced to act in areas and in ways in which it can no longer bring to bear overwhelming military might. It may find itself forced to lead from weakness rather than from strength, its military power caught in the twin fetters of political exigency and mutual deterrence.” Khrushchev has made his own position quite clear: while arguing with his Chinese ideological allies that full-scale war should be avoided, he has explicitly excepted “wars of national liberation”—i.e., infiltration by guerrillas. Such has been the pattern in the immediate past: such is it likely to be in the future.

In studying the theory and practice of guerrilla warfare, our authors have three stated aims and a fourth which hovers uneasily in the background of their thinking. The first and most obvious is to discover what “the enemy” is up to. The second is to assess the possibilities of counter-guerrilla action. The third, less familiar and much grimmer, is to sketch a “broken-back” strategy—the chances for further resistance open to a power that has been “defeated” in an exchange of nuclear blows. Finally—and for the most part only by implication—it remains to reckon with the radical proposal of converting the national military establishment to primary reliance on irregular or citizen formations for territorial defense.

Most of the volumes start with some species of historical survey. It is no news to hear that guerrilla activities have a pedigree stretching back for centuries; the only novelty is to find lined up in a common tradition military exploits that have been dealt with in isolated accounts or on the margin of the usual histories of warfare. The earliest example given is of the Breton hero Bertrand du Guesclin, who in the Hundred Years War demoralized the English by his hit-and-run tactics and his refusal to fight a pitched battle. Some of our authors also remind us that we ourselves have a great guerrilla among our military forebears—the Revolutionary “swamp-fox,” Francis Marion, whose perennial popularity with schoolboys belies the prevailing impression that Americans naturally incline to tidily ordered campaigns, well weighed down with the latest military hardware and lavish PX supplies for the troops. Men like du Guesclin and Marion, however, figure only as precursors. Everyone agrees that the modern phenomenon of guerrilla warfare begins with the Spanish resistance to Napoleon—hence the name “little war.” And from here the descent is clear to the Russian skirmishing attacks of 1812, the Boer commandos which kept the British in South Africa at bay for two full years, the partisan movements in both Eastern and Western Europe during the Second World War, and the postwar risings of Communist or leftist forces in Greece, China, Southeast Asia, Algeria, and Cuba.

Yet in the continuity of these hundred and fifty years of guerrilla history one notable change emerges. The 19th-century irregulars were patriotic conservatives—peasants or men with the mentality of peasants tenaciously fighting to repulse the foreigner who, like Napoleon and the British proconsuls in South Africa, threatened the old ways of doing things. Contemporary guerrillas are revolutionaries—and sometimes, as in Southeast Asia, foreigners or semi-foreigners themselves. Indeed, in contemporary usage, guerrilla warfare and revolutionary warfare are almost synonymous. Here Mao Tse-tung ranks as the great innovator. Since the Communist Chinese “Long March” of 1934—1935—the largest and most dramatic single episode in the history of irregular combat—all major guerrilla leaders have also been social revolutionaries. And by the same token the geographical and class location of revolutions has shifted. In the 19th and early 20th centuries these were based on the “advanced” middle class and workers of the great cities: today they originate in the back country and among the peasantry.

Everywhere, then, in the contemporary world guerrilla warfare has a certain family resemblance. Whether or not the leaders have read Mao’s classic work on the subject, whether they are true Communists or merely agrarian revolutionaries, the pattern of their activities is much the same. This is the pattern our authors are trying to establish—and in doing so, to find ways of breaking it.



Most students of the military art incline to lapidary formulas. They like to reduce the complexities of strategy to a few simple injunctions which can be relied on in moments of stress to spring to mind with the force of the self-evident. Our writers on guerrilla warfare are no exception. They delight in Mao’s four-character precept “Sheng Tung, Chi Hsi”—which roughly seems to mean “when things get hot in the east, strike in the west”—or the French Maquis’s “surprise, mitraillage, évanouissement.” Each writer has his own definition. But the clearest and most inclusive is Huntington’s: “Guerrilla warfare is a form of warfare by which the strategically weaker side assumes the tactical offensive in selected forms, times, and places.

Here the key phrase is “strategically weaker side.” It covers all the apparently conflicting and overlapping manifestations of the guerrilla’s art. In much of the public discussion of irregular warfare, these distinctions are obliterated or forgotten. Thus hasty writers treat a spontaneously engendered force like Castro’s—which started from a nucleus of only twelve men—as the equivalent of a regular army unit obliged by ill fortune to resort to guerrilla activity. Guerrilla tactics may be constant—they have in common the shifts and dodges of the weak facing the strong—but the origins and ultimate goals of individual forces give each movement a different emotional tone. One of the problems of retraining soldiers for irregular warfare is to make them accept as normal a method of fighting that seems to violate all the rules—and in which matchless bravery lies hidden under the constant necessity of running away from the enemy. Similarly, the supreme irony of the natural-born guerrilla band is that its moment of greatest danger comes when it feels strong enough to go over to regular warfare in the open field.

In the current enthusiasm for guerrillas, the lesson of their relative weakness is likely to be neglected. More particularly our government may expect too much from the organization of counter-guerrilla forces. In this connection, it is important to review what our authors have to say about the unavoidable limitations of irregular warfare.

It is not surprising to find them in agreement on the overriding importance of a good relationship with the surrounding population. Nearly all cite Mao’s familiar phrase about the guerrillas as fish and the people as the water in which they swim, and it is reassuring to find at last the locus classicus itself properly embedded in the Chinese leader’s own words. Yet closer inspection reveals that the relation of guerrillas to people is far less simple than this homely saying would suggest: the trouble with nearly every proverb is that there is another in circulation which exactly contradicts it. Revolutionary guerrillas may spring from the people and find their natural habitat among them. Yet at the same time they may be feared and hated by these same people—for they loot and burn, they impress peaceful peasants into their ranks, and they bring down upon innocent villagers the ruthless reprisals of their enemies. In most cases the local people must at the very least be of divided mind about the guerrillas whom they feed and harbor.

I find it hard to get at the truth. If one reads Mao Tse-tung’s own words, one is impressed by the sweet reasonableness of his tone (no wonder so many Americans twenty years ago took him to be no more than an “agrarian reformer”!). He is all for humanity and all for courtesy in relations between his troops and their hosts. The “Three Rules and the Eight Remarks” devised by his Eighth Route Army, besides the basic injunction “do not steal from the people,” contain such heartwarming down-to-earth precepts as “roll up the bedding on which you have slept” and “do not bathe in the presence of women.” Yet we know that behind the bland tone there has often lurked terror or the threat of terror. Guerrilla leaders who have read and pondered Mao’s text have not hesitated to behave with utter ruthlessness when circumstances appeared to require it.



Doubtless the truth of each particular guerrilla situation is extremely complex. A fair conclusion might be that a competent and confident guerrilla leader applies terror only as a last resort. For if he does, he lands himself in a vicious circle. He has found terror necessary because the people were not sufficiently on his side. Yet his resort to terror intensifies their hostility. I think it is significant that the three cases of successful counter-guerrilla activity our authors cite—in Greece from 1946 to 1949, in Malaya between 1948 and 1960, and against the Huks in the Philippines—all saw the revolutionaries in question eventually at odds with the local population. In each case also there were special circumstances that aided the work of repression: Greece was close to home and familiar ground for Western material and moral aid; in Malaya, the guerrillas were Chinese and hence foreign to most of the native people; in the Philippines, Ramon Magsaysay accompanied his attacks on the Huks with generous offers of land to those who submitted. Yet even in these optimum conditions, the work of pacification proved long and expensive. It cost the British in Malaya $80,000 per guerrilla fighter!

This kind of evidence makes me skeptical, to say the least, about the potentialities of the commando or counter-guerrilla forces that our country is now training. Surely our current experience in South Vietnam suggests that the waters there are not particularly life-giving to our sort of fish. What do we do when we find that “the people” are not on our side? Do we resort to terror? Or is the uprooting of whole villages—as we are now doing in Vietnam, on the model of British and French practice in Malaya and Algeria—not in itself a kind of bureaucratized and bloodless terror? I have noted already that the guerrilla chief who feels his hold on the people slipping cannot resist the temptation to extort by violence a support that is no longer freely given. How much more will this temptation assail the commander of counter-guerrillas, bewildered, suspicious, and far from home, when the popular backing on which he has counted eludes him?

Here the examples from recent history are instructive—and discouraging. The task of repression in Algeria was carried out by men who had studied the works of Mao and conscientiously tried to imitate their enemies. Yet they failed. What is more, they had the worst of both worlds: the terror they applied profoundly corrupted the French armed forces, but still proved insufficient to the job at hand; the home population grew weary of the struggle, and the young conscripts were sickened to the point of insubordination. Technically the work of repression could have been accomplished: what was lacking were people ruthless enough to go all the way. To find out how to perform such a job really efficiently, one has only to read of the systematic brutalities by which Soviet NKVD troops after eight years of effort snuffed out Lithuanian resistance entirely. But are NKVD troops to be our model? How much re-training can our countrymen stand before they cease to be recognizable as citizens of a democracy?



It is in this context, also, that we Americans need to assess the possibilities of a “broken-back” war or a defense by citizen volunteers. We run a danger of romanticizing the life of the guerrilla or resistance leader. Since we have had no recent experience of such warfare, we tend to forget that there is far more of dirt and agony and heartbreak than there is of gay camaraderie in the life of a partisan fighter. I am troubled when I read that it is not the advocates of peace and reconciliation but rather the vigilantes of the right who have most enthusiastically embraced the notion of a guerrilla defense; in a number of our western and southern towns, I hear, the Americans of unimpeachable virtue are already drilling. Meantime the government has made no official move either to discourage such activities or to direct them into more useful channels. It would be a dreadful irony of our contemporary history if one of the most promising alternatives to thermonuclear deterrence should be exploited as covert support for political reaction.

It is imperative, then, to find a democratic model for a citizen defense—whether we have in mind a “broken-back” war or a conscious shift from nuclear strategy to reliance on conventional weapons. The first of these is almost too grisly to contemplate. I find it difficult to imagine how the inhabitants of our small towns and countryside would have the heart to pick up the pieces of our national life and continue a war effort after our major cities had been blasted. But a responsible government owes it to its people to “think about the unthinkable.” At the very least it needs to make sure that a “broken-back” strategy is based on advance official planning rather than on the private schemes of self-constituted exemplars of patriotism. It is essential to assign before catastrophe strikes the individual tasks that may devolve on each community in the event that direction from the national capital should be cut off.

This reasoning applies both to post-holocaust strategy and to the more humane (and realistic) alternative of a conventional defense without recourse to nuclear arms. In either case, the citizen needs to know precisely what is expected of him, where he is to report, what equipment he should keep ready, how to improvise against unforeseen eventualities. The models for such planning are close at hand—the neutral European democracies, Sweden and Switzerland, which have long placed their reliance on part-time citizen reserves. In both countries, the standard of training is thoroughly professional: the reserve officer or soldier is serious about his commitments. To date, however, the Swiss or Swedish example has found few advocates in our country. The top brass finds it amateurish; to the peace people it smacks of militarism. I know of only one consistent proponent of such a strategy—Frederick M. Stern, whose writings deserve to be added to any bibliography of imaginative thinking on questions of defense.5

Yet even its most strenuous advocates cannot regard citizen defense as a totally satisfactory solution. Its real worth is as a deterrent—a warning to a potential invader that his task will be long and difficult and that he will meet stubborn resistance every step of the way. Such a defense provides no answer to nuclear blackmail; it can mount no more than a desperate delaying action; it may lead to the most ruthless reprisals. Perhaps it is fully effective only in isolated or mountain areas. (During the Second World War, the Swiss were prepared to withdraw from more than half their country and to base their bedrock defense on their Alpine fastnesses alone.) Beyond the tragic heroism of a citizen defense through conventional arms lies non-violent resistance as the ultimate recourse of free men. If nuclear weapons are too terrible to employ, if counter-guerrillas are of doubtful effectiveness and of potential danger to our own values, if a citizen defense is more a deterrent than a viable military solution, non-violence alone remains. Such may be the final—and very simple—lesson of the complexities of contemporary strategic thinking which in its search for sophistication has lost humanity from view.




1Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla Warfare, translated and with an introduction by Brigadier General Samuel B. Griffith (114 pp., $4.50); Che Guevara on Guerrilla Warfare, with an introduction by Major Harries-Clichy Peterson (120 pp., $3.95); Brigadier C. Aubrey Dixon and Otto Heilbrunn, Communist Guerilla Warfare (225 pp., $4.95); George K. Tanham, Communist Revolutionary Warfare: The Vietminh in Indochina (176 pp., $5.00). (All are published by Frederick A. Praeger.)

2 K. V. Tauras, Guerilla Warfare on the Amber Coast (Voyages Press, 110 pp., $3.00).

3 Praeger, 90 pp., $3.50.

4 The Free Press, 519 pp., $7.50.

5 Notably, “Disarmament and a Citizen Army,” Army, October 1960, and The Citizen Army (St. Martin's Press, 1957).

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.