Book Excerpt – “Guerrilla Warfare: Kings of Revolution”

Book Excerpt – “Guerrilla Warfare: Kings of Revolution”

Peter Polack


Casemate Publishing has acquired the rights to publish Guerrilla Warfare: Kings of Revolution by Peter Polack for its Casemate Short History series. Guerrilla Warfare: Kings of Revolution is a compendium of prominent guerilla leaders worldwide including George Washington, Simon Bolivar, Mao Zedong and King Ibn Saud. The book profiles each leader and analyzes their military strategy for readers interested in biographies, military history or the history of the countries included in the book. He is the author of Last Hot Battle of the Cold War published by Casemate in 2013. His most recent book was Jamaica, The Land of Film published in 2017.He was a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Warfare and his most recent article, Syria: The Evolution Revolution was published in the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center magazine. In 2014 he became a part time reporter for Reuters News Agency mainly reporting on the Cuban refugee crisis in the Cayman Islands. He is presently researching his next book Hubris: A History of Overreaching.


The concept of guerrilla warfare is not decades but many centuries old with earliest writing on the subject by Sun Tzu dating back to the 6th Century BC.[i] Some guerrilla tactics are probably as old as the first armed groups of cavemen, being a natural evolution of conflict between groups of disproportionate sizes. [ii] One of the earliest examples of guerrilla tactics deployed by a consummate institutional military leader was the Roman general Fabius Maximus who took a course of evade and harassment against Hannibal’s columns when the opportunity arose, much to the dismay of the Roman Senate who argued for a classic offensive battle.[iii]

This is a compendium of some prominent worldwide guerrilla leaders beginning with William Wallace in the thirteenth century to modern day Sri Lanka. The book seeks to profile each leader to analyze their personal history, military tactics and political strategy. This endeavor limits itself to homegrown leaders in extended guerrilla campaigns many of whom ended up as the first leaders of their countries or liberators of entire regions such as Simon Bolivar.[iv] It includes victories and defeats in an effort to tease out not only effective guerrilla tactics but counter-insurgency strategies with some likelihood of success.

Whilst there is certain to be punditry as to the exclusion of some lesser guerrilla fighters and leaders, this book is devoted for the most part to successful guerrilla leaders or those who were successful in changing their society. In this case, success can also mean an enduring symbol of encouragement for self-determination. Popular Che Guevara was not included as a commander of two minor, failed campaigns in the Congo and Bolivia the last of which led to his death. That scenario played out against a local population of scarce resources and inhospitable areas of operation.[v] It would be a very steep hill to emulate and exceed Bolivar in Latin America.

This effort proposes to provide the widest cross section over time, region and country with regret for exclusion of the many qualified: Canadian Louis Riel, Haitian Toussaint L’Overture, Cuban Antonio Maceo, Farabundo Marti of El Salvador, Nicaraguan Augusto Cesar Sandino, Irish Michael Collins, Ethiopian Haile Selassie, Israeli Menachem Begin, Mozambican Samora Machel, Peruvian Shining Path Chairman Gonzalo, Mexican Zapatista Sub-Commandante Marcos, Chechen Shamil Basayev.

For the doubters that question the inclusion of General George Washington, reference is made to the excellent George Washington’s Surprise Attack by Phillip Thomas Tucker that dissects his attack on Trenton, conducted in a most guerrilla manner last seen in a larger and more modern scenario at Dien Bien Phu. Guerrillas certainly existed in ancient Greece and Rome as these empires sought to grow and often enslave enemies in the quest for expansion. Roman history is replete of the many states that resisted the great republic’s domination, premier among them, was the most successful enemy of Rome, Hannibal of Carthage.[vi]

Modern guerrilla warfare or insurgency has given rise lately to the term, asymmetrical warfare, in essence the conflict between two opposing forces of different strength and strategy.[vii] This differs from the classic historical conflict and war where opposing forces were well matched in size and weaponry. The concept of guerrilla encompassing rural areas of remote operation that offer vast areas of camouflage from the enemy has become muted against increasingly population center conflicts that more resemble the siege of Stalingrad than the jungles of Columbia.

The advice expounded by Mao Zedong that: “the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea” with his experiences of long marches over distant countryside regions of China has become a more urbanized context.[viii] The name insurgent, freedom fighter or jihadi is fast replacing guerrilla. The old guerrilla associated with fights for independence and the end of colonialization has dimmed for the modern and far reaching religious insurgencies.

There is no romanticism in being a guerrilla or insurgent. As Eden Pastora, Commandante Cero famously said: "The first thing we revolutionaries lose is our wives. The last thing we lose is our lives. In between our women and our lives, we lose our freedom, our happiness, our means of living." [ix] In 1991, I met this famous figure very early one morning in Guanacaste, Costa Rica transporting fish in a small pick-up to sustain himself and his family.

On 22 August 1978 Commandante Cero led a group disguised as Nicaraguan national guard soldiers to seize the National Palace, many Congress Deputies as well as close associates and family of the now deceased dictator, Somoza. After payment of ransom money as well as release of many political prisoners, including top politicians of Nicaragua today, the hostages were released amidst much propaganda.[x]

Eden Pastora Gomez was born in 1937 and founded the Sandino Revolutionary Front in 1959, becoming a guerrilla in the Pancasan campaign of 1967 which began in the town of Pancasan located in central Nicaragua. After leading the capture of the Nicaraguan Assembly, he became commander of the Southern Front and then Vice-Minister of Defence upon the Sandinistas taking power until 1980.[xi]

Disputes with the Sandinista leadership led him to start operations against them during the Contra war before exiling himself to Costa Rica where he obtained citizenship in the 1990’s. he returned to Nicaragua in 2010 after settling differences with the Sandinista government who put him in charge of dredging the Rios San Juan as part of the proposed Nicaragua canal project with the Chinese.[xii]

The Tico Times - Left - Miguel Ortega, Commandante Cero (Eden Pastora) Nicaragua Costa Rica Border c.1980 – Right - Commandante Cero and the author Guanacaste Costa Rica December 1991.                                                            

The term guerrilla comes from the Spanish word for war, guerra which itself has origins in the old German word for quarrel, werra.

It first arose in the 19th century to describe Spanish irregulars during a part of the Napoleonic wars called the Iberian Peninsula War and was probably used by supporting English troops, to characterize Spanish militia fighting throughout the countryside in a non-traditional, ad hoc manner which tied down the invading French army with their historically strict tactics.

It would be helpful that citizens of countries that have active local militia groups, both government and private who associate lawfully, appreciate that these same units may often be the last defence of the defenceless in the all too common scenario of conflict and invasion.The only certain thing is that history will repeat itself. These can often be as simple as a parochial gun club if properly regulated being restricted to the fit, the brave and the competent.

It is of interest that the common usage of the world guerrilla began with a conflict between two countries that had very similar words for war being guerre in French and guerra in Spain however the Spanish term oft used is la guerra, the feminine form similar to la lucha, the struggle. It is somewhat contradictory that the feminine form if a word is used to describe something a woman would not usually support as mother, wife or political leader, war. There are of course some exceptions such as Celtic queen Boadicea, and Mariana Grajales Coello, mother of Cuban independence fighter Antonio Maceo.[xiii]

The term guerrilla has evolved over the years as a unisex term for insurgents or freedom fighters but in strict usage from the Spanish origin a male fighter would be a guerrillero and a female guerrillera.

There are many common elements to the rise of guerrilla warfare across the world and ages namely, enslavement of a particular group, wide economic disparity, racial or religious division and imperialist ambitions. Historically, expansive gaps in wealth often combine with deprivation of rights and opportunity or even outright subjugation to light the fire of resistance. These were prevalent features in the American Revolution which liberated almost an entire continent, the independence wars in Africa and most recently the struggle to preserve regimes in the Middle East amidst theological strife.

One of the earliest examples of enslavement was of the Jews by the Roman Empire that led to many uprisings including one that ended at Masada with the mass suicide of rebel Jewish fighters.[xiv]

A more modern example of guerrilla wars emanating from racial division was the extensive multi-country armed rebellion due to the system of apartheid in South Africa that spilled over into Namibia and Angola.

This is not meant to be an all-encompassing historical record of every detail of every battle fought by the guerrilla leaders, but a synopsis where appropriate to illustrate common guerrilla concepts that have existed and been utilized for centuries, with reliable success. The most recent scenario of a successful but protracted guerrilla campaign is the FARC of Columbia who recently entered into peace accords with the Government of Columbia. This is the natural end to a guerrilla based conflict when they lay down their arms having achieved some or all of their reasonable objectives before re-entering the fabric of society outside a war zone.The phrase that common sense is not common should not be applied to an entire country but for their pragmatic President Juan Manuel Santos, who defied all odds and even some of his core supporters, to force through peace proved someone had the requisite common sense. Colombia can now bloom like their famous roses.

There have been many instances of a conceptual natural end that defies realization as rebel groups repeatedly enter and depart a peace process such as the Renamo of Mozambique. A useful reminder for those guerrilla leaders is the hunt and killing of Jonas Savimbi in 2002 in his home turf of Moxico, Angola after repeatedly delaying peace in the elusive quest for ultimate power.

Whilst this effort has embraced many competent guerrilla leaders of great repute, at the conclusion of this undertaking, the guerrilla king that stood out most was probably the least known, General Koos De la Rey. Others will come to their own conclusion, but in terms of a tactician like many men of war that retained some humanity, he sought only to embrace peace for what he considered his country, and willing to lay down arms when necessary. In the fullness, Koos De la Rey was unmatched.

Readers are commended to watch the outstanding documentary on guerrilla life during the FMLN guerrilla struggle in El Salvador narrated by Martin Sheen appropriately entitled In the Name of the People. The main guerrilla leader in the film, Commandante Ramon who did not survive the struggle, displayed the many essential characteristics of a successful guerrilla leader: cadre discipline, over-arching strategy, competent tactics on the run, compassion. A guerrilla leader must of necessity be relentless and ruthless in pursuit of the aims of the struggle and no better example is that of the FARC leader Manuel Marulanda. From a mere youth, he rose to leadership of the FARC and was able to persist until his death from natural causes in 2008 when the FARC were at the height of their power. Shortly thereafter the Colombian government began a strategy of targeted killings of FARC leaders and psychological warfare that eventually forced the FARC to the peace table.

The FARC also suffered a major blow in 2008 when several hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt as well as three Americans, were handed over by a FARC commander who was also captured after an extensive subterfuge campaign. This was followed up in 2010 with the Colombian Army Christmas campaign when several tall trees in well-known guerrilla areas were lit up with a sign telling guerrillas they could come home that led to several hundred defections.[xv]In a similar action in Christmas 2013, the Colombian government sent seven thousand small led lit plastic balls containing defection encouragement messages down rivers frequented by guerrillas.[xvi]

Specific leadership assassinations are not a new concept in anti-guerrilla warfare but it has seen success recently against Hamas by Israel, the FARC by Colombia, the Taliban by the USA and ISIS commanders by coalition forces. In the case of the two latter groups, there has been no push to the peace talks but a succession of new leaders. The strategy has its limitations. As in all things guerrilla, there comes a time to seek peace. Regrettably that junction is far away in Afghanistan, Syria and less so in Iraq.

Finally, the lessons of guerrilla warfare could be encapsulated in the recommendation of Sun Tzu many centuries ago, to avoid the strong and attack the weak. It is a useful guide beyond guerrilla warfare that is equally applicable to personal life, career and business, unlikely a comparison as this may seem.

End Notes

[i] Sun Tzu on the Art of War-The Oldest Military Treatise in the World, Translated by Lionel Giles, M.A. (1910), Assistant in the Department of Oriental Printed Book, British Museum,1910,15

[ii] James Gorman, Prehistoric Massacre Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers, New York Times,20 January 2016

[iii] Colonel Jeff O’Leary (Ret.), The Centurion Principles Battlefield Lessons for Frontline Leaders, Thomas Nelson, 1982

[iv] Marie Arana, Bolivar: American Liberator, New York, Simon and Schuster, 2013,4

[v] Fifty years later: tracing Che's 'failure' in DR Congo, The Daily Mail,22 April 2015

[vi] The Encyclopedia of WARFARE, London, Amber Books,2013, 91-98

[vii] Richard Norton-Taylor, Asymmetric Warfare, The Guardian,3 October 2001

[viii] Mao Zedong, Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (The Little Red Book), Chapter 6,1946

[ix] Guillermo Camacho, Bolivian Forever, USA, AuthorHouse, 2011,9

[x] Brian Loveman and Thomas M. Davies, Jr.,Che Guevara Guerilla Warfare, University of Nebraska Press, 1985, 363

[xi] R Pardo-Maurer, The Contras, 1980-89 A Special Kind of Politics, Praeger, 1990, 136

[xii] David Hutt, The Tico Times, Winners and losers in Nicaragua’s ‘Grand Canal’ project, 7 October 2012

[xiii]Kwame Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, London, Oxford University Press,2005,276

[xiv] Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition, Translated William Whiston, Hendrickson Publishers,1980, Chapter 9

[xv] Tom Vanden Brook, Propaganda that works: Christmas decorations, USA Today, 13 August 2013

[xvi] Jim Wyss, Psychological warfare meets Hallmark: Colombia’s Christmas ads target guerrillas, Miami Herald, 24 December 2013


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