Small Wars Journal

The Principles of Destruction in Irregular Warfare: Theory and Practice

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 4:25am

Abstract.  In his influential book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Lt. Col. John A Nagl (U.S. Army, Ret.) comments that the “demands of conventional and unconventional warfare differ so greatly that an organization optimized to succeed in one will have great difficulty in fighting the other. It will likely also be unsuccessful in efforts to adapt itself to meet changing requirements in the course of the type of conflict for which it was not originally designed and trained.”[1] Accordingly, he argues for a complete overhaul of the organizational culture of the U.S. military to make it better suited for unconventional warfare.[2] Over the past decade, the U.S. military has largely heeded his advice and taken efforts to meet the unique demands of ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the restructuring of military forces, revision of training programs, and alteration of acquisition priorities.[3]

Editor's Note: The article fufilled the thesis requirements for a Masters of Science in Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University.

Chapter One: Introduction

But just how different are these two modes of warfare? Do they share any key principles? This study argues that the principle of destruction forms a major continuity between regular and irregular warfare. This conclusion is significant because the principle of destruction is considered by numerous military theorists to be the best means to achieve victory and a defining characteristic of war itself. That it remains valid in both regular and irregular warfare suggests that their differences have been exaggerated and that military institutions should exercise caution before undertaking drastic reforms because the central competency of regular warfare, destruction of enemy forces on the battlefield, is also a crucial component of irregular warfare.

Chapter two introduces the principle of destruction, defines it, and explains its significance in military and strategic theory. Because of his status as the foremost apostle of the principle of destruction, and his larger status as an authority on war itself, the writings of Carl von Clausewitz are referenced extensively. However, other theorists, including critics of the principle, are also examined in order to clarify its meaning and limitations.

Chapter three explains the relationship between regular and irregular warfare, paying special attention to the guerrilla tactics that characterize the latter.

Chapters four, five and six make up the core of the study. Each chapter is an analysis of the theoretical writings and actual experiences of a famous insurgent – T.E. Lawrence, Mao Tse-tung, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, respectively – with a focus on how the principle of destruction manifested in each case, both on the theoretical and practical levels. As three of the most influential theorists of irregular warfare, their writings and life stories have largely defined the modern understanding of the subject, and their case studies are valuable evidence for this study.

Chapter seven analyzes the findings. With one partial exception, the case studies affirm the importance of the principle of destruction in irregular warfare. However, the analysis notes that, in some circumstances, an alternative process, referred to as the “strategy of political exhaustion,” enables the irregulars to achieve victory without deviating from traditional guerrilla warfare.

Chapter eight concludes the study with a brief summary of key findings.


The tendency of military officers to reduce the study of war to a handful of ultra-parsimonious “principles of war” has often been ridiculed as a banal recitation of common sense, as an example of military thick-headedness, or both.[4] It is obvious that a phenomenon as complex as war cannot be encapsulated in a numbered list of tersely-worded paragraphs, as is the danger of elevating such principles to the level of inflexible dogma. However, much of this criticism is misplaced because it incorrectly assumes that the principles are understood to be inviolable laws of action. In a sphere such as warfare, where action towards victory is demanded of soldiers who have little time for contemplating the infinite subtleties of human conflict, the principles of war can be a valuable intellectual tool. “These principles can provide what Colonel Charles A. Hines describes as ‘military planning interrogatories’ – i.e., an analytical framework to reduce general principles and theoretical postulates to pragmatic and operational situations.”[5]

Determining what these principles are and how they apply to actual warfare has been the object of military theory for centuries, and they have changed through time just like war itself.[6] However, one principle in particular can be considered the hinge upon which warfare is conducted, despite the relatively small amount of theoretical analysis it has received: the principle of destruction.


Defining the Principle of Destruction

Stated in its most simple form, the principle of destruction holds that the most effective way to impose one’s will on the enemy and to achieve the political objectives of the war is to disarm him by destroying his military forces, leaving him defenseless and unable to resist.[7] Intuitively understood by strategists and military leaders throughout history, the logic behind the principle is so banal that few authors have bothered to elaborate upon it; the importance of the principle is emphasized much more frequently than the reason why it exists. The logic chain is quite obvious when examined in a completely theoretical context, separated from the limitations imposed by reality. To impose one’s will on the enemy – the object of war itself – requires that he be unable to resist, which requires that he is disarmed. Disarming him entails the destruction of his military forces. Once the enemy has been disarmed, he has no recourse but to plead for terms and ask for an end to hostilities; he is subject to the whims and mercy of the victor.

The Principle of Destruction in History

The significance of the principle through history can be gauged by spotting its hallmark: large and decisive battles of annihilation. These occur most often when the belligerents are large and sophisticated polities able to mobilize large segments of their society for military purposes. For example, ancient Rome leveraged its massive agrarian population, warlike national culture, and sophisticated administrative capacities to build a military force that sought victory primarily through the principle of destruction.[8] Through most of its history the Roman army was structured around heavy infantry: well-equipped soldiers trained to fight in ordered ranks. The legions thrived when pitted against an enemy in open battle, where the Romans’ superior equipment, training and discipline had maximum effect, allowing them to close with the enemy and destroy him by shock effect and attrition.[9] This was an ideal policy for a wealthy and populous state like Rome because victory could often be assured in exchange for battle casualties which, though often high, were easily sustainable.

The ability to prevail in large-scale battles of annihilation gave the Romans escalation dominance in most conflicts because it allowed them to surpass the intensity of the enemy’s war effort.[10] This severely limited the strategic options for enemies of Rome, who had the grim choice of either facing the Romans in open battle at an extreme disadvantage or opting for more irregular strategies which offered even bleaker prospects of success. This lose-lose scenario was enough to convince many nations to accept Roman dominance rather than be destroyed in a futile effort to resist.

Rome was not invincible; many of its imperial boundaries were defined by military defeats.[11] Nor was the principle of destruction the only aspect of warfare in ancient times; sieges, devastation and minor skirmishing were also important. But the great events turned on great battles, and Rome conquered the Mediterranean world by destroying, or threatening to destroy, the military forces of its enemies.

By contrast, the long medieval era that followed the collapse of Rome witnessed only slow progress of the military arts.[12] Feudalism atomized European society, creating a vast mosaic of weak states equipped with relatively primitive mechanisms of administration; rulers were able to muster only a small slice of society for military purposes. Armies could be raised only at great expense, were very small compared to both ancient and modern times, and could stay in the field for only a short campaigning season before disbanding for the autumn harvest and winter quarters. Furthermore, military technology gave a significant advantage to the defender. The limitations of the military instrument and the nature of feudal society sharply constricted the range of possible war objectives. Consequently, rulers and their commanders were usually loathe to risk armies in open battle. “From this emerged the shape which the majority of medieval conflicts assumed – the very slow progress of the attackers, the obstinate defense of those attacked, limited operations both in time and distance, a war of attrition…, ‘a strategy of accessories’ where each combatant or group of combatants, often in incoherent and discontinuous fashion, fought primarily for immediate material profit.”[13]

As the Middle Ages came to a close, the medieval military system was dislocated by the culmination of several general developments: “first, the rise of a money economy; second, the attempts of the feudal overlord to free himself from dependence on his vassals and to establish a reliable foundation of power; and third, the trend toward experimentation in military organization resulting from the decline of feudalism.”[14] The invention of gunpowder was a major technical innovation, and the expanding use of gunpowder artillery tipped the military balance in the favor of the attacker, especially for the wealthy states that could afford to manufacture these new weapons.

The disintegration of the medieval system was a gradual process, but its completion was announced to the world with a vengeance in 1494 when King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy with a national army equipped with firearms and heavy artillery. The disunited Italian city-states, which relied on condottiere mercenaries to preserve a rough balance of power on the peninsula, were easily swept aside by what can be described as a 15th century blitzkrieg.[15] Italy would spend the next several centuries as the plaything of greater powers, and the years following the invasion witnessed more battles that demonstrated the obsolescence of the medieval system. These events were important because they inspired the writings of the first great military theorist of modernity: Niccolò Machiavelli.

Four years after the French invasion Machiavelli secured a position as a Florentine bureaucrat and for the next fourteen years he served in a variety of political capacities, but his keenest interest was reserved for military affairs. Machiavelli believed that ensuring military security is the highest duty of the state and he blamed Italy’s obsolete military institutions for its domination by foreign powers like France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Looking to ancient Rome for guidance, Machiavelli codified his ideas for military reform in his famous treatise, The Art of War, which argued that the destruction of the enemy’s forces in decisive battle is the most important aspect of warfare:[16]

To order the army, one needs to find the men, arm them, order them, and train them in small and in large orders, quarter them, and then present them, either standing or marching to the enemy. In these things consist all the industry of open-field warfare, which is the most necessary and the most honored. The other errors that he may make in the handling of the war could be withstood by whoever knows well how to present battle to the enemy. But whoever lacks this discipline, though he be very worthy in other particulars, will never conduct a war with honor because a battle that you win cancels any other bad action of yours. In the same way, by losing one, all the good things worked by you before become vain.[17]

In the 16th and 17th centuries Europe endured a long series of devastating religious wars that concluded with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, inaugurating the modern state system. By the 18th century, European society had stabilized and the political system became one of numerous competing dynastic states which, though often in conflict, generally acknowledged the legitimacy of one another’s existence. Armies were deployed in the field as the personal instrument of the monarch in pursuit of objectives that were usually territorial or economic in nature. The mutual respect of political legitimacy removed society itself from the category of acceptable military targets. In the military dimension, the size of armies and the length of campaigns were constrained by rudimentary state financial institutions. Foraging during operations was often prohibited, so the movements of armies were dependent on stable lines of communication linked to stationary supply depots. For these reasons among others, 18th century warfare was sharply limited. “In general, with soldiers relatively scarce, expensive and hard to replace, and with political goals generally modest, commanders, while not necessarily battle-shy, assuredly were inclined to regard battle as a last resort and not their dominant operational intention. Warfare was characterized more by siege and manoeuvre than by a ruthless quest for decision by blood.”[18]

The French Revolution destroyed the status quo. When the monarchies of Europe joined forces to quash the Republican regime that deposed King Louis XIV, the Revolution’s only recourse was to proclaim the levée en masse, obligating the entire citizen body to participate in the war effort, particularly the military-age males subject to conscription. The Republican regime effectively fused nationalism and revolutionary zeal with warfare, allowing them to quickly raise armies that dwarfed the Royalist forces of the ancien régime. The armies of the French Revolution compensated for their poor combat effectiveness with their sheer size and fanatical devotion.[19] This was more than enough to defend the Republic, but French armies did not conquer Europe until they came under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte.

No other Great Captain in history demonstrated a military strategy centered on the principle of destruction to the same degree as Napoleon. “The aim of Napoleonic strategy was to bring about the threat or reality of the decisive battle.”[20] By organizing the massive French armies into smaller, self-contained corps capable of independent action, but under centralized command, Napoleon was able to maneuver his armies to a position where they could destroy the enemy in battles of annihilation. This was the ultimate object of his campaigns, and it was always pursued on a grand scale; pursuing limited aims with limited means seemed a concept alien to the Emperor of the French.[21] The reason for Napoleon’s singular focus on achieving decisive battles of annihilation relates to the fundamental logic of the principle of destruction itself:

The capture of fortresses, the occupation of terrain or of capitals only rarely had the same impact on the enemy’s war-making potential as did the defeat of his field army. A severe defeat created a new situation – militarily by leading to further losses, withdrawals, and capitulations; politically, by maneuvering or forcing the opposing government into negotiations under newly unfavorable circumstances.[22]

The Napoleonic wars are of particular interest to this study not only because they are the most explicit example of military strategy consciously utilizing the principle of destruction, but also because they inspired the writings of two of the most influential military theorists in history: Antoine-Henri Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz. It was via these two authors, contemporary with one another, that the principle of destruction was carried into modern warfare.

Jomini and Clausewitz

Antoine-Henri Jomini was a French Swiss who served in several senior staff positions with Napoleon’s armies, and later in the wars crossed the lines to accept a Russian commission and serve as military advisor to the Czar. His various theoretical writings on military strategy were consolidated into a single work, Summary of the Art of War, which became the most successful military textbook for the next century.[23] A genuine child of the Enlightenment, Jomini believed in the existence of timeless principles of war that are applicable to any place and era.[24] The heart of Jomini’s theory of strategy was the need to apply overwhelming force to the decisive point in order to gain control of the zone of operations. The key to this was the selection of the correct lines of operation that would place the enemy in a position that would either ensure his annihilation or compel his withdrawal. The study of how Napoleon applied the principle of destruction was the source of Jomini’s formulation:

As to the objective points of maneuver – that is, those which relate particularly to the destruction or decomposition of the hostile forces … this was the most conspicuous merit of Napoleon … He was convinced that the best means of accomplishing great results was to dislodge and destroy the hostile army, since states and provinces fall of themselves when there is no organized force to protect them.[25]

The principle of destruction was the foundation of Jomini’s theories, but for the most part, Jomini considered it an unstated assumption or as a means to achieve the capture of the zone of operations. A clear exposition of the principle of destruction as a strategic principle unto itself would await the pen of a different theorist: Jomini’s Prussian contemporary, Carl von Clausewitz.

Clausewitz’s On War is a monumental work that examines war at many different levels. The principle of destruction is a theme that permeates his writings on strategic and operational matters. He states unequivocally that “Destruction of the enemy forces is the overriding principle of war, and so far as positive action is concerned, the principle way to achieve our object,”[26] and that the “direct annihilation of the enemy forces must always be the dominant consideration. We simply want to establish the dominance of the destructive principle.”[27] Clausewitz referred to the principle repeatedly, and its early introduction in Chapter 2 of Book 1 is indicative of the importance he assigned it:

Combat is the only effective force in war; its aim is to destroy the enemy’s forces as a means to a further end. That holds good even if no actual fighting occurs, because the outcome rests on the assumption that if it came to fighting the enemy would be destroyed. It follows that the destruction of the enemy’s force underlies all military actions; all plans are ultimately based on it, resting on it like an arch on its abutment. Consequently, all action is undertaken in the belief that if the ultimate test of arms should actually occur, the outcome would be favorable. The decision by arms is for all major and minor operations in war what cash payment is in commerce. Regardless how complex the relationship between the two parties, regardless how rarely settlements actually occur, they can never be entirely absent.[28]

In addition to stressing its importance to military strategy, Clausewitz also addressed the seemingly banal, but crucial, logic behind the principle, writing that because “it is the fighting forces that assure the safety of the country, the natural sequence would be destroy them first and then subdue the country. Having achieved these two goals, and exploiting our own position of strength, we can bring the enemy to the peace table.”[29] He also examined the logic from the enemy’s perspective:

The worst of all conditions in which a belligerent can find himself is to be utterly defenseless. Consequently, if you are to force the enemy, by making war on him, to do your bidding, you must either make him literally defenseless or at least put him in a position that makes this danger probable. It follows, then, that to overcome the enemy, or disarm him – call it what you will – must always be the aim of warfare.[30]

Critics of the Principle of Destruction

The principle of destruction is prominent in the Western concept of warfare, but not all theorists subscribe to the notion that disarming the enemy is a prerequisite to victory. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, perhaps the first theoretical study of war, repeatedly emphasizes that defeating the enemy in battle is an inferior path to victory and that “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”[31] Instead of disarming the enemy by annihilating his military forces, Sun Tzu recommended a strategy of deception, surprise and maneuver along the “indirect approach” to avoid the enemy’s strengths and attack his weaknesses:

…attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence … Thus one who excels at employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle, captures other people’s fortified cities without attacking them, and destroys other people’s states without prolonged fighting. He must fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of ‘preservation.’[32]

The relative infrequency of decisive battles during the European Middle Ages was reflected in the dominant military text of those centuries, the De Re Militari by Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, a 5th-century AD Roman author.[33] Vegetius’ work is mostly a technical handbook focused on issues related to the organization, leadership, maintenance and operations of an army. In the portion of the book devoted to strategy he argued that battle should be avoided whenever possible because uncontrollable factors make the outcome unpredictable. He summarized his work with a list of general maxims such as “It is much better to overcome the enemy by famine, surprise or terror than by general actions, for in the latter instance fortune has often a greater share than valor,” and “To distress the enemy more by famine than the sword is a mark of consummate skill.”[34]

In the 20th century the British strategic theorist Basil Liddell-Hart authored a series of books and articles that severely discounted the principle of destruction and instead promoted a Sun Tzu-inspired “indirect approach.” According to Liddell-Hart, “effective results in war have rarely been attained unless the approach has had such indirectness as to ensure the opponent’s unreadiness to meet it. The indirectness has usually been physical, and always psychological. In strategy, the longest way round is often the shortest way home.”[35] Liddell-Hart’s criticism of the Clausewitzian notion of disarming the enemy derived partly from the experience of World War I, when generals on both sides would flippantly invoke Clausewitz to justify massive frontal assaults against entrenched defensive positions. Liddell-Hart considered On War to be quite vulnerable to such misinterpretation, writing that “The outcome of his teaching, applied by unthinking disciples, was to incite generals to seek battle at the first opportunity, instead of creating an advantageous opportunity. Thereby the art of war was reduced in 1914-1918 to a process of mutual mass slaughter.”[36]

In a similar vein, Rear Admiral Joseph Caldwell Wylie, U.S. Navy, developed a strategic theory of “power control,” the objective of which is the imposition of a variable degree of control over the enemy by creating a pattern of war unfavorable to him. This pattern is engineered by manipulating the key centers of gravity to the enemy’s disadvantage. What constitutes the centers of gravity in any particular war will vary, but what this boils down to in practice is the application of strategic pressure to the enemy’s weaknesses, whatever they might be, to regain the initiative, put him on the defensive, and set a pattern that will result in the desired control over the enemy.[37] Though Wylie acknowledged that the destruction of the enemy’s army might be necessary, he questioned whether this need always be the case, and the degree to which destruction in general supplies control:

Is it, in fact, an always valid assumption that the ultimate objective of military operations must be the destruction of the enemy’s army? The Japanese army was essentially intact and the great bulk of it undefeated in 1945. The catastrophe of Dienbienphu involved only a small portion of the total French army in Indochina; in that case the communists were given victory because the people at home in France were shocked into throwing in the military sponge for political reasons. The airman and the sailor, and the politician too, may be expected to give careful scrutiny to this basic assumption of the soldier.[38]

What these and many other theorists have in common is a skepticism concerning the need to apply the principle of destruction. To further illuminate both the meaning and limitations of the principle, it is useful to examine the intellectual underpinnings of these critics and how Clausewitz would respond to their arguments. Doing so helps to clarify why their attempted demolition is meaningful, but not entirely successful.

It can be argued that their ideas derive from an Eastern concept of war epitomized by Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Western thought approaches the study of war with rigid distinctions between the spheres of peace and war. In the West, war is defined as “an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.”[39] Stated slightly differently, war is organized violence in pursuit of political ends. By contrast, Eastern military thought does not recognize a sharp difference between war and peace, and as a result the definition of war itself becomes blurred and includes activities that the West considers to be more typical of peace. Therefore, Eastern military thought approaches the study of war from the perspective of grand strategy. When the spheres of peace and war become intermixed, and everything is considered a form of war, the number of available strategic instruments increases dramatically and the importance of the physical battlefield is reduced. Nonmilitary instruments of state power (such as diplomacy, economic power, propaganda, political subversion, etc.) increase in relevance. In short, what the West calls politics, the East calls war.[40]

This wider concept of war has many advantages. It can help mobilize all of the state’s resources toward the war effort. It keeps the political object in focus, preventing the senseless carnage of war waged for its own sake. It can assist strategic planning by keeping minds open to innovative ideas and effective methods. However, it is prone to failure on the battlefield, and that failure is often catastrophic, because as Clausewitz argued, the battlefield, the manifestation of the principle of destruction, is the “supreme tribunal”[41] of war, the verdicts of which are final.

Clausewitz was not aware of Sun Tzu, and he died nearly seventy years before Liddell-Hart was born, but he was nonetheless familiar with their ideas. In Clausewitz’s own day, there were those that sought to avoid decisive battle and its inevitable costs, advocating the use of what today would be called “force multipliers” – deception, diversion, psychological warfare, maneuver, etc. The limited dynastic wars of the 18th century provided some inspiration for these ideas, but Clausewitz learned the weakness of these methods first hand when they were employed against an enemy that refused to reciprocate with similar strategies:

Bonaparte could ruthlessly cut through all his enemies’ strategic plans in search of battle, because he seldom doubted the battle’s outcome. So whenever the strategists did not endeavor with all their might to crush him in battle with superior force, whenever they engaged in subtler (and weaker) machinations, their schemes were swept away like cobwebs…[42]

There is no mistaking a sense of exasperation, bitterness and despair in some of his comments about the matter, sentiments easily understandable in light of Napoleon’s defeat of Clausewitz’s native Prussia:

Historians and theorists have taken great pains, when describing such campaigns and conflicts, to point out that other means not only served the purpose as well as a battle that was never fought, but were indeed evidence of higher skill. This line of thought had brought us almost to the point of regarding, in the economy of war, battle as a kind of evil brought about by mistake – a morbid manifestation to which an orthodox, correctly managed war should never have to resort. Laurels were to be reserved for those generals who knew how to conduct a war without bloodshed; and it was to be the specific purpose of the theory of war to teach this kind of warfare … Recent history has scattered such nonsense to the winds.[43]

A main weakness of the strategic philosophy codified by Sun Tzu and his adherents is that “indirect” techniques alone are incapable of inflicting destruction on an enemy force, and an army can usually compel battle by threatening what its opponent values most. For example, deception requires the enemy to cooperate in being deceived by modifying his actions according to our wishes. However, if the enemy is advancing on our capital city, key industrial centers, food supplies, etc. – the “centers of gravity”[44] that are the basis of our survival as an independent political unit – there is no reason for him to deviate from his course and step into our traps because he already holds the initiative.

Furthermore, indirect methods often involve the dispersal of strength rather than concentration, the latter of which is required to the maximum extent possible to secure victory on the battlefield.[45] A daring maneuver might surprise the enemy, but it could easily fail, leaving the strategist that attempted it in a much weaker position. Maneuver “can fail ‘catastrophically’ just as it can succeed with little strength, because an error of assessment or of execution can wreck the entire operation.”[46] Similarly, a feint intended to trick the enemy often involves detaching a force from the main body, thus weakening it and making the detachment unavailable for any other purpose, including combat. “It is dangerous, in fact, to use substantial forces over any length of time merely to create an illusion; there is always the risk that nothing will be gained and the troops deployed will not be available when they are needed.”[47]

These examples are simplified caricatures, but they demonstrate the unequal relationship between the principle of destruction and ‘indirect’ strategies, the former generally being superior. It is not that alternative strategies are useless and should be ignored entirely, but rather that the escalatory dynamic inherent to warfare makes it extremely dangerous to rely on them alone. A belligerent of sufficient strength can always force battle; in fact, employing indirect methods against him may invite him to do so by giving the impression that his enemy is unwilling or unable to meet him in combat. The loss of the ensuing battle will negate all progress for the side that depended on other methods. Thus, at the very least, indirect strategies must be joined with the ability to meet the enemy in battle. Clausewitz provides the best summary of this relationship:

Other methods, therefore, are less costly if they succeed and less damaging if they fail, though this holds true only if both sides act identically, if the enemy pursues the same course as we do. If he were to seek the decision through a major battle, his choice would force us against our will to do likewise. Then the outcome of the battle would be decisive; but it is clear – other things again being equal – that we would be at an overall disadvantage, since our plans and resources had been in part intended to achieve other goals, whereas the enemy’s were not. Two objectives, neither of which is part of the other, are mutually exclusive: one force cannot simultaneously be used for both. If, therefore, one of the two commanders is resolved to seek a decision through major battles, he will have an excellent change of success if he is certain that his opponent is pursuing a different policy. Conversely, the commander who wishes to adopt different means can reasonably do so only if he assumes his opponent to be equally unwilling to resort to major battles.[48]

Limitations of the Principle of Destruction

However, the principle of destruction is not a panacea and has significant limits of its own. “It would be a great mistake to deduce from this argument that a headlong rush must always triumph over skillful caution.”[49] Surprisingly, it is again Clausewitz that provides the most erudite explanation of these limits.

First of all, the principle of destruction is a useful concept primarily at the strategic and operation levels of war. At the tactical level, which derives from the actual occurrence of combat, the principle of destruction is always operative and thus has little value as an intellectual tool.

Second, the importance of disarming the enemy must always be understood within the context of the political nature of war.  As Clausewitz tells us, “war is simply the continuation of politics by other means.”[50] Understanding that war is an act of policy reveals the underlying unity of all war. “This unity,” he writes, “lies in the concept that war is only a branch of political activity; that it is in no sense autonomous.”[51] When we acknowledge the political origins of war, and view the phenomenon through the prism of this essential unity, “only then can we see that all wars are things of the same nature; and this alone will provide the right criteria for conceiving and judging great designs.”[52] Thus, the principle of destruction is not some inviolable law of war; it is simply the most effective means for achieving specific political ends. “On no account should theory raise it to the level of a law.”[53]

It is fair to argue that the carnage of World War I that so appalled Basil Liddell-Hart and other modern strategists would have also horrified Clausewitz, who never intended his teachings to be applied in such an unthinking manner. Indeed, he specified numerous caveats and qualifications on how the principle of destruction fit into the framework of his larger theory of war, stating explicitly that “the aim of disarming the enemy … is in fact not always encountered in reality, and need not be fully achieved as a condition of peace.”[54] He was also careful to point out that disarmament of the enemy need not be realized in its most extreme form for the principle to be operative; the opposing forces “must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight.”[55] The complete annihilation of the enemy, down to the last man, is unnecessary. The enemy might lose the will to fight after suffering a single severe defeat. “When we speak of destroying the enemy’s forces we must emphasize that nothing obliges us to limit this idea to physical forces: the moral element must also be considered.”[56] In some circumstances, the enemy might be disarmed with a minimum of combat. For example, we might succeed in capturing the fuel supplies of a mechanized column, and being immobilized, it surrenders. Or perhaps we capture critical terrain around an enemy position, and seeing himself outmaneuvered, the enemy capitulates or withdrawals to avoid destruction. It will be recalled that, in the same paragraph that introduced the principle of destruction, Clausewitz pointed out that it “holds good even if no actual fighting occurs, because the outcome rests on the assumption that if it came to fighting, the enemy would be destroyed.”[57] The circumstances of limited war alter these considerations in terms of degree; if the stakes involved in a war are low, then only a few skirmishes could suffice for both belligerents to come to terms.

Indeed, the conditions of limited war, when the belligerents have a common interest in controlling the escalation of the conflict, are amenable to less violent strategies. “If the political aims are small, the motives slight and tensions low, a prudent general may look for any way to avoid major crises and decisive actions, exploit any weaknesses in the opponent’s military and political strategy, and finally reach a peaceful settlement.”[58] The ends that are sought in war are always political in nature and thus might be attainable through a number of means, including those that can manipulate the political centers of gravity directly:

I refer to operations that have direct political repercussions, that are designed in the first place to disrupt the opposing alliance, or to paralyze it, that gain us new allies, favorably affect the political scene, etc. If such operations are possible it is obvious that they can greatly improve our prospects and that they can form a much shorter route to the goal than the destruction of the opposing armies.[59]

The rigid distinction between peace and war that is characteristic of Western thought needs to be kept in mind here. Not only does Clausewitz sharply define war, he mostly confines his analysis to the strategic and operational levels, where the principle of destruction has the most bearing. As noted earlier, Sun Tzu and other theorists tend to study war from the level of all-inclusive grand strategy.[60] The operations that Clausewitz refers to in the above quote are automatically relevant to Sun Tzu and the “indirect” school of strategy, but they might not even fit within Clausewitz’s definition of war. However, they are legitimate tools of statecraft that might be able to reach the ends otherwise sought through war, particularly in limited conflicts.

Military forces can undertake operations that have direct political repercussions, but caution is in order before divorcing these operations from those aimed at destroying the enemy.

Attrition tends to receive low marks from scholars because it appears unimaginative, it is certain to be expensive (relative to successful decisive maneuver), and it makes for longer wars. More often than not, though, an attritional emphasis in combat style is required if decisive maneuver is to be possible … In combat between peer belligerents, it is rare indeed that operational maneuver according to cunning plans is well enough executed to deliver such decisive success that hard fighting is not required.[61]

For example, Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, a campaign that Liddell-Hart regarded as an archetype of the “indirect approach,”[62] was possible only because the Confederate army opposing him was decimated near Atlanta, and the rest of the Confederate forces were tied down in Virginia by Grant’s campaign of attrition.[63]

Certain objective conditions are major limitations on the principle of destruction. One side in a conflict might lack the strength necessary to face the enemy in decisive battle, obligating the adoption of less costly, but riskier, policies. The international political structure is another objective condition. The medieval era has already been noted as a time when the weakness of feudal states discouraged battle. A specific example from the same period is the Byzantine Empire. Though it was a sophisticated state compared to the atomized feudal states of Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire lacked the manpower, military resources and favorable geography of the united Roman Empire. The Empire’s widely separated territories faced a continual onslaught of enemies, including mounted nomadic tribes from the Central Asian steppe, Arab and Turkic Muslims advancing through the Middle East and Anatolia, and the rival Latin kingdoms to the west. To reconcile its relative weakness with the endless threats that it faced, the Empire depended on strategies that husbanded scarce military resources and emphasized diplomacy and political subversion. During war, the Byzantines relied on good intelligence and the mobility of their cavalry-centric army to defeat the enemy by maneuver rather than by attrition. Byzantine commanders would engage the main body of the enemy army only under overwhelmingly favorable conditions, or if there was no other option.[64]


The disagreement between Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and their respective schools of thought should not be overdrawn. All of the writers mentioned in this chapter acknowledged that decisive battle will occasionally be necessary; the divergence between the “Clausewitzian” and “indirect” schools is largely a matter of emphasis. Liddell-Hart, the most prominent of Sun Tzu’s intellectual progeny, wrote that the true aim of the strategist “is not so much to seek battle as to seek a strategic situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce the decision, its continuation by battle is sure to achieve this.[65] Machiavelli, Jomini and Clausewitz would agree wholeheartedly with this statement, but they would be pessimistic about putting it into practice, regarding it as an ideal scenario that seldom occurs in reality. The dynamic of escalation inherent in war guarantees that the issue will come to battle eventually, and a belligerent must prevail in this confrontation if he is to win the war. There should be no illusions concerning the high expense of battle. “The advantage that the destruction of the enemy possesses over all other means is balanced by its cost and danger; and it is only in order to avoid these risks that other policies are employed.”[66]

To conclude, the principle of destruction must always be understood in the context of the political object. “Destruction of the enemy’s force is only a means to an end, a secondary matter.”[67] It is not the only means available, nor is it the least expensive, but it is the only assured means of reaching this end. Destruction is not the only critical feature of war, nor is it even the most important theme within Clausewitz’s writings. It is, however, a constant: it explains and ensures the existence of combat, the one thing “which constitutes a strand that runs through the entire web of military activity and really holds it together.”[68]

Having introduced the principle of destruction, we now turn our attention to how it manifests in irregular warfare, a sphere where it is commonly thought to have little relevance.


Defining Irregular Warfare

Military and strategic theory has generally recognized two distinct modes of warfare.[69] In the last chapter we explored the principle of destruction, which is the defining characteristic of “regular” warfare. What are the defining characteristics of its opposite, “irregular” warfare?

Irregular warfare is a label that does not suffer for lack of competitors. The same phenomenon has been variously referred to as “partisan warfare,” “small wars,” “subversive warfare,” “low-intensity conflict,” “unconventional warfare,” “asymmetrical warfare,” etc. One reason for this abundance of competing terminology is that the phenomenon is very broad and difficult to define. It is often used as a catch-all to encompass everything that remains when regular warfare is subtracted from the equation. The concept of irregular warfare has more significance than as a muddled residual category; however, the absence of regular operations is indeed its most important characteristic.

“Strategic irregularity is proof of relative weakness. To choose to fight in irregular modes, with guerrilla warfare and terrorism, is always a forced choice. Those tactical modes are selected because their practitioners are unable to compete in regular combat.”[70] Thus, the very essence of an irregular force is its relative weakness compared to a regular army and its resultant inability to prevail in open battle. Guerrilla warfare is one of the only military instruments available to belligerents prosecuting a war from a position of strategic inferiority.

The nature of guerrilla tactics is well-known, and does not require a detailed examination here. “Guerrilla tactics are based on common sense and imagination; they vary from country to country, are affected by geographical conditions, by social and political processes, and also change as the result of technological innovation.”[71] Guerrilla warfare permits irregulars to avoid annihilation at the hands of their regular opponents, but at the cost of severe limitations on the amount of damage they can inflict. Regular forces have major advantages in terms of firepower, equipment, manpower, training and logistical support; guerrillas must rely on speed and surprise to avoid these strengths, striking only at vulnerable targets such as supply convoys, poorly garrisoned outposts, unwary enemy personnel, etc. “Surprise is the essence of such operations – surprise, with retreat ere the opponent can recover … Guerrilla warfare, in fact, means almost of necessity petty annoyances rather than operations of a dramatic kind.”[72]

The sharply asymmetrical relationship between regulars and irregulars creates a dilemma for both sides. By relying on the mobility, speed and surprise of small guerrilla units, irregulars can avoid destruction and take refuge when necessary amid the population or in inaccessible terrain, but they cannot decisively defeat the enemy. Similarly, regular forces operate with the confidence that they are more or less invulnerable and they eagerly seek a decisive battle with the guerrillas, in which they would assuredly prevail. However, the guerrillas refuse to oblige them and the slow, steady attrition of guerrilla warfare continues. With the principle of destruction thus inoperative, both sides are at an impasse. “Strategically regarded, irregular warfare is as liable to stalemate today as it was a century ago, and for the same reason: neither side is able to reach the main strength of the other to compel a military decision.”[73] Indeed, the importance of the principle of destruction as a decisive strategic instrument is thrown into sharp relief when the rapid and violent course of regular warfare is contrasted with seemingly interminable irregular conflicts.[74]

The primary question for every theorist of irregular warfare is how to overcome this dilemma and achieve victory. In the long history of irregular warfare, guerrillas and the regulars trying to suppress them have produced very sophisticated doctrines purporting to contain formulae for solving this exact problem. The object of this study is to examine what role the principle of destruction has in the doctrines of insurgency that guide guerrillas, and to what extent this theoretical role is born out in practice. As we shall discover, the importance of destroying the enemy’s forces is not diminished in irregular warfare.


Irregular Warfare Theory

The selection of case studies that reflect the general theoretical trends regarding irregular warfare is, by necessity, an arbitrary matter. The label “irregular” refers to its nature rather than its age or the frequency with which it occurs. In fact, guerrilla tactics predate conventional battle, and irregular warfare is much more common than regular warfare. The earliest known reference to an insurgency was recorded in the Anastas Papyrus in the fifteenth century B.C., in which a Hittite king complains about the unwillingness of rebels to fight his army by daylight.[75] Many theoretical treatments of the topic have been written in the intervening millennia. It is therefore surprising that irregular warfare is commonly assumed to be a recent phenomenon, and that a handful of 20th century writers are credited with the first theoretical expositions on the subject.

In the West, an intellectual efflorescence on the study of irregular warfare began in the seventeenth century and has continued ever since, with some interruptions during periods when states were unusually strong and could field powerful armies. Most of these works focused on how guerrillas and partisans support the operations of regular armies, but many of them, such as the writings of the 19th century Polish general Wojicech Chrzanowski, foreshadowed more recent works by exploring how irregular warfare can function as an independent military instrument.[76] Despite their continuing relevance, however, these antecedents have been largely forgotten, and the study of irregular warfare is dominated by the relatively sparse writings of only a few individuals. Because of their strong influence on irregular warfare, the present study will focus on three individuals: T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), Mao Tse-tung, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.


The exploits of T.E. Lawrence in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I captured the public’s fascination and made “Lawrence of Arabia” a household name. But Lawrence’s saga has far more significance than as just another romantic British adventure; during his time with the Arabs, Lawrence devised the first systematic analysis of irregular warfare in the 20th century.


Lawrence and the Science of Guerrilla Warfare

While Lawrence spent several days lying in a tent, recovering from fever and dysentery, the Arabs and their British patrons debated what to do about a large Turkish garrison in the city of Medina, linked by railroad to the Ottoman base of operations in Syria. Inspired by the question, Lawrence contemplated the nature of the war that the Arabs were waging against the Ottomans. His first observation was that the principle of destruction – the gross misapplication of which was then causing massive carnage on the Western Front – was wholly unsuited to the conditions in Arabia:

The books gave it pat – the destruction of the armed forces of the enemy by the one process – battle. Victory could be purchased only by blood. This was a hard saying for us. As the Arabs had no organized forces, a Turkish Foch would have no aim? The Arabs would not endure casualties. How would our Clausewitz buy his victory? Von der Goltz had seemed to go deeper, saying it was necessary not to annihilate the enemy but to break his courage. Only we showed no prospect of ever breaking anybody’s courage.[77]

Lawrence detected a paradox here: according to the military texts with which he was familiar, the failure of the Arabs to destroy Turkish forces in battle should translate to the failure of the rebellion. But the Arabs were actually winning the war. For the Arabs, victory was defined in geographic terms: the objective was to liberate the Arabic-speaking lands from Turkish rule. Thus, the enemy armies need only be expelled; not destroyed. “In the doing of it Turks might be killed, yet ‘killing Turks’ would never be an excuse or aim. If they would go quietly, the war would end. If not, they must be driven out: but at the cheapest possible price, since the Arabs were fighting for freedom, a pleasure only to be tasted by a man alive.”[78]

With the aim of the war established, Lawrence turned his mind to the process of achieving it. At this point his literary inclinations become obvious, and he adopts a framework of analysis that examines both strategy and tactics in terms of physical, biological and psychological factors. After considering the physical conditions of the war, Lawrence calculated that, to suppress the Arab revolt, the Turks would need 600,000 men distributed into 20-man fortified outposts on every four square miles of territory.[79] This extravagant disposition of forces was made necessary by the irregular nature of the Arabs, who refused to attack the Turks directly and would instead exploit the passive sympathy of the population to maneuver small parties of camel-mounted warriors through the desert, attacking targets of opportunity. Lawrence encapsulated their style of fighting in the following paragraph:

[S]uppose we were (as we might be) an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man’s mind; and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so we might offer nothing material to the killing. It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only what he sat on, and subjugating only what, by order, he could poke his rifle at.[80]

Lawrence’s metric was based on the dubious assumption that the active Arab rebels had at least the passive support of the entire Arab nation, and that the Turks would need to occupy the entire territory in order to quell the revolt. Nevertheless, it indicated to Lawrence that the Arabs had won the war in the Hejaz, for they dominated the entire countryside while the Turks were harmlessly trapped in Media, besieged and clinging to life by maintaining a tenuous railroad link to Syria, which the Arabs could sever at will. Thus, in terms of the “Algebraical element of things,”[81] the Arabs had the advantage.

The “Biological element of lives”[82] refers to the very broad role of humanity in war, the most complex and dynamic sphere in every conflict. As he contemplated the nature of the belligerents, Lawrence noted that the Arabs placed a premium on the lives of individual warriors because “irregulars were not units, but individuals, and an individual casualty is like a pebble dropped in water: each may make only a brief hole, but rings of sorrow widen out from them. The Arab army could not afford casualties.”[83] In contrast, the Ottoman army valued equipment and material far above the lives of soldiers. Material was also scarce for the Arabs, but they could alleviate this problem by maintaining the initiative and amassing local superiority at the point of attack. Thus, the correct policy for the Arabs was to avoid combat as much as possible and instead target vulnerable equipment:

Most wars were wars of contact, both forces striving into touch to avoid tactical surprise. Ours should be a war of detachment. We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked. The attacks might be nominal, directed not against him, but against his stuff, so it would not seek either his strength or his weakness, but his most accessible material … We might turn our average into a rule (not a law, since war was antinomian) and develop a habit of never engaging the enemy. This would chime with the numerical plea for never affording a target.[84]

The final part of Lawrence’s framework, “psychological elements” (also referred to as “diathetical activities”), is focused on the war of ideas.[85] The Arab cause was one of national liberation, and propaganda was necessary to inspire the courage of the Arabs, undermine the confidence of the Ottomans, and gain the support of sympathetic foreign states. In guerrilla warfare, controlling minds is more important than controlling territory and is a prerequisite for more tangible gains. Arab success in this regard helped them endure the rigors of war and compensated for other weaknesses. Propaganda was used elsewhere in World War I but was clearly subordinated to the battlefield effort. “In Asia the regular elements were so weak that irregulars could not let the metaphysical weapon rust unused.”[86]

The conclusion that Lawrence reached via this tripartite analytical framework was that the Arabs should embrace guerrilla warfare and use small, self-contained units of irregular cavalry to gradually wear down the Turkish army, neither confronting it directly nor goading it into a desperate attack by completely severing its lines of communication. “The Arab army must impose the longest possible passive defense on the Turks (this being the most materially expensive form of war) by extending its own front to the maximum.”[87] With enough time, this strategy would collapse the Ottoman presence in Arabia and deliver victory. According to Lawrence, the principle of destruction had no role in this policy:

Battles in Arabia were a mistake, since we profited in them only by the ammunition the enemy fired off … they seemed to me impositions on the side which believed itself weaker, hazards made unavoidable either by lack of land room or by the need to defend a material property dearer than the lives of soldiers. We had nothing material to lose, so our line was to defend nothing and to shoot nothing.[88]

The Revolt in the Desert

The irony of Lawrence’s saga is that there were major disconnects between his high-minded theorizing and the actual prosecution of the Arab revolt. Most obvious among these is that his thesis of guerrilla warfare was never fully tested; the outcome of the revolt was decided by Field Marshal Edmund Allenby’s prosaic campaign into Palestine. “Eventually the Turks had to evacuate the Arabian peninsula, but since the British army operating from Egypt had meanwhile occupied Sinai and had reached Khan Yunis in February 1917 and Gaza in March, they would have been withdrawn anyway as their presence there no longer served any useful purpose and they were in danger of being cut off.”[89] Lawrence himself both acknowledged and lamented this truth, writing that “[Allenby’s] too-greatness deprived the Arab revolt of the opportunity of following to the end the dictum of Saxe that a war might be won without fighting battles.”[90]

In several instances, the Arab campaign itself diverged from Lawrence’s theoretical formula. The revolt depended on Red Sea ports such as Rabegh, Yenbo, Wejh, and Akaba to receive supplies from the British and function as base areas. Though poorly garrisoned by the Turks, these ports had to be taken by assault; fixed objectives cannot be seized by guerrilla tactics, and it was necessary for the Arabs to mass and wage regular warfare at least temporarily. For example, the capture of Akaba was preceded by a dramatic battle in which the Arabs destroyed a Turkish battalion guarding the main approach to the city.[91] By the time the Arabs had taken Damascus they were functioning as a semi-regular cavalry screen protecting Allenby’s right flank.



It can be argued that Lawrence’s writings on irregular warfare were verbose, not very original and that he overintellectualized a relatively simple phenomenon. In the words of Walter Laqueur, “seldom in the history of modern war has so much been written about so little. It was neither the first nor the last time in the history of guerrilla warfare that the measure of attention paid to a particular campaign depended less on its military importance than on the accident that a gifted writer wrote about it.”[92] Lawrence effectively described how an irregular force, equipped with secure bases, a friendly population and a dynamic cause can use guerrilla warfare to paralyze a stronger enemy that, for whatever reason, does not take the initiative against the guerrillas. However, he failed to prove his main thesis that victory could be reached without fighting a major battle. “The Turks were stupid; the Germans behind them dogmatical.”[93] But a sharp intellect is not required for an effective counterinsurgency campaign. The Arab cause was fortunate that its revolt occurred in conjunction with the British campaign in Palestine. Otherwise, the Turks would have massed their forces in the Hejaz, and the Arabs’ inability to defeat them in battle would have added their cause to the long and bloody list of failed rebellions against the Ottoman Empire.


A man that requires little in the way of introduction, Mao Tse-tung founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. During the long years of war before this victory, as the Chinese Communists fought both the Japanese invaders and the Chinese Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang movement, Mao developed a theory of revolutionary warfare that made him history’s most influential author on the subject, and spawned dozens of movements around the world that sought to replicate his success by emulating his techniques. Other writers have explored how a revolutionary party could overthrow the power of the state, but Mao was perhaps the first to achieve a degree of success in actually applying his ideas.


Mao’s Formative Experiences[94]

Disillusioned by the abuse and exploitation of China’s peasant population, Mao became involved with communism at an early age, and in 1921 he was a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party. In the early years the Communists abided the Marxist-Leninist dogma that revolutionary action must be based on the urban industrial proletariat, who were supposed to rise up en masse and seize control of the cities.[95] As Mao noted, this formulae was problematic for China, which was still an overwhelmingly rural, peasant-based society with only a small urban proletariat. Thus, though the Chinese Communist Party organized the rural peasantry to a greater degree than its European counterparts, it still viewed control of the cities to be the key to success. This would change only after they suffered a series of major defeats.

The first was the 1927 Autumn Harvest Uprising, when the Communists attempted to seize Kuomintang-held cities in the southeast. In the aftermath of this defeat Mao and some survivors under his command fled to the Chingkang Mountains, where they set up a base of operations and waged a guerrilla war against Chiang Kai-shek’s provincial forces. 

Again in 1930, the Central Committee ordered direct attacks on cities throughout the south. Mao’s ill-prepared forces were again defeated and he retreated back into the hills of Kiangsi. Over the next four years, Mao’s army was subjected to a number of intense counterinsurgency campaigns by the Kuomintang, until October 1934, when the Central Committee decided to evacuate the area and seek a new base far to the north in Shensi province. Thus began the epic “Long March,” in which the Red Army traversed 6,000 miles and lost most of its strength, leaving a small and dedicated hard core to arrive at its destination over a year later. By the time Chiang Kai-shek could bring forces to bear against the Communists in their new location, the Japanese invasion was fully underway and pressure from Moscow forced the Kuomintang and the Communists into an uneasy united front in September 1937.

Mao’s theory of revolutionary warfare was forged in this long crucible. Pondering his country’s situation from the caves of Shensi, Mao noted that “China is a country half colonial and half feudal; it is a country that is politically, militarily, and economically backward … It is a vast country in which the terrain is complicated and the facilities for communication are poor.”[96] The peasants were dominated by an exploitative class of landlords, and the country was beset by foreign invasion. Adherence to Marxist-Leninist dogma concerning the importance of the cities had resulted in severe defeats for the Red Army. How were the Communists supposed to overcome these challenges, seize power, and institutionalize the revolution? As they had already learned so painfully, they were too weak to succeed in a single decisive action. But Mao’s analysis identified an alternative strategy: protracted war.


The Theory of Protracted War

China’s dismal situation was not completely devoid of opportunity. Its vast size, inhospitable terrain, large population and chaotic military situation gave the Communists physical and political space in which to establish base areas and survive; survival gave them time in which they could gradually build up their relative power until they reached or exceeded parity with the enemy, at which point they could take the offensive and achieve decisive victory.

Mao’s theory of protracted war is divided into three phases. In the first phase, the revolutionary movement is at its weakest point and the guerrillas, if they even exist yet, are concerned primarily with survival. Revolutionary cadres establish base areas in inaccessible terrain and consolidate them by enacting a political program that gains the support of the population. Achieving popular support is the most vital component of Mao’s strategy. In his own words:

Without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail, as it must if its political objectives do not coincide with the aspirations of the people and their sympathy, cooperation, and assistance cannot be gained … Because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation.[97]


Secure bases allow the guerrillas a refuge in which they can rest, train and recruit new fighters. Agents are dispatched into the surrounding areas to make contact with the outlying population, enlisting their support in the coming struggle, thereby creating “a protective belt of sympathizers willing to supply food, recruits, and information. The pattern of the process is conspiratorial, clandestine, methodical, and progressive.”[98] Because of their extremely vulnerable condition during this stage, the guerrillas avoid contact with the enemy as much as possible.

The second phase is characterized by a state of “equilibrium” between the revolutionaries and the enemy. The guerrilla base areas are relatively secure, but open battle with the enemy forces remains out of the question. Thus, a campaign of guerrilla warfare begins in earnest. “Acts of sabotage and terrorism multiply; collaborationists and ‘reactionary elements’ are liquidated. Attacks are made on vulnerable military and police outposts; weak columns are ambushed. The primary purpose of these operations is to procure arms, ammunition, and other essential material…”[99] The population continues to be indoctrinated by political action and propaganda and the administration of the expanding base areas becomes increasingly sophisticated, a state apparatus enabling the guerrillas to mobilize population and resources for military purposes. In short, the object of phase two is to build up the military and political strength of the guerrillas, weakening the enemy concurrently.[100]

The third and final phase is decisive. The guerrillas have become strong enough that they are able to transform some or all of their forces into regular units capable of regular operations. The revolutionaries take the offensive, seize the initiative, and the campaign culminates with the annihilation of the enemy forces in open battle. In other words, the irregulars abandon guerrilla warfare, and the principle of destruction becomes operative.

Guerrilla warfare is a vital component of this process, especially at the first and second phases. It is the ideal military instrument for a weak but dedicated revolutionary party prepared to wage a long war. The opening words of Mao’s treatise on the subject state it best: “In a war of revolutionary character, guerrilla operations are a necessary part.”[101] When describing guerrilla strategy, Mao echoes the ancient words of Sun Tzu and paints an excellent portrait of the nature of irregular warfare:

In guerrilla warfare, select the tactic of seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west; avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning decision. When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws. In guerrilla strategy, the enemy’s rear, flanks, and other vulnerable spots are his vital points, and there he must be harassed, attacked, dispersed, exhausted and annihilated.[102]


These abstractions are translated into more concrete terms when Mao enumerates the specific military tasks of guerrillas:

As to the matter of military responsibilities, those of the guerrillas are to exterminate small forces of the enemy; to harass and weaken large forces; to attack enemy lines of communication; to establish bases capable of supporting independent operations in the enemy’s rear; to force the enemy to disperse his strength; and to coordinate all these activities with those of the regular armies and distant battle fronts.[103]

However, as the three-phase model makes clear, guerrilla warfare alone is not sufficient to achieve victory. Mao emphasized repeatedly that “guerrilla operations must not be considered as an independent form of warfare. They are but one step in the total war, one aspect of the revolutionary struggle.” Only regular units pursuing the destruction of the enemy forces in conventional battle are capable of producing a final decision. Mao summarized the matter thusly:

Guerrilla operations during the anti-Japanese war may for a certain time and temporarily become its paramount feature, particularly insofar as the enemy’s rear is concerned. However, if we view the war as a whole, there can be no doubt that our regular forces are of primary importance, because it is they who are alone capable of producing the decision. Guerrilla warfare assists them in producing this favorable decision.[104]

If there are no regular forces in existence, it is the duty of the guerrillas to organize some or all of their strength into regular units, utilizing the resources of the base areas to arm and equip them, along with supplies captured from the enemy. “Thus the regularly organized troops, those guerrillas who have attained that status, and those who have not reached that level of development combine to form the military power of a national revolutionary war.”[105]

According to Mao’s theory of protracted war, guerrilla warfare is merely a necessary evil; a transitory phase that must be endured until the irregulars have built sufficient capacity to take the field and destroy the enemy in open battle. Guerrilla warfare is a means of survival rather than an actual strategy for victory. Mao concluded his discussion of the issue by repeating that, “while we must promote guerrilla warfare as a necessary strategical auxiliary to orthodox operations, we must neither assign it the primary position in our war strategy nor substitute it for mobile and positional warfare as conducted by orthodox forces.”[106]

The distinction between “mobile” and “positional” warfare is important. Both are components of regular operations conducted by “orthodox” forces; however, positional warfare is based on the physical control of territory and is thus more militarily demanding, often requiring heavy forces such as armor and artillery. This type of warfare is possible for guerrillas only at a very advanced stage of the struggle. Mobile warfare emphasizes maneuver and the destruction of enemy military power, with minimal concern for the capture or retention of physical territory.[107] Thus, it can be understood as an amplified form of guerrilla warfare; mobile forces avoid battle under unfavorable circumstances and utilize the same techniques of speed, surprise and violence of action, but they do it on a much larger scale than a typical guerrilla band. They are capable of engaging and destroying large enemy formations.[108] The deployment of mobile units occurs early in the third phase of protracted war, and unlike positional warfare, is often a realistic development for sophisticated guerrilla movements.

It is ironic that Mao Tse-tung, author of one of history’s most influential theories of irregular warfare, explicitly warned against relying on guerrilla warfare to deliver victory. He considered the principle of destruction to be the most important principle of war, even in a revolutionary situation, reminding his readers “to recall the fundamental axiom of combat on which all military action is based. This can be stated: ‘Conservation of one’s own strength; destruction of enemy strength’… It is in furtherance of this policy that government applies its military strength … All the considerations of military action are derived from this axiom.”[109] Even at the tactical level, “it is sometimes desirable to concentrate in order to destroy an enemy. Thus, the principle of concentration of force against a relatively weaker enemy is applicable to guerrilla warfare.”[110]

When reading On Guerrilla Warfare, one does not detect many Eastern strategic concepts; indeed, the fundamental importance of the principle of destruction and the inadequacy of guerrilla warfare as an independent military instrument are the central themes of the book. To a large extent, Mao was trying to correct traditional Chinese assumptions concerning war, which he considered ill-suited for the conflict at hand. We noted in the last chapter that some features of Eastern military thought, particularly those that deemphasize the destruction of the enemy’s forces, tend to fail when attempted against an enemy that does not reciprocate with similar methods. Mao came to a similar conclusion, and even responded directly to men that disagreed with him:

If we agree with Chang Tso Hua, who says, “Guerrilla warfare is the primary war strategy of a people seeking to emancipate itself,” or with Kao Kang, who believes that “Guerrilla strategy is the only strategy possible for an oppressed people,” we are exaggerating the importance of guerrilla hostilities. What these zealous friends I have just quoted do not realize is this: If we do not fit guerrilla operations into their proper niche, we cannot promote them realistically.[111]

Two other aspects of Mao’s theory are relevant to this study. The first is the role of base areas in protracted war. In guerrilla warfare, a “base” should not be understood as a fortified military zone, surrounded by entrenchments, mine fields and concertina wire. Rather, it is simply an area, often situated amid inaccessible terrain, that is dominated by the guerrillas to the extent that they, in effect, constitute the government of the region, and in which they are safe from enemy forces.[112] “A guerrilla base may be defined as an area, strategically located, in which the guerrillas can carry out their duties of training, self-preservation and development. Ability to fight a war without a rear area is a fundamental characteristic of guerrilla action, but this does not mean that guerrillas can exist and function over a long period of time without the development of base areas.”[113]

In the event of a determined enemy attack, the guerrillas must be prepared to abandon the threatened base area and relocate to a different one. “The tactics of defense have no place in the realm of guerrilla warfare.”[114] However, base areas are of such importance to long-term guerrilla strategy that they must not be surrendered without a contest. To defeat an enemy advancing on a base area from several different directions, as he is sure to do in a concerted offensive against the guerrillas, Mao advised a strategy of counterattack, urging the guerrillas to mass sufficient power to destroy one enemy column in detail while the other columns are impeded by continual guerrilla harassment, repeating the process until all columns have been defeated.[115] In other words, base areas are vital enough that the guerrillas must be willing to wage regular warfare in their defense.

Given the amorphous nature of irregular warfare, it may seem counterintuitive that so much depends on immovable bases in clearly defined physical locations. Nevertheless, they are vital if the guerrillas are to have any hope of developing beyond simple brigandage: “it would be impossible to sustain guerrilla operations in a protracted war behind the enemy lines without such strategic bases. They constituted the rear in a war without rear; without such bases the guerrillas would be mere ‘roving rebels’ in the ancient Chinese tradition, noisy but ineffectual.”[116] T.E. Lawrence also acknowledged their importance when he listed an “unassailable base” as a necessary condition for the success of his own strategy.[117]

The existence of consolidated base areas is an indication of a succeeding insurgent movement; it indicates military and administrative competence, a viable military strategy and a political program that appeals to at least parts of the population. An insurgency with bases is able to build the regular and semi-regular forces necessary to seize the initiative and achieve final victory, thus fulfilling the Maoist vision of protracted war. Conversely, an insurgency that lacks bases is always on the brink of annihilation: the political cadres are vulnerable to discovery and arrest, the support networks are easily broken up, and the guerrilla bands are incessantly harried and pursued; survival is a function of the enemy’s incompetence rather than any skill on the part of the insurgents.

The importance of base areas has major significance for the principle of destruction in irregular warfare. Bases constitute fixed centers of gravity that must be attacked by the counterinsurgent and defended by the insurgent. Physical territory can neither be conquered nor defended by guerrilla techniques alone. Thus, the necessary existence of bases encourages escalation to regular warfare for two reasons: first, they permit the guerrillas to form regular units of their own, as per Mao’s third phase of protracted war; second, they constitute fixed objectives that can be destroyed or defended only by means of regular warfare.

Another significant aspect of Mao’s theory is his attention to the contest of political will that underlies irregular warfare. The political will to sustain a protracted war was one of China’s major advantages over the Japanese invaders:

The Japanese are waging a barbaric war along uncivilized lines. For that reason, Japanese of all classes oppose the policies of their government, as do vast international groups. On the other hand, because China’s cause is righteous, our countrymen of all classes and parties are united to oppose the invader; we have sympathy in many foreign countries, including even Japan itself. This is perhaps the most important reason why Japan will lose and China will win.[118]

This comment hints at a possible shortcut to victory; a way to achieve the political objectives of the war without having to progress through the entire three-phase process. In other words, victory without having to destroy the enemy forces in battle. Mao does not dwell on this possibility; it actually contradicts the central argument of his work. However, its mere existence is of major significance and we shall return to the subject later.

None of Mao’s concepts were wholly original; like other military theorists, his great accomplishment was systematizing ideas that had long existed in more fragmented forms, assembling them into a single, coherent theory to guide irregular warfare. But how was the theory of protracted war applied in reality?


The Application of Protracted War

Predictably, there were major disconnects between the theory and practice of protracted war, not least among them the true nature of the conflict. On Guerrilla Warfare was purportedly written as a guide for the liberation of China from the Japanese invaders, and Mao pays lip service to the united front with the Kuomintang, writing that “the rapprochement of Communists and Nationalists has laid the foundation for an anti-Japanese war front that is constantly being strengthened and expanded…”[119] In reality, both Mao and Chiang Kai-shek regarded the anti-Japanese war as a temporary interruption of their ongoing civil war; an opportunity for both parties to husband their strength and prepare for the decisive confrontation that would occur after the Japanese defeat, which was made inevitable when America entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mao admitted as much in comments to his followers, explicitly giving the resistance against Japan a low strategic priority: “The Sino-Japanese war affords our party an excellent opportunity for expansion. Our fixed policy should be seventy percent expansion, twenty percent dealing with the Kuomintang, and ten percent resisting Japan.[120] American advisors and liaisons, deployed to China to support the local forces against the Japanese (thus easing the burden for U.S. forces in the Pacific), often expressed exacerbation, frustration and despair over the unwillingness of the Chinese, particularly Chiang Kai-shek, to move against the Japanese.[121] Despite their common enemy, the Communists kept 50,000 troops deployed to cover the KMT, while the latter deployed 200,000 men to do likewise against the Communists.

As a result, protracted war was never fully implemented against the Japanese. In the course of the war there were only two major encounters between the Red Army and the Japanese occupation forces. In September 1937, at the Battle of P’inghsingkuan, the Communists managed to ambush an entire Japanese division, inflicting about 5,000 casualties in the process.[122] Three years later, the Communists launched a massive guerrilla offensive, the “Hundred Regiments Offensive,” partially in response to an effective Japanese counterinsurgency campaign led by General Tada Hayao. The offensive lasted three months and disrupted the Japanese occupation of North China, resulting in about 25,000 Japanese casualties and another 20,000 prisoners, including local proxy forces (or “puppet troops,” as Mao preferred to call them).[123] But despite the intensity of this campaign, it was still a guerrilla operation; regular warfare did not occur. The Japanese responded with the “three-all policy” – “kill all; burn all; destroy all” – a vicious counterinsurgency program that severely eroded Communist power, reducing the Red Army from 400,000 men to 300,000, and the population of Communist base areas from 44,000,000 to 25,000,000 by the end of 1942.[124] But the Japanese simply lacked the military resources to prosecute this campaign to its conclusion, and the Red Army was able to survive and recover its strength. Mao himself acknowledged that the enemy was in a weak strategic position; the Japanese Empire had grievously overextended itself:

Her manpower, her raw materials, and her financial resources are all inadequate and insufficient to maintain her in protracted warfare or to meet the situation presented by a war prosecuted over a vast area … Furthermore, China in not Japan’s only enemy. Japan is unable to employ her entire strength in the attack on China … Because of these important primary considerations, the invading Japanese bandits can hope neither to be victorious in a protracted struggle nor to conquer a vast area.[125]

Thus, it all the more surprising that Communist operations had a minimal impact on the Japanese. “Until 1940-1941 the Japanese virtually ignored the Communists, whose pinpricks had hardly any military impact. But even after 1940 only about one-quarter of the Japanese forces in China were operating against the Communists.”[126] The Japanese continued to garrison the cities and the main lines of communication between them, and at no point did the Chinese threaten to completely dislodge the Japanese occupation. Even Samuel Griffith, Mao’s sympathetic American translator, admitted that “No authentic records support the proposition that Communist military operations succeeded in forcing the Japanese invaders from an extensive territory they physically occupied and wanted to hold…”[127] In sum:

Mao’s military writings are likely to create a mistaken impression in some respects: that the Chinese Communists were engaged in constant fighting against the Japanese invaders, that the Communists were facing (strategically) an overwhelmingly strong enemy, that most of the Japanese war effort was directed against the Communists and that in the end the Japanese were defeated mainly due to the relentless attacks of the Chinese Red Armies. In reality the Communists devoted more of their time and effort to fighting the Kuomintang (and vice versa) than the Japanese.[128]

The Communists never succeeded in destroying the forces of the Japanese occupation, but this does not mean that protracted war was never fully applied. The third stage of protracted war, annihilation of the enemy, was realized during the war with the Nationalists that resumed after the Japanese surrender. Control of Manchuria, the most industrialized region of China, proved to be the flashpoint that reignited the civil war.

Both the Nationalists and the Communists coveted Manchuria’s resources, industrial capacity and arms dumps left by surrendering Japanese forces. Both sides rushed forces to the area, but Manchuria was distant from the Kuomintang’s base of power in south-central China, and Nationalist garrisons could be sustained only via long rail lines, easily interdicted by the Communists. While KMT forces tried to consolidate their hold on the cities, the Red Army captured large amounts of Japanese arms and established itself in the Manchurian countryside. Major clashes between the two armies began in 1946, and by 1947 the Communists, strengthened by captured Japanese arms and an effective political program that mobilized the peasant population, dominated the countryside and had bottled up Nationalist forces in their urban garrisons.[129] Demoralized and under siege, these garrisons began to surrender. “By early November, Communists controlled all of Manchuria. Chiang had lost some thirty-three divisions – over 300,000 men … Eighty-five percent of these units were equipped with the best American weapons: Rifles, machine guns, mortars, radios – all went to Lin Piao’s guerrillas.”[130] Having secured Manchuria, Mao turned his attention to the Yangtze valley. The decisive confrontation occurred between December 1948 and January 1949 near the city of Hsuchow. The two-month long “battle of Hwai-Hai, fought by Chiang’s last real army and involving over a million troops, lasted sixty-five days before final Nationalist defeat. Chiang lost sixty-six divisions surrendered or destroyed.”[131]



The apparent success of the Maoist paradigm gave it a great deal of currency among revolutionary movements around the world. For the first time, they had a demonstrably effective doctrine on how an insurgency could use guerrilla warfare to gradually build power and overthrow an incumbent regime. Furthermore, the military aspect of the doctrine has the advantage of being adaptable to different social and political contexts; rural communism and agrarian reform need not be the only fuel. In Afghanistan the Taliban is waging an insurgency that closely resembles the Maoist model, with Islamism and Pushtu ethnic nationalism functioning as the driving political forces.[132] However, attempts to replicate Mao’s victory have not always met with the success.

Mao’s theory was developed specifically to guide the Communist party of China. This context contained many unique factors, the absence of which complicated the application of protracted war elsewhere in the world.[133] For instance, Mao’s formula depends on an agrarian society with a large and disaffected peasant population that is amenable to radicalization. “But peasants are basically conservative, more disposed to suffer than risk their hard-earned all … It appears that peasants can be mobilized for revolutionary war only when their lives have deteriorated so rapidly and radically that they feel desperate.”[134] This was true in 1930s China, but it has proven rare elsewhere in the world. A peasantry prone to radicalization can exist only when the incumbent government is monumentally corrupt and incompetent and takes no measures to alleviate their plight; another condition of China that is rarely true in other countries. Most societies are simply not backward enough for protracted war to take hold.

Furthermore, the territory must be large enough to allow guerrillas to trade space for the time necessary to build capacity and political will;[135] it is very difficult for guerrillas to survive in small and confining terrain, and few countries are as vast as China. Of the Mao-inspired insurgencies that occurred in Asia, Africa and South America, only in Vietnam did victory occur in the third phase of protracted war with the destruction of the enemy’s forces and his will to continue fighting. This occurred twice: in 1954 when the Vietminh defeated the French in the First Indochina War, and in 1975 when Saigon fell to the Spring Offensive.[136]


The revolutionary doctrine promoted by Ernesto “Che” Guevara had a major impact on the art of guerrilla warfare in Latin America, and is thus worthy of inclusion on our short list of case studies. The miraculous success of the Cuban Revolution infused the writings of its leaders with an air of credibility; guerrilla movements came to regard Castro and Guevara on par with Mao Tse-tung. There was a key difference, however: whereas Mao largely succeeded in applying a theory developed through careful analysis of China’s unique circumstances and cautioned against misapplication in different situations, the victors of the Cuban Revolution wrote their theory after the war, extrapolating from their own purported experiences (many of which did not actually occur) to develop a general theory of irregular warfare that was supposed to turn all of South America into a gigantic Vietnam for the world’s capitalist powers. As Guevara himself would discover, pursuing such grand designs from a limited base of experience is not a recipe for success. Nevertheless, Guevara had a major influence on the theory of irregular warfare, and his case is notable for the curious position occupied by the principle of destruction, at the intersection between theory and practice.


The Cuban Revolution[137]

For most of the 20th century, Cuba was a political basket-case that suffered from chronic maladministration, corruption and instability including frequent coups and regime changes. Political opposition to incumbent regimes often took violent forms, and insurrection and banditry amounting to low-level guerrilla warfare was common. Thus, there was not serious alarm in the regime of Fulgencio Batista when in December 1956 Fidel Castro and eighty-one of his followers landed in a remote mangrove swamp in Oriente province. Indeed, Batista’s forces managed to ambush Castro’s little army two weeks after its landing, reducing its number to twelve men, including Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara. For the next several weeks the survivors stayed on the move incessantly to avoid being located by government forces, eventually reaching the relative sanctuary offered by the rugged terrain of the Sierra Maestra in southern Oriente.[138]

Temporarily safe from annihilation, Castro began a rural insurgency. The nearby peasants, severely impoverished even by Cuban standards, were indoctrinated into the revolutionary cause; small combat actions were launched against poorly-manned government outposts to capture arms and ammunition. Castro also tried to establish contact with subversive organizations based in the cities, both to set up an urban front and to gain another source of supplies. In short, Castro was establishing a guerrilla base in the Sierra Maestra.

However, his progress remained slow and the guerrillas posed little more than a nuisance to the government in Havana until February 1957, when sensationalist reporting by Herbert Matthews of the New York Times made Fidel Castro a world celebrity, vastly exaggerating his accomplishments.[139] This was an important propaganda victory for Castro: it gained him much sympathy in the United States and the loyalty of other anti-regime elements within Cuba. It also forced Batista to take cognizance. A limited offensive was launched into the Sierra Maestra and his security forces became increasingly brutal in their suppression of political opposition in the cities. Over the next several months, the regime destabilized as its key constituencies lost confidence in its ability to hold onto power. At the same time, the strength of the guerrillas gradually increased, and in the autumn of 1957 Castro sent out small columns from the Sierra Maestra to expand the war into surrounding areas.

In May 1858 the Cuban army launched Operation Summer, a massive offensive into the Sierra Maestra. It succeeded in corralling the guerrillas into a four-square-mile area, but the operation culminated before it could crush the guerrillas. “Batista’s orders tied up about a quarter of the troops in guarding coffee and sugar plantations in Oriente. Army morale, in general was poor; most units were untrained for guerrilla warfare: upon leaving the lowlands, they succumbed to fatigue and disease; the rainy season slowed them even more.”[140] The rebels ambushed several large columns and harried the army as it retreated out of the mountains. Before long Castro was able to resume the offensive, his columns severing key highways and railroads. Batista’s allies, including the military, deserted him, and in December 1958 he fled the country with his family and key supporters. Castro’s revolution was victorious.


Che Guevara and Guerrilla Warfare

The main theoretical product of the Cuban Revolution was the book Guerrilla Warfare, written by Che Guevara and first published in 1961.[141] It is mostly a “how-to” manual focused on tactical minutiae and the day-to-day tasks of leading a guerrilla band: how to set up ambushes; the construction of fighting positions; maintenance of order and discipline; proper administration of “liberated zones,” etc. The small portion of the book devoted to the theory of irregular warfare had an impact far disproportionate to its length.

Supposedly, neither Castro nor Guevara had read Mao Tse-tung’s military writings prior to the Cuban Revolution,[142] but Guerrilla Warfare echoes many of the same general themes of rural insurgency. Guevara opens his book with the following thesis statement:

            We consider that the Cuban revolution contributed three fundamental lessons to the revolutionary movements in America. They are:

  • Popular forces can win a war against the army.
  • It is not always necessary to wait until all the revolutionary conditions exist; the insurrectionist foco[143] can develop subjective conditions based on existing objective conditions.
  • In underdeveloped America the countryside is the fundamental arena for armed struggle.[144]


The second point on the above list is a major departure from the Maoist model because it argues that extensive political preparation of the population is unnecessary at the beginning of an insurgency; the act of violence itself can function as a revolutionary catalytic, inspiring the masses to take up arms against the regime. The foco theory was the one original contribution Guevara made to the theory of irregular warfare. Many guerrilla movements latched onto the concept with wholehearted enthusiasm because it offered a shortcut to victory: according to Guevara, the meticulous and exhausting political work demanded by Mao’s version of protracted war could be accomplished with a few simple acts of violence. As we shall see, the real world quickly disabused them of this convenient notion.

Guevara lays out a three-phase process that mirrors the Maoist version of protracted war. “At the outset, the guerrilla fighter’s essential task is to keep himself from being wiped out … When this is achieved and it has been able to take up inaccessible positions that are very difficult for the enemy to reach, or it has assembled forces that deter the enemy from attacking, the guerrilla band should proceed to the gradual weakening of the enemy.”[145] Eventually the guerrillas will be strong enough to form new columns and deploy them to different areas to set up new revolutionary focos. The third phase begins when the guerrillas are able to wage regular warfare:

The guerrillas then move on to other zones, where they confront the enemy army along defined fronts; by now heavy arms have been captured, perhaps even some tanks; the fight is more equal. The enemy falls when a series of partial victories becomes transformed into definitive victories, in other words, when the enemy has to accept battle in conditions imposed by the guerrilla band; there he is annihilated and compelled to surrender.[146]

Guevara was even more adamant than Mao on the importance of the principle of destruction in guerrilla warfare, “the ultimate aim of which,” he writes, “is the same as in any war: to win, to annihilate the enemy.”[147]

Guerrilla warfare is therefore clearly a phase that does not afford in itself the opportunity to attain a complete victory, but rather is one of the initial phases of a war and will develop continuously until, through steady growth, the guerrilla army acquires the characteristics of a regular army. At that moment it will be ready to deal the enemy definitive blows and to achieve victory. The triumph will always be achieved by a regular army, even though its origins were in a guerrilla army.[148]

Guevara elevated the principle of destruction beyond military necessity, to the level of revolutionary duty, writing that “ultimate victory cannot be won until the army that sustained the former regime has been systematically and totally destroyed. Furthermore, all the institutions that protected the former regime should be smashed…”[149]


Che Guevara and the Application of Guerrilla Warfare

The importance Guevara assigns to destroying the enemy is all the more interesting in light of the actual experience of the Cuban Revolution. Whereas there were disconnects between theory and practice in the cases of T.E. Lawrence and Mao Tse-tung, Guevara’s theory was wholly divorced from reality. The Cuban Revolution did not achieve victory through the destruction of the regime’s armed forces; at no point were Castro’s guerrillas strong enough to wage regular warfare. According to Castro himself, in February 1957, when Matthews was reporting to the world a massive revolutionary army in the Sierra Maestra, his army consisted of only eighteen men.[150] Castro never commanded more than three hundred guerrillas during the entire war.[151] The great “battles” recounted by Castro, Guevara and others were little more than minor infantry skirmishes, rarely involving more than one hundred men. For example, the attack on the military outpost at Ubero on May 28, 1957 – an event of some significance in the mythology that sprang up around the Cuban Revolution – resulted in eight dead guerrillas and thirty government casualties.[152] Indeed, the Cuban Revolution involved relatively small loss of life compared to other guerrilla wars; Mao would have regarded the entirety of the war as an inconsequential skirmish. An army of three hundred irregulars is more than enough to wage low-level guerrilla operations, but it should be no more than a nuisance for even a small regular army, if the latter is competently led. How then are we to explain Castro’s triumph after only two years?

The simple answer is that the Batista regime was so monstrously corrupt and incompetent that the whole rotten edifice collapsed as soon as it came under the slightest degree of pressure. Castro’s movement was the proverbial kick to the door that brought down the entire structure. “Cuba had long depended upon a complex system of bribery and patronage. Such a system can only be effective as long as there is enough wealth to go round.”[153] In Batista’s Cuba, however, the economy had suffered due to low sugar prices. “And when a system based upon venality loses its ability to provide the pay-offs, it swiftly collapses. Legitimacy based upon money has notoriously few ideological underpinnings. The money is no longer forthcoming, there is simply nothing left to fight for.”[154] Thus, the constituents of the regime began to jump ship upon the arrival of a charismatic alternative. An incumbent regime can usually survive such challenges with the proper combination of competence and ruthlessness, but “Batista was a weak and ineffectual dictator, cruel enough to antagonize large sections of the population, yet not sufficiently harsh (or effective) to suppress the revolutionary movement.”[155]

Nor was Castro’s victory attributable to subtle strategy on the part of the revolutionaries; there is no indication that the war was guided by a design higher than prudent opportunism. Castro shifted strategy whenever events demanded. For example, his original objective was to provoke a general strike that would paralyze and topple the regime.[156] Only after this failed to materialize – and after his band was nearly annihilated – did Castro adjust course to eventually settle on a vague rural insurgency. In sum:

It was not so much Cuba the country, its economy, society and politics that were unique, but the specific political constellation prevailing there in the late 1950s … the Batista colossus had feet of clay. It was not through farsightedness or by instinct, but through sheer foolhardiness that Castro dared to challenge the dictator, only to discover to his and everyone else’s astonishment how brittle the regime was, and how near to collapse.[157]


There were other aspects of Guevara’s theory that had no basis in the Cuban Revolution. He stressed the importance of the countryside and the peasants as the center of revolutionary activity, relegating urban operations to a subordinate role due to the extreme risk posed by the regime’s security forces in the cities.[158] This was correct from a strictly military point of view but it neglected the political dimension of guerrilla operations. In fact, subversive organizations based in the cities were a major factor in Batista’s fall and, as expected, they suffered far greater losses than Castro’s guerrillas.[159] The limited success enjoyed by Castro’s rural strategy would not have been possible had he based his movement anywhere other than the Sierra Maestra, home to Cuba’s most destitute peasants.

Guevara’s original contribution to the theory of irregular warfare, the foco concept, was flawed. Guevara himself would die trying to implement focoism in Bolivia, where the peasants had no interest in overthrowing a regime that had made sincere efforts to improve their lot. By contrast, they actively assisted the counterinsurgency that concluded with Guevara’s capture and death in October 1967.

Mao and Giap might have told Guevara and Debray that foco violence, rather than catalyzing revolution, would instead expose the revolutionary movement at its weakest moment to a crushing counterattack, as happened in Bolivia. The people who might have been recruited for revolutionary war are instead frightened and discouraged by focoist failure.[160]


The case of Che Guevara is an interesting one: he assembled his personal experiences into a single doctrine and stressed the crucial importance of the principle of destruction, even though it had little bearing on the success of his own campaign. What are we to conclude from this seeming contradiction? Guevara was not stupid, nor was he inexperienced at guerrilla warfare; his writings were not those of an armchair warrior. His understanding of the principle of destruction derived not from personal observation but from the study of military theory and other guerrilla movements. We can safely determine that, by assigning the principle such importance in his own theory, Guevara considered it a valid concept despite its marginal role in the Cuban Revolution. Thus, Guerrilla Warfare is an important reaffirmation of the principle of destruction as the best path to victory, even in irregular warfare.



The Principle of Destruction in the Theory of Irregular Warfare

Both Mao and Guevara acknowledged that guerrilla warfare is not a decisive military instrument; sooner or later, the enemy forces must be confronted and destroyed. Lawrence’s theoretical vision is obfuscated by verbosity, but at its heart was the hope that victory could be delivered without battle. As he admitted, actual experience did not bear this out.

Thus, there is consensus among our theorists that the principle of destruction remains valid in irregular warfare. Guerrilla warfare has the potential to seriously weaken the enemy, attriting him through many small blows, but it is unable to physically destroy him. As a result, guerrilla warfare does not have the value of strategic independence. It is merely one step in the larger war effort; a temporary strategy of survival that permits the irregulars to progressively build strength until they are able to wage regular warfare against the enemy and achieve decision. As Robert Taber summarized:

They fight, then, in order to survive. Given their inferiority of resources, they can survive only by avoiding direct confrontation with a superior enemy; that is, battle on the enemy’s terms. Guerrilla strategy is dictated from the start by this consideration. The result – if the guerrillas are to be successful and to avoid extermination – is a protracted war. The conflict must continue until the movement has recruited and trained enough men, and come into possession of enough arms, to build a revolutionary army capable of defeating the regular army in open battle.[161]

Here it is important to note that regular warfare will manifest differently depending on the specific conflict. The transition to regular warfare is a hurdle too high for many insurgencies. For example, a hypothetical guerrilla movement in the United States would need to achieve a very advanced level of military development, with forces equipped with tanks, heavy artillery and combat aircraft, if it were to have any hope of military victory over the incumbent government. Barring extensive foreign support, this is probably impossible, since it is unlikely that an insurgency could establish such sophisticated industries in its base areas. However, in the underdeveloped world, where military establishments are far more rudimentary, it is easier for insurgent movements to establish parity with the government; regular warfare need not be spectacular for the principle of destruction to be operative.

In addition to its military importance, guerrillas also aspire to regular warfare because of the political legitimacy it confers.[162] By vanquishing the government’s army in battle they demonstrate military, administrative and political sophistication; they appear to the people and the world at large as a true government-in-waiting, vastly more competent than the incumbent regime. Similarly, established states will usually defend against even overwhelming invasions with conventional measures because reverting to guerrilla warfare would incur a major loss of political legitimacy in exchange for only a limited chance of success after years of hardship and struggle.[163] For example, in 2008 Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili explained his decision not to launch a guerrilla resistance in response to the Russian invasion of his country:

We had a choice here … We could turn this country into Chechnya – we had enough people and equipment to do that – or we had to do nothing and stay a modern European country … Eventually we would have chased them away, but we would have to go to the mountains and grow beards. That would have been a tremendous national philosophical and emotional burden.[164]


Protracted war is a theoretical construct, and no irregular war has perfectly mirrored the hypothesized three-phase lifecycle, though many guerrilla movements have developed regular characteristics. In addition to the archetypical Chinese Red Army, examples include Tito’s Partisan resistance in Yugoslavia during World War II, which maneuvered several brigade-sized units against German occupation forces.[165] During the First Indochina War, the Vietminh not only evolved from a guerrilla force into a regular army, they achieved a decisive military victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.[166] More recently, Chechnya achieved de facto independence from the Russian Federation in 1995 when guerrillas, formed into semi-regular units, inflicted a severe defeat on Russian forces based in Grozny.

Indeed, guerrillas are often eager to join battle with the enemy, especially when the torturous rigors of irregular war become apparent. If it is possible to defeat the enemy in a few short and sharp battles, why live like animals in the wilderness for years on end in pursuit of a vague and distant hope? However, the timing of the transition to regular warfare is perhaps the most critical decision for a guerrilla movement, and there is a great risk of doing so prematurely. If guerrilla warfare has not sufficiently strengthened the guerrillas and weakened the enemy, the first major battlefield confrontation will result in catastrophe for the guerrillas, difficult if not impossible to recover from. We have already noted that Mao’s theory of protracted war was inspired by the failure of “orthodox” operations before the Long March. In Greece in 1949, the communist Democratic Army was destroyed when it attempted to hold territory against government forces in the northern mountain regions.[167] During the Second Indochina War, the North Vietnamese suffered major setbacks in 1965, 1968 and 1973 when they sought to replicate their earlier success against the French by trying to destroy U.S. forces and those of the U.S.-supported Republic of Vietnam.


The Strategy of Political Exhaustion

The American experience in Vietnam highlights a significant aspect of irregular warfare that has not yet been addressed. The North Vietnamese Army and its southern proxies never won a battle against U.S. forces, yet it was the North that was ultimately triumphant in 1975, shortly after the U.S. stopped prosecuting the war.[168] Victory was achieved without the North having destroyed the forces of its main enemy. What explains this contradiction of the study’s central argument?

            To answer this question, we must refer back to the fundamental nature of war itself. War is a political instrument used in pursuit of a political object. “Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifice to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”[169] However, each belligerent does not necessarily assign an equal value to the political object guiding the war. When they differ, an asymmetry of interests exists in which one side has a higher stake in the conflict, and thus a greater will to continue fighting. If this side can survive long enough to continue the war beyond the length and intensity acceptable to the enemy, it can compel the enemy to quit the conflict. In the words of Beatrice Heuser:

The general rule seems to be … that if one side has lower political stakes in a conflict than its opponent and is thus unwilling politically to escalate the conflict beyond certain limits, the opponent, with a greater political stake, is often able to draw out the conflict on a level of low military intensity until the first side to the conflict tires of its involvement and withdraws.[170]

Irregular warfare offers the long-term survival and low-level military action required by a strategy of political exhaustion. When the war has exceeded the tolerable limits for the less interested side, a policy crisis will occur in its decision-making circles. The costs and benefits of continuing the war are debated. All aspects of the war are examined: the necessary financial outlays and their impact on the economy; the steady trickle of casualties and the degradation of military forces deployed in the war; damage to the regime’s prestige and the extent to which this will result in political and economic isolation; the impact on the social fabric and the possibility of civil unrest; how the opposition will exploit the crisis, etc. “In the political sphere, the government is subjected to a constant, wearing pressure that comes from the great expense and anxiety of the anti-guerrilla campaign and from the constant cry of the opposition, the banks, the business community: when will it all end? What are you doing about it?[171] The debate often results in a curtailment of the war, ceding victory to the irregulars. When the stakes are low and the war is going badly, cutting losses by abandoning the commitment can be a rational course of action. However, loss of will is not inevitable; the regime might be able to reenergize political support for the war. For example, in 2006 the deteriorating security environment in Iraq led to a major policy crisis in the United States over the Iraq War. Rather than withdrawal U.S. forces, however, the George W. Bush Administration managed to mobilize support for an influx of troops and an expanded counterinsurgency campaign.

Democratic societies are particularly vulnerable to political exhaustion because of the wide diffusion of political power; foreign policy is influenced by a large number of political actors in addition to the citizen base itself. In a protracted war against irregulars, the state must balance expediency, demanded by the military imperative of quick victory at minimum casualties, with moral considerations demanded by those unwilling to tolerate the brutal methods required by expediency.[172] Democracies are very often unable to maintain this delicate balance. Successful prosecution of a long-term war depends on the very citizenry that doubts the value of the political object. For the state to continue the war in the face of such opposition requires oppressive measures wholly contrary to the nature of democracy:

The war becomes synonymous with a threat to the democratic order, and the government consequently loses legitimacy. At the end, then, democracies fail in small wars because they cannot find a winning balance between the costs of war in terms of human lives and the political cost incurred by controlling the latter with force, between acceptable levels of casualties and acceptable levels of brutality. In summary, for democracies, the process that dooms the prospects of political victory in protracted small wars involves an almost impossible trade-off between expedient and moral dicta that arise from an intricate interplay between forces in the battlefield and at home.[173]

This is how irregulars have defeated great military powers, including the United States. In addition to America’s Vietnam experience, the 20th century offers many examples, particularly during the period of decolonization. World War II severely discredited European imperial powers in the eyes of their colonial subjects and inflamed nationalist sentiments that had been simmering for a long time. The war exhausted the European powers militarily and economically, causing major shifts in public attitudes toward colonial possessions. In short, the imperial powers were saddled with colonies that they had neither the military strength nor political will to retain. In these situations, the margin of victory for revolutionary guerrillas was very wide; success was a matter “simply of taking the profit and prestige out of colonialism.”[174]


Examples of Political Exhaustion

A particularly vivid case occurred in Cyprus during the 1950s when the National Organization of Cypriote Fighters (EOKA), led by George Grivas, waged a low-level guerrilla war against British rule on the island.[175] Though Grivas never had more than a few hundred hard-core fighters and a few hundred more part-time auxiliaries, he managed to outlast a counterinsurgency campaign by vastly superior British forces. By 1958, Britain had had enough, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan yielded sovereignty over the island in exchange for military basing rights. Had Britain insisted on retaining Cyprus there would have been little hope for a Cypriote victory. The terrain on the island was ill-suited for long-term guerrilla warfare, EOKA’s manpower was always limited, and as the war dragged on Grivas began to lose the support of the Greek Cypriote population. But ultimately, Grivas understood that the British were unwilling to take drastic action to maintain their rule; the asymmetry of interests dictated that EOKA merely needed to continue the war long enough that London decided it was not worth the effort. The British no longer had any appetite for imperial adventures and the small, steady trickle of casualties and expenditures guaranteed an eventual policy shift.

Events in Algeria over the same period illustrate the frightening consequences when a government escalates a war beyond the level that the nation is willing to accept. Beginning in 1954, Algerian nationalists organized under National Liberation Front (FLN) waged a massive irregular war against French rule and the European colons (European settlers and their descendants) that controlled most of Algeria’s wealth and political power.[176] However, the FLN underestimated the extent to which the French were willing to fight back; Algeria had long been considered an integral component of metropolitan France and the political chaos of the 4th Republic gave the French military a free hand. Hundreds of thousands of troops poured into the country to reinforce the counterinsurgency effort. The rebels suffered heavily in the face of such overwhelming forces. In 1957, French paratroopers defeated a major campaign of urban terrorism in Algiers, wiping out the many terrorist cells that had infiltrated the city.[177] Guerrillas in the countryside were fought with similar ruthlessness. By 1959 the FLN was militarily defeated.[178]

As the French were about to learn, however, military victory is meaningless if it does not achieve the political object. The French public was aghast upon learning of the brutal methods used to win the “Battle of Algiers” and the FLN gained significant international sympathy for its struggle, including from the United States, which worried that the French commitment was weakening NATO. Furthermore, the war required the mobilization of many hundreds of thousands of conscripts, most of whom were apathetic if not hostile to the campaign and looked with suspicion on the close relationship between the colons and the elite units of the French military. Indeed, metropolitan French opinion in general resented the colons, considering them to be over-privileged anachronisms from a bygone colonial era that had managed to hijack the French military. Most Frenchmen did not consider Algeria worth retaining.[179]

In 1958 a political crisis triggered by a colons-led coup in Algiers brought Charles de Gaulle to power. Though his early rhetoric was sympathetic to the French Algerian cause, “De Gaulle realized that the French could fight in Algeria for the next hundred years, a war that for some time had been costing France over a billion dollars a year. Military action, he realized, had become of subordinate importance – a necessary prelude to bringing the FLN to the negotiating table.”[180] The military situation might have been favorable, but the FLN continued low-level terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and Algeria still required hundreds of thousands of garrison troops. Even if France had maintained its will and completely quelled the rebellion, a future uprising was a distinct possibility as the French “were still representatives of an imposed alien culture.”[181] Algerian nationalism was too strong and French political will too weak. When De Gaulle began offering the FLN conciliatory gestures, including the possibility of Algerian self-determination, he alienated the colons and powerful elements of the French military. This culminated in an attempted coup against De Gaulle in 1961. The coup failed, but disillusioned splinters of the army continued a terrorist campaign against the De Gaulle Administration that lasted into 1962. Algerian independence was granted in July of that year.[182]

This, then, is the wager for governments that attempt to wage war beyond the level that the nation is willing to accept: political and social unrest bordering on civil war.

Much like EOKA in Cyprus, the FLN had achieved victory not through triumph on the battlefield – militarily it had been defeated – but simply by continuing the struggle. The accomplishment of the Algerian guerrillas, successfully defying French forces a million strong, was to create a drain on French manpower and the French treasury that was too great, given the domestic political dissension on the Algerian question that existed, for even a major industrial and military power to bear.[183]

The examples of Cyprus and Algeria are not the only ones available to illustrate the decisive importance of political will in irregular warfare, but they are two of the most vivid, the former demonstrating how a mere handful of irregulars can alter the political calculus of a Great Power, the latter showing how victory is impossible in the absence of political will, even if the military situation is favorable. Decolonization has decreased the frequency of wars in which this is the decisive factor, but it remains present in any conflict involving a sharp asymmetry of interests. Most of America’s military setbacks in the 20th century have been due to political exhaustion, Vietnam being the obvious example, but also smaller engagements such as Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993.[184]

Authoritarian states are less vulnerable to political exhaustion, but not immune. In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan after nearly a decade of fighting mujahideen insurgents.[185] Announcing the policy shift at the Communist Party Congress in 1986, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev declared that “counter-revolution and imperialism have transformed Afghanistan into a bleeding wound.”[186] Throughout the war, the Soviets demonstrated a peculiar aversion to casualties by relying on overwhelming and indiscriminate firepower delivered from stand-off distances; infantry rarely closed with the enemy, preferring to stay behind the armor of infantry fighting vehicles. Thus, even an authoritarian police state such as the Soviet Union can be sensitive to the costs of irregular warfare.

Limits of Political Exhaustion

However, the asymmetry of interests of does not always favor the irregulars. If a regime’s interests are existential in nature, it will do everything in its power to survive and destroy the guerrillas that threaten it. Thus, the political will of the regime will outlast that of the guerrillas, and the only hope for the latter is to either destroy the regime’s forces in battle or moderate their own objectives, thus diminishing the regime’s stake in the conflict, in order to reach a negotiated settlement. In other words, while states might be willing, even after great cost and sacrifice, to tolerate defeat over secondary or tertiary interests, when primary interests are threatened, the state will not lose the will to fight and a strategy of exhaustion will not suit the guerrillas.

Exhaustion is particularly viable when the irregulars are fighting an adversary widely recognized as a foreign invader. Here the interests between the two belligerents differ most sharply because the guerrillas have an existential stake in the war while the enemy might consider it little more than a contingency operation.

However, it is “one thing to appear as the spearhead of a national movement against the hated foreigner; it [is] another, infinitely more difficult task to compete with other native political parties in the struggle for power.”[187] The limits of political exhaustion are illustrated by the fate of numerous insurgencies in South America from the 1960s through the 1980s. Inspired by the example of the Cuban Revolution, the general strategy of these movements was to weaken and discredit the enemy regime in the eyes of the people and the world at large, thereby creating a “climate of collapse” that it is unlikely to survive. According to this theory, the regime simply disintegrates and the victorious guerrillas step into the vacuum.[188] Such was the story of the Cuban Revolution, but attempts to replicate the story elsewhere in South America largely resulted in failure. Regimes across the continent spared no effort in eradicating guerrillas, often resorting to death squads and “disappearances.” The guerrillas deliberately provoked such brutalities by employing terrorist tactics in the hope that the heavy-handed response would alienate the regime from the population, compelling the latter to support the guerrillas.[189] But instead of playing into the guerrillas’ hands, these ruthless methods strengthened the state. “Worldwide public opinion was enlisted against these atrocities, but appeals and manifestos from foreign lands showed diminishing returns and were in any case a poor substitute for guerrilla victory.”[190] Societies were transformed; fledgling democracies became police states in response to the internal threat, but the inability of the guerrillas to defeat the regime in battle sealed their eventual doom.

The contest of political will is an important unifying characteristic of irregular warfare, functioning as a constant similar to that of the principle of destruction in regular warfare. This factor is present even when guerrillas are transitioning to regular warfare, and to a certain extent the two processes are symbiotic with each other: building sufficient capacity for regular operations can only be done with strong political will, and undertaking regular operations shows this determination to the enemy, leading him to question his own. If the enemy’s political will collapses before the guerrillas are forced to annihilate him on the battlefield, all the better for the guerrillas. For example, the Tet Offensive of 1968 was a military disaster catastrophe for the Vietnamese Communists, but its mere occurrence severely damaged American political will to continue the war.[191] Similarly, though the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was a military triumph for the Vietminh, it succeeded in destroying only about one-fifteenth of French forces in Indochina; the political shock following the defeat was more important than the purely military consequences.[192] In the instance that a guerrilla army achieves victory by destroying its enemy on the battlefield, the political will that enabled this success is as decisive a factor as the actual military triumph.


Irregular warfare can achieve victory via two possible avenues. The first is the traditional military route, which entails destruction of the enemy forces in battle. Because of their initial weakness, the irregulars must establish bases in remote areas and utilize guerrilla warfare to avoid annihilation and gradually build up their military power. Eventually, the guerrillas are strong enough to form regular and semi-regular units and the war sheds its irregular character as a final decision is pursued on the battlefield.

The other avenue is to exhaust the enemy politically. The irregulars need only survive and maintain a continuous, low-level guerrilla war until the enemy determines that his objective is not worth the cost and he quits the conflict on his own accord. The decisive annihilation of his forces is unnecessary. This strategy is only viable if the enemy’s interests are of secondary or tertiary importance. If his primary interests, such as regime survival, are at stake, he will not lose the will to fight and the irregulars will have to defeat him on the battlefield.

Considering the potential of irregular warfare to defeat great powers without destroying their military forces, it is surprising that none of the theorists examined in this study address the subject in any detail. Mao Tse-tung stressed the importance of superior political will on the part of the guerrillas in order to sustain the struggle long enough to build a regular army: “In a war of long duration, those whose conviction … is not deep rooted are likely to become shaken in their faith or actually revolt. Without the general education that enables everyone to understand our goal … the soldiers fight without conviction and lose their determination.”[193] As noted above, however, he only briefly mentioned the possibility of undermining the enemy’s will to continue fighting, and pointedly combined it with the principle of destruction: “The destruction of Japan’s military power, combined with the international sympathy for China’s cause and the revolutionary tendencies evident in Japan will be sufficient to destroy Japanese imperialism.”[194] Guevara advocated the use of sabotage to disrupt normalcy and undermine confidence in the regime,[195] but he did not tie this into a larger strategy of exhaustion, instead adhering to his version of protracted rural insurgency.

An anecdote from shortly after the Vietnam War encapsulates the political essence of irregular warfare. In 1975, Col. Harry Summers visited North Vietnam to research the causes of America’s defeat. When interviewing a North Vietnamese colonel, he pointed out that U.S. forces were always victorious on the battlefield. “That may be true,” the Vietnamese colonel replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”[196]


An examination of the writings and actual military experiences of T.E. Lawrence, Mao Tse-tung, and Che Guevara – three of the 20th century’s most influential theorists of irregular warfare – supports the conclusion that the principle of destruction is the decisive factor in irregular warfare. Mao and Guevara in particular are emphatic that final victory is possible only with the annihilation of the enemy’s military forces. Thus, the guiding principle of warfare, as argued by Carl von Clausewitz, exists in both the regular and irregular modes. In light of this conclusion, it is not surprising that each of the men examined in this study expressed admiration for Clausewitz.[197]

The continuity between regular and irregular warfare admits of one major exception. In situations where the belligerents assign sharply different levels of importance to their respective political objectives, it is possible for the side with greater interest to achieve its political objective by simply outlasting the enemy, continuing the war until his will to fight collapses. A liberal understanding of the principle of destruction would note that Clausewitz encompassed within it the “moral element,”[198] but this phenomenon is not so easily dismissed. By permitting the direct manipulation of political centers of gravity, the strategy of exhaustion allows irregulars to bypass the intermediate step of military action by eliminating the need to disarm the enemy. This explicit political dimension is the one truly unique element of irregular warfare. “Clausewitz’s most famous dictum reminds soldiers that war is a continuation of politics by other means, but this is an insight easily lost sight of on a modern conventional battlefield. Political concerns yield to military necessity.”[199] The strategy of political exhaustion means that the same cannot be said of irregular warfare.

What are the implications of this conclusion? Most important is that irregular warfare does not differ from regular warfare to the degree that some of the more frantic voices would suggest. At the strategic level, each mode requires the destruction of the enemy’s military forces to achieve victory. Guerrilla warfare itself does require unique skill sets from both insurgents and the counterinsurgents that oppose them, such as political and civic action to gain the support of the population, espionage and intelligence collection, small unit tactics, etc. However, guerrilla warfare is a transitory phase, incapable of producing victory except when one side has only a secondary interest in the conflict, and the skills associated with it are tactical in nature.[200]

Furthermore, the worldwide trend of decline in state power has devolved onto non-state actors de facto control over physical territory; militias and guerrilla movements more readily find themselves as pseudo-legitimate governing authorities. As noted in the study, territory can be defended only by positional warfare. Thus, military powers around the world will increasingly find themselves engaged in regular warfare with non-state actors.[201]

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have provided the impetus for a major effort to reform the military institutions of the United States to make them more suitable for long-term irregular wars. Changes that increase the U.S. military’s proficiency at counterinsurgency operations are manifestly appropriate; however, the U.S. must be wary of undermining the military’s core competency: “the capacity to destroy the largest possible defensive force over the largest possible territory for the smallest casualties in the least time.[202] Any state that retains this capacity, along with the political will to continue the fight, will prevail in a war against irregulars. However, if this capacity is discarded in an effort to optimize military forces for arresting insurgencies when they are still in the guerrilla warfare phase, options for the counterinsurgent become severely limited: the irregulars must be defeated before they are able to field regular and semi-regular units. Otherwise, the insurgent and counterinsurgent will switch places, and the latter will be beaten at what should be its own game: destruction of the enemy.




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[1] John A. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 219.


[2] Ibid., 191-208.


[3] See Robert M. Gates, “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2009): 28-40.

[4] For a famous example of this ridicule, see Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), 21-33. Concerning Brodie’s treatment of the principles of war, Colin Gray has remarked that “He performed too complete a demolition exercise, slaying guilty and innocent alike.” See Colin S. Gray, The Sheriff: America’s Defense of the New World Order (Lexington, KY: Kentucky University Press, 2004), 165.


[5] Harry G. Summers, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (New York, NY: Presidio Press, 1982), 91.


[6] For example, the U.S. Army’s various doctrinal manuals have usually listed and defined nine principles: mass, objective, offensive, surprise, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, and simplicity. See U.S. Army, FM 100-5: Operations, Headquarters, Department of the Army (May 1986), 173-77.


[7] Or as Michael Handel succinctly defines it, “when all other things are held equal, the destruction of the enemy forces is the most effective (even if not the least costly) way to ‘compel him to do our will’ thus achieving our own political objectives…” Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1996), 239. Emphasis in original. See also Michael I. Handel, “Who is Afraid of Carl von Clausewitz?: A Guide to the Perplexed,” The Clausewitz Homepage, (accessed December 19, 2010).

[8] For a concise examination on how the martial nature of Roman society was a key factor in Rome’s ascent to supremacy, see Alvin H. Berstein, “The strategy of a warrior-state: Rome and the wars against Carthage, 264-201 B.C.,” in The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War, ed. Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, and Alvin Bernstein (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 56-84.


[9] Adrian Keith Goldsworthy, The Roman Army at War 100 BC – AD 200 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 12-38.


[10] Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999), 40-46.

[11]  For example, the annihilation of three Roman legions in the Teutoburg in 9 A.D. put an end to serious efforts to expand the Empire into Germania. Christopher S. Mackay, Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 189-91.


[12]  For an excellent survey of the medieval art of war, see Philippe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, trans. Michael Jones (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1986), 208-37.

[13] Ibid., 219.


[14] Felix Gilbert, “Machiavelli: The Renaissance of the Art of War,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler, ed. Edward Mead Earle (1943; repr., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 6.


[15] For a vivid description of Charles VIII’s invasion with an emphasis on its macro-historical importance to the art of war, see Max Boot, War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Gotham Books, 2007), 1-9.

[16] Gilbert, “Machiavelli,” 1-25. See also Gilbert’s revised essay in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton University Press, 1986), 11-31.


[17] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Art of War, trans. and ed. Christopher Lynch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 20.

[18] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations (New York: Routledge, 2007), 36.


[19] Ibid., 29-48. See also Peter Paret, “Napoleon and the Revolution in War,” in Paret, Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, 123-42.

[20] Peter Paret, “Napoleon and the Revolution in War,” in Paret, Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, 131.


[21] Ibid.


[22] Ibid.

[23] Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini, The Art of War, trans. G.H. Mendell and W. P. Craighill (Kingston, ON: Legacy Books Press, 2008).


[24] See Crane Brinton, Gordon A. Craig, and Felix Gilbert, “Jomini,” in Earle, 77-92. For a newer essay that includes more biographical details and a longer examination of Jomini’s life and work, see John Shy, “Jomini,” in Paret, Makers of Modern Strategy, 143-85.


[25] Jomini, 63.

[26] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 258.


[27] Ibid., 228.


[28] Ibid., 97.

[29] Ibid., 91.


[30] Ibid., 77.


[31] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Ralph D. Sawyer (New York, NY: Metrobooks, 1994), 177.

[32] Ibid. Emphasis added. Sun Tzu’s emphasis on avoiding battle was probably not inspired by the Chinese warfare of his own day, which featured bloody annihilating battles just like elsewhere. It should be understood as an ideal deriving from the Confucian social context in which Sun Tzu was writing, which considered the use of violence itself to be indicative of a larger failure by the ruler to maintain peace and order. Thus, the massive violence of battle was particularly frowned upon. See Handel, 73-88.


[33] Contamine, 208-18.


[34] Vegetius, De Re Militari, bk. III.

[35] B.H. Liddell-Hart, Strategy  (New York: Meridian, 1991), 5.


[36] Ibid. 208-9. Liddell-Hart was criticizing not so much the content of Clausewitz’s writings but rather the ease with which they can be misconstrued and abused. He respects other major aspects of Clausewitz’s theory, and even acknowledges that the principle of destruction has a place in an integrated grand strategy. “Once this is realized,” he wrote, “the military principle of ‘destroying the main armed forces on the battlefield’, which Clausewitz’s disciples exalted to a paramount position, fits into its proper place along with other instruments of grand strategy – which include the more oblique kinds of military action as well as economic pressure, propaganda, and diplomacy.” Ibid, 211-12.


[37] J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (1967; repr., Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989).

[38] Ibid., 47. Here Wylie touches on the political dimension of irregular warfare, a matter that will be explored in subsequent chapters.


[39] Clausewitz, 75.

[40] For an illustrative modern artifact, see Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, trans. Ali Santoli, Unrestricted Warfare (Panama City, Panama: PanAmerican Publishing Co., 2002). The authors, two Chinese colonels, argue that technology and globalization have opened new spheres of warfare in addition to the traditional battlefield, and that these new spheres could be the decisive “theater” in a future war. The authors give a long list of what they consider to be new forms of warfare, such as financial warfare, network warfare, environmental warfare, technological warfare, etc. For their argument to be valid, however, they rely on a definition of war markedly different from that of the West: “…the goal [of warfare] should be to use all the means whatsoever – means that involve military power and means that do not involve military power, means that entail casualties and means that do not entail casualties – to force the enemy to serve one’s own interests.” Ibid, 43.


[41] Clausewitz, 99.

[42] Ibid., 386.


[43] Ibid., 259. Emphasis in original.


[44] Center of gravity is another Clausewitzian concept, barrowed from Newtonian physics, referring to a belligerent’s most critical point: “…the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed…” Clausewitz, 596. Unsurprisingly, he usually considered the army to be the most important center of gravity, and “no matter what the central feature of the enemy’s power may be – the point on which your efforts must converge – the defeat and destruction of his fighting forces remains the best way to begin, and in every case will be a very significant feature of the campaign.” Ibid. For more on the center of  gravity, see ibid, 484-7, 596-9, 617. See also Handel, 39-48.


[45] Handel, 235-9.


[46] Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 115.


[47] Clausewitz, 203.

[48] Ibid., 97-8. Emphasis in original.


[49] Ibid., 97.

[50] Ibid., 87.


[51] Ibid., 605.


[52] Ibid., 606.


[53] Ibid., 91.


[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 90.


[56] Ibid., 97.


[57] Ibid. Note how this sentence also encapsulates many of Jomini’s ideas.

[58] Ibid., 99.


[59] Ibid., 92-3.


[60] See Handel, 31-7.

[61] Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 160.


[62] Liddell-Hart, 131-7.


[63] Donald Stoker, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 351-404. When considering examples such as this one it is important to remember Clausewitz’s admonition that “the moral element must also be considered” as subject to the principle of destruction. The March to the Sea certainly did great damage to Confederate morale. See also Russell F. Weigley, “American Strategy from Its Beginnings through the First World War,” in Paret, 429-36.

[64] See Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).


[65] Liddell-Hart, 325. Emphasis in original.

[66] Clausewitz, 97.


[67] Ibid., 96.


[68] Ibid.

[69] For example, the ancient Chinese military classics, Sun Tzu included, distinguished between the unorthodox (ch’i) and orthodox (cheng) forms. See Sun Tzu, 147-50. The unorthodox/orthodox dichotomy is not perfectly analogous to that of regular/irregular warfare; I mention it here only to illustrate that the study of war has always divided the subject into two modes.


[70] Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations, 247.

[71] Walter Laqueur, Guerrilla: A Historical and Critical Study (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1976), ix.


[72] C.E. Callwell, Small Wars: A Tactical Textbook for Imperial Soldiers (1906; repr., London: Greenhill Books, 1990), 127.  First published in 1896, this monumental work derived from Col. C.E. Callwell’s extensive study of colonial wars, and continues to hold relevance for counterinsurgents in the present day.

[73] Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations, 253-4.


[74] The average duration of a successful post-World War II counterinsurgency is 14 years, while unsuccessful counterinsurgencies last an average of 11 years. Seth G. Jones, Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2008), 10.

[75] Laqueur, ix.


[76] Ibid., 100-51.

[77] T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 189.

[78] T.E. Lawrence, “The Science of Guerrilla Warfare,” in Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th ed. (London, 1929), online at (accessed December 19, 2010). This article contains the same basic themes from Chapter 33 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom with more detailed elaboration on how the theory was put into practice in Arabia.


[79] Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 192-3.

[80] Ibid., 192.


[81] Ibid.


[82] Ibid.


[83] Lawrence, “The Science of Guerrilla Warfare.”

[84] Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 194.


[85] Ibid.


[86] Ibid., 195.

[87] Lawrence, “The Science of Guerrilla Warfare.”


[88] Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 196.


[89] Laqueur, 156.


[90] Lawrence, “The Science of Guerrilla Warfare.”

[91] See Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chapter 53.


[92] Laqueur, 155. For example, at the same time that Lawrence was participating in the Arab revolt, Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was leading an extremely successful nuisance war against the British in German East Africa. His objective was to divert as many British troops as possible away from the Western Front, preventing them from reinforcing Allied lines, by threatening key railroads in British East Africa to the north. Between 1914 and 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck’s tiny irregular army tied down several hundred thousand British and Imperial troops, and he even made incursions into Portuguese East Africa after Lisbon entered the war on the Allied side. In objective military terms, Lettow-Vorbeck was a far more successful guerrilla than Lawrence, but his exploits have been largely forgotten because he lacked both the eloquent pen and publicity skills of Lawrence. For an adventurous narrative of this campaign, see Leonard Mosley, Duel for Kilimanjaro (New York: Ballantine Books, 1963). 

[93] Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 193.

[94] The following overview of Mao Tse-tung is drawn from Robert B. Asprey, War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 1: 344-68, 613-49; Ian F. W. Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and their Opponents since 1750 (London: Routledge, 2001), 70-85; Robert Taber, War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2002), 39-55; John Ellis, From the Barrel of a Gun: A History of Guerrilla, Revolutionary and Counter-Insurgency Warfare, from the Romans to the Present (London: Greenhill Books, 1995), 177-99; and Laqueur, 239-62.


[95] Asprey, 349.

[96] Mao Tse-tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (1961; repr., Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 68.

[97] Ibid., 43-4.


[98] Samuel B. Griffith, introduction to Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, 21.


[99] Ibid.

[100] For an outsider’s account of life in the Chinese base areas, see Agnes Smedley, “The Red Phalanx,” in Guerrilla Strategies: An Historical Anthology from the Long March to Afghanistan, ed. Gérard Chaliand (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 52-62.


[101] Mao, 41.


[102] Ibid., 46.

[103] Ibid., 53.


[104] Ibid., 56.


[105] Ibid., 42.

[106] Ibid., 57.


[107] George K. Tanham, Communist Revolutionary Warfare: From the Vietminh to the Viet Cong, rev. ed. (New York: Praeger, 1967), 14, 83-9.


[108] Ibid. See also Ellis, 165-6.

[109] Mao, 95.


[110] Ibid., 98.

[111] Ibid., 55.


[112] Ellis, 183-5


[113] Mao, 107.


[114] Ibid., 97.

[115] Ibid., 111-3.


[116] Laqueur, 252.


[117] Lawrence, “The Science of Guerrilla Warfare.”

[118] Mao, 69-70.

[119] Ibid., 69.


[120] Quoted in Asprey, 621.

[121] Ibid., 613-49.


[122] Laqueur, 257.


[123] Ibid. See also Asprey, 366-7.


[124] Laqueur, 257.

[125] Mao, 66-7.


[126] Laqueur, 256.


[127] Quoted in Asprey, 622.


[128] Laqueur, 256.

[129] Asprey, 646.


[130] Ibid., 647.

[131] Ibid., 647-8.


[132] See David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 39-114.


[133] See Beckett, 78-84.

[134] John Shy and Thomas W. Collier, “Revolutionary War,” in Paret, 857-8.


[135] The relationship between time, space, and will within protracted war was first noted by E.L. Katzenbach, Jr., and is a useful way to understand how the process works. “Lacking the arms with which to confront well-equipped armies in the field, Mao avoided battle by surrendering territory. In so doing, Katzenbach writes, he traded space for time, and used the time to produce will: the psychological capacity of the Chinese people to resist defeat.” See Taber, 42-3.


[136] See Tanham, 31-2, 94-7; Asprey, 809-18; Summers, 135-9.

[137] The following brief summary of the Cuban Revolution was based on Asprey, 932-76; Laqueur, 299-303, 326-43; Taber, 25-37; Ellis, 216-20; Beckett, 168-73;

[138] Guevara himself wrote a dramatic account of the expedition’s early days. See Ernesto Che Guevara, “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War,” in Chaliand, 168-79.


[139] Asprey, 952-5.

[140] Ibid., 966.


[141] Ernesto Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2006).

[142] Laqueur, 302.


[143] A “foco” is a small nucleus of revolutionary guerrilla fighters.


[144] Guevara, 13.

[145] Ibid., 22.


[146] Ibid., 90.


[147] Ibid., 20.


[148] Ibid.

[149] Ibid., 138.


[150] Asprey, 955.


[151] Laqueur, 300.

[152] Taber, 30.


[153] Ellis, 218.


[154] Ibid.


[155] Laqueur, 300.

[156] Asprey, 950.


[157] Laqueur, 301.


[158] Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, 43-5. See also “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War,” in  Chaliand, 175.


[159] Asprey, 951.

[160] Shy and Collier, 850-1.

[161] Taber, 40.

[162] Rupert Smith and Colin Gray, British strategic theorists of note, both define regularity in terms of political legitimacy. See Rupert Smith The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Vintage, 2008) 9-11; and Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century (London: Phoenix, 2006), 215.


[163] Indicative of this was the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, when Emilio Aguinaldo’s incipient Philippine Republic elected to oppose the American annexation of the archipelago with conventional defensive tactics, reverting to guerrilla warfare only after the Philippine Army of Liberation was destroyed. See Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War: 1899-1902 (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 42-159.

[164] C.J. Chivers and Michael Schwirtz, “Georgian President Vows to Rebuild Army,” New York Times, August 24, 2008.


[165] See Asprey, 465-86; Laqueur, 214-20; Beckett, 64-8; and Ellis, 162-9. However, these forces did not actually achieve a decisive victory over the Germans; their survival and ultimate triumph owed much to the other theaters of the war, which prevented the Germans from concentrating forces in Yugoslavia and wiping them out.


[166] See Martin Windrow, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam (Philadelphia: De Capo, 2005). For an analysis of the Vietminh strategy of revolutionary warfare, which closely followed the Maoist approach, see Tanham, 1-110.

[167] See Asprey, 733-45 and Taber, 142-7.


[168] For a useful account of the gradual collapse of American political will during the Vietnam War, see Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 157-222. 

[169] Clausewitz, 92.


[170] Beatrice Heuser, Reading Clausewitz (London: Pimlico, 2002), 184.

[171] Taber, 39. Emphasis in original.


[172] See Gil Merom, How Democracies Lose Small Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[173] Merom, 24.


[174] Taber, 41.


[175] See Asprey, 887-902 and Taber, 117-33.

[176] The definitive history of the French-Algerian War is Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (New York: History Book Club, 2002). See also Asprey, 903-31; Ellis, 212-16; Laqueur, 294-9; and Beckett, 159-68.


[177] Horne, 183-230.


[178] Beckett, 165. The Algerian War inspired a renaissance of counterinsurgency theory, including the writings of David Galula and Roger Trinquier. Galula’s work in particular has had a major influence on the formulation of America’s current counterinsurgency doctrine. See David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (1964; repr. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006); Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency, trans. David Lee (1964; repr. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006).


[179] See Merom, 83-154 for a detailed analysis of how France lost the will to continue the war.


[180] Asprey, 928.


[181] Beckett, 166.


[182] Embittered by their back-to-back defeats in Indochina and Algeria, the French began to study revolutionary warfare with an almost religious fervor, resulting in a counterinsurgency theory known as guerre révolutionnaire that had pseudo-mystical properties. See Shy and Collier, 852-6.


[183] Taber, 114-5.

[184] For other examples, See John M. Collins, America’s Small Wars: Lessons for the Future (McLean, VA: Brassey’s, 1991).


[185] See Mark Urban, War in Afghanistan (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988); Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin, The Battle for Afghanistan: The Soviets Versus the Mujahideen during the 1980s (Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK: Pen & Sword Books, 2009); and Stephen Tanner, Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban, rev. ed., (Philadelphia: De Capo, 2009), 221-70.


[186] Tanner, 265.

[187] Laqueur, 320.

[188] Taber, 21-2.


[189] The Brazilian Marxist guerrilla Carlos Marighela provided the thesis statement for this strategy: “It is necessary to turn political crisis into armed conflict by performing violent actions that will force those in power to transform the political situation of the country into a military situation. That will alienate the masses, who, from then on, will revolt against the army and the police and blame them for this state of things.” Quoted in Horne, 118. Marighela was killed in a police ambush in 1969.


[190] Laqueur, 318.

[191] Summers, 133-4.


[192] Tanham, 32.

[193] Mao, 88-9.


[194] Ibid., 98.


[195] Guevara, 24, 113-16.

[196] Summers, 1.

[197] See Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 188; Mao, 49; and Guevara, 21.


[198] Clausewitz, 97.

[199] Loren B. Thompson, “Low-Intensity Conflict: An Overview,” in Loren B. Thompson, ed., Low-Intensity Conflict: The Pattern of Warfare in the Modern World (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1989), 4.


[200] Gian P. Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters (Autumn 2009): 5-17.


[201] The 2006 Lebanon War was a good example. Hezbollah, which has established a quasi-state entity in southern Lebanon, attempted to hold ground against a major Israeli incursion by utilizing positional warfare. Despite Hezbollah being a non-state militia, the conflict manifested the characteristics of regular warfare. See Stephen Biddle and Jeffrey A. Friedman, “The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy,” Strategic Studies Institute, 2008. Available at (accessed December 19, 2010).

[202] Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 6. Emphasis in original.


About the Author(s)

Benjamin Borgeson holds an MS in Defense and Strategic Studies. He is currently enlisted in the U.S. Army, and is assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division at Ft. Lewis, WA.


A Certiport Credentials is considered as a well-recognized qualifications course all over the planet. Quite a variety of Engineering learners aim to finish the evaluation every period. The wide range of the examinees for this type of qualifications clearly shows the value of Certiport and everything that it defends.


Sun, 10/21/2012 - 3:15pm

We have to boil the issue of the Afghan insurgency down to it's base. Distruction is the only real path to success. With any number of ragtag guerilla forces consisting of tribal, foreign, criminal etc groups, working in networks, bands, cells and organizations with no ordered lines of communication, working independently and at times together and at other times against each other, totally decentralized, often without even the same common goals. I don't see a Sun Tsu "winning without fighting" strategy working. The reason for this is twofold. 1. The winning without fighting strategy works when you can out manuver, get to and hold key terrain, et cetera, et cetera and convince the enemy he has no choice but to not fight or give it up. Additionally you may be able to psychologicaly put him into submission. 2. It leaves the enemy force intact and since they estentially have no castle to defend, they can reposition. Additionally unlike western and eastern organized armies, if the local cell leader isn't getting the job done, he'll get fired or bumped off and replaced, by someone willing to carry on the fight. And since every group is it's own individual unit, that may or may not even have stratagic goals, and certainly has its own goals and objectives, we are going to have to influence every single enemy group leader (and likely in many, many cases, every member of the group)and not just the senior most one, and that just plain isn't going to happen. Nor are we going to influence them by distroying infastructure, huge population centers etc that are not there (and at the rate they are progressing won't be for another 5000 years, maybe not even then). We cannot distroy their bases because they don't have large support bases. "Cutting off the head" hasn't stopped them, they operate in cells. And they cannot be reasoned with at this time because they are have not been brought to their knees (this is why dictators are about the only guys who ever successfully govern these type of countries).They have a hatred of the West and Christains we cannot fathom, and no tolerance for any other way but their own. Until they are brought to their knees or wiped out, they are never going to be reasoned with. We have got to look at this like cancer. Do you try to reason with cancer? No. Do you hold talks with cancer? No. Do you bribe cancer? No. What do you do with cancer? Well you cut it out with a knife, roast it with radiation and poison it with chemo... And you keep doing this till it's gone or you are. You might get them to go into remission, but then you have to BPT do it all over again, because it may come back and might even be more aggressive.

The bottom line is this. Our target and circumstances should dictate what tools and methods we select. It's time to go man to man and stop with the zone defense, it isn't working. There are very few useful tools for Afghanistan. Things like trade sanction/embargos that would bring other nations to their knees are only going to cause minor inconvience to Afghan insurgents. With nearly no infastructure and manufacturing etc, what can we really cut them off from, that they cannot get by other means? With two squirrely neibiors on either side, not allied with us, how would we even accomplish it? In fact if anything it would likely give our enemies a propaganda victory, if we did it.

And there is but one road to get to our desired endstate. It is going to have to be thru the semi independant infantry squad and independant infantry platoon, SF A-team, Seal squads/platoons etc,etc and heavy use of every sniper, and CCT guy we can lay our hands on. We just are not going to get the classic large scale battle every battalion, brigade and division commander dreams of.

When I look at your comments, I see points where we converge (policy) and points where we apparently have strong divergences. My underlying point is not about policy, but how the military can achieve a policy objective. That doesn’t mean I concur with the policy, but my support, nor any other military person’s support for the policy is irrelevant once the decision is made to commit the military to solve the problem. Our current approach simply promotes forever wars with no end in sight, and I would argue that is much more dangerous to both us and the region we’re intervening in. I strongly agree with your thoughts that the military should be the last in and the first out, and in many ways that comes close to paralleling the Powell doctrine. When we’re committed we should be pursuing clear military objectives, not focusing on a social experiment.
I also agree that a State should never wage war against their own populace as whole, but they may very well have to engage in combat against certain segments of their population that are a threat to the State. You claim you don’t say population, and that they population consists of many populations, yet your arguments always default to “the” population, you simply dismiss that many insurgencies are led by minorities within larger population that do not represent the majority, and there frequently is not a root cause that the government can address with a policy change. The fact of the matter is many nation-states are only held together by coercive power due to our European brothers arbitrarly drawing boundaries that didn’t respect historic and cultural norms, so yes we have the option to allow the populations within these States to work things out (often violently) and not intervene, but if we choose to intervene then that often requires using sufficient force to suppress whatever side we choose to oppose. Personally I think a better approach would be taking a peace operations approach, where the diplomats work out agreements between the warring sides, and then the military enforces the agreement or terms of reference. I think something along these lines needs to be done in Afghanistan, but don’t have enough area knowledge to validate this, but some sort of arrangement will have to be made, or we accept it will be a forever war.
To claim the primary fixes are governmental policy, not killing of those who stand up to their government is ideal when dealing with modern states, but facing the reality we deal with in States that we would consider far from ideal and where ethnic hatred and greed trumps reason and it is in our national interest to intervene (in most cases it is not), then we very well may need to enable a military solution. This goes back to the old adage of never say never and never say always. You can’t develop one model or explanation that fits all situations. That my friend is what is really dangerous.
In your last sentence are you advocating any programs that support nation building and external government manipulation? That would seem to be contrary to your previous posts.


Mon, 01/09/2012 - 2:46pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I'm afraid your understanding of a heroin based economy and mine are completely different.

You cited the US economy transforming from smokestack to a knowledge/silicon economy as a parable to the Afghan transition from cereal/livestock to poppy farming. You also mentioned the 20% 'bribe' surcharge on aid funding as similar to heroin money entering the local economy.

I'm sorry the physical effects of the narcotic infect everyone. The growers, mules, refiners, dealers and the end user. Everyone in the supply chain gets on the dragon. According to the UN 4 million people are involved in the industry in Afghanistan - most of them would have varying levels of addiction. Many of the worst affected will be capable of extreme violence with little or no remorse.

Attempting any sort of aid program or COIN within such a population is utterly pointless. Many of them wouldn't remember anything done for them or to them more than a week ago.

Anyway at the very least we have exchanged wide ranging viewpoints.


Bill M.

Sun, 01/08/2012 - 8:46pm

In reply to by RandCorp


I'm not aware of any significant drug war victories other than arrests or killings of Cartel leaders, but that doesn't stop the supply and demand business from functioning. How can anyone be surprised that that illegal drug production has increased 10 fold after the Taliban were removed? I said the problem is being addressed versus ignored, I didn't say it was effectively being addressed. I guess we could spray all their fields, but somehow I'm not sure that would help the government's COIN strategy by winning over the population and destroying the illicit economy. Maybe, but lots of folks have nonconcurred with this approach, which is probably why we're not doing it.

Traditions change, and after 10 years of making one way, well I think it is safe to say that is the new tradition. The U.S. economy used to be largely a manufacturing economy, but it isn't anymore. I'm sure you get my point.

It may or may not forbidden my Islam, but a heck of a lot of Muslims use it. Furthermore if it is seen as a way to subvert the West or non-Islamic peoples I would assume they could justify it as some form of Jihad.

Like most transnational criminal organizations (often regional organizations tied to other regional ones to facilitate distribution) that control a large sum of money, they generally control their share of politicians and law enforcement officers in those countries, which complicates our ability to respond in the harsh manner you suggest.

I'm sure the drug money partly sponsors the resistance, just as our billions of dollars in aid that we generally may a 15-25% corruption tax on.

We could look at the problems as black and white and spray the fields, but I suspect it would solve little. That means more poppy would be grown elsewhere to meet the demand, and in the meantime we would have further alienated another population group in Afghanistan. I agree with you that there may be "easy" answers, but I doubt that they're the right ones.


Sun, 01/08/2012 - 4:58pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill ,
According to the DoJ production of heroin in Afghanistan alone has increased ten-fold since the Taliban were removed from power. Some say the figure is 40 times but whichever figure you choose one could hardly say the problem is being addressed in any positive sense. In 2007 it was valued by the DoJ at US$ 4 billion.

It is the scale of the flood of illicit money which has completely inundated the religious, economic, health and political traditions of the region that is the problem. Hence the analogy of the sinking ship.

Along with the 8,000 Americans it kills every year it probably kills a similar number of Afghans.

We'll have to agree to disagree on the ease of crop-dusting but I imagine you are referring to the fallout from the destruction of the poppy crop. However it is not a traditional crop. Afghans don't possess some unique way of digesting three squares a day of heroin nor keep livestock which love nothing more than grazing a field of poppy plants. So there is no reason why they can't go back to farming what they've been farming for thousands of years.

Because every Afghan is perfectly aware that it is forbidden by Islam, punishable by death in most Islamic Law courts and extremely unhealthy the whole societal ethos has descended into criminality. Moreover most Afghans are perfectly aware that if any Westerner did back in their own countries what they were doing they would get life in prison. So Westerner suggestions, requests or direction is understandably met with contempt.

If the amount of heroin has increased ten fold I believe it is fair to suggest the number of armed criminals has increased by similar amounts and continues to do so. Sending troops, whether Afghan or western, into such a battlespace without a concerted effort to remove the enemy's main source of funding is difficult to understand.


Bill M.

Sun, 01/08/2012 - 12:11pm

In reply to by RandCorp

Randcorp, I can't follow your logic or point in the first half of your post. Patching holes is not a strategy, nor a good way to use U.S. tax dollars in my opinion. Poor people do fight for money, and guess what, so do rich people. I suspect most conflicts are due to the wealthy venturing out to exploit resources and then protect their access and control of those resources to defend and enhance their wealth. Poverty is rarely the root cause of conflict, but simply part of the over all conflict. Control of resources and wealth on the other hand is frequently a root cause of conflict (whether or not the warring party is rich or poor). Most of us want to help people lift themselves out of poverty, but that takes time, and shouldn't automatically be conflated as a root cause of conflict. Second, the poppy fields are not being ignored, nor are they an "easy" target as you suggest. The DOA doesn't have an easy solution, and if we should have learned anything in the past 10 years is that easy solutions are red herrings that all too frequently lead those with the best intentions into quagmires.


Sun, 01/08/2012 - 4:30am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill ’ Danger ‘ M,

Though it happens often enough blaming the messenger never solved any problem – but blaming the mission? Who is that going to help?

Picture we are on the good ship SS Afghanistan. Ten holes have been punched in the hull and it is sinking. The US taxpayer is manning the pumps and can easily deal with five holes but not ten. The usual flock of seagulls are on the bridge but at least they know the way home to a dry-dock.

The Military are sent below to plug the holes.

They patch the IED hole, the skirmish hole and the loya jirga hole. The two remaining holes are political and are there for the simple reason foreigners should not be aboard the good ship . But hey the pumps can easily deal with two or three holes until we make port, we get off and repairs will be duly made and the Afghans sail off into the sunset under their own steam.

Unfortunately the ship is still sinking.

We could throw our hands up and declare we shouldn’t have been sent below in the first place and jump over the side. If we knew everything and had a chestful of medals second to none we could do a Hackworth and clamber up to the bridge and tell them they’re all full of shit. We could even set ourselves on fire outside the White House. Unfortunately none of these are likely to help.

Meanwhile some ground pounders down below goes looking for more holes. They come across five more. We’ll call them the Third Generational Criminality (TGC) holes. 10 years ago half would be Whabbi holes and half heroin. Today they are all heroin holes.

But ‘It’s an ill wind...etc.’ because unlike the leaky skirmish, IED, loya jirga and political holes the US Department of Agriculture can show you how to seal these holes in a manner of weeks and unlike the the drug induced holes in the SS Mexico, the source of these holes is completely exposed.

For some reason many westerners find it difficult to accept that extremely poor people will fight for money. I mean two thousand years ago the Romans expected payment and a pension. The GI Bill plays a role even for people who the rest of the world considers extremely rich. Why not the Taliban?

I enjoyed Ben’s article but was somewhat despairing until we got to Cuba. We accept that for Bastia’s troops (despite a feeble foe) “The money is no longer forthcoming, there is simply nothing left to fight for.” What makes the Taliban any different?

At the very least the poppy fields are an easy target we are completely ignoring.


Robert C. Jones

Fri, 01/06/2012 - 6:23am

In reply to by Bill M.


I say "the Populace" at times, but have never stated that the populace is some holistic mass. Every populace is made of many populaces, and in fact, depending on the issues at stake the shape and size of those "populaces" change in membership and size.

And yes. People who see revolutions as "war" do indeed mischaracterize both the causation and the nature of the problem, and they are indeed dangerous. You, my friend, are dangerous. Not as dangerous as those who see conflict in terms as black and white as WILF, but dangerous all the same. But let’s be clear on what I promote as an alternative to governments simply using military power to force their populace to submit to whatever it is they feel like subjecting them to. I have never said the government should never use force with the populace, only that they should not wage war against their own populace and think that in defeating the problem segment of the populace they have somehow resolved the problems that prompted them to revolt. Military should be a last resort. Last in, first out. Governmental violence against the populace should always be the minimum necessary, focused in location and purpose, and always seen as a supporting effort to main effort that is focused on understanding and addressing the root concerns of the problem.

What are root concerns? There is nothing uniquely "American" about any of these:

Does the affected segment of the populace believe the government to be exercising its primary sovereign duty to protect the populace in a manner consistent with the culture, history, law and expectations of those people?

Does the affected segment of the populace perceive the government to draw its legitimacy from a source they recognize?

Does the affected segment of the populace perceive the government treats them with the same respect and ensures the same opportunities it provides to other segments of the populace?

Does the affected segment of the populace perceive that the rule of law as applied to them offers the same justice as when applied to other segments of the populace?

Does the affected segment of the populace perceive that it has trusted, certain and legal opportunity available to them to make changes of government as necessary?

These are not "American" criteria. What might make a Libyan feel disrespected is different than what might make an Oklahoman feel disrespected; but how those two feel when they are disrespected is rooted in the universality of human nature.

For the United States the important thing to appreciate is that it is our constitution that keeps these factors in check at home, so don't mess with those aspects of the constitution that focus on this. Overseas what Americans need to appreciate is that governments which make foreign populaces affected by foreign policies generate these same perceptions are as at risk to a revolutionary response as domestic governments are to a domestic response. It is US foreign policy far more that Islamist Ideology at the roots of the attacks of 9/11 and other acts of transntional terrorism over the past couple of decades. Politicians and Diplomats don't like to hear that. Military leaders don't like to tell those two groups things they don't like to hear. It is a vicious circle.

In particular, in the post Cold War era the US has maintained policies toward the Middle East that not only drive these type of perceptions toward the US government in general; but has also (until recently) dedicated ourselves to the preservation or creation of governments who do the same domestically and are willing to support the continuation of the larger, regional US policies.

The primary fixes are fixes required of governmental policy, not killing of those who dare to stand up to such governance. Not to simply wage war against that element of the populace that does not stand cow-like and submit to governmental oppression.

Yes, the United States was founded upon the principles toward revolution that I promote. That does not make these principles "American," it just makes America uniquely hypocritical when we do not act in accordance with our professed principles.

Now, many in government may well believe that it is I who is a "dangerous man." That may well be true. My words may well be dangerous to a modern status quo family of governmental policy that have stumbled out of the Cold War and are met with so much friction today. More dangerous are those who tell their governmental officials "don't worry, this is just war, no need to change anything, we can defeat this problem." Moderate changes of the right type are far more powerful than any program of warfare. Any program of Nation Building. Any program of externally driven governmental manipulation. I stand by that.

Your dogged attempts to describe the population as a holistic mass that is synonymous with the insurgency or rebellion can be dangerously misleading, since more often than not this does not represent reality. More often than not the insurgency or rebellion is a minority element of a nation’s society that does not garner the majority of the population’s support. The counterinsurgent doesn’t necessarily have to separate the insurgent from the population, but avoid the insurgents into their hands.
The purpose of our government is to implement the will of its people (and even that is a stretch), that is not the purpose of all governments. North Korea and Iran certainly does not implement the will of the people. This is a liberal idea that does not have global application.
A government has multiple purposes, but one of them is to protect the state by whatever means necessary, and if it is an insurgency there often isn’t a viable peaceful solution and the effective use of violence will be required. I seriously doubt that many Peruvians desired to live under the rule of the Shining Path regardless of how inept the government may have been. Sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.
However, what we’re really talking about is our COIN doctrine that embraces a population centric as you do, but it ignores the reality that the people are not a collective mindless mass that all want the same thing. Rather the people is composed of different interest groups with competing agendas, so this idea of a benevolent government that the people control is truly a myth based on idealized view of the world. In time this may be true globally, but it not uniformly true now. Setting our policy aside for now, because for the most part we’re in agreement, but let’s assume that we’re back in uniform and supporting one of our many bad policy decisions. The policy isn’t debatable at this point; our mission is to keep the concerned government in power from a growing insurgency. The government is not receptive to ideas concerning reform, and it is in our national interests to keep in power for whatever reason. The approach that our current doctrine proposes won’t work, as demonstrated in Iraq, Afghanistan, Philippines, or elsewhere. We simply preserve the undesired security situation because we fail to defeat those who violently oppose the government. You’re right when you state we’re confused.
It is not about the type of country we want to live in, but rather accomplishing the mission. You keep referencing our country and our norms, but that isn’t what we’re dealing with. You claim that people who see revolutionary insurgency as war are dangerous, but I suspect you would have a different view if your government was facing defeat by an armed group. You can’t simply wish the problem away or throw money at the people in hopes you can bribe your way back to peace. You either fight or fall in this case. As you said, anytime we’re in another country doing this we’re a foreign body that is going to generate a lot of antibody production. We are preserving bad regimes and make the situation worse with our presence, but we even make it worse when we refuse to do what needs to be done.

You even said Ben was correct, that violence works. Your main disagreement appears to be with our policy, but this really isn't the point of the article. In my opinion if the military is asked to accomplish a specific mission, then regardless of whether we agree or not we get it done (one can always resign in protest). We're past the policy debate and in the fight, but we're refusing to fight.

Benjamin Borgeson

Thu, 01/05/2012 - 4:03pm

I want to say that it is an honor to be published by Small Wars Journal, and to see my work discussed by a group of scholars that I have become quite familiar with during my own studies and frequent visits to SWJ. I value all the comments here, both praise and criticism, and I will learn from them.

However, I am unable to participate in the discussion to the extent that I would like, due to my recent deployment to Afghanistan.

What a delicious irony...

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 01/05/2012 - 8:20am

(I apologize for the length, it would have been shorter, but I did not have enough time to make it so)

“To impose one’s will on the enemy – the object of war itself – requires that he be unable to resist, which requires that he is disarmed. Disarming him entails the destruction of his military forces. Once the enemy has been disarmed, he has no recourse but to plead for terms and ask for an end to hostilities; he is subject to the whims and mercy of the victor.”

(It is important not to focus too hard on the tactics or thinking of a Lawrence, Mao or Che, but rather upon the situations which each found himself within. Their thinking did not create their situations; it was their situations which shaped their thinking. Like us, they got some things right and some things wrong. Understand their situation first, and then look to the appropriateness of their thought and deed.)

For a domestic government faced with revolution to pursue “destruction” is a disaster which can only suppress a movement and oppress a populace. I see no exceptions to that. The object of war may well be to “impose one’s will on the enemy,” but the purpose of government is to “implement the will of the people.” To play semantical games that conveniently “separate the insurgent from the populace” is a dangerous fiction that may work for a colonial power, but not for a sovereign government addressing its own populace. Yes, disarming the populace allows the government to ignore their will. This is why our constitution is so clear on the need for the populace to be armed, informed, and able to assemble. This is what keeps would be despots in check. Who among us wants to live in a country where we must “plead for terms” from our officials? Who among us wants to be “subject to the whims and mercy” of our government? Revolutionary insurgency is not war. Those who can only see it in war-like terms are IMO quite dangerous. As people become increasingly empowered by information technologies it will become increasingly difficult to simply impose governmental will onto a populace through military force.

In the context of war, however, this statement by the author is all quite logical. It is only when placed in the context of domestic policy it becomes a shocking statement of oppression and despotism. If a state and their military are defeated in war by some other state, the people remain, and if not also defeated, will carry on the fight. Such is resistance insurgency and may fairly be viewed through the lens of “war and warfare.” So if dealing purely with a resistance to one’s forced illegitimate presence, the principle of destruction may well be adequate to the task of extending defeat to all three elements of one’s opponent state: Government – Military – Populace. Historians of WWII all know that Germany failed to defeat the third element of France, the French populace (though likely would have in time if not liberated by the allies); At the same time Germany failed to differentiate between those Soviet populaces they were liberating themselves through their invasion, and those who actually needed to be defeated; so attempted to defeat both, made enemies of all, and accomplished neither. This would be so much easier if everyone just wore distinctive uniforms and would line up neatly to either side of some line. But as Clausewitz pointed out, the populace is the “irrational” aspect of the trinity, and operates on emotion. They fight because of how they feel. Not to promote rational policies and law as does the state; or to be some non-rational agent of the state to simply overcome friction, and outmaneuver/think/fight some foe to implement the policies of the state.

The state and the military are like men, the populace is like women. As in conflict as in real life, the former do not understand and grossly underestimate the latter more often than not, and typically to the detriment of the former. As Clausewitz cautioned, the most important thing is to know what kind of war one is in. As important, one must appreciate if they are in a war at all. Is one on Mars, or are they on Venus?

Lawrence found himself conducting UW to facilitate a revolutionary insurgency. The Arabs and British shared a common immediate goal of defeating Ottoman rule in the region. Logically this made for an effective partnership. The British were the lesser of two evils at the time, though they considered themselves “lesser” in their occupational practice than the Ottomans, they became simply “the evil” once the Ottomans were defeated and the British (and French) influence and presence remained. (Of note the US finds itself in a similar position today in the Middle East. The lesser evil during the Cold War, our presence and influence were tolerated, but upon the fall of the Soviets when, like the British before us, we moved up from the lesser to the principle position of “evil.” Such tolerance quickly faded and resistance quickly began to build.

Now, if I am a Colonial power, then I must merely complete the defeat of my opponent. His government and military are defeated, so I must simply extend my conquest to his populace as well. So, yes, if that is my mission and goal, then simply extending “destruction” to the people works. This is the basis of much of our COIN Doctrine. Galula, however, saw the colonial presence as benign. He points out in his famous treatise that the insurgents did not attack the French, but rather were attempting to overthrow the local governments (created and protected by the French). His bias caused him to see such insurgency as revolution rather than as resistance, so he promoted tactics more appropriate to the conflict as he saw it, rather than to the conflict as it actually was. Not to say his tactics could not work. If a puppet regime does in fact extend good governance across a populace, that populace may very well come to overlook the inconvenient fact they are a conquered people whose governance draws its legitimacy not from them, but rather from the conquering power. But the people are irrational... (and such puppet regimes typically feel no need to distribute good governance equitably across a populace they owe they owe nothing to).

The US today is confused, and our policies and actions reflect our confusion. We are powerful enough to take your stuff, but we will pay you full market price instead; however, as a compromise we will attempt to control aspects of who governs, how they govern, and what values and forms of government are “right” and what are “wrong.” Frankly, I suspect that many populaces around the world are at the point of saying “look, just kick our ass, dominate us and take our stuff, or leave us the hell alone. Pick one. But stop, stop, stop this meddling emotionally abusive middle ground.” (See Anna Simon’s recent piece on sovereignty) It is like a soap opera of a bad marriage. The emotionally abusive husband, while a good provider who holds himself out to the world as a good and honorable man, but is controlling and disrespectful behind closed doors. She wants to leave, but is bound by the benefits of the marriage, and fearful of what might happen if she attempts to stand up or flee.

So, for the US, our problem is not one of if our military needs to destroy the enemy or not, our problem is one of our inabilities to define and implement an effective policy toward those areas of the globe where our vital interests manifest. The inability to define and implement an approach consistent with our professed principles and image of ourselves that we can balance with our fear over what might happen if we do not determine and control outcomes designed by us to shape the politics (and increasingly the values) of those regions and people. We need to either overcome our fear or abandon our principles. I promote the former, many however promote the latter.

There is great deal of good thinking in this paper and I will keep it as a helpful resource. It does, however, miss the critical point on why internal conflict differs from external conflicts, and how to best identify and resolve those that are internal.

William F. Owen

Thu, 01/05/2012 - 4:06am

In reply to by Bill M.


a.) Strategies of "Annihilation" and "Exhaustion" are not mutually exclusive to each other.
b.) The French lost 27,000 dead in Algeria and could not afford to loose anymore. THE POLICY was not worth it.
c.) As Clausewitz pointed out, "Victory" really only exists at the tactical level. The term Decisive battle merely means to aim to tactical action that is decisive. Who would not? - Thus exhaustion is gained by accumulated decisions.

Fact is, armed force is best used when focussed on armed force. Doesn't matter if you are a Riot Cop of Tank Commander. The POLICY is what will provide the context, as Iran and Syria so obviously demonstrate.

Welcome back Wilf and Happy New Year.
Now I'll tell you why you're wrong :-).

Ben's arguments are well presented and defendable for the most part, and like you I could quibble with some his historical factoids; however, not enough to undermine the basis of his argument. I always thought we put too much emphasis on Lawrence of Arabia and Mao, but legends are legends, and they just won't die, but they also shouldn’t shape the development of our doctrine.

I did find his dismissal of insurgent wins concerning. Ignoring or minimizing facts that don't support your argument is the same type of tactic that diehard fans of FM 3-24 used. I’m referring to the section where he wrote:
“This strategy is only viable if the enemy’s interests are of secondary or tertiary importance. If his primary interests, such as regime survival, are at stake, he will not lose the will to fight and the irregulars will have to defeat him on the battlefield."

Guess what, if that is the case, then a strategy of exhaustion is appropriate when your enemy is vulnerable to that approach and it has been proven to work throughout history on numerous occasions without the necessity of decisive battle. You can disarm your enemy indirectly by effectively maintaining pressure on the psychological and political centers on the home front. The French were extremely brutal in Algeria and were crushing the insurgents in battle, but it didn’t result in a victory. I’m not dismissing the value or the necessity of militarily defeating your opponent, just pointing out it isn’t always decisive, nor is it is always possible if your opponent refuses to engage in decisive battle. In the end the Soviets left Afghanistan without engaging in decisive battle. Like us they could have made the decision to cross the border into Pakistan and potentially engage in decisive battle, but decided it wasn’t worth the cost of doing so. We may have done the same by invading North Vietnam, but refused to do so. In summary guerrilla strategies can be effective without transitioning to regular wars/conflicts based on the overall context, which includes your enemy’s limitations. Obviously that is not always the case.

The recent turmoil through the Arab Spring countries and we’ll throw in Iran for good measure both support and refute Ben’s arguments to some degree. Combat is combat, and the skills for engaging in mano to mano combat don’t differ that much from regular and irregular warfare, but the tactics each uses does. More importantly the overall strategy each uses may vary considerably. UW is largely focused on the psychological and political aspects, while conventional wars are largely focused on defeating your opponent’s military forces. When I refer to political warfare, I’m not talking about Carl’s comment that war is simply an extension of policy, but rather about organizing politically at the grass roots level to organize the population to resist. Although the resistance attempted to mobilize the population in both Syria and Iran, it was crushed in Iran through the effective use of force (they weren’t constrained in using it and did desire to stay in power), and the situation in Syria remains uncertain.
On the other hand, the revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia effectively disarmed the State without decisive battle by winning over the security forces to the side of the revolutionaries. It was an indirect approach (the only option they had) and it worked. If the Egyptian military continued to side with the State the outcome most likely would have been the rapid defeat of the revolutionaries.
Of course relatively recently we witnessed the victory of Sri Lanka over the LTTE through decisive battle, so I am not dismissing the value of it, but simply stating it depends on the overall context that defines the limits for each side.

William F. Owen

Thu, 01/05/2012 - 2:32am

Brother Wilf is also in strong agreement. I could also quibble with some of the history but I think this is 90% fit for purpose and we have to ask as to why FM3-24 made the choices it did based on what the empirical evidence so clearly showed.

By and large this is excellent work, even if it's 4 years too late to really hit home. Well done to the author!

Wilf Owen

gian gentile

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 7:41am

I like the argument here very much as it makes sense to me based on my own personal experience and in my study of military history. I suspect that brother Wilf and others might see much to like in it too; Although it would be interesting to get Bob Jones's take on it.

The problem with American coin (FM 3-24, or as Carl Prine has labeled it, rightly, as a "maoist cartoon" is that it removed the enemy and combat as the central element of counterinsurgency and replaced these things with the automatic rule that the "population" is always the prize and center of gravity. This is why the American army has taken a wrong turn with its embrace of this kind of coin because it has perverted our understanding of war in general.

I especially liked this quote from the article:

"As Guevara himself would discover, pursuing such grand designs from a limited base of experience is not a recipe for success."

Yup, so too with us and our naive and harmful embrace with David Galula's text which was also a very limited base of experience, and his methods did not work, yet for a number of years after 3-24 came out, Galula was all the rage as the "intellectual forefather" of FM 3-24. Gosh how did we make such serious, damaging mistakes like that? Who was minding the store?

I had some quibbles with parts of this article along the way like when the author refers to the VC in the Vietnam War as the North's "proxies" since they were so much more than mere puppets, but overall i will spend more time with this article over the next few days.