Guerrilla Warfare: Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object

Have you ever heard a variation of the following argument? ‘It doesn’t matter if we have guns to defend ourselves against the government because they have the largest, most powerful military in human history. A rifle cannot beat a tank or a drone, much less nukes.’ When I first heard this argument, I sympathized with it even though I did not agree. The popularity of this position is unsurprising given the widespread learned helplessness in most modern civilian populations. Thinking on this subject for a while, I came to a realization that should have been obvious. The most powerful military on Earth has been in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, and the Taliban controls more territory now than when the United States first got there.

The Taliban have access to more than just conventional firearms, such as RPGs and at one time having a few Stinger anti-aircraft missiles provided by the CIA during the Soviet-Afghan war, but they don’t have access to anything that most other modern guerrillas would be unable to acquire, even in the West. This author does not intend to signal ideological support for the Taliban, the Vietcong, or any other guerrilla force. However, there is much to be learned from the events of the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and other wars between powerful militaries and guerrillas. A retort is oft made that the US could defeat the Vietcong or the Taliban if they used nuclear weapons, but we are just so humane and virtuous that we decide not to. Come on, we’ve got one hand tied behind our back!

Obviously it is not some benevolent humanitarianism that prevents the United States from dropping nuclear weapons in Afghanistan, or prevented them from doing so in Vietnam. After the initial debut of nuclear weapons in Japan and the subsequent proliferation of those weapons to multiple different states, explicit international agreements and implicit understandings of repercussions regarding the use of nuclear weapons in warfare were developed. There would be grave consequences to pay from other nations in the event of a nuclear strike. It is much more advantageous for self-preservation to fight a conventional war that isn’t going to provoke other powerful states such as China, Russia, European nations, et cetera into retaliation. The United States could perhaps defeat a guerrilla force using nuclear weapons in a very particular scenario, but even then its not entirely certain. It would be like playing wack-a-mole with insurgents. There would be no advantage to nuking the surface of the mountains where the Taliban hide in their cave networks, and the detriment to American ground forces following the fallout of an attack would do even more harm.

Many different rules apply to domestic guerrilla warfare. The devastation to critical production infrastructure, workforce and administration population, climate and environmental resources, et cetera that follows domestic use of nuclear weapons essentially guarantees they will not be used against domestic guerrillas. When hypothesizing about a situation of domestic warfare in which people fight against the federal state, it is often thought of by your ‘average citizens’ as some sort of second American Revolution in which the proud patriots stand up to restore their beautiful federal government from the tyrants. Among the contemporary proud patriots, the Gadsden Flag, or ‘Don’t Tread on Me’, is unironically (but very ironically) flown next to the ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag. Those watching with open eyes can see that Americans have been tread on over and over and over again with little to no proud patriots standing up. The change is too gradual most of the time, and even when it is sudden, people are kept too comfortable to actually do anything about their supposed convictions. The line in the sand for these people is apparently an infringement of the second amendment, but infringing on all the others warrants barely as much as a flinch, such as the fourth amendment (protection from unreasonable search and seizure) being completely destroyed by the hilariously named USA PATRIOT ACT which allows the federal government to spy on all citizens with no limits. I even have my doubts about the ‘proud patriots’ standing up to further infringement on their ‘rights’, even the second amendment, perhaps say for some shootouts mostly devoid of military strategy and tactic.

I mention all of this not to therapeutically lambast average citizens for the sake of my own frustrations, but to distinguish that I am not discussing some second American Revolution. It can be inferred from the theme of my blog that I have in mind an anti-industrialist insurgency or military units. However, the type or ideology of militia is not particularly as important as the method of warfare. Just as we have much to learn from previous revolutions regardless of the ideologies of the revolutionaries, we also have much to learn about warfare regardless of the ideology of the military groups we study. It is not only important for anti-industrialists, but all modern peoples to be educated in the art of warfare in the case that waging war is necessary. Warfare is not romantic nor glorious, but there are times when war must be waged. I should also add that not everyone is fit to fight wars, that much is evident and is okay. Tacticians, strategists, medics, suppliers, et cetera are all crucial to the success of an armed force. This article is not intended to be completely American-centric; however, the USA provides the best example of an incredibly powerful military being stalled and thwarted by relatively meager guerrilla fighters. Let us define ‘guerrilla’. From Britannica:

  • Guerrilla warfare, also spelled guerilla warfare, is a type of warfare fought by irregulars in fast-moving, small-scale actions against orthodox military and police forces and, on occasion, against rival insurgent forces, either independently or in conjunction with a larger political-military strategy. The word guerrilla (the diminutive of Spanish guerra, “war”) stems from the duke of Wellington’s campaigns during the Peninsular War (1808–14), in which Spanish and Portuguese irregulars, or guerrilleros, helped drive the French from the Iberian Peninsula. Over the centuries the practitioners of guerrilla warfare have been called rebels, irregulars, insurgents, partisans, and mercenaries. Frustrated military commanders have consistently damned them as barbarians, savages, terrorists, brigands, outlaws, and bandits.

The history of the use of guerilla warfare is wide and successful. It is thought to have first been described by Sun Tzu in his work The Art of War, but there there is a consensus that guerrilla warfare is the default way of waging war for prehistoric and ancient people. Fidel Castro described it as ‘the oldest form of human resistance’. The first signs of the use of conventional warfare appeared in Egypt during the first dynasty of the old kingdom around 3100 BC. Since then, complex strategy, tactics, structure, technology, and formation have been developed for waging war. Even so, advanced, well-funded, and powerful militaries with the full backing of the state have been frustrated and defeated time and again not with an equally powerful or wealthy military, but with clever guerrilla warfare. The first widely documented case of guerrilla tactics being successfully employed to rout a conventional military was by Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus in the 3rd century BC. The great and intelligent Hannibal of Carthage had just crossed the Alps with an army that included 37 elephants, truly an incredible feat. After Hannibal had inflicted several crushing defeats on the Romans in their homeland, Fabius Maximus was appointed dictator and employed military practices that would earn him the title of ‘the father of gerrilla warfare’. He engaged in many actions that have become hallmarks of the guerrilla, waging a war of attrition with mobile skirmishes that would dedicate to no direct battle. He set out to starve Hannibal’s men by using his skirmishers to harass the Carthaginians and prevent them from foraging and hunting for food, ultimately disabling Hannibal’s army from besieging Rome and making them retreat.

I can describe many more historical examples of the success of guerrilla tacts, even by those not employed in a proper military state like the Romans were, such as the conflict between the Portuguese and Spanish citizens against Napoleon’s occupying army. Through guerrilla tactics, they were able to drive out the army of one of the most powerful military leaders in history. The inability of the United States to overcome the Vietcong is generally well understood by most students of history, but many will still make excuses for why victory was not reached, such as that the American people and army were demoralized. That is one of the objectives of guerrilla warfare, and in that end the Vietcong were victorious over the Americans. However, guerrilla warfare is not some magic bullet that kills empires without serious thought, preparation, leadership, environment, execution, and intelligence.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

The Art of War – Sun Tzu

An example of the success of guerrilla warfare that is particularly fascinating to this writer and that has much to teach us is the contemporary condition of the war waged against the Taliban by the United States military in Afghanistan. Almost every war the US has waged since WWII has been against non-state insurgents, yet they continue to be stalled by this asymmetrical warfare. Just a decade before invading Afghanistan, the US had crushed the fourth largest standing army in the world at the time in Iraq. While early success seemed promising against the Taliban, the same problem that had choked the Soviets set on the Americans. The Taliban retreated into the mountains and in their cave networks. Both the US and USSR were shooting rocks and dirt from helicopters, but could not smoke out the Taliban. Dominic Tierney, a political scientist, noted, “We have the power. They have the willpower.” America continues to be ineffective in the field of counterinsurgency and does its best to avoid having to engage in it, and in Afghanistan that is all that they are having to face, an effective and passionate Taliban fighting from their homeland, denying direct battles, inflicting damage when they can, and smothering moral of the occupiers. An objection might be made in this situation that guerrilla warfare does not win wars, it only prevents the other side from winning. However, this is a faulty understand of what ‘winning a war’ really means. What else does winning a war mean other than preventing the opposition from conquering you? Even if you don’t conquer them by crushing all of the enemy, you have stilled conquered them by forcing their resignation.

This is where conventional warfare comes back into the picture. It is not certain that a guerrilla force can offensively invade and defeat a defending army, though this may be possible under the right circumstances. Nonetheless, this is not a single magic bullet and a total alternative to all engagements of war. To guard the possibility of success, it is only competent to be prepared to wage conventional warfare and to do so with sophisticated capability. Let us return to a hypothetical American domestic situation. Guerrilla strategies and tactics have proved to be quite successful even when the state and its army are in their homeland, such as when Castro and Guevara’s insurgents, sometimes with fewer than 200 men, defeated Batista’s army of 30,000-40,000 soldiers.

As with any historical event to be learned from, for the most part you cannot just say ‘they did this here so we shall do this here and succeed also’. Individual circumstances prevent hegemony in routes to victory. Even so, a general picture of what does and does not make a movement successful can be painted which is of great utility to the student of history. This applies also to revolution as a whole, of which warfare is only one factor of many, and there are many, many revolutions in history to be learned from and the circumstances of their success to be understood.

Stay safe – Normandie

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