To define the 20th century in a word would be “change”. World War II marked an end to total war. No longer were all civilian and military resources mobilized for army against army pitted on the battlefield. A change in consciousness swept across the world, one that would, for the most part, destroy the last vestiges of the colonial empires and foreign rule.
Guerrilla warfare wasn’t a new phenomenon. The term itself originated in the Pensinsular War against the occupying French forces. Of course names are merely categorical. It has its origins well before a name was put to it. Before conventional warfare there was primitive warfare which could be considered guerrilla warfare. It was only through the emergence of more and more complicated social structures, and emerging hierarchies, that a warrior caste and thus conventional warfare became the status quo. Sun Tzu in his 6th century BCE classic the The Art of War was the first timeless treatise on the nature of war. Although throughout the centuries many employed asymmetrical warfare and even elaborated on the nature of the war; Sun Tzu will always come to mind. To Sun Tzu war was political; diplomacy a priority and warfare secondary. Unlike generals who viewed war as a game of chivalry, the tactics Sun Tzu advocated will echo centuries later: utilize geography and climate extensively, know the enemy as you know oneself, and most importantly: to not protract battles unnecessarily.
It is no coincidence most of the guerrilla uprisings of the 20th century were Marxist in nature. Mao Tse-Tsung wrote the influential On Guerrilla Warfare in 1937. It was written when was Mao was in retreat, having been fighting the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-Shek which greatly outnumbered him. A great deal of Mao’s treatise was inspired by The Art of War which Mao was greatly familiar with. Generally tactics included attacking small groups of enemy personnel, using minimal fighters in highly mobile units, using advanced knowledge of terrain against enemy forces, and focusing on the countryside gaining support and intelligence from peasants. This is of course contrary to the conventional strategy of seizing strategic points like cities and military bases. To Mao his tactics were, “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue”. Asymmetrical warfare is a game of mobility. Mao invented “the-five minute attack” in which the enemy is suddenly ambushed with unrelenting force before seizing as many arms as possible and leaving as soon as possible. Revolutionary forces are always almost entirely armed from raiding armaments of the enemy. The revolutionary force is always small so its strength is in mobility. There is no fixed territory the guerrillas govern. They are ever on the move. War isn’t something for them to win as quickly as possible. For the revolutionary, war is a war of attrition.
To Mao, guerrilla war was revolutionary war. The state has limited resources and an entire country to protect. This in part is why emphasis is placed on residing in the countryside. Any garrisons placed in small towns and villages can easily be overwhelmed if bothered to be stationed in the first place. Furthermore, such areas have less loyalty to any centralized power given most of their economic stake is in centers of commerce and industry. If a revolutionary movement can’t be quickly squashed it is aimed to be contained with as little news of the rebels being disseminated to the public as possible. Any resistance to the state serves to de-legitimize it, especially if resistance can’t be swiftly dealt with. Furthermore, repercussions taken by the state in order to squash the revolutionaries only serves to legitimize their cause. This is the nature of terror.
Mao’s example has inspired countless other revolutions. For instance: Ho Chi Minh, Cuban’s “foco” theory of guerrilla warfare, and the Mujaheddin’s tactics in Afghanistan are but some examples. Anyone with a minor interest in history is sure to know how those revolutions turned out. The idea of revolution spreading from the countryside saw great success and contributed much to the anti-colonialization movements which sprung up throughout the world during this era.
These revolutions were often ostensibly Marxist given the geopolitical structure of the world at the time. The Soviets and Chinese were more apt to aid third world revolutionaries in order to compromise Western commercial interests. For example in Rhodesia, the competing Maoist ZANU and the Marxist-Leninist ZAPU. Ideology was oftentimes pragmatic and revolutionary groups were primarily nationalistic.
All the revolutions cropping up during the 20th century didn’t emerge from a vacuum. It seemed as though throughout the world people began to realize their existence wasn’t immutable and radical changes in conditions were very much possible. This change of consciousness was very much purposeful. It could start with a single person, the idea that maybe life could be different. Ideas can be quite dangerous. Once an idea spreads, it spreads like a contagion. Linguistics and semiotics are ultimately the study of control for this reason.
For all revolutionary movements the vanguard group is small. This is why it is sometimes said, “Revolution is a spectators sport”. Castro’s revolution started with 81 armed and dedicated revolutionaries sailing to Cuba, and only 19 made it to the Sierra Maestra mountains. This is where the tactics of guerrilla warfare came in. The geography made it near impossible to contain the guerrillas and by gaining the support of the locals they were able to acquire supplies and recruits. It should be noted however that never once did the revolutionaries outnumber the army. The Batista regime had the full backing of the United States, legitimate army training, and far better equipment. Of course that equipment only helped to arm the rebels thanks to well timed ambushes. If revolutionary armies are always smaller, less trained, and less equipped than the regime they oppose then how have they consistently overthrown countless regimes?
Ever since the enlightenment it has generally been the consensus that governments rule through the implicit consent of the people. Rights of the individual are ultimately sacrificed for the betterment of the whole. For such a system to remain legitimate the general populace must believe the government generally is working in their interests, or they as atomized individuals would be incapable of opposing it. The Batista regime was plagued by incompetence, corruption and lack of morale. Desertions among the soldiers were common and the ones that stayed had little fight in them. The country was in dire need of reform, and yet such political action was untenable to the dictatorship. As a counterexample: Guevara, a prolific figure during the Cuban Revolution, had little success in Bolivia for a few reasons. The communist party of Bolivia refused to aid in his attempt at revolution, the CIA and US Rangers were sent in for counterinsurgency support, and their communications failed leaving them stranded without support from Havana. A likely reason for the lack of local support however, was a land and labor reform bill passed in the 1950s. Before the bill 92% of land was owned by large agricultural estates. Although by the time Guevara arrived the government was still being slow to redistribute land it may be possible that the mere promise gave credence to the idea of reform over revolution.
So far the revolutionaries mentioned have been Marxists. A different group of different ideological persuasion, while still certainly guerrilla fighters, differed in how they conducted warfare. The original Irish Republican Army did not have majority public support. Ireland at the time was part of the British Empire and they were involved in the Great War. To rebel against the British was an unpopular idea among the general masses at the time. What changed was the Easter Rising which occurred Easter Week in 1916. A group of several hundred armed independence supporters gathered in Dublin hoping to establish an independent Ireland through armed force. More volunteers later joined but the overwhelming British response squashed the rebellion in a matter of six days. What followed were mass arrests, the executions of several leaders, and multiple reporters of British atrocities. Due to the British heavy handed response, newfound public support led to the victory of the republican Sinn Féin party in the 1918 elections. The party declared an independent Ireland which from there led to the Irish War of Independence resulting in a mostly independent Ireland. It should be noted that the Irish Republican War of Independence and the later Troubles were primarily urban in nature showing the tendency for guerrilla warfare to be primarily rural is more a nature of heuristics than an immutable fact. Although it wasn’t just a few people that won the war, the war would not have begun if a select few number of hardened ideologues didn’t antagonize the state into an overwhelming response which alienated your general citizen against foreign rule.
It should be noted that while every revolutionary group for the majority of its lifespan is small in numbers there is almost invariable a public front to the group. The inclusion of national socialist groups has been so far ignored, mostly because far too many are stuck marching in brown shirts like its 1933. Joseph Tommasi was once one such man; quite literally wearing brown shirts as a uniform and trying the same old movementarian tactics that had failed for decades. However, he had the foresight to realize the failure in prancing around in outdated uniforms like it was a WWII reenactment. He established the National Socialist Liberation Front (NSLF) as an ostensibly revolutionary organization. The game of mass movements was done and dated. He did what virtually every successful revolutionary group has done, and established a public facing legal wing of the group. What has yet to be mentioned is although every revolution has its vanguard; there’s always been the supporters who aren’t fully committed but contribute to the cause. It can range from providing material support, lying to regime forces, disseminating ideological material, and whatever else may benefit the core revolutionaries. Although most people reading this site should know by now, James Mason himself was affiliated with the group. Unfortunately, it didn’t last due to the untimely death of Joseph Tommasi. Of course, Siege exists as a spiritual successor to the ideas formulated and espoused by Tommasi and others.
To quote Jean Baudrillard here “This is what terrorism is occupied with as well: making real, palpable violence surface in opposition to the invisible violence of security”. Violence permeates all aspect of political power. To retain power, the state must hold the monopoly on violence. In the era of globalization it is no longer feasible to extinguish uprisings through genocidal retaliatory measures. States are increasingly interconnected and an isolated regime would struggle to survive, let alone prosper. Terror can not be met with equivocal terror. Nation states are burdened by pressure from the international community, and simultaneously reliant on it. A guerrilla is content living in the mountains with soviet era weaponry and basic food staples indefinitely. Terrorism is often indiscriminate, causes severe economic damage, weakens trust in the government, and ultimately helps de-legitimatize the state by calling into question its monopoly on violence.
The September 11 attacks are what almost anyone thinks when the word terrorism is uttered. Even still, far too many people fail to comprehend why it was committed. That isn’t to say Al-Qaeda didn’t get the reaction they wanted. Soft-targets are always symbolic. In mass casualty events like that the targets are inherently interchangeable. By being faceless statistics they could be anyone. This leaves the question in everyone’s mind, “Could I be next?” To quote Himmler, “The best political weapon is the weapon of terror. Cruelty commands respect. Men may hate us. But, we don’t ask for their love; only for their fear.”
What 9/11 achieved mainly with the destruction of the world trade center was an attack on international finance, globalization, the parasitic erosion and commodification of cultures, and the decline of national sovereignty in favor of the almighty capital. Although it killed many people and has resulted in an ever increasing debt, that was not the point of the attack. Al-Qaeda hoped to have a retaliation from the west so great that the global Muslim community (the ummah) could not possibly standby on the sidelines. The purpose was to start a war of annihilation in there would be no alternative but total victory or total defeat. While we have yet to engage in an apocalyptic war with the Islamic world, 9/11 has managed to alienate many Muslims from the West and the seemingly endless war on terror is doing its job of producing ever more militants ready to die to defend their way of life against the Great Satan and its allies.
As mentioned before, the war of the guerrilla is a war of attrition. “The conqueror is always a lover of peace; he would prefer to take over our country unopposed” – General Carl von Clausewitz. The legacy we have left in Afghanistan is hundreds of dead American soldiers, and an Islamic regime with lots of new toys courtesy of our bloated military budget. It may have taken over 40 years but time is the greatest asset of the guerrilla. It’s the public morale that ends wars. The guerrilla can fend for themselves to survive indefinitely; the state is beholden to their accountants. It’s not casualties that win revolutions; it’s the will to keep fighting. “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose” – General Carl von Clausewitz.