Guerrilla warfare

Guerrilla warfare

Military history

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Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians (or "irregulars") use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and less-mobile traditional army, or strike a vulnerable target, and withdraw almost immediately.

The term means "little war" in Spanish, and the word, guerrilla, has been used to describe the concept since the 18th century, and perhaps earlier.

The term guerrilla was used within the English language as early as 1809. The word was used to describe the fighters, and their tactics (e.g."the town was taken by the guerrillas"). However, in most languages guerrilla still denotes the specific style of warfare. The use of the diminutive evokes the differences in number, scale, and scope between the guerrilla army and the formal, professional army of the state.


Strategy, tactics and organization

The strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare tend to focus around the use of a small, mobile force competing against a larger, more unwieldy one.[1] The guerrilla focuses on organizing in small units, depending on the support of the local population, as well as taking advantage of terrain more accommodating of small units.

Tactically, the guerrilla army would avoid any confrontation with large units of enemy troops, but seek and eliminate small groups of soldiers to minimize losses and exhaust the opposing force. Not limiting their targets to personnel, enemy resources are also preferred targets. All of that is to weaken the enemy's strength, to cause the enemy eventually to be unable to prosecute the war any longer, and to force the enemy to withdraw.

It is often misunderstood that guerrilla warfare must involve disguising as civilians to cause enemy troops to fail in telling friend from foe. However, this is a not a primary feature of a guerrilla war. This type of war can be practiced anywhere there are places for combatants to cover themselves and where such advantage cannot be made use of by a larger and more conventional force.

Communist leaders like Mao Zedong and North Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh both implemented guerrilla warfare giving it a theoretical frame which served as a model for similar strategies elsewhere, such as the Cuban "foco" theory and the anti-Soviet Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.[2]

Mao Zedong emphasized the economic long term goals of guerrilla warfare and gave eerie predictions about the global arena in his writing "Imperialism and All Reactionaries are Paper Tigers" where he argued that "the United States has set up hundreds of military bases in many countries all over the world. China's territory of Taiwan, Lebanon and all military bases of the United States on foreign soil are so many nooses round the neck of U.S. imperialism. The nooses have been fashioned by the Americans themselves and by nobody else, and it is they themselves who have put these nooses round their own necks, handing the ends of the ropes to the Chinese people, the peoples of the Arab countries and all the peoples of the world who love peace and oppose aggression. The longer the U.S. aggressors remain in those places, the tighter the nooses round their necks will become."

While the tactics of modern guerrilla warfare originate in the 20the century, irregular warfare, using elements later characteristic of modern guerrilla warfare, has existed throughout the battles of many ancient civilizations but in a smaller scale. This recent growth was inspired in part by theoretical works on guerrilla warfare, starting with the Manual de Guerra de Guerrillas by Matías Ramón Mella written in the XIXth century and, more recently, Mao Zedong's On Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara's Guerrilla Warfare and Lenin's text of the same name, all written after the successful revolutions carried by them in China, Cuba and Russia respectively. Those texts remarked the tactic of guerrilla warfare as, according to Che Guevara's text, being "used by the side which is supported by a majority but which possesses a much smaller number of arms for use in defense against oppression".


Guerrilla warefare can be traced back to Sun Tzu, in his The Art of War (6th century BCE).[2] Some authors argue that his example directly inspired the development of modern guerrilla warfare.;[2][3]

An early example during the American Revolution was when British General John Burgoyne referred to the American Patriots using this type of warfare during the Saratoga campaign. He noted that, in proceeding through dense woodland:

The enemy is infinitely inferior to the King’s Troop in open space, and hardy combat, is well fitted by disposition and practice, for the stratagems of enterprises of Little War...upon the same principle must be a constant rule, in or near woods to place advanced sentries, where they may have a tree or some other defense to prevent their being taken off by a single marksman.

So conscious of hidden marksmen was Burgoyne that he asked his men, ‘When the Lieutenant General visits an outpost, the men are not to stand to their Arms or pay him any compliment,‘ clearly aware he would be singled out.[4]

Nonetheless, the Peninsular War, nicknamed the Spanish Ulcer and regarded by some historians, including Karl Marx[5], as one of the first national wars,[6] is also significant for the emergence of large-scale guerrilla warfare. It is from this conflict that the English language borrowed the word.[7]. This war saw British and Portuguese forces using Portugal as a secure position to launch campaigns against the French army, while Spanish guerrilleros bled the occupiers. Gates notes that much of the French army "was rendered unavailable for operations against Wellington because innumerable Spanish contingents kept materialising all over the country. In 1810, for example, when Massena invaded Portugal, the Imperial forces in the Peninsula totaled a massive 325,000 men, but only about one quarter of these could be spared for the offensive—the rest were required to contain the Spanish insurgents and regulars. This was the greatest single contribution that the Spaniards were to make and, without it, Wellington could not have maintained himself on the continent for long—let alone emerge victorious from the conflict".[8] Combined, the regular and irregular allied forces prevented Napoleon's Marshals from subduing the rebellious Spanish provinces.[9]

Marx and Engels wrote about other examples of guerrilla warfare during the American Civil War, by Tyrolians and Prussians against Napoleon, by Poland and the Caucasus against Imperial Russia, Pegu (Burma) against the British Empire, but it has been said that "when Lenin wrote his classic paper, Guerrilla Warfare[10], in 1906, he did not quote Marx and Engels because they had not written in depth on the topic... Lenin begins from the premise that guerrilla warfare must be linked to struggle of the masses of the working class, or else it is against the interests of revolution: 'the acts of individuals isolated from the masses, which demoralise the workers, repel wide strata of the population, disorganize the movement and injure the revolution'".[11] Lenin also argue about the inevitability of guerrilla warfare in some conflicts by saying that "guerrilla warfare is an inevitable form of struggle at a time when the mass movement has actually reached the point of an uprising and when fairly large intervals occur between the 'big engagements' in the civil war." It must be noted that Marx and Engels interchanged numerous letters on war and military science and Engels wrote about several military topics.

Counter-guerrilla warfare


The guerrilla can be difficult to beat, but certain principles of counter-insurgency warfare are well known since the 1950s and 1960s and have been successfully applied.

Classic guidelines

The widely distributed and influential work of Sir Robert Thompson, counter-insurgency expert of the Malayan Emergency, offers several such guidelines. Thompson's underlying assumption is that of a country minimally committed to the rule of law and better governance.

Some governments, however, give such considerations short shrift, and their counter-insurgency operations have involved mass murder, genocide, starvation and the massive spread of terror, torture and execution. The totalitarian regimes of Hitler are classic examples, as are more modern conflicts in places like Afghanistan.

In the Soviet war in Afghanistan for example, the Soviets countered the Mujahideen with a policy of wastage and depopulation,[citation needed] driving over one third of the Afghan population into exile (over 5 million people), and carrying out widespread destruction of villages, granaries, crops, herds and irrigation systems, including the deadly and widespread mining of fields and pastures.

Many modern countries employ manhunting doctrine to seek out and eliminate individual guerrillas.[citation needed] Elements of Thompson's moderate approach are adapted here:[12]

  1. The people are the key base to be secured and defended rather than territory won or enemy bodies counted. Contrary to the focus of conventional warfare, territory gained, or casualty counts are not of overriding importance in counter-guerrilla warfare. The support of the population is the key variable. Since many insurgents rely on the population for recruits, food, shelter, financing, and other materials, the counter-insurgent force must focus its efforts on providing physical and economic security for that population and defending it against insurgent attacks and propaganda.
  2. There must be a clear political counter-vision that can overshadow, match or neutralize the guerrilla vision. This can range from granting political autonomy, to economic development measures in the affected region. The vision must be an integrated approach, involving political, social and economic and media influence measures. A nationalist narrative for example, might be used in one situation, an ethnic autonomy approach in another. An aggressive media campaign must also be mounted in support of the competing vision or the counter-insurgent regime will appear weak or incompetent.
  3. Practical action must be taken at the lower levels to match the competitive political vision. It may be tempting for the counter-insurgent side to simply declare guerrillas "terrorists" and pursue a harsh liquidation strategy. Brute force however, may not be successful in the long run. Action does not mean capitulation, but sincere steps such as removing corrupt or arbitrary officials, cleaning up fraud, building more infrastructure, collecting taxes honestly, or addressing other legitimate grievances can do much to undermine the guerrillas' appeal.
  4. Economy of force. The counter-insurgent regime must not overreact to guerrilla provocations, since this may indeed be what they seek to create a crisis in civilian morale. Indiscriminate use of firepower may only serve to alienate the key focus of counterinsurgency- the base of the people. Police level actions should guide the effort and take place in a clear framework of legality, even if under a State of Emergency. Civil liberties and other customs of peacetime may have to be suspended, but again, the counter-insurgent regime must exercise restraint, and cleave to orderly procedures. In the counter-insurgency context, "boots on the ground" are even more important than technological prowess and massive firepower, although anti-guerrilla forces should take full advantage of modern air, artillery and electronic warfare assets.[13]
  5. Big unit action may sometimes be necessary. If police action is not sufficient to stop the guerrilla fighters, military sweeps may be necessary. Such "big battalion" operations may be needed to break up significant guerrilla concentrations and split them into small groups where combined civic-police action can control them.
  6. Aggressive mobility. Mobility and aggressive small unit action is extremely important for the counter-insurgent regime. Heavy formations must be lightened to aggressively locate, pursue and fix insurgent units. Huddling in static strongpoints simply concedes the field to the insurgents. They must be kept on the run constantly with aggressive patrols, raids, ambushes, sweeps, cordons, roadblocks, prisoner snatches, etc.
  7. Ground level embedding and integration. In tandem with mobility is the embedding of hardcore counter-insurgent units or troops with local security forces and civilian elements. The US Marines in Vietnam also saw some success with this method, under its CAP (Combined Action Program) where Marines were teamed as both trainers and "stiffeners" of local elements on the ground. US Special Forces in Vietnam like the Green Berets, also caused significant local problems for their opponents by their leadership and integration with mobile tribal and irregular forces.[14] The CIA's Special Activities Division created successful guerrilla forces from the Hmong tribe during the war in Vietnam in the 1960s,[15] from the Northern Alliance against the Taliban during the war in Afghanistan in 2001,[16] and from the Kurdish Peshmerga against Ansar al-Islam and the forces of Saddam Hussein during the war in Iraq in 2003.[17][18] In Iraq, the 2007 US "surge" strategy saw the embedding of regular and special forces troops among Iraqi army units. These hardcore groups were also incorporated into local neighborhood outposts in a bid to facilitate intelligence gathering, and to strengthen ground level support among the masses.[13]
  8. Cultural sensitivity. Counter-insurgent forces require familiarity with the local culture, mores and language or they will experience numerous difficulties. Americans experienced this in Vietnam and during the US invasion of Iraqi and occupation, where shortages of Arabic speaking interpreters and translators hindered both civil and military operations.[19]
  9. Systematic intelligence effort. Every effort must be made to gather and organize useful intelligence. A systematic process must be set up to do so, from casual questioning of civilians to structured interrogations of prisoners. Creative measures must also be used, including the use of double agents, or even bogus "liberation" or sympathizer groups that help reveal insurgent personnel or operations.
  10. Methodical clear and hold. An "ink spot" clear and hold strategy must be used by the counter-insurgent regime, dividing the conflict area into sectors, and assigning priorities between them. Control must expand outward like an ink spot on paper, systematically neutralizing and eliminating the insurgents in one sector of the grid, before proceeding to the next. It may be necessary to pursue holding or defensive actions elsewhere, while priority areas are cleared and held.
  11. Careful deployment of mass popular forces and special units. Mass forces include village self-defense groups and citizen militias organized for community defense and can be useful in providing civic mobilization and local security. Specialist units can be used profitably, including commando squads, long range reconnaissance and "hunter-killer" patrols, defectors who can track or persuade their former colleagues like the Kit Carson units in Vietnam, and paramilitary style groups.
  12. The limits of foreign assistance must be clearly defined and carefully used. Such aid should be limited either by time, or as to material and technical, and personnel support, or both. While outside aid or even troops can be helpful, lack of clear limits, in terms of either a realistic plan for victory or exit strategy, may find the foreign helper "taking over" the local war, and being sucked into a lengthy commitment, thus providing the guerrillas with valuable propaganda opportunities as the stream of dead foreigners mounts. Such a scenario occurred with the US in Vietnam, with the American effort creating dependence in South Vietnam, and war weariness and protests back home. Heavy-handed foreign interference may also fail to operate effectively within the local cultural context, setting up conditions for failure.
  13. Time. A key factor in guerrilla strategy is a drawn-out, protracted conflict that wears down the will of the opposing counter-insurgent forces. Democracies are especially vulnerable to the factor of time. The counter-insurgent force must allow enough time to get the job done. Impatient demands for victory centered around short-term electoral cycles play into the hands of the guerrillas, though it is equally important to recognize when a cause is lost and the guerrillas have won.


Some writers on counter-insurgency warfare emphasize the more turbulent nature of today's guerrilla warfare environment, where the clear political goals, parties and structures of such places as Vietnam, Malaysia, or El Salvador are not as prevalent. These writers point to numerous guerrilla conflicts that center around religious, ethnic or even criminal enterprise themes, and that do not lend themselves to the classic "national liberation" template.

The wide availability of the Internet has also cause changes in the tempo and mode of guerrilla operations in such areas as coordination of strikes, leveraging of financing, recruitment, and media manipulation. While the classic guidelines still apply, today's anti-guerrilla forces need to accept a more disruptive, disorderly and ambiguous mode of operation.

Insurgents may not be seeking to overthrow the state, may have no coherent strategy or may pursue a faith-based approach difficult to counter with traditional methods. There may be numerous competing insurgencies in one theater, meaning that the counterinsurgent must control the overall environment rather than defeat a specific enemy. The actions of individuals and the propaganda effect of a subjective “single narrative” may far outweigh practical progress, rendering counterinsurgency even more non-linear and unpredictable than before. The counterinsurgent, not the insurgent, may initiate the conflict and represent the forces of revolutionary change. The economic relationship between insurgent and population may be diametrically opposed to classical theory. And insurgent tactics, based on exploiting the propaganda effects of urban bombing, may invalidate some classical tactics and render others, like patrolling, counterproductive under some circumstances. Thus, field evidence suggests, classical theory is necessary but not sufficient for success against contemporary insurgencies...[20]

Foco theory

Why does the guerrilla fighter fight? We must come to the inevitable conclusion that the guerrilla fighter is a social reformer, that he takes up arms responding to the angry protest of the people against their oppressors, and that he fights in order to change the social system that keeps all his unarmed brothers in ignominy and misery.

In the 1960s the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara developed the foco (Spanish: foquismo) theory of revolution in his book Guerrilla Warfare, based on his experiences during the 1959 Cuban Revolution. This theory was later formalized as "focalism" by Régis Debray. Its central principle is that vanguardism by cadres of small, fast-moving paramilitary groups can provide a focus for popular discontent against a sitting regime, and thereby lead a general insurrection. Although the original approach was to mobilize and launch attacks from rural areas, many foco ideas were adapted into urban guerrilla warfare movements.

Twentieth and Twenty-First Century guerrilla conflicts

The tactics of guerrilla warfare were used successfully in the 20th century by—among others— the Soviet partisans and the Polish Home Army in World War II,[22] Mao Zedong and the People's Liberation Army in the Second Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War. Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the 26th of July Movement in the Cuban Revolution. Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, Viet Cong and select members of the Green Berets in the Vietnam War (and the First Indochina War before that). The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Afghan Mujahideen in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, George Grivas and Nikos Sampson's Greek guerrilla group EOKA in Cyprus, Aris Velouchiotis and Stefanos Sarafis and the EAM against the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck and the German Schutztruppe in World War I, Josip Broz Tito and the Yugoslav Partisans in World War II, and the antifrancoist guerrilla in Spain during the Franco dictatorship,[23] the Kosovo Liberation Army in the Kosovo War, and the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence.[24] Most factions of the Taliban, Iraqi Insurgency, Colombia's FARC, and the Communist Party of India (Maoist) are said to be engaged in some form of guerrilla warfare—as was, until recently, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). In India, Marathas under leadership of Shivaji used it to overthrow of the Mughals. It was also effectively used by Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, as well as by Pazhassi Raja of Kerala to fight the British.

Female Soviet partisans operating under Sydir Kovpak in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

Other examples of recent guerrilla wars include:




A Viet Cong base camp being burned, My Tho, South Vietnam, 1968

Latin America:

Present ongoing guerrilla wars include:



Kurdish PKK militant.
  • Turkey-PKK Conflict

Latin America:


Popular culture

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls, an Ernest Hemingway novel which tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American volunteer attached to a guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas (1943), a 20th Century Fox movie on the guerrilla resistance movement of General Draza Mihailovich in German-occupied Yugoslavia during World War II.
  • Undercover (1943), a British film produced by Ealing Studios, released in the US by Columbia pictures as Underground Guerrillas.
  • The 1965 novel Dune features such warfare as conducted against House Harkonnen by the nomadic Fremen tribe, led by Paul Atreides.
  • Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica which focuses on the guerrilla war against the Cylons by the former citizens of the Twelve Colonies on New Caprica.
  • The Tomorrow series by John Marsden about guerrilla warfare after a fictional invasion and occupation of Australia.
  • Che, Steven Soderbergh's two-part 2008 biopic about Che Guevara starring Benicio del Toro as Che.
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla, a game in which the player is a guerrilla fighting an entrenched enemy.
  • "Guerrilla Radio", a 1999 rock song by Rage Against the Machine.
  • "Red Dawn", a 1984 American war film about a group of high school students become engaged in guerrilla warfare after their country is invaded by Cubans and Russians.

See also


  1. ^ Creveld, Martin Van (2000). "Technology and War II:Postmodern War?". In Charles Townshend. The Oxford History of Modern War. New York, USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 356–358. ISBN 0–19–285373–2. 
  2. ^ a b c McNeilly, Mark. Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare, 2003, p. 204. "American arming and support of the anti-Soviet Mujahadeen in Afghanistan is another example."
  3. ^ Snyder, Craig. Contemporary security and strategy, 1999, p. 46. "Many of Sun Tzu's strategic ideas were adopted by the practitioners of guerrilla warfare."
  4. ^ Rogers, Horatio (ed.), A Journal Kept in Canada and Upon Burgoyne’s Campaign in 1776 and 1777 by Lieutenant James M. Hadden, Roy. Art., Jorel Munsell’s Sons, (Albany, NY, 1884), pp.71 - 77.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Churchill, p. 258. "Nothing like this universal uprising of a numerous, ancient race and nation, all animated by one thought, had been seen before...For the first time the forces unchained by the French Revolution, which Napoleon had disciplined and directed, met not kings or Old World hierarchies, but a whole population inspired by the religion and patriotism which...Spain was to teach to Europe."
  7. ^ Laqueur, Walter (July 1975), "The Origins of Guerrilla Doctrine", Journal of Contemporary History (Society for Military History)
  8. ^ Gates, David (1986), The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War, Pimlico (published 2002), ISBN 0712697306, pp. 33–34.
  9. ^ Chandler, David G. (1995), The Campaigns of Napoleon, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0025236601
  10. ^ Guerrilla Warfare, V.I. Lenin
  11. ^
  12. ^ Robert Thompson (1966). "Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam", Chatto & Widus, ISBN 0-7011-1133-X
  13. ^ a b Learning from Iraq: Counterinsurgency in American Strategy - Steven Metz. US Army Strategic Studies Institute monograph, December 2006,, retrieved June 1, 2007
  14. ^ Michael Lee Lanning and Daniel Craig, "Inside the VC and NVA", and "Inside the LRRP's"
  15. ^ Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos, Steerforth Press, 1996 |isbn=9781883642365
  16. ^ Bush at War, Bob Woodward, Simon and Shuster, 2002
  17. ^ Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War inside Iraq, Mike Tucker, Charles Faddis, 2008, The Lyons Press |isbn=9781599213668
  18. ^ Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward, Simon and Shuster, 2004 isbn=9780743255479
  19. ^ Learning from Iraq, op. cit.
  20. ^ [1]PDF (146 KiB) Counter-insurgency Redux", David Kilcullen
  21. ^ Guerrilla Warfare, by Ernesto Guevara & Thomas M. Davies, Rowman & Littlefield, 1997, ISBN 0842026789, pg 52
  22. ^ Timothy Snyder. "Holocaust: The Ignored Reality" – "In the guise of anti-partisan actions, the Germans killed perhaps three quarters of a million people, about 350,000 in Belarus alone, and lower but comparable numbers in Poland and Yugoslavia."
  23. ^ Julio Aróstegui y Jorge Marco: "El último frente. Los hermanos Quero y la resistencia armada antifranquista, 1939-1952". La Catarata, Madrid, 2008.
  24. ^ The Irish Question: Two Centuries of Conflict by Lawrence John McCaffrey (ISBN 978-0-8131-0855-1), page 152

Further reading

External links

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