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On Guerrilla Warfare
By Mao Tse-tung, Samuel B. Griffith
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE NATURE OF REVOLUTIONARY GUERRILLA WAR
... the guerrilla campaigns being waged in China today are a page in history that has no precedent. Their influence will be confined not solely to China in her present anti-Japanese struggle, but will be world-wide.
—MAO TSB-TUNG, Yu Chi Chan, 1937
AT ONE END OF THE SPECTRUM, ranks of electronic boxes buried deep in the earth hungrily consume data and spew out endless tapes. Scientists and engineers confer in air-conditioned offices; missiles are checked by intense men who move about them silently, almost reverently. In forty minutes, countdown begins.
At the other end of this spectrum, a tired man wearing a greasy felt hat, a tattered shirt, and soiled shorts is seated, his back against a tree. Barrel pressed between his knees, butt resting on the moist earth between sandaled feet, is a Browning automatic rifle. Hooked to his belt, two dirty canvas sacks—one holding three home-made bombs, the other four magazines loaded with .30-caliber ammunition. Draped around his neck, a sausage-like cloth tube with three days' supply of rice. The man stands, raises a water bottle to his lips, rinses his mouth, spits out the water. He looks about him carefully, corks the bottle, slaps the stock of the Browning three times, pauses, slaps it again twice, and disappears silently into the shadows. In forty minutes, his group of fifteen men will occupy a previously prepared ambush.
It is probable that guerrilla war, nationalist and revolutionary in nature, will flare up in one or more of half a dozen countries during the next few years. These outbreaks may not initially be inspired, organized, or led by local Communists; indeed, it is probable that they will not be. But they will receive the moral support and vocal encouragement of international Communism, and where circumstances permit, expert advice and material assistance as well.
As early as November, 1949, we had this assurance from China's Number Two Communist, Liu Shao-ch'i, when, speaking before the Australasian Trade Unions Conference in Peking, he prophesied that there would be other Asian revolutions that would follow the Chinese pattern. We paid no attention to this warning.
In December, 1960, delegates of eighty-one Communist and Workers' Parties resolved that the tempo of "wars of liberation" should be stepped up. A month later (January 6, 1961), the Soviet Premier, an unimpeachable authority on "national liberation wars," propounded an interesting series of questions to which he provided equally interesting answers:
Is there a likelihood of such wars recurring? Yes, there is. Are uprisings of this kind likely to recur? Yes, they are. But wars of this kind are popular uprisings. Is there the likelihood of conditions in other countries reaching the point where the cup of the popular patience overflows and they take to arms? Yes, there is such a likelihood. What is the attitude of the Marxists to such uprisings? A most favorable attitude.... These uprisings are directed against the corrupt reactionary regimes, against the colonialists. The Communists support just wars of this kind wholeheartedly and without reservations.
Implicit is the further assurance that any popular movement infiltrated and captured by the Communists will develop an anti-Western character definitely tinged, in our own hemisphere at least, with a distinctive anti-American coloration.
This should not surprise us if we remember that several hundred millions less fortunate than we have arrived, perhaps reluctantly, at the conclusion that the Western peoples are dedicated to the perpetuation of the political, social, and economic status quo. In the not too distant past, many of these millions looked hopefully to America, Britain, or France for help in the realization of their justifiable aspirations. But today many of them feel that these aims can be achieved only by a desperate revolutionary struggle that we will probably oppose. This is not a hypothesis; it is fact.
A potential revolutionary situation exists in any country where the government consistently fails in its obligation to ensure at least a minimally decent standard of life for the great majority of its citizens. If there also exists even the nucleus of a revolutionary party able to supply doctrine and organization, only one ingredient is needed: the instrument for violent revolutionary action.
In many countries, there are but two classes, the rich and the miserably poor. In these countries, the relatively small middle class—merchants, bankers, doctors, lawyers, engineers—lacks forceful leadership, is fragmented by unceasing factional quarrels, and is politically ineffective. Its program, which usually posits a socialized society and some form of liberal parliamentary democracy, is anathema to the exclusive and tightly knit possessing minority. It is also rejected by the frustrated intellectual youth, who move irrevocably toward violent revolution. To the illiterate and destitute, it represents a package of promises that experience tells them will never be fulfilled.
People who live at subsistence level want first things to be put first. They are not particularly interested in freedom of religion, freedom of the press, free enterprise as we understand it, or the secret ballot. Their needs are more basic: land, tools, fertilizers, something better than rags for their children, houses to replace their shacks, freedom from police oppression, medical attention, primary schools. Those who have known only poverty have begun to wonder why they should continue to wait passively for improvements. They see—and not always through Red-tinted glasses—examples of peoples who have changed the structure of their societies, and they ask, "What have we to lose?" When a great many people begin to ask themselves this question, a revolutionary guerrilla situation is incipient.
A revolutionary war is never confined within the bounds of military action. Because its purpose is to destroy an existing society and its institutions and to replace them with a completely new state structure, any revolutionary war is a unity of which the constituent parts, in varying importance, are military, political, economic, social, and psychological. For this reason, it is endowed with a dynamic quality and a dimension in depth that orthodox wars, whatever their scale, lack. This is particularly true of revolutionary guerrilla war, which is not susceptible to the type of superficial military treatment frequently advocated by antediluvian doctrinaires.
It is often said that guerrilla warfare is primitive. This generalization is dangerously misleading and true only in the technological sense. If one considers the picture as a whole, a paradox is immediately apparent, and the primitive form is understood to be in fact more sophisticated than nuclear war or atomic war or war as it was waged by conventional armies, navies, and air forces. Guerrilla war is not dependent for success on the efficient operation of complex mechanical devices, highly organized logistical systems, or the accuracy of electronic computers. It can be conducted in any terrain, in any climate, in any weather; in swamps, in mountains, in farmed fields. Its basic element is man, and man is more complex than any of his machines. He is endowed with intelligence, emotions, and will. Guerrilla warfare is therefore suffused with, and reflects, man's admirable qualities as well as his less pleasant ones. While it is not always humane, it is human, which is more than can be said for the strategy of extinction.
In the United States, we go to considerable trouble to keep soldiers out of politics, and even more to keep politics out of soldiers. Guerrillas do exactly the opposite. They go to great lengths to make sure that their men are politically educated and thoroughly aware of the issues at stake. A trained and disciplined guerrilla is much more than a patriotic peasant, workman, or student armed with an antiquated fowling-piece and a home-made bomb. His indoctrination begins even before he is taught to shoot accurately, and it is unceasing. The end product is an intensely loyal and politically alert fighting man.
Guerrilla leaders spend a great deal more time in organization, instruction, agitation, and propaganda work than they do fighting, for their most important job is to win over the people. "We must patiently explain," says Mao Tse-tung. "Explain," "persuade," "discuss," "convince" —these words recur with monotonous regularity in many of the early Chinese essays on guerrilla war. Mao has aptly compared guerrillas to fish, and the people to the water in which they swim. If the political temperature is right, the fish, however few in number, will thrive and proliferate. It is therefore the principal concern of all guerrilla leaders to get the water to the right temperature and to keep it there.
More than ten years ago, I concluded an analysis of guerrilla warfare with the suggestion that the problem urgently demanded further "serious study of all historical experience." Although a wealth of material existed then, and much more has since been developed, no such study has yet been undertaken in this country, so far as I am aware. In Indochina and Cuba, Ho Chi Minh and Ernesto (Che) Guevara were more assiduous. One rather interesting result of their successful activities has been the common identification of guerrilla warfare with Communism. But guerrilla warfare was not invented by the Communists; for centuries, there have been guerrilla fighters.
One of the most accomplished of them all was our own Revolutionary hero Francis Marion, "the Swamp Fox." Those present at his birth would probably not have foretold a martial future for him; the baby was "not larger than a New England lobster and might easily enough have been put into a quart pot." Marion grew up in South Carolina and had little formal schooling. He worked as a farmer. In 1759, at the age of twenty-seven, he joined a regiment raised to fight the Cherokees, who were then ravaging the borders of the Carolinas. He served for two years and in the course of these hostilities stored away in his mind much that was later to be put to good use against the British.
When the Revolution broke out, Marion immediately accepted a commission in the Second South Carolina Regiment. By 1780, he had seen enough of the war to realize that the Continentals were overlooking a very profitable field—that of partisan warfare. Accordingly, he sought and obtained permission to organize a company that at first consisted of twenty ill-equipped men and boys (Castro's "base" was twelve men). The appearance of this group, with a heterogeneous assortment of arms and ragged and poorly fitting clothes, provoked considerable jesting among the regulars of General Gates, but Marion's men were not long in proving that the appearance of a combat soldier is not necessarily a reliable criterion of his fighting abilities.
Marion's guerrilla activities in South Carolina soon told heavily on the British, especially Cornwallis, whose plans were continually disrupted by them. Marion's tactics were those of all successful guerrillas. Operating with the greatest speed from inaccessible bases, which he changed frequently, he struck his blows in rapid succession at isolated garrisons, convoys, and trains. His information was always timely and accurate, for the people supported him.
The British, unable to cope with Marion, branded him a criminal, and complained bitterly that he fought neither "like a gentleman" nor like "a Christian," a charge orthodox soldiers are wont to apply in all lands and in all wars to such ubiquitous, intangible, and deadly antagonists as Francis Marion.
However, the first example of guerrilla operations on a grand scale was in Spain between 1808 and 1813. The Spaniards who fled from Napoleon's invading army to the mountains were patriots loyal to the ruler whose crown had been taken from him by the Emperor of the French. They were not revolutionists. Most did not desire a change in the form of their government. Their single objective was to help Wellington force the French armies to leave Spain.
A few years later, thousands of Russian Cossacks and peasants harried Napoleon's Grande Armée as Kutuzov pushed it, stumbling, starving and freezing, down the ice-covered road to Smolensk. This dying army felt again and again the cudgel of the people's war, which, as Tolstoi later wrote, "was raised in all its menacing and majestic power; and troubling itself about no question of anyone's tastes or rules, about no fine distinctions, with stupid simplicity, with perfect consistency, it rose and fell and belabored the French until the whole invading army had been driven out."
A little more than a century and a quarter later, Hitler's armies fell back along the Smolensk road. They too would feel the fury of an aroused people. But in neither case were those who wielded the cudgel revolutionists. They were patriotic Russians.
Only when Lenin came on the scene did guerrilla warfare receive the potent political injection that was to alter its character radically. But it remained for Mao Tse-tung to produce the first systematic study of the subject, almost twenty-five years ago. His study, now endowed with the authority that deservedly accrues to the works of the man who led the most radical revolution in history, will continue to have a decisive effect in societies ready for change.
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