Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraqby William R. Polk
In Violent Politics, William R. Polk takes us on a concise, brilliant tour of insurgencies throughout history, beginning with America's own struggle for independence. Continuing on, Polk explores the role of insurgency in other notable conflicts-including the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon, the Irish struggle for independence, the Algerian War of National Independence, and Vietnam-eventually landing at the ongoing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the lessons of this history are needed more than ever.
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A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq
The American Insurgency
The British Army was probably the eighteenth century's most highly trained regular military force. Although it was relatively small—on the eve of the Revolution in 1775 it numbered only forty-eight thousand men, about 10 percent of France's military force—it could usually achieve what military men refer to as "theater superiority" because it could be landed virtually anywhere by the Royal Navy. If more troops were needed, it could be augmented by "renting" additional foreign, usually German, armies and by enrolling such natives as Bengali peasants and American farmers. So it was a highly flexible, multinational force with a global reach, but its tactics had evolved in Europe. There, centuries of farming had opened and leveled the terrain. Responding to the landscape, troops were drilled to align themselves in parade-ground formations with each soldier's shoulder next to the shoulders of his two neighbors; they then marched in lockstep to within about twenty paces of a similarly organized foe and, on command, fired what amounted to a broadside. Their smoothbore muskets could not be accurately aimed—they did not even have a rear sight—so soldiers were ordered not to try. Their commanders expected the sheer weight of lead to shock and disrupt their opponents' formation. Neither the British soldiers nor their opponents could reload because of the long bayonets fixed to the barrels of their muskets; so after firing, the soldiers who were still on their feet and able to move chargedforward. Their two-foot-long bayonets fixed on their four-foot-long muskets made a virtual spear rather like the ancient Greeks had employed in their phalanxes. These tactics were brutally effective in Europe, where armies routinely slaughtered one another, but made no sense in the American wilderness, where as yet untamed gullies, hillocks, rocks, and trees made rigid formations impossible.
To feed themselves, the British, like other eighteenth-century European armies, pillaged farmers' houses, grain storage barns, and livestock. In Europe, which was relatively densely populated and where, because transport was sporadic, crops were often stored in large quantities, they could do so. But in the sparsely populated and thinly cultivated American hinterland, foraging produced little to eat. So contemporary British soldiers, most of whom were about half a foot smaller than modern soldiers, had to carry huge loads on their backs. Standard packs in the British army weighed fifty pounds, nearly half the weight of the average soldier. Wisely, the French, who were more accustomed to the American wilderness and who moved in smaller formations that made it more likely to be able to live off the land, reduced their loads to about twelve pounds. Indian warriors carried virtually nothing.
Able to move lightly and quickly, the French and their Indian allies refused combat on British terms. As described by Colonel Henry Bouquet, then the immediate superior of George Washington, "they never congregate in a group that could be destroyed by the superior firepower of the regular troops and when attacked they never stand their ground, but immediately give way only to return to the charge when the attack ceases." That is, they fought in the style of guerrillas—loosely, adapting to terrain, quick to attack and quicker to retreat, hanging on the edges of superior forces to pick off stragglers and to disrupt, loot, or destroy the cumbersome supply wagons that accompanied every British force.
Ironically, as we now know, such tactics had been taught to the Indians by the earliest English colonists, who were few and weak while contemporary Indians were many and strong. And, like the eighteenth-century European regular armies, seventeenth-century American Indians regarded the ceremony of war as its essence. War for the British, French, Germans, and Indians could be described as violent theater. They all dressed in gaudy outfits—the British in their famous red coats, the French and Germans in a rainbow of colors and soaring headdresses, and the Indians in a colorful assortment of feathers and furs. They didn't fight so much as paraded before their foes. The Europeans were serenaded by marching bands, playing fifes and drums, and the Indians with choruses of chanters. When they first saw these displays of the Indians, the English colonists hid behind trees and fired into the mass of ceremonial dancers. This was not war as the Indians were accustomed to engaging in it. Heroes could not flaunt their courage, nor could the participants safely display their costumes. The Indians were stunned.
They were not alone. As wars in Europe became more brutal as weapons improved, armies also had to adapt. Cannon cut great swaths through serried ranks, and the soft lead slugs of even primitive muskets made hideous and usually lethal wounds. Gone was the glory and charm of war. Generals tried hard to keep their colorful formations intact but began to supplement them with "detached" troops, who put aside colorful uniforms and fought as what today we would call partisans.
By the middle of the eighteenth century in Europe, la petite guerre—the French phrase for the later Spanish word guerrilla—came into play. Although regular officers despised petite guerre "as not a form of war, but rather a manifestation of criminality," they found it useful. Petite guerre troops were used as auxiliaries to regular military formations to gather intelligence, interdict supplies, and harass the opponent. Used only as auxiliary to the main battle formations, they nevertheless sometimes swung the outcome. In the great battle of Fontenoy on May 11, 1745, French partisans managed to delay the advance of the British and allied forces long enough to enable the French army to dig trenches. So when the British advanced shoulder-to-shoulder to almost rock-throwing range of the French, they were halted. As they stood fast, the French opened a murderous fire. Stunned by the weight of lead and prevented by the trench from charging with bayonets, as they were accustomed to do, the British were decimated. Within the first few minutes of the battle, they had lost about one man in each six. Despised or not, the partisans proved their worth.Violent Politics
A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq. Copyright � by William Polk. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
William R. Polk taught Middle Eastern history and politics and Arabic at Harvard until 1961, when he became a member of the Policy Planning Council of the U.S. Department of State. In 1965, he became Professor of History at the University of Chicago, where he established the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His many books include The Birth of America and Understanding Iraq.
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