The passages below are from the Kindle version of War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerilla Warfare by Robert Taber (originally published in 1965).
Mao’s success was emulated successfully by the Viet Minh against the French in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Little more than a decade later the Viet Cong, also following a Maoist blueprint, were poised to reap the fruits of victory against the South Vietnamese and Americans.
Distinguishing terrorism from guerrilla warfare has further sharpened the analysis of insurgency. While there may be some minor differences in phraseology, most analysts define terrorism as the threat or use of physical coercion against non-combatants to create fear in order to achieve political objectives. Guerrilla warfare, by contrast, consists of hit-and-run attacks against police and military and the physical infrastructure that supports them.
The problem is more political than military, involving acts of terrorism rather than battles. Out of a population of 14 million, the Communist Vietcong numbers only 28,000 to 34,000 regular guerrilla troops plus 60,000 to 80,000 part time auxiliaries. Its campaign is more like the gangland warfare of the nineteen thirties and the teenage terrorism of New York today than the war in Korea or World War II. In a very real sense, the F.B.I. has had more experience in dealing with this kind of problem than the armed services.
When we speak of the guerrilla fighter, we are speaking of the political partisan, an armed civilian whose principal weapon is not his rifle or his machete, but his relationship to the community, the nation, in and for which he fights.
We may paraphrase Clausewitz: Guerrilla war is the extension of politics by means of armed conflict. At a certain point in its development it becomes revolution itself-the dragon’s teeth sprung to maturity.
The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue. – Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-tung
Guerrillas who know their trade and have popular support cannot be eliminated by the means available to most governments. And on the other hand, few governments can stand the political, psychological, and economic stresses of guerrilla war, no matter how strong they may be militarily.
The guerrilla, for his part, finds his strength in his freedom from territorial commitments, his mobility, and his relationship to a discontented people, as the spokesman of their grievances, the armed vanguard, as Che Guevara puts it, of militant social protest.
The guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with.
Insurrection is a phenomenon, revolution a process, which cannot begin until the historical stage has been set for it.
If people are to accept the risks and responsibilities of organized violence, they must believe first that there is no alternative; second, that the cause is compelling; third, that they have reasonable expectation of success.
Usually the revolutionary political organization will have two branches: one subterranean and illegal, the other visible and quasi-legitimate.
Well-known quotation from Mao: “With the common people of the whole country mobilized, we shall create a vast sea of humanity and drown the enemy in it.”
Mao believes that revolutionary war itself is the university in which guerrilla fighters are schooled, and that war develops its own lessons and principles: Our chief method is to learn warfare through warfare. A person who has had no opportunity to go to school can learn warfare-he can learn through fighting in war.
A revolutionary war is a mass undertaking; it is often not a matter of first learning and then doing, but of doing and then learning, for doing itself is learning.
Japan was seeking, of necessity, a war of quick decision. The correct military response was to deny it, by avoiding a military confrontation and fighting along the lines of guerrilla and mobile warfare, trading the vast space of China for the time necessary (1) to let the inherent weaknesses of Japan develop and show themselves under the stresses of a protracted war; (2) to build Chinese resistance forces to the strength and degree of organization needed to confront the gradually weakened Japanese war machine.
The guerrilla fights the war of the flea. The flea bites, hops, and bites again, nimbly avoiding the foot that would crush him. He does not seek to kill his enemy at a blow, but to bleed him and feed on him, to plague and bedevil him, to keep him from resting and to destroy his nerve and his morale. All of this requires time. Still more time is required to breed more fleas. What starts as a local infestation must become an epidemic, as one by one the areas of resistance link up, like spreading ink spots on a blotter.
A principle can be observed throughout this entire process: the more the enemy holds, the more he has to defend and the broader the insurgent target area. Yet on the other hand, the more the insurgent fights and wins, the more he has with which to fight and to win-in arms, in manpower, in material resources. Thus the objectives of the government and of the insurgent must be diametrically opposed. The army seeks to end the war as quickly as possible, in order to minimize its losses; the insurgent seeks to prolong it, since he has everything to gain by it.
As to the question of supplies, it is a tenet of guerrilla theory, not only in China but in all revolutionary wars, that the enemy must be the main source of weapons and ammunition. One advantage is that one always finds the proper calibers of ammunition close at hand. Another, greater advantage is that logistical problems are reduced to a minimum. The enemy supply lines serve both armies, and often serve the guerrilla army better than they do that of the adversary.
Guerrilla war is the form of fighting by the masses of a weak and badly equipped country against an aggressive army with better equipment and techniques. This is the way of fighting a revolution. Guerrillas rely on heroic spirit to triumph over modern weapons, avoiding the enemy when he is the stronger and attacking him when he is the weaker. Now scattering, now regrouping, now wearing out, now exterminating the enemy, they are determined to fight everywhere, so that wherever the enemy goes he is submerged in a sea of armed people who hit back at him thus undermining his spirit and exhausting his forces.
The French controlled the roads. The guerillas passed safely in the jungle and rice paddies on either side at a distance of one hundred yards, unseen. The French held the towns. The enemy had no design on the towns. For where the French were fighting to control the national territory-that meant to occupy it-the guerrillas were interested only in winning its population. Note: this is the essential contrast between conventional war and guerrilla war. The army fights to occupy territory, roads, strategic heights, vital areas; the guerrilla fights to control people, without whose cooperation the land is useless to its possessor.
Vietminh troops were organized on three levels, according to the pattern established in China and used elsewhere. At the top were the so-called chu-luc regulars, permanent guerrilla fighters who could be employed strategically wherever needed and who carried the main campaign, when insurgent forces were concentrated for a major strike. Beneath the chu-luc were the regional guerrillas, who fought only in their own zones, and could always return to their civilian character as peasants and workers if hard pressed. And on the bottom level were the village militia, the du-kich, guerrillas by night and peasants by day, carrying out limited assignments-sabotaging a bridge here, ambushing a patrol there, mining the roads, carrying messages or funds-and fading back into their farms and villages at the first approach of military opposition.
One of the most interesting accounts of revolutionary warfare that has been written is Vo Nguyen Giap’s own account of the Vietminh strategy used to block the well-publicized Navarre Plan-France’s last-gasp effort, as it turned out, to regain the military initiative in Indochina.
Most Vietcong weapons are new U.S. military weapons, captured in ambushes on Government units and attacks on outposts. Often a Vietcong unit is organized initially with no weapons. The political organizer tells his men and women they must fight at first with handmade arms-spears, daggers, swords, and crude shotguns. To get better weapons, the unit must capture them from the enemy. The system evidently works. Vietcong arms now include modern recoilless cannon, heavy mortars, good machine guns, and very large supplies of submachine guns.
The record stands: No colonial war has yet been lost by a colonial people, once entered into.
Bombs and bullets are the physical weapons of the rural guerrilla and equally of the urban terrorist, but the real lever for both is politics. Divisions may be destroyed, as in Viet Nam, but this is not the ultimate objective; cities may be terrorized, as in Cyprus, but again this is not the goal. The purpose of the war of national liberation, pitting the feeble resources of a small and primitive nation against the strength of a great, industrial power is not to conquer or to terrorize, but to create an intolerable situation for the occupying power or its puppet government.
Terrorism, conventionally viewed with pious horror as political murder (but how more murderous than blockbusting a city or napalming a village?) is far more humane, being more selective, than most other types of warfare.
The terrain was ideal for guerrilla fighting-the green, rugged, and in many places virtually roadless countryside being impassable to motor transport during wet weather, which seemed to be most of the time. I.R.A. men “on the run,” as the Irish expression had it, found perfect sanctuary in the bogs and wooded mountains, yet were always close enough to towns and main arteries to launch lightning raids under cover of darkness and quickly withdraw. In the cities, the gunmen of the I.R.A. were so well integrated with the populace at large that most of them held regular civilian employment, and the majority of I.R.A. operations in Dublin and Cork were scheduled at night for that reason: there was insufficient manpower available during daylight hours.
It may be argued that terroristic movements attract criminals and psychopaths. So they do. But criminality itself is a form of unconscious social protest, reflecting the distortions of an imperfect society, and in a revolutionary situation the criminal, the psychopath, may become as good a revolutionary as the idealist.
Terrorism was more effective than guerrilla tactics in Morocco. A true guerrilla campaign never developed, although a few hundred raiders from Spanish Morocco began such a campaign and tied up a division of Foreign Legionnaires and Spahis in the mountains of the Riff for some weeks during the autumn of 1955.
In Morocco, as in Israel and Ireland, revolutionary warfare provided a shortcut; the pressures generated by terrorism and political agitation proved more potent than infantry divisions and aircraft. In Tunisia a similar solution had been reached.
The wave of terrorism had been initiated by an extremely small group of men-not more than eighty, according to Grivas, organized into sabotage squads of five or six in all of the principal cities and towns of the island.
The guerrilla is a political insurgent, the conscious agent of revolution; his military role, while vital, is only incidental to his political mission. His insurgency is dedicated to a single purpose: the overthrow of the government and the destruction of the existing political or social or, it may be, economic system.
The guerrilla is, above all, an improviser. The nature of his improvisation depends, naturally, on immediate and long range objectives, the terrain, the relative strength of his forces and those of the enemy, the material means at his disposal, and similar factors.
When the first excitement has died away and order has been restored in the towns where uprisings have occurred, the guerrillas can expect the army to bring the battle to them; they will not have to seek it. The government will order a “bandit suppression” campaign. Troops will be dispatched by motor convoy or airlift to the region of reported guerrilla activity; spotter planes will skim the treetops seeking the insurgents; soldiers will occupy the villages and patrol the roads; foot columns will penetrate deeply into rebel territory, trying to make contact. Helicopters may be used to ferry troops to strategic encampments deep in the forest or mountains from which patrols can fan out in search of the rebels. If the military commander knows what he is about, he may adopt some variation of the French “oil slick” technique, gridding the region on his map and attempting to clear it a square at a time, driving the guerrillas slowly toward a prepared “killing zone” (or zones) where their only apparent route of escape will bring them into the open-much as tigers are driven by beaters into the guns of the hunters.
Regardless of the number of troops involved, the guerrillas will fight according to certain principles. They will not seek to hold ground or to contend with a stronger force, but only to confuse and exhaust it and to inflict casualties on it, without taking casualties in return. The key to this kind of action is the well placed ambush.
When fighting begins, it will be on ground of the rebels’ own choosing-preferably from commanding heights with dense cover and limited visibility, where a few determined men can hold up an army.
The enemy vanguard is made a special target of guerrilla fire for a sound psychological reason: to induce the fear, or at any rate the excessive caution, that will paralyze the will and retard the free movement of the enemy. When the soldiers in the first rank invariably are killed, few will wish to be in the vanguard, and without a vanguard there is no movement.
The guerrilla succeeds because he survives. He flourishes because his methods are progressive. With a pistol, a machete, or, for that matter, a bow and arrow, he can capture a rifle. With twenty rifles he can capture a machine gun, and with twenty rifles and a machine gun he can capture a military patrol or destroy a convoy that carries five machine guns and fifty thousand rounds of ammunition. With a dozen shovels and a few gallons of gasoline he can destroy a tank, and with its weapons he can shoot down an airplane or a helicopter that also carries weapons.
On the three occasions in which nonlethal gas (a mixture of vomiting gas and tear gas, of the type used to control rioters) was used in South Viet Nam during early 1965, the practical results were nil. Twice the gas simply blew away, without any effect. On the third occasion, it sickened a few residents of the target area, but the infantrymen who soon arrived found no guerrillas in the area. The propaganda effects, on the other hand, were tremendous-and adverse in the extreme.
The needs of the guerrilla are few: his rifle, a blanket, a square of some impermeable material to shelter him from the rain, a knife, a compass, stout boots-the minimum of ordinary camping equipment. Personal qualifications are greater. Physically, the guerrilla must be strong, with iron legs and sound lungs; temperamentally, he must be a cheerful stoic and an ascetic; he must like the hard life he leads. But what is indispensable is ideological armor. Above all, the revolutionary activist must stand on solid moral ground, if he is to be more than a political bandit.
To be successful, the guerrilla must be loved and admired. To attract followers, he must represent not merely success, but absolute virtue, so that his enemy will represent absolute evil. If the soldiers are idle, drunken, and licentious, the guerrilla must be vigorous, sober, and moral.
If technological superiority could defeat guerrillas, the war in South Viet Nam would have been over long ago. At this writing, the United States is spending-at the rate of nearly two million dollars daily-all the money it can usefully spend in the area. And the war is being lost. It is being lost to a poorly armed, numerically inferior enemy because mere technological wealth, translated into arms, aircraft, armor, military supplies, is not enough to defeat popular forces employing guerrilla tactics on their own familiar and friendly terrain.