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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 "regulars") use military tactics, like 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 tactics of guerrilla warfare were used successfully in the 20th century by—among others— Mao Zedong and the People's Liberation Army in the Second Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara's rebel army in the Cuban Revolution, Giap and the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War, and George Grivas and Nikos Sampson's Greek guerilla group EOKA in Cyprus, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck and the German Schutztruppe in the World War I, Josip Broz Tito and the Yugoslav Partisans in the World War II, the Kosovo Liberation Army in the Kosovo War, and the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence. Most factions of the 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 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.
Guerrilla (Spanish pronunciation: [ɡeˈriʎa]) is the diminutive of the Spanish word guerra "war", literally "little war". It derives from the Old High German word Werra or from the middle Dutch word warre; adopted by the Visigoths in A.D. 5th century Hispania.
In War and Peace (written in 1865-1869, in part about Napoleon's invasion of Russia), Leo Tolstoy says that guerrilla warfare is named after the Guerrillas in Spain. He appears to be referring to a specific group that used guerrilla warfare in a war fought in Spain before the 1860s. That war began in 1808 with the occupation of Spain by Napoleon's French army. Bands of guerrillas (so named; one of the most important led by Juan Martin Diez) and the regular Spanish army both fought Napoleon. Our modern word "guerrilla" traces its origin to these bands in this war. These guerrillas were very effective in fighting Napoleon. Their principal function was to disrupt the supply and communication lines of the French army by intercepting messages and by seizing convoys of supplies, arms, and money. They did so much damage to Napoleon's army that Joseph Leopold Hugo, a French general, was ordered to "pursue exclusively" Diez and his guerrillas. According to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the word "guerrilla" was first used as a noun in 1809 and as an adjective in 1811.
Guerrillero is the Spanish word for guerrilla fighter, while in Spanish-speaking countries the noun guerrilla usually denotes guerrilla army (e.g. la guerrilla de las FARC translates as "the FARC guerrilla group"). Moreover 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.
An early example of this came when General John Burgoyne who, during the Saratoga campaign of the American War of Independence, 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 defence 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.
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. 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 which is to weaken the enemy's strength; to cause them to eventually no longer be able to prosecute the war, and force them 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 can not be made use of by a larger and more conventional force.
Since Classical Antiquity, many strategies and tactics were used to fight foreign occupations culminating in the the modern guerrilla. An early example was the hit-and-run tactics employed by the nomadic Scythians of Central Asia against Darius the Great's Persian Achaemenid Empire and later against Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire.
The Fabian strategy applied by the Roman Republic against Hannibal in the Second Punic War could be considered another early example of guerrilla tactics: After witnessing several disastrous defeats, assassinations and raiding parties, the Romans set aside the typical military doctrine of crushing the enemy in a single battle and initiated a war of attrition against the Carthaginians that lasted until a change in leadership followed by the famous Battle of Cannae.
In expanding their own Empire, the Romans encountered numerous examples of guerrilla resistance to their legions as well. The success of Judas Maccabeus in his rebellion against Seleucid rule was at least partly due to his mastery of irregular warfare.
The victory of the Basque forces against Charlemagne's army in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, which gave birth to the Medieval myth of Roland, was due to effective use of guerrilla principles in the mountainous terrain of the Pyrenees. Mongols also faced irregulars composed of armed peasants in Hungary after the Battle of Mohi. The various castles provided power bases for the Hungarian resistance fighters; while the Mongols devastated the countryside, the Mongols were unable to take the castles and walled cities. In 1242, the Hungarians ambushed and destroyed two toumens of rearguard troops in the Carpathian mountains, where light horse is at a disadvantage because of rough terrain.
One of the most successful of the guerrilla campaigns was that of Robert the Bruce in the Scottish War of Independence when using strategies of ambushes, avoiding large battles, destroying enemy strongholds and using a scorched earth policy, the Scots forced the English out of Scotland without a single large-scale battle until the Battle of Bannockburn eight years after the start of the war.
In the 15th century, Vietnamese leader Le Loi launched a guerrilla war against the Chinese. One of the most successful guerrilla wars against the invading Ottomans was led by Skanderbeg from 1443 to 1468. In 1443 he rallied Albanian forces and drove the Turks from his homeland. For 25 years Skanderbeg kept the Turks from retaking Albania, which due to its proximity to Italy, could easily have served as a springboard to the rest of Europe. In 1462, the Ottomans were driven back by Wallachian prince Vlad III Dracula. Vlad was unable to stop the Turks from entering Wallachia, so he resorted to guerrilla war, constantly organizing small attacks and ambushes on the Turks.
During the Deluge in Poland, guerrilla tactics were also applied. In the 100 years war between England and France, commander Bertrand du Guesclin used guerrilla tactics to pester the English invaders. The Frisian warlord Pier Gerlofs Donia fought a guerrilla conflict against Philip I of Castile and with co-commander Wijerd Jelckama against Charles V.
During the Dutch Revolt of the 16th century, the Geuzen waged a guerrilla war against the Spanish Empire. During the Scanian War, a pro-Danish guerrilla group known as the Snapphane fought against the Swedes. In Balkan tradition, the Hajduk was an outlaw who engaged in robbery and guerrilla warfare against the Turks.
In 17th century Ireland, Irish irregulars called tories and rapparees used guerrilla warfare in the Irish Confederate Wars and the Williamite War in Ireland. Finnish guerrillas, sissis, fought against Russian occupation troops in the Great Northern War, 1700-1721. The Russians retaliated brutally against the civilian populace; the period is called Isoviha (Greater Wrath) in Finland.
In the 17th century, Marathas, on the Indian peninsula, under its leader Shivaji waged a successful guerrilla war against the Mughal Empire and founded the Maratha Empire which lasted until it was superseded by the British Empire.
Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, a prince from a small kingdom in Kerala, led many well organized guerrilla struggles against the army of the East India Trading Company. Pazhassi Raja revolted against the British for giving his land to his uncle for lease as punishment against the Raja's stand on taxes. With the help of Unni Moopan Mappila, he revolted several times against the atrocities happening against the people of his state. On June 28, 1795, the prince challenged the British by stopping all tax collection.See here for details
In the 17th and 18th century, Sikh fighters in the Punjab region waged successful guerrilla warfare against Mughal, Persian and Afghan invasions, until they founded the powerful Sikh empire under Ranjit Singh.
In the mid 17th century the Colonists of New France were in conflict with the Iroquois Confederacy. Iroquois forces used hit and run tactics, harrassment and avoided costly pitched battles. The colonists of New France began calling these Indian tactics La Petite Guerre because the tactics were meant for raiding as opposed to pitched battles. Under the tutleage of Wendake, Wobanaki, Algonquin and Ottawa tutors the habitants of New France learned La Petite Guerre and successfully used them against the Iroquois. In the early to mid 18th century Canadiens and Indian allies brought La Petite Guerre to New England and the Ohio Valley. New Englanders had also been adopting Indian scouting and raiding tactics since King Phillips War. During the French and Indian war La Petite Guerre came to front stage when the Ohio valley Indians defeated Braddock's expedition near the forks of the Ohio. In the Northeast, a New Hampshire backwoodsman, Robert Rogers, began to make a stir in the British military establishment for his success using the tactics of the "little war". British military leaders like Jeffery Amherst, John Forbes and Henry Bouquet understood they needed to learn and adopt the techniques and tactics of the little war, or be consumed, like Braddock. The British military establishment began adopting some of the tactics of La Petite Guerre as "light infantry."
After the failure of the Irish 1798 Rebellion, Michael Dwyer lead a guerilla campaign from 1799 to 1803. He targeted local loyalists and yeomen, attacking small parties of the military and eluding any major sweeps against them. As the campaign progressed Dwyer became a household name. On December 1803 Dwyer finally capitulated. He was transported to New South Wales (Australia) as an unsentenced exile. He served as inspiration to later Irish Rebels during the Irish War of Independence a hundred and twenty years or so later.
In 1808, when Napoleon's army began its occupation of Spain, bands of guerrillas that formed spontaneously were very effective in fighting the army, resulting in the English word "guerrilla" (see Etymology above).
During the American Civil War of 1861-1865, the breakaway Confederate States for a time attempted to use guerrilla warfare as part of broader military strategy. The Confederacy’s Partisan Ranger Act of April 21, 1862 empowered President Jefferson Davis to commission officers who would recruit irregular forces. The law was controversial from the start, and many military commanders, including General Robert E. Lee, feared that the regular army would be unable to control the guerrilla units. This judgment proved to be correct, and uncontrolled guerrilla violence in Missouri, Arkansas, and western Virginia (and the lack of positive military results) led to the repeal of the act in February 1864. The repeal of the law, however, made little difference to many of the guerrillas. In Missouri, the violence did not subside until years after the war had ended. During the 1870s eastern newspapers depicted the continuing violence in Missouri as something that set the state apart from the rest of the country.
During World War I (1914-1918) Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck led a guerrilla campaign in East African which lasted the entire war. His innovative and creative solutions to daily problems proved to be the undoing of a succession of British commanders, allowing him to bleed Allied forces from European fronts. Although he never had more than 3,000 European and 15,000 native soldiers, von Lettow-Vorbeck consumed the efforts of over 250,000 Allied (mostly British) soldiers. Von Lettow-Vorbeck and the men of the Schutztruppe are little known outside of Germany, but they were never defeated and have the distinction of being the only Germans of World War I to occupy British soil.
In the Irish War of Independence in 1919-21, guerrilla warfare was used in a successful attempt to allow Ireland to set up its own parliament and to leave the United Kingdom. However the same tactics failed to overthrow the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the Guerrilla Phase of the Irish Civil War. The guerrilla's leader Michael Collins is often cited as the father of modern urban guerrilla warfare.
Many clandestine organizations (often known as resistance movements) operated in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II. In March 1940, a Polish partisan unit lead by Major Henryk Dobrzański completely destroyed a battalion of German infantry in a skirmish near the village of Huciska. In Yugoslavia, guerrillas under General Draža Mihailović, known as Chetniks, and communist guerrilla under Josip Broz Tito known as Partisans, engaged the Germans in a guerrilla war. By 1944 the Polish resistance was thought to number 400,000. The strength of the Soviet partisan units and formations can not be accurately estimated, but in Belarus alone is thought to have been in excess of 300,000. Tito's partisans numbered approximately 800,000 men by the end of the war.
On the other side of the world, guerrilla forces in Southeast Asian countries were a mill stone around the neck of the Japanese. For example, tens of thousands of Japanese troops were committed to anti-guerrilla operations in the Philippines. Not only did this cause a drain on Japanese military resources, but the guerrillas prevented the Japanese from making the most effective use of the islands' resources (food, ore, civilian labor, etc.) in their war effort.
In the 1960s 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.
Present ongoing guerrilla wars, and regions facing guerrilla war activity include:
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.
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, 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. Elements of Thompson's moderate approach are adapted here:
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.