Military history



The Counterinsurgents’ Advantage

A LOOK AT the ancient and medieval worlds suggests yet another paradoxical conclusion: the most primitive guerrillas were the most successful. There were a few notable insurgents such as Judas Maccabeus and Robert the Bruce who operated with a fair degree of sophistication and managed to achieve a fair degree of success. They were sensitive to the need to build political support and to establish political institutions to replace those of their enemies. But such successes were rare, in no small part because ancient rebels lacked the ability to appeal to a hostile population over the head of its leader—and, in those days when autocracy was the dominant form of government, few populations could do much anyway to sway the decisions of their emperor, king, or chief. Most insurgents suffered the fate of Viriathus, Quintus Sertorius, Spartacus, Vercingetorix, Boudicca, and others who died battling Roman power. Lacking the ability to call in outside aid or state their case to the mass media (which did not yet exist), ancient insurgents were generally on their own to face the pitiless power of a pagan polity.

The most successful guerrillas of the ancient world were the nomads who brought down the Roman Empire and seized large chunks of the Chinese Empire and other Eurasian states. They did not try to organize a revolution within a state, a notoriously difficult undertaking. Rather they chipped away at the state’s outer defenses until, in some cases, the entire edifice collapsed. The nomads’ achievement, while great, was almost wholly negative: with the exception of the Arabs, Turks, Moguls, and Manchus, who blended with more-settled societies, nomads could not build lasting institutions. Nomadic empires generally crumbled after a generation or two. But, as long as they were around, nomads had few equals in their ability to inflict catastrophic costs on established states through the use of hit-and-run tactics. All of the great commanders of antiquity—Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, Scipio—grappled with the problem. Many of them discovered, as did Alexander the Great during his Central Asian campaign in 329–327 BC, that fleet nomads were harder to defeat than massive conventional armies.

While the nomadic menace had once been of overriding, indeed existential, importance to the world’s greatest states, by the seventeenth century it was becoming a historical curiosity. The rise of the gunpowder empires (British, French, Russian, Prussian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese), with powerful bureaucracies able to marshal vast resources, was creating a new world order. Potent in the age of bows and arrows, nomads could not compete with large armies equipped with guns and supported by extensive logistical establishments. Among other problems, nomadic societies were severely limited in size because of their limited food resources. (There are only so many livestock that you can herd before you run out of grasslands.) In the long run they would be overwhelmed by the greater wealth and resources of industrial societies.

Primitive guerrilla warfare of the kind practiced by groups as disparate as the haiduks, the Pashtuns, and the Sioux would continue to flourish until the twentieth century on the periphery of the Western world. A vestige of this type of warfare still exists today in such ungoverned spaces as Somalia and the Pakistan frontier, albeit in considerably modified form. In Book III we will examine the resulting conflicts as primitive guerrillas were defeated by Western armies from the plains of the American Midwest to the crags of the Caucasus. But the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would also see the rise of increasingly sophisticated guerrillas thoroughly steeped in the political ideologies and military tactics of the West. They were not so easy to defeat, because they made use of many of the same weapons and techniques that made modern armies so potent.

One of the greatest advantages enjoyed by modern, as opposed to ancient or medieval, guerrillas was the ability to learn from their predecessors. Before the twentieth century, literacy levels were low, books rare, long-distance travel difficult. Most people led isolated lives. In this environment, it was hard for rebels to learn from one another, much less to cooperate in the way that twenty-first century jihadist groups seek to do by embracing the Internet. Simon bar Gioras, leader of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, undoubtedly was familiar with the experience of Judas Maccabeus and King David, two earlier Jewish guerrilla leaders. But it is doubtful that he knew much if anything of Viriathus, who resisted Roman authority in Spain, and even less likely that the illiterate Viriathus was familiar with the exploits of Spitamenes, who fought Alexander the Great in Central Asia, much less with Modun, leader of the Xiongnu who fought the Chinese Empire. Once printed books and periodicals began to spread and literacy to rise, insurgents were able to study their predecessors’ experiences and puzzle out more potent techniques to bring powerful empires to their knees.

Counterinsurgents were able to learn from their predecessors much earlier. Counterinsurgency manuals have been common at least since the Byzantine emperor Maurice produced his Strategikon around AD 600. It offered advice on how to battle Slavs, Avars, and other “undisciplined, disorganized peoples” who “prefer to prevail over their enemies not so much by force as by deceit, surprise attacks, and cutting off supplies.” Maurice offered an early warning against the sort of blundering “search and destroy” missions that would prove a failure centuries later for, among others, German forces in Yugoslavia, American forces in Vietnam, and Russian forces in Afghanistan. “[I]n warring against them one must avoid engaging in pitched battles, especially in the early stages,” he wrote. “Instead, make use of well-planned ambushes, sneak attacks, and stratagems.”115 Even earlier Greek and Roman manuals of military science, such as Aeneas Tacticus’s fourth-century BC work, How to Survive under Siege, offered guidance on how to combat revolutionaries and subversives (the enemy within the city walls), while battles against “barbarian” tribes (the enemy without) formed a substantial part of Herodotus’s Histories, Caesar’s Gallic War, and other famous narratives of ancient military history.

But accounts written from the insurgents’ perspective were practically nonexistent until the modern era because most ancient and medieval insurgents were unlettered. Insurgent manuals did not become common until the nineteenth century. By then the spread of the printed word had made it easier for guerrillas to appeal for popular support, thereby elevating the role of propaganda and psychological warfare, the distinguishing features of contemporary guerrilla warfare. In the modern age, the printing press would become as important a weapon in the insurgents’ arsenal as the rifle and the bomb. In a related development, the growing ease of communications would expand the range of motivations for insurgencies. Whereas in the past most of those who adopted guerrilla tactics did so for elemental tribal or religious reasons, in the years ahead secular ideologies such as nationalism, liberalism, and socialism were to be added to the volatile mix, thereby attracting more recruits to insurgent ranks. The Enlightenment ushered in a new epoch not only in the history of the West but also in the history of guerrilla warfare. That is the subject of Book II.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!