Why the United States can’t win guer­rilla wars

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Ger­ard DeG­root

Ifirst en­coun­tered the con­cept of guer­rilla war­fare back in 1964. Friends of my par­ents had dropped over for cof­fee. Pleas­ant ban­ter quickly turned ugly when the sub­ject of Viet­nam arose. No one seemed to un­der­stand why such a small prob­lem was vex­ing mighty Amer­ica. Some­one ques­tioned why the United States needed to fight that war. Some­one else men­tioned that the Viet­namese were guer­ril­las and no one could find them. One par­tic­u­larly bel­liger­ent neigh­bor — a fan of Barry Gold­wa­ter — ar­gued at max­i­mum vol­ume that the so­lu­tion was surely the atomic bomb.

In ret­ro­spect, that lit­tle in­ci­dent per­fectly en­cap­su­lates the help­less­ness Amer­i­cans have felt when it comes to guer­rilla war­fare. Since 1945, the U.S. record in guer­rilla wars has been bleak, as fail­ures in Laos, Viet­nam, Iraq and Afghanistan at­test. Amer­i­cans have strug­gled to un­der­stand their mis­for­tune. How is it pos­si­ble that the great­est mil­i­tary power the world has ever seen, pre­sum­ably with right on its side, has re­peat­edly been stymied by small bands of poorly equipped in­sur­gents?

Max Boot ad­dresses this co­nun­drum with an “epic his­tory” of guer­rilla war­fare. “In­vis­i­ble Armies” is a mag­is­te­rial ac­count of in­sur­gency and coun­terin­sur-

gency across the ages, pep­pered with fas­ci­nat­ing per­son­al­i­ties such as Robert the Bruce, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Che Gue­vara, Ed­ward Lans­dale, Osama bin Laden and David Pe­traeus. Out of nar­ra­tive emerges co­gent anal­y­sis: The au­thor of­fers im­por­tant in­sights rel­e­vant to any mod­ern power faced with a guer­rilla op­po­nent. Hard lessons are, how­ever, de­liv­ered with ele­gant prose. Leav­ing aside what “In­vis­i­ble Armies” teaches us, this is a won­der­ful read.

A com­mon mis­con­cep­tion among great pow­ers is that guer­rilla war­fare is un­usual, thus ex­plain­ing the woe­ful lack of prepa­ra­tion for it. Boot, how­ever, shows that the guer­rilla is as old as war­fare it­self. Forces that can­not hope to win on the con­ven­tional bat­tle­field choose in­stead an in­di­rect ap­proach, wear­ing down their en­e­mies through stealth, clev­er­ness and pa­tience. Ho Chi Minh saw it as a con­test be­tween a tiger and an elephant: “If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jun­gle by day and emerges by night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tear­ing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jun­gle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death.”

The elephant, cer­tain of its might, of­ten re­sponds by charg­ing into the jun­gle, crush­ing ev­ery­thing in its path. A frus­trat­ing irony arises: Success in coun­terin­sur­gency is of­ten in­versely pro­por­tion­ate to the force ap­plied. As Amer­i­cans have re­peat­edly dis­cov­ered, suf­fer­ing rad­i­cal­izes oth­er­wise un­in­volved civil­ians. An in­sur­gency is like the Ler­naean Hy­dra: Any at­tempt to de­cap­i­tate it cre­ates ad­di­tional guer­ril­las.

Boot of­fers 12 lessons de­rived from 5,000 years of guer­rilla war­fare. A few are par­tic­u­larly ger­mane. For in­stance, a guer­rilla op­er­a­tion is more likely to suc­ceed if it has out­side sup­port. The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion proved that, as did Viet­nam and the Rus­sian fail­ure in Afghanistan. More re­cently, Iraqi and Afghan rebels have re­ceived help from out­side. Ad­dress­ing that prob­lem, how­ever, im­plies an un­ac­cept­able wi­den­ing of the war.

Se­condly, the best guer­ril­las are adept at pub­lic­ity. As Boot points out, Amer­i­cans have been no­to­ri­ously bad at the war of words. Granted, it is dif­fi­cult for any in­vader to con­vince those on the ground that his in­tent is no­ble. The United States has also failed, how­ever, to con­vince Amer­i­cans at home that the strug­gle is wor­thy of the sac­ri­fice.

This is re­lated to a third im­por­tant les­son: the need for pa­tience. Ho Chi Minh was pre­pared to strug­gle for decades; Mus­lim in­sur­gents talk of fight­ing for cen­turies. Amer­i­cans, on the other hand, ex­pect quick re­sults, which are al­ways un­likely in a guer­rilla war.

Fi­nally, and most im­por­tant, con­ven­tional tac­tics do not work against a guer­rilla en­emy. Gen. Ge­orge Decker, Army chief of staff from 1960 to ’62, stub­bornly main­tained that “any good sol­dier can han­dle guer­ril­las.” That at­ti­tude is quite typ­i­cal. U.S. se­nior com­man­ders of­ten rea­son that there’s lit­tle point in teach­ing spe­cial­ist coun­terin­sur­gency skills be­cause guer­rilla war is un­usual.

The fail­ure to ab­sorb th­ese lessons ex­plains Amer­i­can set­backs. Boot in­sists, though, that de­feat is not in­evitable. By his cal­cu­la­tion, the guer­rilla wins only about 20 per­cent of the time. But his fig­ures are some­what mis­lead­ing, given that he in­cludes vic­to­ries over pa­thetic ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Weather Un­der­ground and the Sym­bionese Lib­er­a­tion Army, which have no place in this book. Leave those con­tests out of the cal­cu­la­tion, and coun­terin­sur­gency emerges as a dif­fi­cult and of­ten fu­tile en­deavor. Fail­ures re­sult when strong and con­fi­dent pow­ers un­der­es­ti­mate their en­e­mies’ will to suc­ceed. Right and might do not in­evitably pre­vail.

The weak­est part of this oth­er­wise shrewd book is its anal­y­sis of the Viet­nam War. This is un­for­tu­nate, given that con­flict’s cen­tral­ity to the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence. Boot is, to an ex­tent, a vic­tim of the my­opia he at­tempts to ex­pose. Like many au­thors with only a cur­sory knowl­edge of the war, he sees Viet­nam as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of com­mu­nist plans for world­wide rev­o­lu­tion dur­ing the Cold War. That was what Amer­i­cans thought at the time, and it par­tially ex­plains their de­feat.

Viet­nam was in fact a na­tion­al­ist strug­gle, a civil war be­tween two sides with com­pet­ing vi­sions for their coun­try. For most of the war, the real en­emy of the United States was not com­mu­nists from the North, but in­dige­nous South­ern in­sur­gents who re­jected the government in Saigon pre­cisely be­cause it was af­fil­i­ated with the United States.They were for­mi­da­ble be­cause of their ge­nius at in­fil­trat­ing the peas­antry through land re­form, ed­u­ca­tion, so­cial wel­fare and, yes, in­tim­i­da­tion. The av­er­age Viet Cong cadre spent less than 10 per­cent of its time in com­bat, con­cen­trat­ing in­stead on po­lit­i­cal work.

U.S. sol­diers could not com­pete with this ef­fort at in­doc­tri­na­tion, partly be­cause they were not trained for it, but mainly be­cause they were Amer­i­can. An out­sider, no mat­ter how no­ble his pur­pose, could not hope to at­tain the le­git­i­macy that was a pre­req­ui­site to vic­tory. Stated sim­ply, Amer­i­cans did not be­long in that war.

In 1961, Lt. Col. Ge­orge Eblen was chat­ting with Col. Nguyen Van Mau, his Viet­namese li­ai­son. Mau asked why the Amer­i­cans were in Viet­nam. Eblen replied that the United States wanted to help the Viet­namese de­feat com­mu­nism and to show them how democ­racy would bring eco­nomic pros­per­ity. Mau paused, then re­marked, “Yes, I un­der­stand what you are say­ing, but why are you really here?” Eblen re­peated, “We are here to help you.” Mau in­ter­jected, “No, be hon­est, why are you really here?”

The gulf could not be breached. Mau’s frame of ref­er­ence was French im­pe­ri­al­ism; he could un­der­stand an ex­ploita­tive men­tal­ity but not one that claimed to be al­tru­is­tic. He felt more com­fort­able with the French, whose mis­sion was more trans­par­ent. Since he could not ac­cept that the Amer­i­cans merely wanted to help, he con­cluded that they must be even more de­vi­ous than the French.

Boot rec­og­nizes the im­por­tance of le­git­i­macy (it is one of his 12 lessons) but does not give it due em­pha­sis in an­a­lyz­ing Amer­ica’s re­peated fail­ures. Yet le­git­i­macy, or rather the lack of it, surely ex­plains why Viet­nam, Iraq and Afghanistan did not go as planned. Amer­i­cans thought they were de­fend­ing free­dom, but their ad­ver­saries saw in­stead neo-colo­nial in­ter­lop­ers. Fail­ure arose from this gulf in per­cep­tion.

Pes­simism is, there­fore, per­haps more ap­pro­pri­ate than Boot re­al­izes. He’s a big fan of Pe­traeus, whom he presents as a shin­ing ex­am­ple of how Amer­i­cans can achieve success against the guer­rilla. But there’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween bat­tle­field wins and long-term po­lit­i­cal vic­tory. No coun­terin­sur­gent, no mat­ter how tal­ented, will win if he lacks le­git­i­macy. He must prove to the peo­ple on the ground that his in­ter­ests are valid and his pres­ence ap­pro­pri­ate. Lose that ar­gu­ment, and lose the war.


Sar­gon of Akkad, top left, an em­peror who ruled an­cient Me­sopotamia, was the first of count­less kings who had to bat­tle no­madic guer­ril­las. Robert the Bruce, bot­tom left, later king of Scot­land, used guerilla tac­tics to re­pel English in­vaders at the Bat­tle of Ban­nock­burn in 1314. A Marine, above, in Viet­nam, where U.S. forces fought in­sur­gents who in­fil­trated the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion.

IN­VIS­I­BLE ARMIES An Epic His­tory of Guer­rilla War­fare from An­cient Times to the Present By Max Boot Liveright. 750 pp. $35

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