Today in the class on ‘terrorism and security’, our professor referenced the War of the Flea. I’m becoming increasingly aware that while guerrilla warfare and contemporary terrorism are distinct terms, there’s a lot of overlap between a study of terrorism and a study of guerrilla warfare.

Here’s an opening passage from pages 16-17:

Guerrilla war, the strategy of contradictions, has become the political phenomenon of the 20th Century, the visible wind of revolution, stirring hope and fear on three continents…

Yet little has been learned about it save that, in Mao’s phrase “one spark can start a prairie fire”. The lesson of Cuba led to prompt military intervention in San Domingo: a stitch in time, but would it hold? Guerrilla war was strangled in its infancy and Che Guevara was murdered there; but did he die? Fresh sparks are glowing, and Che dead proves to be more potent than Che alive, a heroic figure giving vitality to unconquerable ideas, raising banners of insurrection even in the western capitals, where his portrait is lifted with the red and the black, behind him marching the cadres of the guerrilla wars to come. Fire-blackened cities showed that the United States itself, heartland of empire, is not immune. Yesterday military aircraft were bombing the slums of Saigon: tomorrow it could be Harlem, Newark, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Watts.

In the world at large guerrilla war is destroying the last vestiges of feudalism and the old colonialism, liberating the masses of the poor from the privileged landowning and mercantile classes, from the oligarchies and the military juntas. Its full vigour now is turned against the new imperialism - the economic, political and military domination of the weak, industrially backward nations by the rich, the powerful, the technologically advanced, the grand alliance of industrial wealth and military might over which the United States of America holds hegemony.

The book later goes into the distinction between the rural guerrilla and the urban terrorist. The urban terrorist may have different tactics to the rural guerrilla, but their strategy remains the same: to wear down the enemy forces slowly while suffering minimal losses and inciting the people to open insurrection.

There’s a great part describing how the Irish Republican Army were unsuccessful in the military campaign and hugely successful in the political one. Taber places great importance on the Tet offensive - a military victory but a propaganda defeat. He comes back to the point again on page 21:

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 with the community, in and for which he fights.

The primary role of the guerrilla is an agitator, someone who rallies the people to revolution. Military victories are just one part of the revolutionary process, they must be accompanied by popular mobilisation.

Lastly, on page 15 he quotes a passage by Theodore Sorenson writing in the New York Times, 4 March 1968:

Our worldwide military primacy cannot permit a victory, and our worldwide political primacy cannot permit a withdrawal. We are unable to transfer our will to the South Vietnamese and unable to break the will of the North Vietnamese. Any serious escalation would risk Chinese or Soviet intervention, and any serious negotiations would risk a communist South Vietnam.

I can see the dilemma faced by the USA in Vietnam can easily be applied to Afghanistan today. Some things haven’t changed.