In a guerrilla war there is no front, there are no grand battles. Instead you have hit and run fighting where cells of guerrilla fighters appear out of nowhere, fight for a short time and then melt away into the country or city among the people, never to be found. A guerrilla army is everywhere and nowhere.
The battle is not for land or position but for the “hearts and minds” of the people. It is about wearing out the patience of your enemy. Mao said it is like small flies constantly biting a giant. They do not kill the giant, but in time they drive him away.
Guerrilla warfare has been used to effect in China, Algeria, Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan and Lebanon and many other places. It has failed in Greece, the Philippines and British Malaya.
Fighting against a guerrilla army is called counter-insurgency.
Guerrilla warfare works well against the army of a foreign power or a hated government. But, since there are no great battles, it takes time and great patience. For the enemy, it makes the war seem endless while it loses more and more men for no apparent gain. That is the trick.
Some guerrilla leaders, like Mao and Ho Chi Minh, use this time to create and train a regular army to deliver the crushing blows to end the war.
Some guerrilla armies use terror as a weapon. But this can backfire if it means losing the favour of the people, as it did in Greece after the Second World War.
How guerrilla warfare works:
When we think of an army, we think of soldiers with guns fighting in battle. But in a regular army only a small part is doing the fighting. Most of the army is not fighting but holding position, moving supplies, making repairs, cooking meals, gathering intelligence and so on. All the things it takes to support the fighting edge.
So if you face an army of 80,000 men, maybe only 10,000 are doing any fighting.
In a guerrilla army the numbers are way different. First, there is no reason to hold position — the war has no front, it is not about gaining or losing ground. Second, most of the support work that goes on behind the scenes is done by the people, by those hearts and minds that you have won. They supply your army. They make it easy for you to move your men and keep the enemy in the dark.
That means a guerrilla army can be much smaller. To fight a regular army of 80,000 men, you need maybe 5000 men at most.
That is why Hezbollah was able to defeat Israel with just a few thousand men while Syria, Egypt and Jordan, with much larger armies, failed. On the other hand, it took Hezbollah not six days but 18 years. Time and patience are everything. Something most democracies do not seem to possess.
- Mao’s Little Red Book – better than his “On Guerrilla Warfare”
- The British fight against the Communist guerrillas of Malaya – a good case study of how a Western power can defeat guerrillas (quite unlike the Americans in Vietnam).
- The war in Lebanon
- banana republic
- The Baghdad Surge – an example of American counter-insurgency