Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990
The relation of ideology to war and conflict was an obsessive theme of the Cold War. The theorists tried to make ideology an operational weapon in the 1950s, through the medium of psychological warfare, and later through counterinsurgency. A 1952 summary of the objective of psychological warfare centered on measures to negate the enemy’s ideology (or doctrine) and to inculcate one’s own:
First, to demoralize the enemy, i.e., to destroy his faith in his own side; second, to exdoctrinate him, if I may coin a wordto eradicate the doctrines in which he has been taught to believe by his own side; and third, if possible to indoctrinate him with positive doctrines which we wish him to possess.1
The ideological dimension of the Cold War was a principal concern of the National Security Council’s Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) under the Truman administration. The PSB, set up in April 1951 to be a “sort of a general staff to plan and supervise the cold war,”2 was responsible for a program of what it called “Doctrinal (Ideological) Warfare.” However, the board’s official definition of ideology demonstrated a characteristically American uncertainty about the very concept:
Ideology: A system of ideas, whether consciously organized or not which explains various aspects of life, justifies the social structure, and provides a ready-made meaning for human existence.
Doctrinal (Ideological) Warfare: A planned attack against the basic hostile system conducted concurrently with a positive advocacy of basic Ideas of our own system.3
The PSN was interested in studying past accomplishments in “doctrinal warfare” and the “methods employed by the Soviets, by the United States, and by other groups,” in order to determine “the most exploitable vulnerabilities” of the enemy ideology, while identifying elements of “American doctrine which can be most effectively exploited” to counter the ‘‘Lenin-Stalin ideology.”4
The problem in 1951, as well as in 1961, was making a coherent package of American “ideology,” as many Americans had never been particularly clear whether the American way was an economic circumstance or a philosophical ideal. As a 1983 Military Review article observed: “If asked what this country is all about, Americans will not answer ‘capitalism’ or express US interests in negative goals such as containment.”5 An example of the casual or simply naive American approach to the force of ideology can be found in point one of Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge’s 1965 “Ten Point Program for Success” in pacification: “Saturate the minds of the people with some socially conscious and attractive ideology, which is susceptible of being carried out. “6 A 1964 “think” piece from the U. S. mission in Vietnam suggests a similar approach; the ideology in question, moreover, was to be formulated as a direct response, a challenge, to that of the enemy: “The first action of a government faced by a developed insurgency should be the establishment of a credo, a declaration of the government’s purpose, which should at least cast doubt on the validity of the insurgents’ announced causes.”7 How one shops for an ideology or how an ideology can be “carried out” defies explanation. Moreover, the Cold War uncertainty on the meaning of ideology (ours) was combined with a simplistic conviction that a “hostile” ideology (theirs) could be destroyed, leveled like a city:
Doctrinal (ideological) warfare. . . exposes the basic vulnerabilities of the hostile system and exploits the beneficial or favorable aspects of one’s own system. . . [T]he practitioner of ideological warfare should attempt to develop au acceptable ideological faith to replace the one he hopes to weaker’ and destroy.8
The French took the concept of ideological, or political, warfare to its logical extreme: For them, revolutionary warfare, being primarily ideological in nature, assumed the characteristics of total war. As General Nemo wrote in 1956: “There is no true war other than religious war.”9 Enemy ideology was a disease or an infestation; the cure was to be provided in reeducation camps, where prisoners were to be “disinfected by being educated clearly and objectively in the French ideology.”10 The importance of an attractive ideology to counter revolutionary warfare was a persistent theme in French writing on guerre révolutionnaire. Roger Trinquier, writing on the use of indigenous cadre, stressed the importance of mixing ideology with material rewards to make such service worth their while. Material self-interest was the prime motivator to be manipulated in organizing guerrilla/counterguerrilla forces from “dynamic individuals who want to . . . get somewhere.”7 But, he notes, counterorganization of the populace is more complex: One must combine the people’s immediate self-interest with ideals. The trick, then, is to identify a palatable ideal, “capable . . . of constituting adequate motivation for the assumption of necessary risks. “12
Why, then, did the French fail to win the minds of the Algerians? Perhaps by their emphasis on short-term material gain, which overestimated the malleability of the target population (as well as the universal appeal of “French ideology”), while underestimating the drive of nationalism and revolutionary spirit. When journalist Joseph Kraft asked Algerian villagers at a meeting, “What made them think they were going to win?” a woman retorted: “We fight for principles. The French fight for the price of tomatoes.”13
A similar advocacy of short-term, specially targeted incentives and tailor-made ideals appears in some of the Department of the Army’s “German Report Series” on German antipartisan methods employed in the Soviet Union. The conclusion of Rear Area Security in Russia (1951) asks: “What then are the methods by which the indigenous population can be won over?” The answer is a counterpropaganda campaign based on a “thorough knowledge of the Bolshevist doctrines and methods.”14 The report advises that any ideological counteroffensive should be above all practical. The study contends that the “full confidence of the population . . . can be created by a sound, straightforward, and factual propaganda prepared and disseminated by individuals who are familiar with the Russian language, the population, and local living conditions.” Tangible, immediate concerns are to be emphasized over lofty, abstract rhetoric. The study stresses that
[e]xtraneous ideas are to be avoided; whatever the people are told must be expressed in their own everyday language, on their own intellectual level, and concerned with their own immediate problems.... The immediate aim must always be in the foreground; no more than a general outline should be given of the long-range goal. 15
The matter of ideology and wars of ideology was also addressed by Paul Linebarger, one of the U. S. Army’s principal wartime theorists of psychological warfare, in his classic 1948 study Psychological Warfare. Linebarger maintained that the clash of ideologies in the past provided “a clue to the future,” as the two world wars reflected “an increasing emphasis on ideology or political faith as driving forces behind warfare rather than the considerations of coldly calculated diplomacy.”16 The result is warfare that is “more serious, and less gentlemanly,” with the loyalty of the soldier going beyond the army to something more abstract: “Warfare thus goes back to the Wars of Faith. “ As a consequence, the analyst must reassess the past experience of religious wars “with a view to establishing those parts of their tested experience” that can be applied today: for example, “How fast can converts be made from the other side? How can heretics [today read: ‘subversive elements’] be uprooted?”
The options in ideological war are reduced to twoconversion or annihilationand two rules of long-range psychological warfare to this end are extrapolated from past experience for modern application. The first, quick and dirty, approach suggests the model of anticommunism subsequently adopted in many counterinsurgency states. The individual infected with the forbidden ideology either converts or dies, freedom of expression is curbed to throttle its proponents and halt the spread of infection. Linebarger even recommends a baptism of sorts that entails a test of potential converts’ “faith”:
A people can be converted from one faith to the other if given the choice between conversion and extermination, stubborn individuals being rooted out. To effect the initial conversion, participation in the public ceremonies and formal language of the new faith must be required. Sustained counterintelligence must remain on the alert against backsliders, but formal acceptance will become genuine acceptance if all public media or expression are denied the vanquished faith. 17
An alternative, when “immediate, wholesale conversion” would require an inordinate use of military power, would be to reward the faithful. Grudging toleration of the “objectionable” faith is contrasted with genuine privileges for the “new, preferred faith.” The conquered people are not forced at gunpoint to change their ways, but “all participation in public life, whether political, cultural or economic, is conditioned on acceptance of the new faith.”18
Linebarger notes that the two approaches to ideological warfare were successfully applied by the Nazis. The root and branch, covert or die, approach was the instrument of the Nazi domination of Poland, the Ukraine, and Byelorussia; the longer-term system of reward and privilege was used in Holland, Belgium, Norway, and elsewhere in the West. 19 The two principles, according to Linebarger, were being applied “by present-day Marxists” and offered foolproof guidance for the West as well. Linebarger advocates the use of psy-war techniquesto mimic communist (and Nazi) tacticsbecause, he asserts, they reflect universal principles. His amoral, technocratic analysis, like that of later Cold War scholars, underrates the potential of the individual to resist even the most skillful and overwhelming campaign of psychological warfare (witness the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe): “If Christians, or democrats, or progressiveswhatever free men may be calledare put in a position of underprivilege and shame for their beliefs, and if the door is left open to voluntary conversion. . . the winning side will sooner or later convert almost everyone who is capable of making trouble. “20
The ideological framework of the Cold War continued to inform the doctrine of the 1960s and later years. The 1962 Army Field Service Regulations: Operations prefaced its chapter on “Unconventional Warfare” by noting, almost apologetically, that the “ideological nature of modern conflict gives an important role for [sic] all forms of war”; and that in the Cold War in particular “the struggle for influence over the minds of men makes unconventional warfare a key element . . . in achieving national objectives.”21
Ideology as counter and commodity in foreign policy was to be a factor in all of the postwar administrations. In the 1960s and again in the 1980s, the use of ideology as a commodity was the lifeblood of foreign policy. Declassified documents on the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion for example, record discussions in which presidential speeches on democracy were proposed as feints to draw attention from the operation or to justify it. At a 17 February 1961 planning meeting, when Secretary of State Dean Rusk expressed concern that there would be a “charge of aggression” leveled at the United States, Kennedy “asked if there was anything he could do to develop a political position to support action, such as a speech on traditional liberalism in the Western Hemisphere.”22 Kennedy also asked his advisers “if there was any way the build up of jets and rockets in Cuba could be linked” to the Bay of Pigs operation foretelling the logic of the missile crisis in the fall of 1962.23 In the 1980s the Reagan administration’s ideological sales pitch was directed largely toward the U.S. public alone. The Grenada intervention, the shelling of Lebanon, the bombing of Libya, the war in El Salvador, and the long-running unconventional war against Nicaragua were sold to this public wrapped in the flag of an ad man’s ideology.
Ideology, as a marketable commodity for political capital, remained a factor in the policy and practice of counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare from Vietnam to Central America and southern Africa. In the arena of conflict of the counterinsurgency states, however, the role of ideology was largely negative in character. Rather than attractive ideology, what was offered was anti- ideology: The carefully nurtured ideology of anticommunism would provide the motor of counterinsurgency and set the terms of foreign policy. This crusading aspect of anticommunism as a factor in international relations and internal affairs has already been discussed.
Ideologyanticommunismplayed a particularly important role in motivating and controlling the diverse military and paramilitary structures of the counterinsurgency states. The Greek army’s organization of civilian paramilitary forces during the Greek Civil War and afterward was notable as an early instance in which the United States supported a system that had political indoctrination in anticommunism as a primary task. Ideology served both to motivate recruits to combat communism through indoctrination (and collaterally, to further polarize the society) and to establish the criteria for screening recruits. In the 1960s, highly politicized paramilitary organizations would be set up in most of the counterinsurgency states receiving U.S. security assistance, from Vietnam to El Salvador.
Among the more bizarre spinoffs of American fascination with communist ideology and methodology were efforts to introduce systems of “political commissars” into U.S.-backed counterinsurgency systems. Efforts centered on using ideology to counter a historical tendency of civilian paramilitary forces toward disaffection. A 1962 article by a U.S. naval officer cited “the Cuban Communist technique in militia formation” as a potential model, with its political dimension seen largely as a means to ensure central control over the population:
The para-military forces . . . must fill the gap in the countryside, in remote villages or mountain settlements, between the conventional military and the people.... It must be carefully screened for enemy agents.... Let us not be shy or reticent in providing a political officer system in such an organization.24
The same author elaborates on the mirror-image approach: “Every personal movement will be rigidly controlled.... [A]ll Iron Curtain countries use this system, developed by long years of internal police practice, and find it most effective. If they can do it, so can we, especially in one place, for one limited period.”25
A practical example of the “political commissar” approach in Vietnam was described in a Military Review article by Monte R. Bullard in 1969, which was anthologized in the Department of the Army’s 1976 handbook on psychological warfare.26 Bullard describes the “political warfare (POLWAR) system” as “an organizational attempt to solve deep-rooted, noncombat military problems involving loyalty and civil-military relations”; its principal objectives, “to create and maintain an allegiance to the Republic of Vietnam or destroy the allegiance to North Vietnam.” He notes the system in Vietnam was set up by Nationalist Chinese advisers, although the original concept did “in fact, come from the Soviet political commissar system.”27
A team of Chinese specialists first gave courses in POLWAR to Vietnamese officers during a 1960 tour in Vietnam, and in 1964, American and Vietnamese officers studied the system in Taiwan. On their recommendation, a South Vietnamese POLWAR program was launched in October 1964 and directed by Chinese advisers in association with the new “POLWAR Division, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.”28 Bullard acknowledges that some Americans were uncomfortable with the “mission of creating and maintaining loyalty of the RVNAF [Republic of (South) Vietnam Armed Forces] to their leaders and nation,” a function that went considerably beyond the conventional field of counterintelligence; however, he stresses the political role as “the most important function of the POLWAR system. It includes placing a POLWAR officer or staff in every military unit, school, training center and other military organization.”29
The South Vietnamese army already had considerable experience with politicization; the POLWAR system was intended to create an institution that would provide the levers for political monitoring and control of the troops without either the advantage of an “attractive” ideology or the disadvantage of a politically partisan military network One of the principal bugbears of the American military in the early years in Vietnam was the interpenetration of the South Vietnamese army command and Diem’s Can Lao partynot through commissars, but through skewed recruitment and appointment policies. A commissar system loyal to an individual ruler, of course, has the potential to both politicize and corrupt a military institution, thus to convert an army into an effective arm of despotism. Vietnam scholar Gabriel Kolko observes:
Nominally personalist in ideology, the Can Lao was a combination of private political machine and mafia, and membership in it was a prerequisite to advancement to higher posts in the government and military.... Can Lao members of the army were at times able to give orders to their nominal superiors.... The Can Lao also served as a secret police, modeled after the system the Japanese used in Vietnam during World War Twowhich Diem had studied in detail.30
The political task of the POLWAR cadre combined counterintelligence with anticommunist indoctrination, civil affairs with psy-war. Although its influence on the course of the war was nominal, its promotion represents a significant benchmark in the evolution of U.S. doctrine and an antecedent to the kind of political indoctrination, vetting, and purging of the armies and paramilitary forces of Central American counterinsurgency states in the 1980s and 1990s. The POLWAR officer was tasked with “providing the troops with a political or ideological direction through motivation and indoctrination programs [anal detecting and neutralizing individuals whose activities are prejudicial to the best interests of the unit,” whilesomewhat incongruouslyraising morale and building esprit. Outside the military, POLWAR was to monitor relations with civilians in operational areas and conduct psy-war activities.31 The POLWAR officers at the unit level were backed by a noncom and “the POLWAR Fighter Organization . . . made up of one soldier from each squad in the unit, and formed into teams, one in each platoon,” through which the loyalty of all personnel was to be monitored for potential subversion or desertion.32
The Vietnam POLWAR system by 1969 was described as “so extensive that, sooner or later, every US advisor will come into contact with at least a part of it.”33 The American advisers’ unease with POLWAR’s ideological indoctrination, monitoring, and control duties was perhaps predictable, since Americans in general are uncomfortable with the very concept of ideology. The disturbingly totalitarian aspects of the POLWAR system bore little relation to the ideal of an “attractive” democratic ideology. But it was entirely in keeping with the counterinsurgency ethos of “anything goes.”
The marriage of the United States’ strategic theory to its reactionary Cold War ideology was matched at the operational level with an inability to recognize insurgency’s political element. The tactical side of counterinsurgency doctrine assigned little importance to the sociopolitical forces driving a people to insurrection. In pursuing a mirror-image response to insurgency, the doctrine largely disregarded insurgency’s ideological basis: The net result was an assortment of military tactics largely divorced from the political context of insurgency, with many of them prohibited by the rules of war.
The doctrine of the 1960s did introduce a politicaland economic dimension into counterinsurgency, but it did not fully acknowledge the ideological dimension and internal dynamics of revolutionary insurgency. And in practice, the purely military tactics of counterinsurgency overshadowed the United States’ myriad programs of economic development and advice on political reform. A 1984 critique of counterinsurgency doctrine by former Kennedy counterinsurgent Charles Maechling, Jr., contrasts the 1960s efforts to develop a broad-spectrum doctrine incorporating military, political, and economic factors with the more facile approach of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Maechling argues that precisely because there was more to revolutionary guerrilla warfare than external intervention, mere counterintervention using “guerrilla” tactics was clearly an inadequate response:
There is no secret about the ingredients of guerrilla warfareat the purely tactical level it so closely resembles its parent, irregular or partisan warfare, that to the uninstructed there seems to be no distinction between them. It is the injection of ideology into guerrilla operations that transforms partisan warfare into revolutionary war.34
American military planners were not unaware that politics added new dimensions to insurgency, however. USMC Brig. Gen. Samuel B. Griffith had, for example, published the first translation of Mao Zedong on guerrilla warfare in the service journals in the 1950s and in book form in 1961. But Mao’s lessons never really stuck.35 A 1962 article in U.S. Navy review was typical of specialist articles warning that guerrilla warfare “was different”:
The most basic characteristic of guerrilla war... is its political nature. It must not be confused with banditry, which is sometimes resembles superficially It is warfare for political objectives, commonly revolutionary objectives. All war, of course, is political effort by means of armed force, but guerrilla war is more intensely political. 36
Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap would have concurred, having observed that “bandit gangs have all the characteristics of a guerrilla army: homogeneity, respect for the leader, velour, knowledge of the ground, and, often, even good understanding of the tactics to be employed.... The only thing missing is support of the people; and, inevitably, these gangs are captured and exterminated by the public force.”37 The same lesson of the political imperative of the self-starter guerrilla would be brought home with the intermittent career of the United States’ Nicaraguan unconventional warfare allies. Without overwhelming American support, the contras threatened to dissipate like the wind (or turn their firepower on the Hondurans); the lack of political cement a coherent political vision beyond “anticommunism” and “prodemocracy made the force little more than a party of banditsor mercenaries. The threat in the spring of 1988 that, without American support, the contra chiefs would withdraw from the war was accepted philosophically by contra troops. There was, after all. little to the war for many beyond U.S. rhetoric and U.S. dollars. A contra fighter was quoted in 1988 as saying that “without leaders, we’re just bands of raiders.... Leaders arc what makes us an army. We have to follow their orders.”38
The United States’ emerging doctrine of counterinsurgency placed guerrilla warfare in the context of a global conflict, and assessed its nature and its strengths essentially on the basis of its tactical options and capabilities rather than substance. Mirror-image counterinsurgency warfare mimicked a model of guerrilla organization and tactics based largely on the United States’ own experience in organizing guerrillas. The theorists of American unconventional warfare were either oblivious to, or disdainful of, both the revolutionary insurgent’s popular support and his political will, as well as the need for clear objectives in any insurgency. The American guerrillas were simply conventional military forces no longer bound by conventional rules: like the commandos, skirmishers, and scouts that armies have fielded for centuries to perform tasks on the margins of military propriety.
The political dimension of insurgency could only be parodied by counterinsurgents; in fact, a basic premise of doctrine is that the ideology of insurgency is, at its core, a fraud perpetrated upon a malleable people. Counterinsurgency doctrine makes no allowance for “people’s” war, for the authentic levee en masse. For the American counterinsurgent there are ideological strictures that preclude U.S. involvement in such wars: Unlike the European colonial forces who unashamedly waged campaigns of conquest and subjugation, the doctrine requires the counterinsurgency to be waged in the name of freedom and even self-determination. The counterinsurgent is usually in a “host” country at the “invitation” of some national of that country, for the ostensible welfare of that country.
In conventional warfare, political authorities, military leaders, and a people can be identified as elements of military belligerency. The assessment of the opposing military forces, their moral and material strength, draws heavily on each of the factors. In counterinsurgency, the political and military leadership cannot always be distinguished, and misanalysis may be a consequence of ideological biases. Insofar as the war is defined as a small theater of the larger war with the Soviets (setting aside for the moment the Chinese), the “sovereign” government and the “military leader” are nowhere to be found except in Moscow. And while the counterinsurgency theorists do not write off the role of “the people” in insurgency, the people are reduced to puppets manipulated by outsiders. As such they arc also presumed to be susceptible to manipulation by the counterinsurgent through the psychological warfare techniques of propaganda and indoctrination, through incentive programs, and through fear.
The waging of war, then, is aimed not only at forcing the submission of the people (understood as useful idiots), but at influencing their foreign masters. In the best-known case, the Vietnam conflict, the massive bombings aimed at obliging the North Vietnamese to “call off” the insurgent war in the South may have even dominated the strategy of MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) if only in the cold arithmetic of ordnance employed. The nature of the conflict was misread in several ways, not least of which was the identification of an all powerful “sovereign” of the insurgency, whether the North Vietnamese politburo or the Kremlin. The recent debate in American military journals over whether the United States failed in Vietnam because it overemphasized the counterinsurgency war (failing to resolutely take the war to the “sovereign” in the North) or vice versa (failing to put its heart into the war against the guerrilla infrastructure in the hamlets) misses the point. Counterinsurgency doctrine assumes that insurgency is foreign-sponsored and can be stopped when that sponsorship is suspended (the Nicaraguan contas’ fragility in this respect is a case in point). The doctrine also, of course, prescribes an intensive war against the insurgents proper, to annihilate them. But unlike the efforts to influence the extraterritorial “sovereign,” to convince and compel the sponsor to call off the war, there is no negotiation with the insurgent proper. It is as if they were not parties to the conflict but only puppets.
The essential difference that distinguishes revolutionary insurgency from the simple tactics of guerrilla warfare has been recognized by some of the theoreticians of the U. S. security establishment. J. K. Zawodny warns that U. S. planners were unduly optimistic about the exportation of unconventional warfare.” He stresses that the strength of the phenomenon lay not in the range ol its tactical options but its historical circumstances, and, more importantly, in its utility for the masses: Unconventional warfare was used not by elite technicians of violence, but by ordinary people with extraordinary motivation. Zawodny explains:
The outstanding feature of unconventional warfare is that it is carried out by people of all ayes and backgrounds and of both sexes. It is a “People’s Warfare. A warfare of masses who have lost patience, it is an unremitingly violent way of saying to the enemy by all possible means, “We hate you; we are everywhere; we will destroy you!” Unconventional warfare is the effective weapon of the weaker adversary.39
Unconventional warfare doctrine attempted to provide a recipe for ready-made “people’s war” for export.
The distinction between the “unconventional” operations of special units of regular armies and the unique characteristics of “people’s war,” however, has been a feature of classical military theory since the nineteenth century. The French theoretician Jean Frederic Auguste Le Mière de Covey observed the combined moral and material factors of the unconventional warfare of his time. Le Mière was the author of an 1823 study of partisan warfare, based on the Spanish guerrilla resistance to Napoleon’s armies, and his own experience as a lieutenant in the young French Republic’s quelling of the rebellion that broke out in the Vendee in 1793. Le Mière differed from his fellow officers in viewing the tactics of the Vendee as “essentially novel”not “primitive and atavistic” and urged their careful study (much as did Clausewitz), noting that “traditional military doctrine was of little use in combating the partisans. Who were the leaders of the Spanish guerrillas, who defeated the brave French generals in Spain? A miller, a doctor, a shepherd and curate and some deserters.”40“
Le Mière further pointed out the extraordinary circumstances that drove civilians to fierce resistance and “put great, perhaps decisive, emphasis on psychological factors” in this kind of warfare:
That a guerrilla had to be courageous went without sayingonce he was attacked he could not look back. Above all, guerilla warfare faut un peu de fanatisme [requires a little fanaticism], for this was a war of extermination; the enemy armies would use reprisals and treat the partisans as mere brigands. Though the author very much regretted thisfor guerres d’opinion (ideological wars) had terrible consequenceshe accepted this change in the character of war as an unalterable historical fact.41
The critical role of psychologicalor moralfactors in war has been recognized by other theorists of revolution and counterrevolution alike. In Karl von Clausewitz’s “Classifications of the Art of War,” war is broken down essentially into combats, and combat in turn to “a trial of moral and physical forces through the medium of the latter.” In his treatise On War, Clausewitz stresses the weight of moral strength: “Psychological forces exert a decisive influence on the elements involved in war”42
Clausewitz also looked carefully at the psychological factors in what was then termed “people’s war.” In “The People in Arms,” he writes: “In civilized parts of Europe, war by means of popular uprisings is a phenomenon of the nineteenth century. It has its advocates and its opponents. The latter object on political grounds, considering it as a means of revolution....”43 Clausewitz warns that partisan war and “the people’s war” (which he points out are not quite the same) were innovations in war that could be ignored by the strategists of Europe only at their peril. People’s warfare was to the Napoleonic wars what the “wars of liberation” were to the Cold War; Napoleon was seen to have harnessed the whirlwind of “people’s war.” Clausewitz’s brief chapter examines the phenomenon of popular insurrection as a force to be channeled for the purposes of national defense. His insights into the very stuff of popular insurrection, which he found to be a new force in his age, remains of value to the study of revolutionwhich is arguably a kind of national defenseand to the military doctrines developed for its execution and for its defeat.
Clausewitz’s writing on “people’s war” drew on contemporary experience of “the people in arms”: the French Revolution’s proclamation of the leveé en masse (involving “mobilization of the whole population against the enemy and the counter-revolution”); the counterrevolt of the French Vendée; the Russian and Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies; and “the experiences of an officer who fought against the victor until 1815.”44 But he acknowledged that the very newness of the concept permitted “less an objective analysis than a groping for truth”45 Although Clausewitz’s analysis of “people’s war” anticipated or even informed the writings of Lenin and Map,46 his intent was not to encourage revolution but to acknowledge it and to find use for its forms and energies. As he explained in his introduction to the theme, “it can be argued that the resources expended in an insurrection might be put to better use in other kinds of warfare.”47 His system of analysis remains valid, however, for examination of later theories of guerillaand counterguerillawarfare. Michael Howard, another Clausewitz scholar (and with Peter Paret, translator of On War), makes the point “that guerilla, or kleinkrieg, or guerr des postes, originally meant simply the small-unit actions fought by outposts and patrols in the course of regular warfare, and did not necessarily have anything to do with ‘People’s War’ at all.”48 The point, of course, is well taken, and it has direct bearing on current military conceptions of guerrilla tactics as models for mirror-image counterguerrilla operations. In Clausewitz’s world, a primary characteristic of guerrilla warfare was the limited size of its operational forces. In his own lectures on guerrilla warfare (kleiner Krieg or petite guerre, “little war”) at the Berlin War Academy (1810-1811) he defined it as follows: “By little war we understand the employment of small units in the field; actions involving 20, 50, 100, or 300 or 400 men belong to the little war, unless they form part of a larger action.”49
Clausewitz himself vividly distinguishes between the traditional deployment of irregulars in combatthe skirmishers and scouts, who used such tactics as outriders of conventional forcesand a people in arms. They are similar, but the popular irregulars have strengths the trained and disciplined soldier can only caricature. In cutting roads or blocking narrow passes, writes Clausewitz, “the means available to outposts or military raiding parties and those of an insurgent peasantry have about as much in common as the movements of an automaton have with those of a man.”50 In confronting a superior force, “peasants in arms will not let themselves be swept along like a platoon of soldiers . . . [who] will cling together like a herd of cattle and generally follow their noses.” Rather, they “will scatter and vanish in all directions, without requiring a special plan.” Their will-o’-the-wisp nature makes conventional forces vulnerable to ambush. Even in an area considered secured, “a band of peasants that was long since driven off by the head of the column may at any moment reappear at its tail.”51‘ In recounting the Spanish uprising in the Peninsular War (1808-1813), Clausewitz describes the “people in arms”independent of a regular armyas a force in and of itself: “In Spain, [where] the war is primarily waged by the people, it will be understood that we are dealing not simply with an intensification of popular support but with a genuine new source of power.”52
The guerrilla concept in Clausewitz’s “people’s war” is further described as an almost natural force: It can perhaps be channeled, but it cannot be made out of its time. It can be encouraged in its course, but it cannot be mobilized like a conventional brigade or battalion with money and gunpowder brigade or battalion with money and gunpowder alone.53 Clausewitz likens guerrilla uprisings to the phenomena of precipitation and fire:
Its effect is like that of the process of evaporation; it depends on how much surface is exposed. The greater the surface and the area of contact between it and the enemy forces, the thinner the latter have to be spread, the greater the effect of a general uprising. Like smoldering embers, it consumes the basic foundations of the enemy forces.... A state of tension will develop while the two elements interact. This tension will either gradually relax If the insurgency is suppressed in some places and slowly burns itself out in others, or else it will build up to a crisis: a general conflagration closes in on the enemy, driving him out of the country before he is faced with total destruction.54
Although Clausewitz approaches popular warfare as it applies to the defense of a nation against a foreign invader, the terms “insurgent,” “insurgency,” and “insurrection” are used freely. His metaphors of storm and conflagration for popular uprisings imply their unpredictabihty: While they may benefit the prince and the statein the particular circumstances of foreign interventionthey may just as easily bring them down. Although Clausewitz rules out discussion of the social implications of a “people’s war,” he treats the phenomena as a consequence of social disintegration (which is itself the fruit of war)”an outgrowth of the way in which the conventional barriers have been swept away in our life-time by the elemental violence of war . . . a broadening and intensification of the fermentation process known as war.”55
In Clausewitz’s time, as in our own, popular risings did not necessarily mean an effective force of people in arms: Farm tools were as patently inadequate then as now in confronting firearms. Who or what then, armed the people, if not the state itself, or the regular army, or elements thereof? The revolutionary interludes of 1789 and 1848 notwithstanding, it was in the twentieth century that the motors of nationalism and socialism (not necessarily in that order) brought forms of popular organization through which the people, in a sense, could arm themselves. There was certainly more than a shadow of doubt among Clausewitz’s contemporaries over the wisdom of seeking to channel people’s war,” a concern that uncontrollable forces would be released. To critics who warned that a people in arms was “a means of revolution a state of legalized anarchy” that can spin out of control, Clausewitz responds: “The . . . objection does not concern us at all: here we consider a general insurrection as simply another means of war. “ Clausewitz was aware that whether a popular uprising was spontaneous or required coaxing, the people in arms were a potent and volatile force.56
Raymond Aron suggests Clausewitz’s brief treatment of “people’s war deserves more attention precisely because it is so consistent with most twentieth-century revolutionary writing, both in substance and imageryparticularly that of Mao Zedong.57 Mao recognized, as did Clausewitz, that even when acting in concert with, or subordinate to, conventional armies, the forces of a “people’s war,” guerrillas or partisans, would add a new dimension of passion, political will, and imagination to the basic tactics of warfare. Clausewitz’s imagery of the “people’s war” as an unquenchable fire was also used by a near contemporary, French Baron Lacuéein 1831, the first year of France’s forty-year campaign to subdue Algeria. Lacuéein foresaw a colonial people’s war as the inevitable fruit of empire:
As long as you keep Algiers, you will be constantly at war with Africa; sometimes this war will seem to end; but these people will not hate you any the less, it will be a half-extinguished fire that will smoulder under the ash and which, at the first opportunity, will burst into a vast conflagration.58
Counterinsurgency doctrine’s essential premise, which assumes revolutionaries are foreign proxies, neatly equated the insurgent forces to a foreign force of occupation. The assumption served a twofold function. First, it provided a justification for unconventional and exceptional offensive measures against insurgents and their sympathizersas the counterinsurgent armies were engaged in a last-ditch resistance movement against a force of occupation, when anything goesand collaborators got short shrift. Second, it provided, ironically, a rationale for calling in military help from outside; so when U. S. troops went in, they did so to fight the “aggressor.” American advisersor what in Vietnam effectively became a kind of occupation forcewere nominally deployed to oust a foreign presence. The moral basis notwithstanding, there is a real qualitative distinction between grass-roots, home-based guerrillas and foreign or foreign-backed forces acting like an army of occupation.
Counterinsurgents generally justify their roles as that of the defenders of the nation and the society, defenders of principles and territory, or indeed conservators of the patrimony of the nation. But just what is being defended? Who is on the defensive and who on the offensive? In a grass-roots revolutionary situation, who is defending the people and the territory from whom, for whom and for what? At what point do the army and police and the foreign forces brought in by a government perform the offensive role of an army of occupation, and the insurgents play the classic role of partisan resistance movements? Classical military theory’s analysis of the defensive and offensive aspects of war helps to illustrate some of the strategic virtues of grass-roots insurgency and the misanalysis inherent in the United States’ ideology-bound doctrine.
Clausewitz’s dialectical pair “defense and attack” are key concepts in that in the words of Raymond Aron they “substitute for the apparent symmetry of fighters each wishing to overthrow the other a dissymmetry that is political (one wishes to alter the status quo) and military (one takes the initiative in invading the other’s territory).”59“ A factor in strategic planning then was the relative advantage of the force resisting change over the initiator of change. Insurgent- counterinsurgent warfare however tends to confuse the attack/defense distinction. Rather than it being the insurgent’s role to invade the territory of the counterinsurgent in a way comparable to conventional international warfare the resurgent obliges the counterinsurgent to take the offensive in what is nominally his own territory. The insurgent on the other hand holds the initiative of attack and the advantages of defense. Rooted in a particular people and territory the insurgent has the special moral advantage in both attack and defense of the defender of the status quo of hearth and home.
Insurgency can also be distinguished from other forms of warfare through the attack/defense equation (in a manner bearing on the United States’ paramilitary assault on Nicaragua). In a 1962 paper on unconventional warfare J. K. Zawodny distinguishes insurgent warfare from its strictly offensive governmental imitation in which “one government promotes the overthrow of a foreign government or a change of its political elite”: “[T]he recent invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs is an example.’’60 Partisan or insurgent conventional warfare is at once defensive and offensive:
It is defensive when a frustrated political group structures itself into a disciplined organization to apply violence against the government of its own nation or when a people fight the occupational forces of an invading army. This classification does not preclude both types from being (and they usually are) strategically and tactically offensive.61
The political motor of revolution further converts the (insurgent) attackers of the political status quo into the defenders of a visionary idealized homeland: The objective of the insurgent is to defend the vision by making it a reality; the insurgent defends the patrimony of a tangible present and a credible future. The insurgent retains the tactical arid moral advantages of the defender of a territory and a people’s physical and spiritual existence. It also holds the initiative to attack military economic or other pillars of a status quo, which ill effect are superimposed on the country but in the ideal revolutionary situations are without the moral allegiance of the majority. The coffee barons and dependent armed forces of El Salvador might illustrate such a status quo.
The “status quo” advantage too has often fallen to insurgents as defenders of traditional values and forms. Governments representing political economic, and military powerbut inimical or oblivious to the country’s traditions and normsmay be superimposed upon this far more pervasive status quo, with which an insurgency may be identified. In a lecture to civilian advisers en route to Vietnam in 1966 Indochina scholar Bernard Fall contrasted the Ngo Dinh Diem government’s rupture of the fabric of Vietnamese society at the local level with the strategy of the National Liberation Front.62 Fall observed that semiautonomous local government in Vietnam dated from the fifteenth century and recalled the saying that “the power of the emperor stops at the bamboo hedge of the village.” When the system was abolished on 20June 1956 by Ngo Dinh Diem it was “the single greatest stupidity committed in Vietnam in 500 years.... Even the French colonels were smart enough not to tamper with local government.” The “Viet Cong “ then served as defenders of tradition. Fall observed:
The incredible part is that the VC does have village elections. They take over a village; they have an election and elect a hamlet chief. Who is the hamlet chief! The old hamlet chief! And whom did the VC assassinate in ‘57 ‘5X and ‘59? The government-appointed hamlet chiefs. It was great stuff! The Vietnamese loved it! They got rid of the appointees whom they didn’t likethe northern refugees the northern Catholics. They wanted local boys.
Fall also illustrates the sometimes illusory nature of the “status quo “ observing that for many Vietnamese the local administration of the NLF (or “VC”) represented stability and reliability but the government a threat of uncertain change:
One of the things about the Vietnamese situation is that we have never really appealed to what we like to call the higher feelings of anybody. We sort of say, ‘stay with us George you will get the big pigs and you will act the better crops you will get the bag of fertilizer every year.” What do you think the other side is selling? The other side says, “Remember how little your taxes were before the war started, before American imperialists came in with their troops and napalmed everything? Remember how little taxes you paid? Stick it out with us. It’s going to be tough but after the Americans leave, comes the revolution and you go back to eating cake.!” You see the trouble with them is that they are now selling nine or ten years of past performance. Whereas, we have got to sell ourselves on promises alone.63
Counterinsurgent reaction may further disrupt the nominal status quo through conventional means wholly contradictory to its stated ends: A disaffected, or suspected populace may be relocated into camps or “protected” villages to achieve a military objective, but the strategic goals are thereby lost beyond recovery. The relocatedwho may have been driven to armed insurrection precisely because of their attachment to the land and the landscapecan with difficulty be made either to accept their status as refugees or to blame their fate on the insurgents, who may number themselves among them. But their situation, in any event, will undoubtedly disrupt the traditional economic activity on which the status quo may depend.
In the long run, the ostensible defender of the status quo may play the greater role in its destruction, for example, through acts of genocide or bombing a country “into the stone age” (or turning it into “a howling wilderness,” as General Jacob Smith pledged in 1901 in the Philippinesin order to resist a change in the status quo.64 Less drastic responses to revolutionary insurgency, however, also may occasion enormous disruption to a traditional social and political fabric on a scale disproportionate to the disruption intended by the insurgents themselves. The incarceration of much of the Algerian Muslim population in concentration camps and the regimentation of the rest through administrative systems to tightly monitor and control the population permitted the French Army to claim military victory over the Algerian nationalist movement, but the old regime would never be the same independence was inevitable. Similarly, the extermination of a large fraction of Guatemala’s Indian peasantry and the confinement of many of the survivors behind the wire of army-administered “villages” perhaps irreversibIy altered the semifeudal relationship between the peasantry and the coffee planters of the Guatemalan highlandsthough to what result remains to be seen.
As a tactical imperative, the dissymmetry of insurgent guerrilla forces and a government’s conventional forcesparticularly when foreign assistance comes into playfurther influences the peculiar pattern of insurgent attack that characterizes both the classic “small war” and the evolving “people’s war.” Raymond Aron observes the affinity of Clausewitz and Mao, both concerned with “people’s war” of a kind, in their theses of “the intrinsically greater strength of the defensive.”65 Aron observes that Mao was the first theorist to take up Clausewitz’s ideas on both the arming of the people and the combination of defensive strategy and offensive tactics, to “create a progressive reversal of the relation of forces up to the annihilation of the enemy by a defender who passes over to attack.” Aron considers the concept with respect to both internal war and international conflictand perhaps, by extension, third-party (foreign) intervention in a civil war:
Mao Tse-tung grasped all the Clausewitzean themes, including the annihilation of the enemy as the goal of defence: a logical interpretation of the prolonged conflict, at the end of which one side or other in a civil war must seize power. Transposed to the rivalry between nuclear states, this same interpretation would lead to a fight to the death.... At this point, the other interpretation returns: it is enough for defence to succeed in destroying, not the armed forces of the enemy, but his intention of destroying.66
The offensive/defensive dichotomy may acquire particular significance in revolutionary war precisely because, as a war analyst described Vietnam, it is a “war without fronts.”67 As such, the identity, location, and even the identified objectives of the attacker and the defender, unlike conventional international warfare, may become blurred or interchangeable. In September 1978, ten months before the defeat of Nicaragua’s Somoza government, the major towns that had gone over to insurgents, Estelí, Leon, and Chinandega among them, suffered devastating bombing and rocket attacks by government forces; their defense was undertaken by the insurgent forces. The destruction wrought by government forces, and the terrible slaughter of suspected insurgent sympathizers that followed, gave the Somoza regime a string of tactical victories, but precluded any chance for “peace” with the aggrieved population. The regime’s assault also irreversibly converted the insurgent from attacker to defender, and thus made the defeat of the defender-turned-attacker inevitable.
In the conceptual sphere, as an insurgency persists, it becomes increasingly muddled as to who is the attacker, who the defender. On the grand scale, the insurgency remains on the attack against an entrenched government. But simultaneously the insurgent obliges the government to counterattack on the insurgent’s own terms; the insurgent has all the classic advantages of the defense, while at the same time enjoying the attacker’s privilege of electing the time and circumstances of action. The popular insurgent, then, although the underdog, may hold an edge both by retaining the initiative of attack and by virtue of a kind of defense that can be mimicked, but not reproduced, by a counterinsurgent state.
The defensive aspect of a revolutionary insurgency differs from the conventional formula for war with respect to its relation to space, to the people, and, indeed, even to tactical operations. In the larger view, the insurgency may have a presence throughout enemy-held territory unlike the conventional scheme of fortified garrisons and strong points the aim of the insurgent is, indeed, to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Perhaps more significantly, the successful insurgent not only moves among, but is rooted in, and belongs to, the same population in which the enemy moves and from which it conscripts its counterinsurgent forces. The classic oppositions of wartwo respective political readerships, military organizations, and populationsin revolutionary insurgency draw upon the same people. A doctrine of counterinsurgency based on mimicry of tactics and a skewed conception of insurgent organization was no answer to an authentic “people’s war.”
Clausewitz’s discussion of the means of defense, although in the context of international conflict, is also relevant to insurgencies with the characteristics of a “people’s war.” The means of defense are found to have a natural superiority over those of attack (notwithstanding “the absolute strength and quality of the forces”), and they include the advantage of terrain and the theater of operations, as well as the support of the populace and the harnessing of moral forces. Clausewitz observed: “[T]he collective influence of the country’s inhabitants is far from negligible, even when we are not dealing with popular insurrection”;68 popular collaboration with the revolutionary movement and noncooperation with the adversary plays a critical role:
Nothing, major or minor, is done for the enemy save under force majeure which the troops must apply at the expense of their own strength and exertions. The defender can get all he wants. It may not be freely given.... But voluntary collaboration born of genuine attachment is. . . always of great value.69
Similarly, the matter of information becomes a crucial factor, as “the defender’s close relations with the population give him a general superiority. “ However small the unit, “all have to turn to the local inhabitants for news of friend or foe.”70
The picture could apply equally to the territories of Europe occupied by foreign armies in Clausewitz’s day, or to the behavior and mood of the ruraland much of the urbanpopulation in counterinsurgency states from El Salvador and Guatemala to Vietnam. With their positive efforts for change, anticolonial or revolutionary movements combine both defense against, and resistance to, an occupying power or a repressive government. The degree to which the populations of counterinsurgency states must be coerced to work on government projects, provide food, shelter, or information to government troops, vote in packaged elections, or fight as conscript soldiers provides a measure of the resistance, and so of the defensive and domestic nature of the conflict. Similarly, the pattern of offensive action by insurgents, like that of the homegrown partisans of conventional warfare, is to pursue victory through tactics of resistance. If the insurgency is broad-based and ubiquitous enough to wage an essentially defensive war of calculated attacks from its home ground, it may prove effective not only in waging a war of attrition but in achieving periodic military successes and eventual victory.
Beyond an interpenetration of the insurgency and the people, the ideal insurgency takes on some of the characteristics of total war, where the insurgent is indistinguishable and interchangeable with the mass of the population; where, as the counterinsurgents acknowledge in the indiscriminate nature of their campaigns of extermination, the people are all insurgents, contributing in one way or another to the downfall of their adversary.
In a revolutionary insurgency, where the insurgents are of and among the people, the counterinsurgent’s attempts to isolate the insurgents from “the people” must almost inevitably take on the same characteristics as the tactics of an occupation force in conventional warfare. Alternatively, as shown by the British in Malaya and the French in Algeria, occupation takes the form of proven colonial methods of subjugation, concentration, and regimentation of the target population. The insurgency, in turn, assumes some of the characteristics of a partisan resistance force confronting an armed invader. But in a revolutionary war, both contenders must raise their armies from the same people; the counterinsurgent, unlike the invader, cannot draw indefinitely on a people distant from the conflict; at best, the counterinsurgent can draw on the resources of another people, another army. But then the analogy of the invader and the resistance movement becomes even more apt, and the insurgency becomes more a classic “people’s war,” a struggle not for abstractions or duty but for survival.
The idea of insurgencyand counterinsurgencyas real war or total war faded from the forefront of U. S. military doctrine after 1975. Counterinsurgency, as a distinct military discipline, was placed on a back burner, relegated to the armed forces’ special warfare elite, which had fallen distinctly out of favor. Five years after the fall of Saigon, however, a revival of the idea of special warfare and of the special warfare establishment began to eventually take off during the first term of Ronald Reagan. The new buzzword was “low-intensity conflict,” which subsumes counterinsurgency and the whole range of special warfare. The theorists of low-intensity conflict revived the idea that the United States could “make” a revolution, a “guerrilla” movement to overthrow an undesirable regime in mimicry of the Cold War adversary. The idea of insurgency and counterinsurgency as total war in microcosm, as low-intensity total war, became a part of the U.S. military’s rationale for a newly aggressive doctrine of intervention around the world.