Military history

Chapter 14

Guerrilla Warfare

The power of Armies is a visible thing,

Formal and circumscribed in time and space;

But who the limits of that power shall trace

Which a brave People into light can bring

Or hide, at will,—for freedom combating

By just revenge inflamed? No foot may chase,

No eye can follow, to a fatal place

That power, that spirit, whether on the wing

Like the strong wind, or sleeping like the wind

Within its awful caves

—William Wordsworth, 1811

If nuclear weapons pulled military strategy away from conventional warfare in one direction, guerrilla warfare moved it in another. With nuclear weapons the issue was about threatening society with extreme force. Guerrilla warfare was about the response of an enraged society to illegitimate military force. Although it later acquired an association with radical political movements, its basic attraction was as a method that could help weaker sides survive. Although as a form of warfare it was not at all new, and had recently been adopted in the American War of Independence, guerrilla warfare gained its name from the tactics of ambush and harassment used during the “little war” fought by Spaniards against French occupation forces at the start of the nineteenth century. Wordsworth’s poem refers to this campaign.

Guerrilla warfare was therefore defensive, fought on home territory with the advantages of popular support and local knowledge. It was geared to a strategy of exhaustion, gaining time in the hope that the enemy would tire or that something else would turn up. Such warfare was unlikely to be successful on its own. Irregular forces worked most effectively when providing a distraction to an enemy also facing regular forces in a more conventional campaign. Napoleon suffered in Spain because he also faced the British army. Similarly, Russian peasants made life additionally miserable for French forces in 1812. Clausewitz, who experienced the French occupation of Prussia and was in a position to observe the Spanish insurrection and the French debacle in Russia, made guerrilla warfare the subject of his early lectures and writing. In On War, it was considered a form of defense. By the 1820s, when Clausewitz wrote most of On War, it had become an uncommon strategy. Popular energies appeared to have been played out and conservative states were in command.

Guerrilla warfare could cause an occupying force trouble, but it was the “last and desperate resort” of an otherwise defeated people. A general uprising against an occupier would need to be “nebulous and elusive,” because as soon as it became concrete it could be crushed. Though a strategically defensive concept, the tactics of guerrilla warfare had to be offensive, aiming to catch the enemy unawares. Guerrilla warfare would most likely be effective when conducted from rough and inaccessible terrain in a country’s interior. Clausewitz did not see irregular militias as being of much value in the absence of regular forces.1 Jomini had a similar response. He understood the challenges militias could pose for occupying forces, and how difficult they might make wars of expansion if popular opinion could readily be excited, but he recoiled from the prospect. Wars in which entire peoples had become animated by religious, national, or ideological differences he considered deplorable, “organized assassination,” arousing “violent passions that make them spiteful, cruel, and terrible.” He acknowledged that his “prejudices were with the good old times when the French and English guards courteously invited each other to fire first” rather than the “frightful epoch when priests, women, and children throughout Spain plotted the murder of isolated soldiers.”2

During the 1830s, the possibility that guerrilla warfare might serve an insurrection was raised by Mazzini’s failed Young Italy campaign, with the red-shirted Giuseppe Garibaldi emerging as a gifted guerrilla commander. Despite this example, the main models for revolutionary violence remained a sudden uprising of the masses that would catch authorities by surprise. The idea that they might be worn down gradually in a prolonged campaign did not catch on. Frederick Engels, in an article drafted for Karl Marx, saw the emergence of the guerrillas in Spain as a reflection of the failure of the Spanish army. Engels presented them as more of a mob than an army, motivated by “hatred, revenge, and love of plunder.”3 He tended to think in terms of conventional military formations, even when contemplating revolution, and assumed that after a revolution a socialist republic would need a proper army for its defense. The presumption that a revolution would need a disciplined fighting force of class-conscious proletarians continued to influence socialist thinking, so that guerrilla warfare was seen as the domain of anarchists and criminals, of drunken riffraff indulging their violent tendencies. Though somewhat sympathetic to this view in Russia, Lenin refused to dismiss guerrilla warfare entirely. But he believed it could only be a subordinate form of struggle, not the main method, and would benefit from proper party discipline to keep it under control. Once the mass movement had reached a certain stage of development, guerrilla warfare was not out of the question during the “fairly large intervals” that would occur between the “big engagements” in the revolutionary civil war.4

When, after the 1917 uprising, the Bolsheviks found themselves caught up in a civil war, military commissar Leon Trotsky also saw guerrilla warfare as a useful but subordinate form of fighting. It was demanding, so it required proper organization and direction and must be free from amateurish and adventurist influences. It could not “overthrow” an enemy but could cause difficulties. Whereas the stronger force would seek annihilation of the enemy using large-scale, centrally directed mass armies, the weaker force—Trotsky argued—might seek to disorganize the stronger using light, mobile units operating independently of one another. This followed Delbruck’s distinction between annihilation and exhaustion. Trotsky was clearly in favor of annihilation. “The Soviet power has been all the time, and is still, the stronger side.” Its task was to crush the enemy “so as to free its hands for socialist construction.” It was the enemy, therefore, that was attempting guerrilla warfare. This reflected the shift, for the proletariat was now the ruling class and the tsarists were the rebels. Trotsky denied that his strategy was too ponderous and positional, and lacked mobility.5 The Red Army had begun with “volunteers, rebels, primitive, inexperienced guerrillas” and turned them into “proper, trained, disciplined regiments and divisions.” Nonetheless, as the civil war became more challenging, Trotsky sought to form mobile guerrilla detachments, supplements to “the weighty masses of the Red Army,” that would cause problems for the enemy on its rear.6 Guerrilla warfare was therefore viewed, even by radicals, as a lesser strategy, a defensive expedient but not a source of victory.

Lawrence of Arabia

The expansion of the European empires during the nineteenth century prompted regular uprisings and rebellions, which put their own demands on regular forces. The British army put these tasks under the heading of imperial policing. The classic discussion was C. E. Calwell’s Small Wars, published in 1896, which observed that as a general rule, “the quelling of the rebellion in distant colonies means protracted, thankless, invertebrate war.”7 It was Thomas Edward Lawrence, an archaeologist who made his name during the Great War seeking to foment an Arab rebellion against Ottoman rule, who did the most to develop principles about how guerrilla warfare should be fought rather than how it could be contained. Lawrence had not only a startling story to tell but also impressive literary gifts. His vivid metaphors and aphorisms help explain his influence. His memoir of the campaign, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, remains a classic. His basic philosophy of guerrilla warfare, with a brief history of the revolt, was first published in October 1920.8 After the war, he struggled with the myth he had helped to create about himself, as well as with the failure of the Allied government to honor the promises of independence Lawrence had made to the Arabs.

The campaign against the Turks had begun in 1916 with operations against the long railroad between Medina and Damascus, a key supply line. The regular loss of trains frustrated the Turks, for whom fully protecting the railroad appeared impossible against the Arab enemy, Eventually, this turned into a full-scale Arab revolt—a major distraction for the Turks. Lawrence described a moment early in 1917. He had been wrestling with the limitations of irregular forces. They could not do what armed forces were supposed to do: “seek for the enemy’s army, his centre of power, and destroy it in battle.” Moreover, they would not effectively attack a position nor could they defend one, as he had recently discovered. He concluded that their advantage lay in “depth, not in face” and that the threat of attack could be used to get the Turks stuck in defensive positions.

Lawrence then became ill and contemplated the future of his campaign while he recovered. He was “tolerably read” in military theory and impressed by Clausewitz. Yet he was repelled by the idea of an “absolute war” that was concerned solely with the destruction of enemy forces in “the one process battle.” It felt like buying victory in blood and he did not think the Arabs would want to do that. They were fighting for their freedom (“a pleasure only to be tasted by a man alive”). While armies were like plants, “immobile as a whole, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head,” the Arab irregulars were more “a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like gas.” The Turks would lack enough men to cope with the “ill will of the Arab people,” especially as they were likely to treat the rebellion in absolute terms. They would not realize “to make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” Attacking the Turks’ supply lines would keep them short of materiel. Instead of a war of contact there was the possibility here of a war of detachment. This would involve becoming known to the enemy only when there was an opportunity to attack and avoiding being put on the defensive by “perfect” intelligence. There was a psychological aspect to this. Lawrence spoke, in the commonplace of the time, of the “crowd” and the need to adjust the “spirit to the point where it becomes fit to exploit in action, the prearrangement of a changing opinion to a certain end.” The Arabs not only had to order their own men’s minds but also those of the enemy (“as far as we could reach them”) and of supporting and hostile nations, as well as the “neutrals looking on.”

To this end Lawrence developed a small, highly mobile, and well- equipped force, which could take advantage of the Turks having distributed their forces thinly. The Arabs had nothing to defend and excellent knowledge of the desert. Tactics were “tip and run, not pushes, but strokes.” Having made their point in one place, they would not hold it but would instead move on to strike again elsewhere. Victory depended on the use of “speed, concealment, accuracy of fire.” “Irregular war,” Lawrence observed, “is more intellectual than a bayonet charge.” These tactics reduced the Turks to “helplessness.” Yet he conceded that this irregular war was not the main event in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which came as a result of a much more conventional push by British forces under General Allenby. In this respect, Lawrence’s campaign was a “side show upon a side show,” though significant in a supporting role. In his acknowledgment of Allenby’s role there was a tinge of regret that this deprived him of an opportunity to see whether war could be won without battles. It had been a “thrilling experiment” to “prove irregular war or rebellion to be an exact science.” He noted the advantages: an unassailable base (in his case the Red Sea ports protected by the Royal Navy), an alien enemy unable to manage the space it was occupying, and a friendly population (“Rebellions can be made by 2 per cent active in a striking force, and 98 per cent passive sympathetically.”). Lawrence offered the following synopsis:

I n fifty words: granted mobility, security (in the form of denying targets to the enemy), time, and doctrine (the idea to convert every subject to friendliness), victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraic factors are in the end decisive, and against them perfection of means and spirit struggle quite in vain.

It is not surprising to find that Liddell Hart was enamored of Lawrence, for he was the epitome of the indirect approach in action. The two men had brief correspondence after the war, and Liddell Hart borrowed Lawrence’s insights. They later became friends when Liddell Hart summarized the main themes of Lawrence’s thought for an article in the 1929 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for which he was military editor. Lawrence’s exploits served a didactic purpose in illustrating the indirect approach, and Liddell Hart was impressed by this man who was both a thinker and doer and had found himself with such an influential command without have passed through the military system. Thereafter, Liddell Hart wrote an admiring biography in which he put Lawrence on a plinth.9 He was intrigued with Lawrence’s observation that the Arabs hankered after bloodless victories. Otherwise he had little interest in irregular warfare for radical purposes. If anything, Liddell Hart disapproved of it because it normally led to brutality and terrorism. What enthused him was the possibility that regular warfare could develop along the lines Lawrence had shown to be possible with irregular warfare.10

Mao and Giap

This same resistance to the idea that guerrilla warfare could be a separate route to victory was evident in the strategy of Mao Zedong, who led the Chinese communists to victory over their nationalist opponents in 1949. Mao saw guerrilla warfare as an acceptable strategy when on the defensive but not as an independent route to victory. He relied on it whenever his immediate need was simply to survive. As this was often the case, his writings on guerrilla tactics have a certain authority, but his preferred form of warfare involved mobile, regular forces. Reliance on guerrilla warfare was dictated not only by the fact that for some twenty years Mao’s forces were facing stronger armies in the former of the nationalist Kuomintang and Japanese occupation forces (from 1937—1945) but also because he made his base in rural areas and came to see the peasants rather than the urban proletariat as the source of revolution.

Although Mao came from a rural family, his initial work as a Communist Party activist in the 1920s focused on labor struggles. This was required by the Party’s urban leadership, but Mao could not see how the working classes in such a vast, populous, and agrarian country as China could act as agents of change. After witnessing peasant uprisings in Hunan, he observed in 1927 that the peasants, properly mobilized, could be “like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back,” sweeping away “all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves.” That year a fragile united front between the nationalists and the communists collapsed. In the ensuing confrontation, Mao’s army was defeated and he was forced to flee. He concluded quickly that it was only by means of guerrilla warfare in the expanses of rural China that survival was possible.11 The next stage in his thinking, following the party leadership’s disastrous forays against nationalist cities in 1930, was to conceive of the countryside not so much as a base from which to attack cities but as the place where the revolution could be made. He built up a new power base—the Kiangsi Soviet—but another failed conventional offensive against nationalist strongholds in 1934 led to a counterattack which put this base under pressure. He escaped by a mass evacuation, known as the Long March, which succeeded to the extent that he evaded capture—at an extremely high cost. The communists marched some six thousand miles for a year, until a new safe haven was found in Shensi province in October 1935. By then, Mao’s force had been much reduced, to barely ten thousand men. According to Chang and Halliday, the nationalists actually allowed the communist army to escape—as Stalin was holding the son of nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek hostage— and then Mao took an unnecessarily long route to avoid joining a rival’s larger force.12 With the old leadership discredited and a reputation, whether or not deserved, as a military commander and expert on rural China, Mao became Communist Party leader.

In July 1937, Japan invaded China. Mao had already proposed a united front against the Japanese. Though agreed upon the previous December, it was always tenuous in practice, not least because it suited Mao more than the nationalists as he was able to gain time. The nationalists were on the defensive, their leaders and officials pushed out of significant parts of the country. Meanwhile the Japanese were unable to establish effective authority, so the communists were given an opportunity to fill the political vacuum. They were accepted as the representatives of the anti-Japanese united front and given a hearing for the economic and social reforms they sought. The peasantry were given a chance to transform local power structures. At the same time Mao was extremely cautious when it came to taking on the Japanese. He concentrated on survival, especially once the United States entered the war in December 1941. Even after the war, when the civil war resumed in China, Mao remained cautious, expecting at best a negotiated peace with the Kuomintang.13 By 1947, he had begun to appreciate that although the nationalists notionally occupied large parts of the country, their roots were not deep and were at last vulnerable to a communist offensive. He seized power in 1949.

Mao’s ideas had taken shape a decade earlier. In their early formulations they diverged from received wisdom. As he was not then the Party leader, these ideas were formulated in more pragmatic and conditional terms than their more dogmatic later expressions suggested. The most authoritative presentation of the theory of people’s war was a series of lectures in 1937, in the aftermath of the Long March and the Japanese invasion. These formed the basis of Mao’s treatise on guerrilla warfare.14 They reflected his conviction that the peasantry could be an agent of revolutionary change. Because he was not working with the urban proletariat, who were supposed to acquire political consciousness as a matter of course, he put political education and mobilization at the heart of people’s war. This required the masses to understand the politics of the struggle, the objectives for which it was being fought, and the program which would be implemented when it was won. The time gained by guerrilla tactics, therefore, had to be used productively “to conduct propaganda among the masses” to help them gain revolutionary power. Politics, therefore, always had to be in command.

Mao played down material factors, such as economic and military power, in which he was evidently deficient, in favor of human power and morale: “It is people, not things that are decisive.”15 Given the armed struggle in which he had been engaged for over a decade, it was not surprising that he insisted in another famous aphorism that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” reflecting the twists and turns of the armed struggle that had shaped his life. Mao had read Clausewitz and Lawrence.16 John Shy judged him to be in some respects closer to Jomini, with “similar maxims, repetitions, and exhortations,” and the same “compounding of analysis and prescription” and “didactic drive.”17 The influence of Sun Tzu was clear in his observations on how to wear down a superior enemy while avoiding battle (“The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass. The enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats; we pursue”) and the importance of intelligence and a better grasp of the situation (“Know the enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster”).18

While guerrilla warfare had by necessity loomed large in his scheme, Mao was well aware of its limits. He described the basic principle of war as to “preserve oneself and to annihilate the enemy.” Guerrilla warfare was only relevant to the first of these tasks, although this happened to be the one which preoccupied him for all but the last few years of his military struggles. He relied on its defensive properties—popular support and local knowledge—against an occupying force. In a well-known metaphor, he described how the people mobilized would be “a vast sea in which the enemy will be swallowed up” but in which their army would thrive like fish.19 The importance of keeping unity between the guerrilla army and the local people was stressed in his three rules (“All actions are subject to command; Do not steal from the people; Be neither selfish nor unjust”) and eight remarks (“Replace the door when you leave the house; Roll up the bedding on which you have slept; Be courteous; Be honest in your transactions; Return what you borrow; Replace what you break; Do not bathe in the presence of women; Do not without authority search the pocketbooks of those you arrest”).20

Unlike Lawrence, whose fighters could go out and attack the enemy at vulnerable points, Mao was wary of venturing too far from his base. His strategy was to lure the enemy into his areas of strength. Here he could go on the tactical offensive, but there were limits to the possibilities of a strategic offensive. His expectation of the war with Japan was that it was likely to be protracted. As he contemplated its likely course he identified an optimum strategy in terms of three stages. The first stage was defensive. Eventually a stalemate would be reached (second stage), and then the communists would have the confidence and capabilities to move on to the offensive (third stage). Although at the time the Chinese were on their own, Mao was aware that at some point external factors that would undermine Japanese superiority might come into play. He saw a role for both guerrilla and positional (defense or attack of defined points) warfare, but the best results would require mobile warfare. Only that could lead to annihilation of the enemy defined in terms of loss of resistance rather than complete physical destruction. Mao was fighting an enemy with whom there might be a stalemate, but never a compromise. So the third stage demanded regular forces. Until these could be developed, guerrilla units would be crucial. In the third stage they would play no more than a supporting role.

The most assiduous follower of Mao after his revolution was General Vo Nguyen Giap, a schoolteacher from Vietnam who fought against colonial France and then the U.S.-supported anti-communist government in the south. He immersed himself in Maoist theory and practice in China in 1940 and then returned to Vietnam to lead the fight against the Japanese and later the French. He is also reported to have described Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom as his “fighting gospel” that he was “never without.” Giap took Mao’s three stages seriously, but his major innovation was his readiness to move between the different stages according to circumstances, whereas Mao had seen these as sequential steps. Vietnam was a relatively small country compared to China and so required greater flexibility. In particular, Giap was prepared to use regular forces before the third stage, to hold space, for example.

His description of guerrilla warfare captured the best practice of the Asian communist struggle of the mid-twentieth century. Guerrilla war served the broad masses of an economically backward country standing up to a “well- trained army of aggression.” Against the enemy’s strength was poised a “boundless heroism.” The front was not fixed but was “wherever the enemy is found” and sufficiently exposed to be vulnerable to a local concentration of forces, employing “initiative, flexibility, rapidity, surprise, suddenness in attack and retreat.” The enemy would be exhausted “little by little by small victories.” Losses were to be avoided “even at the cost of losing ground.”21

In the communist mainstream, from Engels to Giap, guerrilla warfare was therefore never seen as sufficient in itself. It was a way of holding out until it was possible to develop a true military capacity. At any time it might be all that could be done to stay in the game. But if the aim was to seize power, the regular forces of the state would have to be defeated.


Two books published in the 1950s sought to capture the American struggle to come to terms with communist insurgencies. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American , based on the author’s experiences in Vietnam in the early 1950s, focused on the earnest but naive American, Alden Pyle, who had a theoretical concept of what Vietnam needed but no true understanding. He was “sincere in his way,” but as “incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others.” Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, a professor and military officer, respectively, intended to write a nonfiction book about the mistakes being made by the Americans in confronting communism in southeast Asia. But they decided, correctly, that they could make their point more effectively through fiction. In The Ugly American, there was more of an American hero. Colonel Edwin Hillendale helped run successful campaigns in South Vietnam and the Philippines. The message of this book was that Americans seeking to influence events in these societies should live among the people and get to know their language and cultures. “Every person and every nation has a key which will open their hearts,” observes Hillendale. “If you use the right key, you can maneuver any person or any nation any way you want.22

The main characters in both books were often assumed to have been inspired by General Edward Lansdale. Greene always denied this was the case for his book, but Hillendale evidently was modeled on Lansdale. In 1961, Lansdale became an adviser to President Kennedy after being introduced to him as one of the few Americans who really understood the demands of counterinsurgency. Lansdale understood that without popular support there was “no political base for supporting the fight.” People had to be convinced that their lives could be improved through social action and political reform, as well as by the physical protection that came with sensitive military operations. This required a responsive, non-corrupt government; well-behaved armed forces; and a cause in which they could believe.

John Kennedy endorsed The Ugly American as a senator, attracted by its central message that people in desperate situations could be as inspired by the ideals of American liberalism as those of Soviet communism. One of Kennedy’s first acts as president was to demand that the American military take counterinsurgency far more seriously.23 Kennedy encouraged all those around him to read Mao and Che Guevara, the theorist of the Cuban revolution, and took a personal interest in special forces and their training manuals and equipment. Groups were established to coordinate what was described as “subterranean war,” with South Vietnam soon the main area of concern. The challenge was seen to be less with the diagnosis—drawing attention to the problems with development, weak governmental institutions, and militaries that were more instruments of repression than sources of security for ordinary people—than in working out what to do about it. There was considerable study of Maoist doctrine, which meant that American policy became reactive in the sense of trying to determine whether the North Vietnamese communists were moving from the second to the third stage, or focusing on countering communist propaganda and tactics.

The Americans were influenced by the successful British experience in Malaya as described by Robert Thompson.24 Under the leadership of Sir Gerald Templer, a communist insurgency had been contained. “The shooting side of the business is only 25 percent of the trouble,” observed Templer, “and the other 75 percent lies in getting the people of this country behind us.” The answer was not “pouring more troops into the jungle.” It was instead, in a phrase Templer made famous, “in the hearts and minds of the people.” He understood the importance of civic action but also the need to show a determination to win. This required a readiness to be ruthless.25 Templer was successful, but he enjoyed favorable conditions. In Malaya, the communists were largely associated with the minority Chinese population, their resupply routes were poor, and economic conditions were reasonable.

The unsuccessful French experiences in Vietnam and Algeria were reflected in the writings of David Galula who provided one of the more lucid texts on how to counter communist tactics, and who popularized the concept of “insurgency.” He also stressed the importance of the loyalty of the population. A successful counterinsurgency must ensure the people felt protected so they could cooperate without fear of retribution. Victory would require pacifying one area after another, each serving as a secure base from which to move to the next.26 Galula’s actual experience in Algeria was mixed. His efforts to treat local people positively were not matched by many of his fellow officers. When it came to propaganda, he judged the French “definitely and infinitely more stupid than our opponents.” Like other counterinsurgent specialists, Galula found that his theory fitted neither the local political structures nor army culture.27 The main effect of the attempt by the French officer class to develop a counterinsurgency doctrine that matched the communists in its political intensity and ruthlessness was that they began to turn their ire on Paris for not supporting their efforts with sufficient vigor—even attempting a coup.28

An awareness of the need to give the anti-communist South Vietnamese government more legitimacy and turn its forces into agents of democracy and development reflected a theoretical objective that was far removed from the realities on the ground. It was understood that any fighting should be done by indigenous forces, but that left open the question of what should be done when these forces could no longer cope. It was one thing if the insurgency was a response to local conditions cloaked in the rhetoric of international communism; if it truly was being pushed from outside by communists, that was another. The U.S. military was doubtful that this was really a new type of insurgency and preferred to treat it as old-fashioned aggression. Counterinsurgency theory suggested that the role of military action was to create sufficient security to introduce programs to improve the social conditions of the people, thereby winning over their “hearts and minds” and denying the insurgents bases, recruits, and support. Against this the military argued that wars were won by eliminating enemy armed forces and frustrating their operations. This supported a policy of “search and destroy” through shelling and bombing areas where the enemy was believed to be hiding, though the enemy had often moved on and the attacks led to civilian deaths and popular resentment.

One of those involved in the internal discussions later commented ruefully on the “somewhat simplistic” assumptions about a monolithic form of threat, following the script of a “war of national liberation.” Under this mindset, sight of the “domestic origins and root causes of internal turmoil” was lost, which meant that the insurgency was treated as if it was “a clearly articulated military force instead of the apex of a pyramid deeply embedded in society.”29 Another official questioned the very description of opponents as “insurgents” instead of revolutionaries or rebels because this denied the possibility that they might be champions of a popular movement. It was hard to accept that the opponents were often local and popular and that their victims were associated with repression.30 The basic problem was that ameliorating the “worst causes of discontent” and redressing “the most flagrant inequities” would require positive action—and in some cases, radical reform—by the local government, yet the measures being proposed threatened to undermine the government’s position because they would involve altering the country’s social structure and domestic economy.31 It is also important to note that the original formulations of counterinsurgency doctrine assumed that the main work would be undertaken by local forces, assisted by American resources and advisors. The use of American forces on a large scale was to be avoided.32 There were many examples of this during the 1960s. In this respect, South Vietnam was the exception, but it was an exception that clouded all later thoughts on counterinsurgency theory and practice.

By the start of 1965, it was apparent that it was going to be very difficult to deal with the domestic sources of insurgency. Instead, American attention switched to dealing with the supply lines coming from the north. The conflict was firmly framed in terms of a fight with the communist leadership in North Vietnam and beyond rather than as a power struggle within South Vietnam. At this time, Tom Schelling’s concepts of bargaining and coercive diplomacy were particularly influential. This can be seen even in discussions of Vietnam, a situation far removed from the one to which Schelling had most applied himself—a superpower confrontation over a prized piece of real estate in the center of Europe and directly linked to a possible nuclear war.33 The figure in the U.S. Government most influenced by Schelling during the 1960s was John McNaughton, an academic lawyer from Harvard who died in an air crash in July 1967. He had worked with Schelling on the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s, and the two remained good friends. When McNaughton spoke of arms control, for example, he showed interest in the notion of the “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” and “non-zero-sum games.”34 He is said to have remarked that the Cuban missile crisis demonstrated the realism of Schelling’s games.35 McNaughton was a key figure in the development of the U.S. policy on Vietnam, working closely with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. One of his memos was famously described by a colleague as the reductio ad absurdum of the planner’s art, combining realpolitik with the hyper-rationalist belief in control of the most refined American think tank.36 In a report of a working group McNaughton chaired in February 1964,37 one suggestion was pure Schelling: it would be possible to influence Hanoi’s decisions by action designed “to hurt but not to destroy.”38 Also drawn from Schelling was the proposition that “a decision to use force if necessary, backed by resolute and extensive deployment, and conveyed by every possible means to our adversaries, gives the best present chance of avoiding the actual use of such force.” The basic principle was that “a pound of threat is worth an ounce of action— as long as we are not bluffing.”39

The main threat his group had in mind was the use of American air power. At the time, the government was still trying to avoid using ground forces. But that could not achieve much of direct military value, as the supply lines were hard to disrupt and mass air attacks on civilian populations were considered unacceptable. McNaughton came up with the idea of coercive air strikes with a political purpose, which he described as “progressive squeeze- and-talk,” orchestrating diplomatic communications with graduated military pressure. Even if the United States eventually gave up, it was important to show that it had been “willing to keep promises, be tough, take risks, get bloodied, and hurt the enemy badly.”40 McNaughton was thus trying to find ways of giving the impression of commitment without being truly resolute, of following one course while not closing off others.

At the start of 1965, McNaughton consulted Schelling on exactly how the North could be coerced in these unpromising circumstances. According to one account, the two men wrestled unsatisfactorily with the question of “what could the United States ask the North to stop doing that they would obey, that we would soon know they obeyed, and that they could not simply resume doing after the bombing had ceased.” Kaplan comments, with some satisfaction: “So assured, at times glibly so, when writing about sending signals with force, inflicting pain to make an opponent behave and weaving patterns of communication through tactics of coercive warfare in theory, Tom Schelling, when faced with a real-life ‘limited war,’ was stumped, had no idea where to begin.”41 In fact, Schelling was highly skeptical about the likely value of a bombing campaign against the North. He noted the weak diplomacy accompanying the bombing and hoped that there had been private communications to Hanoi of a less ambiguous nature.42 Schelling’s reasoning, while suggestive and provocative, could not by itself generate strategies because that required the introduction of levels of complexity that his theoretical structure could not handle.

The new civilian strategists had some influence on the early stages of the U.S. policy regarding Vietnam, but the overriding influence was American military preferences. In some respects, the two came from the same starting point: a focus on techniques and tactics separate from political context.

Counterinsurgency theory, like nuclear strategy, developed as a special body of expertise geared to discussing special sorts of military relationships as if they were special types of war. As discussed, Mao and Giap never saw guerrilla tactics as more than expedients for when they were weak. They did not think they could win a “guerrilla war”—success at this level would allow them to move on to the next stage defined by the familiar clash of regular armies. What they thought was truly distinctive to their type of warfare was the attention paid to political education and propaganda.

Vietnam, a war for which the civilian strategists had not prepared and on which they had relatively little of value to say, marked the end of the “golden age” of strategic studies. Just as the arrival of mutual assured destruction and a period of relative calm took the urgency out of the Cold War, Vietnam “poisoned the academic well.”43 Colin Gray charged the civilian “men of ideas” with being overconfident about the ease with which theory might be transferred to the “world of action.” The prophets had become courtiers, living off their intellectual capital. Their “dual-loyalty” to the needs of problem-oriented officials on the one hand and the disinterested “policy-neutral” standards of scholarship on the other “had tended to produce both irrelevant policy advice and poor scholarship.’44 In response to this criticism, Brodie praised policy engagement and defended the small group of civilian strategists who had accepted the burden of making sense of the new nuclear world, because the military were incapable of doing so. Yet having left RAND in 1966 bemoaning the “astonishing lack of political sense” and ignorance of diplomatic and military history among the engineers and economists, he readily accepted Vietnam as a consequence of these tendencies.45

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