Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Guerrillas and Armies

I've been reading Esdaile's history of the Peninsular War, Napoleon's attempt to extinguish the Bourbon dynasty and establish his brother on the throne of Spain. It's the conflict that gave English the word guerrilla. Small bands of irregulars would attack French supply lines, and then vanish into the hills and villages; the French had to expend considerable resources coping with them. The Spanish called this the guerrilla -- the "little war." As adopted into English it referred not to the war, but to the people who conducted it (what the Spanish would have called guerrilleros): "guerrilla fighters."

The Spanish, more talented as propagandists, in that century, than as soldiers, created a whole mythology around the guerrillas, one that persists today, and has given glamor to the image of the resistance fighter. These poorly equipped, impromptu civilians-turned-soldiers, so ran the Spanish myth, fought the veteran troops of Imperial France to a standstill. It was a triumph of popular resistance over authoritarian empire.

In fact, the guerrillas never had much more than nuisance value. What saved Spain from French domination was not her guerrilla fighters, but Napoleon's decision to invade Russia. When the French were not overextended they did not have great difficulty putting down these bands, which had little discipline and no training.

What exactly these fighters were has come in for closer scrutiny in the last few decades, and the truth of the matter is rather depressing. They were not mostly patriots. They were mostly bands of robbers, who preyed on the French not out of patriotic fervor, but because the French had something worth taking. They happily plundered their Portuguese and English allies as well when they got the chance, not to mention the cities and villages that they were supposedly defending, and they often proceeded with extraordinary cruelty against all these people.

(To keep things in context, it's true that the regular troops, English, Portuguese, French, and Spanish, as was standard in Napoleonic times, also plundered the civilian population. But they were generally less ruthless than the guerrillas.)

Now, we would like it to be true, that popular resistance can overcome military tyranny. It makes a lovely story. Americans treasure their own mythology of the minute-men, a likewise glorified and militarily rather useless bunch. But in fact guerrilla warfare is almost always pointless and ineffective. I can think of only a few cases in which it has succeeded. When it does, it has these characteristics:

1) invulnerable supply lines to a generous outside supply source
2) rugged terrain in which it's difficult for regular troops to move and deploy
3) a level of poverty and misery so severe that the people feel they have nothing to lose, and
4) guerrilla indifference to the suffering of their own people, such that reprisals against the civilian population do not deter them.

In other words, it is not a blessing to have a situation in which guerrilla war may be effective. And when, unusually, a guerrilla war is won, it puts people of singular ruthlessness in control, who have debts to repay to outsiders. These people are seldom a blessing to their country.

But the myth lives on. I was prompted to write this by seeing the photo, on Velveteen Rabbi, of a Palestinian mural of a boy -- obviously heroically, in the view of the artist -- throwing a rock at a tank. Many Palestinians continue in the delusion that a popular resistance can liberate them. In their situation it can't. They have virtually no outside supply sources, and certainly no invulnerable ones. Their terrain is quite practicable: the Israelis can deploy whatever they want wherever they want, within days -- usually hours. And their poverty, while bad enough, is not so bad that most people really have nothing to lose. The only thing that points towards success is the willingness of some of the guerrillas to incur reprisal.

In other words, the Palestinians can resist all they like for the next five hundred years without seriously inconveniencing the Israeli state. Their resistance simply can't win. I have no intention of disputing the rights and wrongs of their situation. I neither have an opinion on that nor want to have an opinion on that. But I do have an opinion about their chance of successfully resisting: it's zero.

If -- as I believe -- regular armies will ultimately determine the fate of any prosperous, gentle country, it behooves us to pay some attention to them, and to make sure their interests coincide with the general public's. People on the left -- partly due to this stupid idea that the will of the people will always triumph, and that guerrilla warfare is a viable option in most situations -- have tended to simply pay no attention to their armies, to wish they would go away, to think of them as tools of reactionaries; something we'll just get rid of someday. We can't afford to go on like that. We need to take armies seriously, and to ensure that our armies are democratic armies. This is why I -- alone among my personal acquaintance -- favor a draft: I would like to see an all-conscript army, with no upper-class exemptions (by which I mean the infamous college education exemptions of the Vietnam era.). Nothing strikes me as more ominous, in the politics of my generation in America, than the development of a huge professional army, drawn largely from the poor and uneducated. We have simply been lucky, so far, that this army has not realized a) that they hold the last resort of power in the land, and b) that their interests aren't the same as civilian interests. Let's hope they don't figure it out before we civilians do.

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