Winning the War of the Flea: Lessons from Guerrilla Warfare

By Cassidy, Robert M. | Military Review, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview

Winning the War of the Flea: Lessons from Guerrilla Warfare


Cassidy, Robert M., Military Review


Analogically, the guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog's disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with. If the war continues long enough-this is the theory-the dog succumbs to exhaustion and anemia without ever having found anything on which to close its jaws or to rake with its claws.

-Robert Taber1

COUNTERGUERRILLA warfare, or the "war against the flea," is more difficult than operations against enemies who fight according to the conventional paradigm. America's enemies in the Global War on Terrorism, including those connected to "the base" (al-Qaeda), are fighting the war of the flea in Iraq and Afghanistan. Employing terror to attack the United States at home and abroad, they strive to disrupt coalition efforts by using guerrilla tactics and bombings to protract the war in Iraq and elsewhere and to erode America's will to persevere.

The war on al-Qaeda and its surrogates can be viewed as a global counterinsurgency in which the United States and its coalition partners endeavor to isolate and eradicate the base and other networked terrorist groups who seek sanctuary, support, and recruits in ungoverned or poorly governed areas where the humiliated and the have-nots struggle to survive. The U.S. military's preference for the big-war paradigm has heretofore impeded the Army from seriously studying counterinsurgency operations. As a result, the Army has failed to incorporate many lessons from successful counterinsurgency operations. Because countering insurgents and terrorists remains a central mission of the U.S. military for the foreseeable future, it is better to incorporate lessons learned than to relearn lessons during combat.

With the right mindset and with a broader, deeper knowledge of lessons from previous successes, the war against the flea can be won. The Army has successfully fought counterguerrilla wars. However, the contradiction emanating from America's unsuccessful expedition in Vietnam is that, because the experience was perceived as anathema to the U.S. military's core culture, hard lessons learned there about fighting guerrillas were not preserved or rooted in the Army's institutional memory. The U.S. military culture's efforts to exorcise the specter of Vietnam, epitomized by the shibboleth "No More Vietnams," also precluded the Army, as an institution, from actually learning from those lessons.

The Army's intellectual renaissance after Vietnam has focused almost exclusively on the culturally preferred, conventional big-war paradigm.2 Army doctrine conceals the term "counterinsurgency" under the innocuous categories of stability operations and foreign internal defense. Many lessons exist in the U.S. military's historical experience with small wars, but the lessons from Vietnam are the most voluminous-and the least read. The end of the Cold War has made it improbable that conventional or symmetric war will ever again be the norm, and the Army is making genuine efforts to transform its culture and mindset. Senior civilian and military leaders of the Army and the Office of the secretary of Defense realized a change in military culture was a precondition for innovative approaches to a more complex security landscape in which adversaries adopt unorthodox strategies and tactics to undermine U.S. technological superiority in an orthodox or conventional war.

Military culture is the sum total of embedded beliefs and attitudes within a military organization that shape that organization's preference on when and how military force should be used. Cultural propensities can block innovation in ways of warfare that are outside perceived central or core roles. A preference for a big-war paradigm has hitherto been an obstacle to learning how to fight guerrillas.3 The Army must analyze U.S. involvement in, and the nature of, small wars, insurgencies, and counterinsurgencies. Without some sense of historical continuity, American soldiers will have to relearn the lessons of history each time they face a new small war. …

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