Guerrilla Warfare

guerrilla warfare (gərĬl´ə) [Span.,=little war], fighting by groups of irregular troops (guerrillas) within areas occupied by the enemy. When guerrillas obey the laws of conventional warfare they are entitled, if captured, to be treated as ordinary prisoners of war; however, they are often executed by their captors. The tactics of guerrilla warfare stress deception and ambush, as opposed to mass confrontation, and succeed best in an irregular, rugged, terrain and with a sympathetic populace, whom guerrillas often seek to win over by propaganda, reform, and terrorism. Guerrilla warfare, also known as unconventional, irregular, or asymmetric warfare, has played a significant role in modern history, especially when waged by Communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.


In the American Revolution and the Nineteenth Century

Large-scale guerrilla fighting accompanied the American Revolution, and the development of guerrilla tactics under such partisan leaders as Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter has been called the great contribution of the American Revolution to the development of warfare. The term guerrilla itself was coined during the Peninsular War (1808–14), when Spanish partisans, under such leaders as Francisco Mina, proved unconquerable even by the armies of Napoleon I. From Spain the use of the term spread to Latin America and then to the United States.

During the U.S. Civil War, William C. Quantrill, who operated in Missouri and Kansas, was the most notorious of the Confederate guerrilla leaders, but John S. Mosby, in Virginia, was undoubtedly the most effective. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) the Germans suffered so much from French partisans, or francs-tireurs, that Field Marshall von Moltke ordered the shooting of all prisoners not fully uniformed and led by regular officers. In the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Army conducted a long campaign against Filipino guerrillas, such as Emilio Aguinaldo, and Moro bands. There has been frequent guerrilla warfare in Latin America. Notable among early 20th-century Latin American guerrillas are Francisco (Pancho) Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Augusto C. Sandino.

World War I to World War II

In World War I the most spectacular theater of guerrilla operations was the Arabian peninsula, where, under the leadership of T. E. Lawrence and Faisal al-Husayn (later Faisal I), various Arab guerrilla bands fought superior Turkish forces. In the late 1920s and 30s the Chinese Communists under the leadership of Mao Zedong, perhaps the world's leading theorist of modern guerrilla warfare, conducted a large-scale guerrilla war, along with mobile and positional warfare, against both the Kuomintang and the Japanese in N China. Mao saw the People's War, as he called it, progressing from minor skirmishing to a conventional conflict as he led the Communists to victory.

Guerrilla tactics, aided by the development of the long-range portable radio and the use of aircraft as a means of supply, reached new heights in World War II. The Germans failed to establish a complete hold on Yugoslavia because of the guerrilla resistance, which was led by the Communist partisan leader Tito and supplied in part by Allied airdrops. In the Soviet Union guerrilla warfare was included in instruction at the military academy; in the field it was so brilliantly organized that it constituted a continual threat to the German rear and contributed greatly to the German disaster on the Eastern Front.

In Western Europe the Allies organized guerrilla forces in France, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Italy, and Greece. These forces (known collectively as the "underground" and, in France, as the maquis) were supplied by Allied airdrops and coordinated from London by radio. The resistance forces in Western Europe, led mainly by British- and American-trained officers, conducted not only guerrilla operations but also industrial sabotage, espionage, propaganda campaigns, and the organization of escape routes for Allied prisoners of war.

By the end of World War II resistance forces had played a major role in the defeat of Germany. Throughout the war the United States and Britain also carried on guerrilla warfare in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and in China large-scale guerrilla operations were conducted against the Japanese by both Communists and Nationalists.

Since World War II

Since World War II guerrilla warfare has been employed by nationalist groups to overthrow colonialism, by dissidents to launch civil wars, and by Communist and Western powers in the cold war. There have been dozens of such conflicts.

Just after World War II large-scale guerrilla warfare broke out in Indochina between the French and the Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. After the French defeat at Dienbienphu (1945), France withdrew from the conflict; but the 1954 Geneva Conference brought no permanent peace, and Communist guerrilla activity continued in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. In the subsequent Vietnam War the United States fought in support of the South Vietnamese government against local guerrillas (Viet Cong) aided by North Vietnamese troops. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge waged guerrilla warfare to win control of the nation and, after being ousted by the Vietnamese army, again resorted to it until the group's disintegration (1999).

In Algeria guerrilla warfare against the French was begun by the nationalists in 1954 and conducted with ever-increasing violence until Algeria won its independence in 1961. Greek nationalists in Cyprus carried on guerrilla warfare against the British from 1954 until that country gained independence in 1959. Fidel Castro and Ernesto (Che) Guevara in 1956 launched a guerrilla war in Cuba against the government of Fulgencio Batista; in 1959, Batista fled the country and Castro assumed control. This success gave encouragement to rebel guerrilla bands throughout Latin America. In 1967, Guevara was killed by the Bolivian army while leading such a rebel band in the jungles of Bolivia.

In the late 1960s, Palestinian Arab guerrillas intensified their activities against the state of Israel. In 1971, after a full-scale war with the Jordanian army, they were ousted from their bases in Jordan. However, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other groups continued their raids on Israel from other Arab countries. After the PLO was forced to leave Lebanon (1982, 1991) its fighters were again dispersed, but it continued to mount attacks until peace negotiations in the early 1990s. Since the late 1980s, terrorism—long an element in conflict and a hallmark of many Hamas attacks—and other tactics (see Intifada) have increasingly marked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The United States has sponsored guerrillas, most notably anti-Castro Cuban forces and Nicaraguan contras. Modern "urban guerrilla" activities such as hijacking and kidnapping are frequently inspired by ideology rather than patriotism and are often tinged with elements of terrorism. The Irish Republican Army (late 1960s to mid-1990s) and Peru's Shining Path engaged in both attacks on government forces and various forms of terrorism. Since the 1990s many nations experienced some degree of ongoing societal disruption due to persistent unconventional warfare, among them Afghanistan, Algeria, Burundi, Cambodia, Colombia, Iraq, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Turkey (in Kurdish areas).


See Mao Zedong, On Guerrilla Warfare (tr. 1961); L. H. Gann, Guerrillas in History (1971); W. Laquer Guerrilla Reader (1977); G. Chaliand, Guerrilla Strategies (1982); E. Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare (1985); M. Mazower, Invisible Armies (2013).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Guerrilla Warfare: Selected full-text books and articles

Guerrilla Warfare: When Taking Care of Your Troops Leads to War Crimes By Kellogg, David Journal of Power and Ethics, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2000
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Guerrillas and Terrorists By Richard Clutterbuck Ohio University Press, 1980
Communist Guerilla Warfare By Brigadier C. Aubrey Dixon; Otto Heilbrunn Frederick A. Praeger, 1954
Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung By Mao Tse-tung Foreign Languages Press, 1963
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Sideshow No Longer: A Historiographical Review of the Guerrilla War By Sutherland, Daniel E Civil War History, Vol. 46, No. 1, March 2000
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
A German Guerrilla Chief in Africa By Rooney, David History Today, Vol. 49, No. 11, November 1999
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