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Understanding Guerrilla Warfare
AUTHOR Major Johnie Gombo, USMC
CSC 1990
SUBJECT AREA Foreign Policy
                        EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
THESIS:  Unless a Marine Air Ground Task Force Commander
understands guerrilla warfare, conflict with a belligerent who
uses guerrilla warfare will cause a problem.
      In 1973, the United States left South Vietnam, ending
eighteen years of military support.  One reason for the pull-
out was the United States' inability to stop the guerrilla war
being conducted by the Viet Cong.  To prevent future problems,
an understanding of guerrilla warfare is necessary.
      Guerrilla warfare is an unconventional type of warfare
involving limited combat against military targets.  It consists
of three phases:  Phase I is the development of local support;
Phase II is organizational growth, and combat against the
enemy; and Phase III is the transition of the guerrilla
organization into a conventional force, and the defeat of the
      In addition to understanding the definition of guerrilla
warfare, a Marine Air Ground Task Force Commander needs to
understand the philosophy, organization, support, equipment,
and tactics of the guerrillas.  The guerrillas' philosophy is
that they represent the will of the people, and must remove the
oppressive hold the enemy has on the masses.  To initially
accomplish this goal, the guerrilla's tactical organization
consists of small units with the overall organization patterned
along the lines of a conventional force.  To keep the
organization functioning, the guerrillas rely on internal and
external support.  The internal support is from the local
populace, and is primarily personnel, medical care, food, and
intelligence. The external support is from governments whose
views parallel those of the guerrillas. The external support
may be similar to the internal support, but will include
weapons, and possibly, a safe haven.  The weapons from an
external government will augment those the guerrillas have
taken from the enemy.  The safe haven is very important to the
guerrillas when protection from enemy forces is required.
Because of the organization, amount of support, and type and
amount of equipment which is available to the guerrillas, they
use unconventional warfare tactics.  The guerrillas tend to use
small unit actions, at night, with surprise, and against the
flanks and rear of the enemy.  After the guerrillas have
sufficiently weakened the enemy, the guerrillas will convert to
conventional warfare, and attempt to defeat the enemy.
      The use of guerrilla warfare throughout history has
resulted in successes and failures.  It is important for a
Marine Air Ground Task Force Commander to understand guerrilla
warfare and the guerrillas, and to develop techniques necessary
to defeat a belligerent who uses such warfare.
THESIS STATEMENT.  Unless a Marine Air Ground Task Force
Commander understands guerrilla warfare, conflict with a
belligerent who uses guerrilla warfare will cause a problem.
I.    Introduction
II.   Definition
        A. Comparison
        B. Phases
III.  Basics
        A. Philosophy
        B. Organization
        C. Support
        D. Equipment
        E. Tactics
IV.   Examples
        A. Successes
        B. Failures
V.    Conclusion
                  Understanding Guerrilla Warfare
     In 1975, the reunification of Vietnam was accomplished
when North Vietnam invaded and defeated South Vietnam.  This
invasion was preceded by 29 years of guerrilla warfare: First,
from 1946 to 1954, against the French, for independence;
Second, from 1955 to 1975, against South Vietnam, and until
1973, the United States, for the unification of the two
     In 1955, the North began infiltrating and conducting
guerrilla warfare against South Vietnam.  Also in 1955, the
United States began its support for South Vietnam, and would be
in South Vietnam for eighteen years, leaving in 1973.  Then in
1975, two years after the United States pullout, South Vietnam
was invaded and defeated by North Vietnam, thus completing the
unification of the two Vietnams.
     Although not formally defeated, the United States had
removed its forces from South Vietnam, and did not support
South Vietnam when the North invaded in 1975. [6:59-60]  One of
the reasons the United States left South Vietnam was the United
States' inability to stem the guerrilla warfare, which was
being waged by the South Vietnamese guerrillas - the Viet Cong.
How could guerrilla warfare compel one of the most powerful
military forces in the world to abandon a cause which had
lasted eighteen years, and at the cost of over 50,000 United
States lives?  A starting point is to understand guerrilla
warfare, and in particular, the guerrillas.  We must understand
how guerrilla warfare relates to other forms of warfare, the
phases of guerrilla warfare, and the guerrillas' philosophy,
organization, support, equipment, and tactics.  Without these
understandings, conflict with a belligerent who uses guerrilla
warfare will cause problems for a Marine Air Ground Task Force.
     If placed on a continuum depicting the forms of warfare
based on the extent of combat, and the selection of targets,
guerrilla warfare would be located between terrorism and
conventional warfare.  Terrorism involves a limited amount of
combat against any target, military or civilian. Conventional
warfare involves extended combat, and limits the warfare to
military targets.  Guerrilla warfare, being located in between,
involves combat which is mostly quick skirmishes, but may    
include extended battles, and is limited to military targets.
     A discussion of guerrilla warfare can be found in Moa Tse-
Tung's book On Guerrilla Warfare.  In his book, Mao describes
guerrilla warfare as one of many methods used by an oppressed
people to combat aggression.  Mao divides guerrilla warfare
into three phases.  Phase I is devoted to the organization of
an underground resistance movement to spread propaganda and
elicit support for the movement from the people. [9:20]  The
purpose of the underground is to develop support for the
overthrow of the existing government, or for resistance against
an occupying force.  The underground does not get involved in
direct military action against the enemy, but harasses the
enemy through espionage, sabotage, or civil unrest. [7:40]
During Phase II, small scale combat operations would be
initiated, to include both terrorism and guerrilla operations.
Phase III would begin when some of the guerrilla forces have
obtained superiority over the enemy, and are transformed into
conventional fighting forces; only in this phase can the enemy
be defeated.  [9:20]
     Finally, guerrilla warfare can be conducted in concert
with other forms of warfare.  Therefore, a Marine Air Ground
Task Force may be faced with guerrilla warfare in a low,
medium, or high intensity conflict.
     The guerrillas' philosophy is that they represent the
people.  For a viable guerrilla movement to continue, the
support of the masses is necessary. [1:19]  Therefore, the
guerrillas attempt to win the support of the masses by
attacking an oppressive government or occupying force.  In
addition, the guerrillas treat the masses with respect and
dignity, and capitalize on the oppressive behavior of the
enemy.  Many feel guerrilla warfare is the result of the masses
being forced to produce goods and services without an adequate
amount of compensation. [3:38-39]  It is one of the guerrillas'
philosophies to take advantage of the masses' discontent with
the current government's or occupying forces' policies.  This
philosophy is very political in nature, and is part of the
guerrillas indoctrination.
     The guerrillas have an intense political indoctrination
process, such that, the guerrillas are not only fighting for
military goals , but also for political goals.  This adds to
the intensity and dedication of the guerrillas. [9:8]  Part of
normal guerrilla training is to be continually indoctrinated in
the political goals of the guerrilla warfare movement.  These
goals normally revolve around the desire to free the country
and people from the oppression of the enemy.  The guerrillas
want to fight for the motherland, and against the cruelties,
avarice, and maltreatment that the enemy has inflicted upon the
masses. [5:48]
     In carrying their fight to the enemy, the guerrillas have
the capability to inflict great damage and casualties, but do
not have the available resources to completely defeat the
enemy.  To compensate for this weakness, the philosophy of
guerrilla warfare is to harass and weaken the enemy. [5:1]  In
general, the guerrillas rely on deception, apply strength
against weakness, chose when to do battle, and concentrate
their attacks against weak spots in the enemy's flanks and
rear. [9:46]  This process continues until the enemy has been
sufficiently weakened, and the force ratio is now in the
guerrillas' favor.  At this point, the guerrilla organization
will convert some units into a conventional force, and engage
the enemy in conventional warfare.  If the conventional force
lacks sufficient resources to defeat the enemy, and is in fact
defeated; the philosophy of the guerrillas is to revert back to
a guerrilla type organization, and wait for another opportune
     The guerrilla organization may be formed from the general
population, personnel temporarily detailed from the regular
army, permanently detailed regular army personnel, local
militia, deserters from the ranks of the enemy, and former and
current bandits - although the bandits are not necessarily the
best choice. [9:71]  The most efficient size guerrilla unit for
most operations is about 13 men. [1:20]  However, the entire
guerrilla organization may be quite large.  In fact, the
guerrillas are organized along the lines of most conventional
forces to include companies, battalions, and regiments. [9:44]
The overall size of a guerrilla force is dependent on the
number of individuals willing to participate, and the number of
qualified applicants.  The basic qualifications of the
applicants are complete loyalty and spirit of sacrifice for the
cause, physical stamina to endure hardships, and familiarity
with the local terrain and populace. [5:5]  The high degree of
loyalty and self-sacrifice for the guerrillas' cause are two of
the key morale factors which make a guerrilla movement
difficult to control and defeat.
     A guerrilla organization needs support to continue its
operations; this support can be internal or external to the
country.  Internal support is the most important support for a
guerrilla organization and comes from the people.  During the
initial phase of an insurgency, an underground movement is
formed which will exist during the entire insurgency.  The
underground movement will be the internal organization which
will support a guerrilla movement, this support will include
equipment, medical, food, and intelligence. [7:40]  Remember,
the guerrillas' philosophy is one of representing the people;
if the guerrillas' goals do not match those of the people, then
the sympathy, cooperation and assistance of the people will be
nonexistent.  If the people do not support the guerrillas'
cause, the guerrillas may continue to operate, but their
effectiveness will be reduced and the ability to defeat them
will be increased. [9:43]  Sometimes the support of the people
for the guerrillas is increased by actions of the enemy.
[2:37-40] Restrictions on human rights, oppressive policies,
and acts of terror carried out by the enemy will only solidify
the guerrillas' position with the people, and result in more
covert and overt support.
     Another possible source of support for the guerrillas is
external support. [4:10]  Foreign countries whose political
views parallel those of the guerrillas may be a source of
resources.  In some cases, the foreign support may initially be
more abundant than the internal local support of the people.
This may be the case when the guerrilla movement does not
represent the will of the people, or the enemy's policies are
so restrictive and oppressive that popular support for a
guerrilla movement is difficult and dangerous.  Two important
areas of external support are the supply of equipment,
particularly weapons, and the availability of a safe haven from
the military capabilities of the enemy.  Normally, the local
populace can not provide manufactured weapons to the
guerrillas; therefore, the ability to receive weapons from an
external source is important.  In addition, the ability to
continue a guerrilla movement is increased when a safe haven is
provided by an external country. [4:10] Numerous examples, such
as the Viet Cong's use of Laos and Cambodia, and the Nicaraguan
Contras' use of Honduras, are available.  The ability of the
guerrillas to retreat to a safe haven in another country,
particularly a bordering country, can be vital to the success
of their operations.  In these safe havens, the guerrillas can
train, rest, and plan future operations without the fear of
being assaulted by the enemy; this provides a psychological
boost to the guerrilla, and frustrates the enemy.
     In terms of equipment, the guerrillas are lightly armed
organizations.  The type of equipment that a guerrilla force
has will impact on the guerrillas' ability to engage and defeat
the enemy.  Normally, during the earlier phase of guerrilla
warfare, the type of equipment is crude and the quantity is
small.  In some cases the equipment, especially the weapons,
are homemade and may be nothing more than farm implements.   As
the guerrilla forces gain strength, the sophistication and
quantity of weapons increases.  The guerrillas begin to seize
the enemy's supplies and equipment, and converts it to their
use. [9:83]  If external sources of support are available, the
guerrillas may be supported by another government or by
individuals sympathetic to their cause; in addition, the
guerrillas may purchase weapons on the open market.  The
seizure of enemy resources, and the obtaining of weapons from
external sources adds to the capabilities of the guerrilla
forces, and their ability to continue waging guerrilla warfare.
When the quantity of supplies and equipment available to the
guerrillas becomes sufficient, and trained manpower is
available, the guerrillas will transform some of their forces
into conventional armies.
     The tactics which are used by the guerrillas will be
driven by the organization, support, and equipment which is
available.  During Phase I, the guerrillas will concentrate on
small attacks against isolated units and supply facilities in
an attempt to obtain supplies and equipment.  As more supplies
and equipment become available, and the size of the guerrilla
force expands, the guerrillas will enter Phase II, and begin to
attack larger enemy facilities and units.  When the guerrilla
organization is of sufficient size and strength, and possess
adequate supplies and equipment, the guerrillas will enter
Phase III, form conventional fighting units, and engage the
enemy in a more conventional style.
     In all these phases of guerrilla warfare, some of the
common tactics are the dispersion of guerrilla forces, the
night attack as a psychological weapon against the enemy, the
emphasis on attacking isolated forces, and the use of the local
populace for support. [5:8-12]  The guerrillas will keep their
forces dispersed to present complete defeat by the enemy.  When
tactical situations dictate, the guerrillas' leaders will
coordinate the buildup of forces necessary to defeat the enemy.
     When attacking the enemy, the guerrillas like to use the
night attack.  The night attack has a sever psychological
affect on people, and the guerrillas use this fact as a force
multiplier.  Since the guerrillas try to pick the time and
place to do battle, they attempt to have a through knowledge of
the terrain, and the enemy before instituting an attack.  With
this knowledge, the guerrillas are able to better control their
actions at night than the enemy.
     Since the guerrillas prefer to chose the time and place of
attack, they will try to attack lightly defended supply
facilities and isolated units.  By attacking supply facilities
they are able to obtain needed supplies and equipment for their
own use, and at the same time deprive the enemy of the items.
     Because the size of the guerrilla organization is normally
small, the guerrillas will tend to attack isolated units which
can not be reinforced in time to prevent defeat.  In addition,
the guerrillas, when attacking an isolated unit will plan on
ambushing any reinforcements.
     In carrying out their operations the guerrillas rely
heavily on local support.  This local support can be medical
assistance for the wounded, food supplies for the guerrillas,
or intelligence.  The ability of the local populace to gather
intelligence is a key factor in conducting operations against
the enemy. [5:13]  Unless the enemy has completely stripped an
area of the local populace, there are numerous opportunities
for intelligence to be gathered.  Another important factor to
remember is that the guerrillas are sometimes the local
populace; in this case, the guerrillas have integrated
themselves with the enemy, and are able to conduct intelligence
gathering operations through the observation of the enemy's
activities. [2:34-35]  In fact, if the enemy relies on support
from the local populace, guerrillas may even be employed by the
enemy they are fighting.
     Guerrilla warfare has been used throughout history.
Some successful guerrilla campaigns include the guerrilla
operations of the  Swamp Fox  during the American Revolution,
the Spanish when Napoleon invaded Spain, and the Viet Cong in
South Vietnam.
     During the American Revolution, Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion
realized that his forces were no match for the highly trained
and superbly equipped British forces.  To compensate for his
forces lack of training and equipment, Marion used guerrilla
type tactics against the British. [9:11]  Marion was very
successful in initially avoiding the British.  When Marion was
forced to confront the British headlong in combat his forces
were defeated;  however, the British forces were so weaken by
the chase and the battle, they had to return to England.
Although Marion was not able to defeat the British in battle,
his forces nonetheless caused the British to depart the
southern colonies.
     Another successful use of guerrilla warfare was the
guerrilla warfare waged by the Spaniards in 1808 after
Napoleon's French army invaded the Spanish peninsula.  The
Spanish guerrillas were able to continue applying pressure to
Napoleon's forces, and thus, not permit the French to
concentrate their strength against the much smaller British
force which was sent to fight them.  Hence, the British forces
were able to defeat the French. [6:14]
     A more current example of guerrilla warfare was practiced
by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam against the government of
South Vietnam, and the United States forces sent there to
support the government.  The Viet Cong were a highly organized
guerrilla force which was supported internally by people in
South Vietnam, and externally by North Vietnam and the Soviet
Union.  The Viet Cong used both sophisticated equipment, either
taken from United States or South Vietnam forces, or supplied
by outside allies.  The tactics used by the Viet Cong included
small and large scale operations, and relied heavily on night
attacks, surprise, and intelligence.  A significant success of
the Viet Cong was the removal of United States troops and
support of South Vietnam.  The removal of United States support
allowed the invasion and defeat of the South by North Vietnam,
and the reunification of the two Vietnams. [6:60]
     However, all guerrilla operations are not successful.  In
Greece immediately after World War II, Communist guerrillas
began waging a war against the Greek government.  The
guerrillas were able to receive massive external support over
the Yugoslavian and Bulgarian borders, and use Yugoslavia and
Bulgaria as safe havens.  When Tito, of Yugoslavia, broke with
the communist party in Moscow, Yugoslavia closed its borders
with Greece.  With fifty percent of its support removed, and a
significant reduction in safe havens, the communist guerrilla
effort in Greece was contained by the government. [4:10]
     Another failure occurred in Bolivia, South America.  After
a successful guerrilla effort in Cuba, Ernesto "Che" Guevara
attempted to begin another guerrilla movement in Bolivia.  Che
assumed three things in his planning for guerrilla warfare in
Bolivia:  First, the current government could be defeated by
the guerrillas;  Second, the countryside offered a perfect
medium for guerrillas since guerrilla warfare was primarily a
class struggle waged by rural society;  Third, guerrillas could
ferment a revolutionary atmosphere, even where one did not
exist. [6:108]
     These assumptions proved false in Bolivia.  The government
proved to be a very strong force.  The countryside did not
prove to be fertile ground for revolutionary rhetoric since the
people had sufficient land to farm.  Finally, the guerrillas
could not generate a revolutionary atmosphere, and sufficient
internal support.  The people were complacent with their
standard of living.  In fact, the attacks on the military
tended to inflame the people since the soldiers were from the
very countryside that Guevara tried to unite. [6:109-115]
Therefore, the guerrilla warfare that had occurred in Cuba
could not be exported by Guevara to Bolivia, and his forces
were defeated.
     Guerrilla warfare has been practiced throughout the ages
as a method of oppressed people to overcome the strength of an
enemy through an unconventional form of warfare.  The
philosophy of the guerrilla is that the guerrilla represents
the masses.  Guerrilla warfare is conducted in three phases
depending on the organization and strength of the guerrilla and
the comparable strength of the enemy.  The organization of the
guerrillas is based on small unit cohesion, but formed along
the lines of a conventional military force.  The organization
will grow as support of the guerrilla movement increases.  This
support may be internal from the people or external from other
governments or individuals.  Support will range from covert to
overt support, and include safe havens, equipment, and
supplies.  The tactics of the guerrillas will primarily be
small unit actions relying on surprise, and a superior
knowledge of the area.  Night attacks will be used extensively
to accomplish surprise, and to have a negative psychological
effect on the enemy.
     In considering an impending operation, the military
commander does an analysis of the enemy.  When the commander
analyzes the enemy, he looks for the enemy's strengths and
weaknesses.  To combat guerrilla warfare, a Marine Air Ground
Task Force commander must also do an analysis of the enemy.
He must know guerrilla warfare and the guerrilla, and develop
the techniques necessary to defeat him.  Only when this occurs,
will a Marine Air Ground Task Force be capable of defeating a
belligerent who uses guerrilla warfare.
1  Bayo, Alberto, General.  150 Questions for a Guerrilla.
        Tr.  Hugo Hartenstein and Dennis Harber.  Ed. Robert
        K. Brown.  Colorado: Panther Publications, 1963.
2  Burchett, Wilfred.  Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerilla
        War.  New York: International Publishers, 1965.
3  Chaliand, Gerard, ed.  Guerrilla Strategies.  Berkeley:
        University of California Press, 1982.
4  Cross, James Eliot.  Conflict in the Shadows. Garden
        City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963.
5  Kai-Min, Cheng, LtGen., Chinese General Staff.  A Study
        of Guerrilla Warfare. Quantico: James Carson
        Breckinridge Library, 1950.
6  Pimlott, John, ed. Guerrilla Warfare.  New York: The
        Military Press, 1985.
7  Special Operations Research Office.  Undergrounds in
        Insurgent, Revolutionary, and Resistance Warfare.
        Washington: The American University, 1963.
8  Summers, Harry G. Jr., Col., USA.  On Strategy: The
        Vietnam War in Context.  Carlisle: US Army War
        College, 1981.
9  Tse-Tung, Moa.  On Guerrilla Warfare.  Tr. Samuel B.
        Griffith, Brigadier General, USMC (Ret). New York:
        Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1961.

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