Raymond A. Callahan: Guerrilla warfare tactics predate civilization, says historian
“Guerrilla warfare is as old as recorded history and is a more widespread and reoccurring form of warfare than the organized clash of armies,” Raymond Callahan, UD professor emeritus of history, said during a talk on Oct. 19, in Arsht Hall, on the University's Wilmington campus.
During the lecture, “Do Guerrillas Always Win? Insurgency and Counterinsurgency Through History,” Callahan told an audience of more than 200 persons that guerrilla warfare is the normal recourse of those who are “outnumbered or overmatched by technology and a disciplined organization.”
“You can start with the biblical accounts of the guerrilla warfare campaign waged by Judas Maccabeus, to the current war waged in the land between Burma and Thailand, fought between the Burmese Army and the Karen people,” Callahan said. “It started when the British left Burma in 1948, and has gone on uninterruptedly for nearly 60 years.”
While technology and weapons have evolved, the basic tactics of guerrilla fighters embrace the Neolithic principles of ambush, raid and sabotage, Callahan said.
“The Karen tribesman, who have been fighting for over half a century, do not want to take over the Rangoon government,” Callahan said. “They simply want the government of Rangoon to leave them alone and to go away.”
Guerrilla warfare is fought on a wide variety of geographical settings, including mountains, swamps and jungles, as well as the concrete labyrinths of large urban areas, Callahan said.
“The crucial stage of the current conflict in Iraq is, in fact, not being played out in deserts or swamps or mountains, but in Baghdad itself,” Callahan said.
Historically, regular armies have often adopted draconian methods in counterinsurgency strategies that include reducing the number of people [insurgents and civilians], who need pacifying, Callahan said. To counter such strategies, Callahan said, guerrilla fighters have often sought to keep the opposition out of disputed territories.
“In history, there is the three-century-long struggle by the clans of the Apache Nation to keep the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans out of their territory in the American southwest,” Callahan said. “In the end, the simple numbers in the overwhelming force of the westward movement rolled over the Apaches.”
Callahan said that in the 19th and 20th centuries, the political implications of guerrilla wars changed as a result of confrontations between the armies of parliamentary democracies with a free press, involved in counterinsurgency campaigns.
“One of the first collisions between a parliamentary democracy and a vigorous free press occurred during the conflict between the British and the Dutch-descended Boers or Afrikaners in South Africa at the end of the 19th century,” Callahan said. “The conflict was covered with great intensity by the press because it was fought on the British side exclusively by British soldiers rather than the Indian Army units that had fought so many of the Victorian era's imperial wars.”
The British did not have a counterinsurgency doctrine to tell them exactly how to conduct such a campaign, so they groped toward a solution, while the Boers, beaten in the regular campaign, disappeared into the vastness of the high plains of South Africa where they learned to strike at British outposts and supply lines, Callahan said.
“The British commander for South Africa was the great imperial icon of the late Victorian and Edwardian years, General Sir Herbert Kitchener,” Callahan said. “Long before Chairman Mao, Kitchener decided that the Boer population was the sea, and the best way to beat the guerrillas, was to drain the sea.”
Callahan: “The crucial stage of the current conflict in Iraq is, in fact, not being played out in deserts or swamps or mountains, but in Baghdad itself.”
Kitchener's policy was to sweep the Boer civilian population off the farmsteads and into what were christened “concentration camps,” where the death rate was very high because nobody had thought about the sanitary and housing issues involved in assembling a scattered rural population into what amounted to crowded mini-cities, Callahan said.
“As the death rate soared, the treatment of the Boers became controversial,” Callahan said. “In the end, the mounting unrest in Britain coupled with the fact that Kitchener's tactics were working produced a compromise peace.”
Signed in 1902, the treaty was not very popular with British taxpayers who had to pay for the rebuilding of the Boer territories, and within 10 years many of the guerrillas who had fought the British were back in power and would be key figures in white South African politics for the next 30 years, Callahan said.
“Was it a victory?” Callahan asked. “One could argue that it was the only victory available in the circumstances.”
Another insurgency faced by the British was what became known as the Anglo-Irish War, which began in earnest as soon as the First World War had ended.
“Many of the same things that occurred in the Boer War repeated themselves, only this time things were not occurring thousands of miles away, but right next door in Ireland,” Callahan said. “The twist in this conflict was that the architect from the Irish side of the insurgency, Michael Collins, was to focus the use of the insurgency not in the countryside, but in the cities.”
The special counterinsurgency force employed by the British, the Black and Tans, operated under somewhat different rules and somewhat looser discipline than the regular army. While their tactics worked, they caused such a backlash in British public opinion that Prime Minster Lloyd George decided the political cost was too high and called for negotiations that led to the creation of the Irish Free State, Callahan said.
It appears that in most cases the armies of major nations have to reinvent counterinsurgency tactics with each new conflict, Callahan said. The United States Army, which has been involved in a war in Iraq since 2003, didn't revise its counterinsurgency manual--last updated in 1983--until 2006.
“The problem is trying to learn how to do this and fight at the same time,” Callahan said. “Armies exist to fight other armies, and there is a sense that these kinds of conflicts are messy, ambiguous career-killers, and that once they are over, people just want to forget about them.”
An expert on military history and the author of numerous books, including the recent Churchill and His Generals, Callahan earned his doctorate and master's degrees from Harvard University. During his long career at UD, Callahan taught history and made other significant contributions, including the development of the Master's of Arts in Liberal Studies Program.
The talk was sponsored by the Academy of Lifelong Learning, a UD membership organization for adults 50 years and over who want to exchange ideas, take classes, teach and travel together.
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