The history of raiding warfare

Max Boot:
Pundits and the press too often treat terrorism and guerrilla tactics as something new, a departure from old-fashioned ways of war. But nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout most of our species' long and bloody slog, warfare has primarily been carried out by bands of loosely organized, ill-disciplined, and lightly armed volunteers who disdained open battle in favor of stealthy raids and ambushes: the strategies of both tribal warriors and modern guerrillas and terrorists. In fact, conventional warfare is the relatively recent invention. It was first made possible after 10,000 BC by the development of agricultural societies, which produced enough surplus wealth and population to allow for the creation of specially designed fortifications and weapons (and the professionals to operate them). The first genuine armies -- commanded by a strict hierarchy, composed of trained soldiers, disciplined with threats of punishment -- arose after 3100 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia. But the process of state formation and, with it, army formation took considerably longer in most of the world. In some places, states emerged only in the past century, and their ability to carry out such basic functions as maintaining an army remains tenuous at best. Considering how long humans have been roaming the earth, the era of what we now think of as conventional conflict represents the mere blink of an eye.

Nonetheless, since at least the days of the Greeks and the Romans, observers have belittled irregular warfare. Western soldiers and scholars have tended to view it as unmanly, even barbaric. It's not hard to see why: guerillas, in the words of the British historian John Keegan, are "cruel to the weak and cowardly in the face of the brave" -- precisely the opposite of what professional soldiers are taught to be. Many scholars have even claimed that guerrilla raids are not true warfare.

This view comes to seem a bit ironic when one considers the fact that throughout history, irregular warfare has been consistently deadlier than its conventional cousin -- not in total numbers killed, since tribal societies are tiny compared with urban civilizations, but in the percentage killed. The average tribal society loses 0.5 percent of its population in combat every year. In the United States, that would translate into 1.5 million deaths, or 500 September 11 attacks a year. Archaeological evidence confirms that such losses are not a modern anomaly.

The origins of guerilla warfare are lost in the swamps of prehistory, but the kinds of foes that guerrillas have faced have changed over the centuries. Before about 3000 BC, tribal guerrillas fought exclusively against other tribal guerrillas. Although that type of fighting continued after 3000 BC, it was supplemented and sometimes supplanted by warfare pitting tribes and rebels against newly formed states. These conflicts were, in a sense, the world's first insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. Every great empire of antiquity, starting with the first on record, the Akkadian empire, in ancient Mesopotamia, was deviled by nomadic guerrillas, although the term "guerrilla" would not be coined for millennia to come. ("Guerrilla," literally meaning "small war," dates to the Spanish resistance against Napoleon, from 1808 to 1814.)

In modern times, the same old guerrilla tactics have been married to ideological agendas, something that was utterly lacking among the apolitical (and illiterate) tribal warriors of old. Of course, the precise nature of the ideological agendas being fought for has changed over the years, from liberalism and nationalism (the cri de coeur of guerrilla fighters from the late eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century), to socialism and nationalism (which inspired guerrillas between the late nineteenth century and the late twentieth century), to jihadist extremism today. All the while, guerrilla and terrorist warfare have remained as ubiquitous and deadly as ever.

There is much more in this long excerpt from Boot's latest book, The Evolution of Irregular Warfare.  I usually refer to irregular warfare as a "raiding strategy" as opposed to a combat persisting strategy which is usually referred to as "conventional warfare."

The reason countries using conventional troops have difficulty with irregular warfare or raiding strategies is that it requires them to do the opposite of what breeds success in the combat persisting environment  where troops are massed and they continue to fight until the enemy army is destroyed or it surrenders.

To defeat a raiding strategy, the resisting army must spread out its resources and protect people using fortifications and strategic structures that allow it to cut off the enemy's movement to contact and retreat from contact.  That is where the raider is most vulnerable.  Smaller units are also used to patrol the routes used to attack and retreat.  There is great resistance to these tactics and strategies by "conventional" militaries and the civilians who control them.  This also becomes and advantage for the insurgent raiders.


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