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A History of Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq
William Polk

Extended Book Review by Harry Rosenberg.

William Polk, as a historian of terrorism has few, if any, peers. He is also a brilliant and gifted writer; Polk makes each page come alive. At once dispassionate and compassionate, he leads his readers through the waves of history climaxing in our day where Mr. Bush has committed the US to a "Long War," courtesy of the Neocons. To deny that is to deny the very existence of 737 US military and air bases throughout the world along with instituting new legal structures that immunize American counterinsurgency forces from prosecution by local authorities everywhere on earth. This grand plan for world dominance must be thoughtfully reviewed and reversed before our great nation drowns in an apocalyptic tsunami of hatred and bloodshed, with 15 trillion dollars wasted in the process. William Polk makes just this historic case. We will return to this below, but first, the tides and their lessons in Polk's narrative deserve rendition.

Introduction: To paraphrase:

  • Opposition to foreigners must be a basic human emotion as it appears in every insurgence--indeed, that is the very definition.
  • Terror and insurgency are the politics of last resort by an indigent people oppressed by a foreign power whose own self-interests come ahead of theirs.
  • Insurgencies can be suppressed, but at the cost of virtual genocide that wipes out a people.
  • Invaders rarely study the history or cultures of their victims and are always surprised by the tenacity of the opposition.
  • Occupiers, even the most benevolent kind, find ways to alienate and humiliate the local populace, whether by design or accident.
  • Insurgencies begin at the local level involving only a few people, perhaps a dozen or so.
  • Insurgents first employ terrorism; it has always been so.
  • As terrorism succeeds, as it usually does, other angry men and women join or form similar small groups, expanding the conflict.
  • Retribution by the occupying power invariably fans the flames of terror and insurgency.
  • Insurgents at this point become able to disrupt the government of the occupying power to the point that it ceases to function.
  • Insurgents then create a new government or anti-state.
  • If that does not happen in timely fashion, and often it does not, violence and opposition typically continue for generations, until the occupier capitulates or annihilates the populace.
  • Finally, as insurgents succeed and create a new government, they eliminate their own roots, and so the insurgency dies.

This is a general pattern. Variations occur depending on the history of the people and reasons for its insurgency, as well as geographic and cultural variables. Some insurgencies continue for decades, even centuries.

The American Insurgency

George Washington actually fought the wrong war! He failed to recognize the value of small-group participation because he despised their military value of harassing the British. The same was true of the militia who were unschooled in the British way of warfare--which he admired and emulated. His victories and defeats got all the news, but it was the steady united front put up by the small groups and militia that finally wore down the British to the point of exhaustion.

The American insurgency followed from various British policies that were alienating and humiliating to the colonists. Initial responses were local, and some became famous, like the Boston Tea Party. George III found it increasingly hard to suppress an insurgency that seemed to come from everywhere--with no central command structure--that hit and run while whittling away at foreign governance.

The Spanish Guerrilla Against the French

This insurgency began soon after Napoleon invaded Spain. It eventually destroyed him as he himself observed. His shock-and-awe army quickly overran all of Spain. In his hubris, Napoleon reacted to opposition with brutality which only fanned the flames of insurgency. The Spanish hit-and-run terror attacks became common and often escalated the French response. In Polk's words.

"Sargossa became Spain's Stalingrad. Its desolation fed popular fury. ...In la petite guerre, detached, irregular, and often foreign soldiers operated as auxiliaries to regular formations: in guerrilla there were no regular forces to which the guerrillas could attach themselves. The guerrillas were the local people, amateurs who carried on with their regular means of living, who fought when they saw an advantage and faded away when they were outgunned. ...The countryside was virtually impassible for the French cavalry and artillery. Village by village, valley by valley, bands of desperate men suddenly appeared to ambush and just as rapidly to run before troops could gather. When they could, they overwhelmed isolated outposts and wagon trains. Always they carried off loot to hideaways beyond French recovery."

The Catholic Church was an important unifier of insurrection. Priests actively participated.

In 1811, the number of Spanish guerrillas assisting in the battle of Vitoria was put at nearly 20,000 in some 111 groups--according to Wellington's intelligence service. The total number of Spanish insurgents at the time was about 35,000. Each operated opportunistically to whittle away at the French. Polk leaves this insurrection with this gem:

"The more effective, the more brutal [the occupiers] are in suppressing the general population, the more recruits the fighters gain..."

Some nations, some people, never seem to learn.

The Philippine Insurrection

As the 20th Century dawned, this insurrection became America's first taste of guerrilla warfare. America was not the first invader. Spain occupied the Philippines and actively practiced genocide, over the course of three centuries, Spain reduced the Muslim fraction of the population from an initial 50% to 5% by 1898. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, Spain sold the Philippines to the US for twenty-million dollars. Inherited by a new imperial power, populace discomfort continued. The new American commander anticipated trouble. When an American killed a Filipino in 1899, virtually the entire population rose up in arms. In response, the Americans began wiping out entire villages, which only escalated the problem. As in the later invasion of Iraq the Americans called up the The National Guard. By 1900, America had 150,000 soldiers in the Philippines. These folks encountered a strange people, strange customs and strange tropical weather and diseases. Atrocities became commonplace if not the order of the day--for both sides. Terror bred terror. Sound familiar?

Things improved under a later governor, William Howard Taft, who recognized the need to win hearts and minds. But it did not last; the American flag still flew. Filipinos remained second-class citizens for a half century. When the Japanese invaded, a new generation of rebels had a new enemy. Or rather they had two enemies, the Japanese and the Filipinos who collaborated. Some 5,000 Japanese soldiers were killed by Huk guerrillas during the occupation. The Huks were part of the locals and treated their benefactors with proper respect; they were after all neighbors.

After the Japanese were finally expelled, General Douglas MacArthur "returned." As Field Marshall of the Philippine's military from 1935 to 1941, he worked closely with the land owners and business elites. These were among the people the Huks wished to topple. They were oppressors, pure and simple. So it may have been natural that McArthur appointed men from the old regime to the new, even some who had collaborated with the Japanese. In fact, he pardoned Manuel Roxas, the most well-know collaborator with the Japanese and funded his election to the presidency of the now "independent" Philippines. The Huks did not view their "independence" as being real, and allied themselves with the Communists. Roxas began cracking down hard on the Huks and other groups. The assassination of the Huk leader triggered a civil war that lasted until 1949. The Americans, still in charge, sent colonel Lansdale to Manila to resolve the conflict. His success was astonishing. Working through Magsaysay, who had some record of opposing the Japanese and who was appointed president of the Philippines, Lansdale, is credited with "saving" the Philippines from the Communists. He did it by tutoring Magsaysay day and night in returning to the Taft doctrine. After upgrading intelligence, a two-pronged policy developed:

1) The military was stiffened by "Scout-Ranger" teams, usually of just five men who were fast and mobile enough to interdict Communist cells of similar size. For larger events, battalion sized units were dispatched. 2) An "Economic Development Corp" began parceling out land to the landless. This declawed the Huk's main complaint.

Magsaysay, the star of political life, was elected to the presidency in 1953. Massive American foreign aid was withdrawn, removing the most visible sign of American hegemony. With that the insurgency died away. After Magsaysay's death in a plane crash in 1957, the Philippines reverted to its historic patterns of corruption that continue to this day. In 1957, Lansdale, who had earned an enviable reputation tutoring Magsaysay, was called upon for an encore in Vietnam.


Like the Philippines, Vietnam had been colonized by a European power. In like manner it had to live under the Japanese boot, and so an insurgency developed. It followed the script, living off the land and supported by the locals. Ho Chi Min was their leader, and after liberation, Vietnam declared itself independent. But France was not out of the picture. Diplomatically, perhaps because he could do little else and still deal with the Chinese to the North, Ho Chi Min signed a peace agreement, welcoming the French back. The French, as they had in Spain, used their military to "pacify" the countryside, excluding all negotiations. But the Vietnamese had other ideas, hardened as they were by the Japanese. The Vietnamese insurgency against the French eventually reached full battlefield strength. The French were decisively beaten in 1954 by novel techniques. Ho took control of Vietnam north of the 17th parallel.

America by now was in a full-fledged Cold War with the Soviet Union. Fearing a domino effect if Ho Chi Min invaded the south, the US became worried and called upon Lansdale to create another miracle. It was not to be. He found no Magsaysay. What he was given was corruption and connivance in the person of Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem would have been soon deposed without Lansdale at his side. As it was, Diem hung on only to lose the battle for minds. Even massive American intervention only served to delay the inevitable unification of Vietnam--at tremendous cost. Most of this happened on president Johnson's watch. The end came when once again, the insurgents achieved full-battle strength in the field. Anticipating a showdown, the Americans took the bait but were stunned and surprised at the audacity of the Tet offensive that general Giap was able to pull off. Militarily the offensive was a complete failure. But the military means little when the real war is for the minds of the people. Tet was the turning point. It was the master stroke that won the war, ending in an ignominious American withdrawal. Less than two years later, the last Vietcong gave up and Vietnam became one nation again.


In all, Polk details 11 insurgencies that succeeded. Each was different in time and players. It is the themes listed in the Introduction above that are hauntingly similar. The rich and powerful expect to have their way and don't mind how they get it. Backlash, in the forms of terror and insurrection, becomes the natural answer to humiliation by foreigners. There is something about humanity that both strives for, and from the opposite pole resents and resists, dominance and exploitation. Humanity fights for and against itself at the same time!

Since America is dealing with yet another insurgency, and still not having learned anything, it is worthwhile to review some of the details that leave our future most problematic. Since the reign of the virgin Queen Elizabeth I, the Anglo-Americans and their English-speaking allies have shaped the world pretty much to their liking. Speaking historically, it is as if the Anglo-Americans consider the rest of the world an insurgency, enemies all so to speak. This may not be a conscious or deliberate perception of their citizens, but it seems to be of their leaders, the political elite who time and again lead us into temptation and disaster. Conservative and liberal alike, perhaps corrupted by their own vast powers, revert to their Authoritarian Personalities in lieu of better judgment. We can see no other reason why our leaders deliberately ignore, or reinterpret to their liking, the lessons of history, and do so so compulsively. It must be in our genes!

Since we are mired in Iraq, fighting insurgencies, Polk takes the opportunity to review some of the issues he sees. The Long Long War, mentioned in the first paragraph, currently proceeds according to the December 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual edited by generals David Petraeus and James Amos. These men may indeed go down in history as great warriors--just as did Irwin Rommel of WWII fame. But that event is very unlikely as their field manual is deeply flawed. It not only ignores the tides of history; it also neglects the most basic and historic elements of insurgencies--no folks anywhere appreciate governance from abroad. In effect, it ignores our own American history, which began as an insurgency against that other George, the third, who actually reigned over an empire upon which the sun never set.

The Neocons will argue that times have changed, and so they have, in technology, not in the origins of violence.

Polk considers the Field Manual to be the military guide for the Long War and his comments include:

The 2006 Field Manual: [Edited and approved by General Petreaus and General Amos.]

  • PURPOSE: "With our Soldiers and Marines fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is essential that we give then a manual that provides principles and guidelines for counterinsurgency operations. Such guidance must be grounded in historical studies. However, it must be informed by contemporary experiences. ... Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors." [RTP: The singular problem here is that the real battle is over ideas, not military strength or counterinsurgency procedures.]
  • ROLE OF THE SOLDIERS: "Armed Forces cannot succeed in [counterinsurgency] alone ... killing insurgents--while necessary, especially with respect to extremists--by itself cannot defeat an insurgency ... True extremists are unlikely to be reconciled to any other outcome than the one they seek; therefore, they must be killed or captured. ... killing every insurgent is normally not possible. Attempting to do so can also be counterproductive in some cases; it risks generating popular resentment, creating martyrs that motivate new recruits, and producing cycles of revenge." Polk: Although the manual touts its historical basis, the historical record shows precisely that killing insurgents is either impossible, irrelevant or counterproductive. [RTP: Cycles of revenge have startling disparities with two or more sides. Revenge cycles will continue until the disparity is removed or those on one side of an issue are annihilated.]
  • NATION BUILDING: "...the core objective of nation building ... regime change or survivability." Polk: Have outsiders ever accomplished that task? Look at the American experience. American forces have been sent abroad to fight more than 200 times since our country was founded. But in recent years only sixteen times have we attempted nation building. Of these sixteen ... the Carnegie endowment [found] eleven were outright failures. Two, Germany and Japan, can be recorded as successes, while two others, tiny and nearby Grenada and Panama, were probably successful. [RTP: Germany and Japan were totally defeated in a world war; they were not insurgencies; they were opposed by insurgencies, so count them as successful insurgencies. So the counterinsurgency record is really that much worse.]
  • LEGITIMATION: "Political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies; each side aims to get the people to accept its governance or authority as legitimate." Polk: Is this a feasible objective for foreigners? One searches the historical record in vain for an example of success. The foreign occupying force, by definition, is alien. ...Nationalism, or more crudely xenophobia, overwhelms even beneficial programs. In the Spanish war against Napoleon, as we have seen, even when what the French wanted was to make the society more open, more productive, and more just, the Spanish people regarded those objectives as unimportant when weighed on the scales of nationalism. On what grounds can we expect the attitude of Iraqis or Afghans or Somalis will be significantly different? Nowhere in the manual could this final problem be solved; indeed it could not even be adequately addressed. What is addressed is the means to separate the insurgents from the general population. But this was tried in Malaya (in fortified villages), Vietnam (in strategic hamlets), and Kenya (in detention camps). With the possible exception of Malaya, (where the insurgents who as ethnic Chinese were themselves foreigners), these actions only further undermined any claim to legitimacy for the foreign occupiers. ...the single absolutely necessary ingredient in counterinsurgency is extremely unlikely to be available to foreigners.
  • ADAPTING TO THE NATIVES: Polk: Petreaus and Amos urge that the foreigners learn about the natives, even acquire some skill in their language, to minimize their foreignness. Yet again, refer to the American Revolution: The British troops spoke the same language fluently, were generally of the same religion, and probably many were at least distantly related. The way these factors affected the American insurgency was exactly opposite of what the British hoped: it caused the insurgents to try to subvert the British army rather than enabling the British to win over the insurgents. In practice, the American insurgents fought harder, more viciously, against their compatriots who sided with the British than against the British themselves. This was also true of the insurgencies in Spain, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, Greece, Kenya, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. It is true today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • ESTABLISH AND SECURE SECURE AREAS: Polk: Like insurgency, counterinsurgency has a way of repeating itself. In Vietnam, in the 1960s, the Americans picked up and tried to apply the French tache d'huile, or enclave strategy. They hoped, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff then told New York Times correspondent Hanson Baldwin, "Once the enclaves are secure, the troops based in them could be employed either defensively or offensively, in small or large operations nearby or in other sections of South Vietnam." Very similar tactics have been and are being tried in both Iraq and Afghanistan: "Clear and hold" is presumably more sophisticated than "search and destroy." But as Mao Tse Tung and Vo Nguyen Giap among others have pointed out--and demonstrated--holding territory tends to weaken occupiers whereas it strengthens insurgents.
  • THE USE OF FORCE: "The more force applied the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal." Polk: Using limited and carefully targeted force seldom is more graciously accepted. We have seen this in the American Revolution when foreign troops were extraordinarily disciplined, indeed even taken to a colonial court if they tried to defend themselves against attacks by mobs or American terrorists. rThei discipline did not make them any more acceptable to the Americans. It would be naive to believe it to be different in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even under the new senior American commander, Lieutenant General Raymond T. Odierno, who believes that, under President Bush's new strategy, the war will last for years.

    This is indeed, The Long War. Whatever our politics, social preferences, or religion, this book is a must read if we want to improve our judgment of our national trend toward toward moral and economic bankruptcy. It borders on madness to defy history as we are--especially since Polk and others did read the tea leaves correctly.

    If democracy is an idea whose time has come,
    why do we not have the patience
    (as we did during the Cold War) to compete as a democracy instead of as the imperial dictatorship others see us to be?

    Why adopt non-democratic means to promote democracy?

Take the foregoing bullets altogether and there is no basis for believing these seven policies will bring success in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East. It is not in the cards. What is in the cards is a foundation for a Long War. Is it right? The American electorate and the next administration will decide.

Polk concludes his classic book with a quote by Eisenhower:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of it children... This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."


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