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International Socialism, Summer 1962


John Corina

Guerillas in Action


From International Socialism (1st series), No.9, Summer 1962, p.33.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Guerilla Warfare
Che Guevara
Monthly Review Press, New York. $3.50.

Power in most Latin American countries lies in the hands of privileged land-owning minorities so self-interested that they show almost no signs of enlightenment. Since these die-hards cannot be induced at the eleventh hour to make politically effective concessions to social justice, they face the prospect of violent revolts. The most likely technique for the destruction of social and political structures throughout the Continent is now seen by many to be guerilla warfare on the Cuban model. Both the Inter-American Defence Board and the Brazilian peasants’ party, for example, agree on this point; and Guerilla Warfare – according to the view taken – is welcomed either as the devil’s inspiration or as the peasant’s best friend.

It is a military handbook covering the technicalities of guerilla warfare, including such details as training, supply, equipment, discipline, chains of command, improvisation of weapons and explosives, warning and communication systems, intelligence, tactical flexibility, ambush drills, care of wounded, treatment of enemy and civil population, etc. Much of the detail is familiar to the military expert and ‘old-hat’ to the experienced European – how to break out from encirclement, and how to harass the flanks and vanguard of a moving enemy, are to be found in most military manuals.

On the personnel problem, however, Guevara is stimulating on indoctrination, education, morale and complete individual subordination to continual front-line warfare. He reveals that the most junior command rank amongst Cuban guerillas was ‘lieutenant,’ corporals and sergeants being ostracised by the 1933 ‘sergeants’ revolt, which put Batista into power.

For a practical manual, the illustrations are poor – confined to the ‘M16 ‘ rifle-propelled Molotov cocktail, tank traps, target practice, the mortar refuge and the roofed-hammock. One would have expected illustrated guidance on such things as road blocks, mine-laying, and booby traps. The book is also weak in many of its literary explanations. It says little about the technique of nightwork (rendezvous after dispersal does not seem to be covered), the staging of emergency supply dumps and surprise tactics (the disposal of enemy sentries using the knife is not covered!). Yet it is good on the details of food supply and ammunition conservation and collection.

So far as the social theory of guerilla warfare is concerned, Guevera does not draw on the rich body of experience ranging from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaya to Palestine and Cyprus. We have to await a less involved analyst to establish the general conditions of the success or failure of guerilla war.

Two basic propositions might be examined. First, that no guerilla war can be won without the support of part of the population. Second, that the guerilla force usually ‘wins’ through its nuisance value and not (as Guevara asserts) through total annihilation of the enemy. It ‘wins’ because it instils fear and creates trouble for the low-level administrators throughout a disrupted society. It becomes enormously costly in social and economic terms for the military power to maintain a swollen army and regroup the civil population.

Yet Guevara neatly ducks the whole problem of guerilla terrorism and counter-repression in his book because it is a red-hot chestnut – that there can be little distinction between military and civil sectors. The civilian population is involved and Guevara admits that ‘this civil population collaborates in a certain measure with either of the two sides.’ This only half-conceals the unpleasant truth that he who rules does so by the balance of fear. It all depends whether the ‘uncommitted’ fear the guerillas more than the military ‘occupying’ power – and this is why the civilian casualty rolls are far longer than those of the combatants. As Guevara states, the guerilla must show ‘absolute inflexibility toward all the despicable elements that resort to informing and assassination.’ The circle encompassing the definition of the civilian ‘despicable elements’ inevitably tends to grow wider and wider under the conditions of guerilla warfare. Because all who are not with them are irrationally considered to be against the guerillas, there is no middle way to a solution of the social problems afflicting the country.

The guerilla leader, though he may not like to discuss it, can use this opportunity as a policy to further his cause. He can deliberately provoke severe repression by the military power upon the civil population, by his actions. In doing so, he will trust that the civil indignation will swing in his favour – and this is part of the Cuban success story. No, my Fidelistas, the guerilla cannot have it both ways. Behind the brand image of a kindly bearded guerilla in jungle-green doling out land plots to welcoming peasants, lies the harsh reality of the terror and fear that are the real forces of guerilla warfare.

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