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The New York Sun
A Historical Lesson on Fighting Guerillas
By Ion Grumeza
When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, he soon became aware that despite occupying Barcelona and Madrid, he had lost the peace. He also painfully learned that “guerilla” meant “little war.” Both in Spain and again, four years later in Russia, he found himself engaged not in a “real” war between soldiers in uniforms with precise front lines, but in battles with local peasants turned bitter fighters who relentlessly harassed and killed the French soldiers left behind their columns and outside their encampments.
American colonists quickly learned the value of guerilla tactics when peaceful civilians became fierce militiamen fighting British soldiers in every way they could. These battles drained the British Crown’s expeditionary power so much that the American colonies gained their independence.
Hitler learned little from the same lessons of history. He paid no attention to the occupied Ukrainians who deeply hated Stalin and wanted to fight the Soviets in exchange for a country of their own. By saying, “Why occupy a country and then give it freedom?,” the Fuhrer arrested the newly formed Ukrainian Free Government. In doing so, he transformed some 40 million devoted allies into merciless enemies. An army of partisans was formed ad hoc.
The partisan war in German-occupied Russia should be carefully studied as well, for it provides invaluable lessons on how to, and especially how not to, deal with an occupied nation. The arrogant attitude of the Germans did not win them friends among the Russians, and Berlin’s effort to rule Russia in the German way proved a total disaster. Totally ignored were the character, cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the two (clashing) ethnicities. German punitive expeditions against Russian dwellings that harbored Red partisans produced more partisans ready to avenge killed friends and relatives. The biggest military problems were created by devastating attacks by Russian partisans on the supply trains and truck convoys destined to feed and arm the front-line Germans. If all those valuable supplies had reached the trenches of Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Kursk, the well-trained German soldiers would not have suffered defeat in Russia.
The victorious British tasted partisan “medicine” in India, Ireland, and in Palestine, where the Zionist fighters hunted the Crown soldiers who guarded the Jewish immigration. The French experienced a chaotic partisan war in Algeria; the Americans, in Vietnam; and the Soviets, in Afghanistan. Each time there was a lesson in military humiliation for these military giants.
According to the Geneva war laws, any combatant must wear a distinctive uniform or a visible sign that indicates his military intentions, and his weapon must be in full display. So far, in all partisan wars, that rule has never been obeyed. When civilians fire at soldiers in uniforms, the soldiers defensively machine-gun them, and many more lives are lost in noncombat action.
The ultimate unpredictable twist of guerilla warfare is repeating itself right now in Iraq where large numbers of weapons are in the civilian hands. The Western occupiers (130,000 Americans; 13,000 British; and a few “allied” countries) are struggling to bring freedom, self-rule, and other noble ideals to Iraq—through armed force. We are focused on our ideals, our goals, and we have forgotten the lessons of history.
By invading a land and occupying a nation, the victorious troops automatically trespassed on most of the social and religious taboos of the natives. Their military orders seemed to violate just about each custom that had not changed in hundreds of years. To strip a man and frisk a woman in search of weapons and other illegal materials is one example; in Afghanistan and Iraq such actions are the ultimate insult and a proof of no respect. Likewise, when a nineteen year-old American soldier breaks an entrance door with his boot and storms into a house looking for terrorists, he has done worse than break into a home—he has trashed a Muslim custom, that a person enters a home or a mosque only barefoot, leaving shoes outside. Actions such as these are unforgivable sins to the Muslims and put soldiers on a death-wish list of the local guerillas.
We are the only occupiers in history who pay our own bills and try to help those who have been defeated in war. Ironically, the guerillas in Iraq see this gesture as proof of our wanting to corrupt Islam. Each day more Americans are killed in unconfined guerilla war. Soon there will be more casualties in peacetime than during the war. In defense, American soldiers take measures to protect themselves, but firing into a civilian crowd is not the American way of maintaining control. The sad conclusion is that regardless of what we Americans do, the guerilla forces will keep increasing and our punitive actions will not stop the killings.
In fact this escalates the number of killings because the temporary small victory triggers another reason for the guerillas to fight back. It is part of revengeful culture of the macho Afghanistan and Iraqi men, who cannot tolerate a defeat. That machismo takes unbelievable deadly turns when the robust and mustachioed alpha male is forced by a Young American GI to kneel, watching how his wife, sister or daughter, standing with legs apart and arms up, is subject to a body search. It is the ultimate offense to the fearsome and possessive man who in his society can kill when his woman is touched by another man. In a matter of seconds, the peaceful man becomes a revengeful guerilla who wants to make sure Muslim women are not going to wear miniskirts, smoke or drink, or imitate other Western habits. When facing invading troops and a show of force, Muslim men have one thing in mind: show who the real man is, the one to be feared and to rule the people. Economics, politics, social and religious dogmas come in second, after “I am the man in charge!” Guerilla warfare is mostly about manhood and “I’ll show you who is better and stronger!”
Throughout history guerilla wars have been wars of vengeance. There are no viable solutions—except one: at some point, Americans shall retreat and the guerilla factions will kill each other. If we insist on being involved, this time we can learn from history and instead of waging a long-lasting, futile war with guerilla factions, we can pay off the strongest guerilla gang, giving it the proviso that there never be another Saddam. And if there is, we can find and arm a local (pro-American) force to take him out. This will save the lives of our men and women, and it’s cheaper economically. Additionally, we’ll stop the cycle of repeating history because we haven’t learned by studying it.
© 2003 Ion Grumeza