Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 4  /  

Blurred Lines: The Myth of Guerrilla Tactics

Blurred Lines: The Myth of Guerrilla Tactics Blurred Lines: The Myth of Guerrilla Tactics
To cite this article: Friedman, Brett, “Blurred Lines: The Myth of Guerrilla Tactics”, Infinity Journal, Vol. 3, Issue No. 4, winter 2014, pages 25-28.

Irregular warfare is in style. As the United States and its allies waged two wars against irregular actors in the last decade, the need to understand the conflicts in which the West was engaged spawned an industry of theorists discussing the phenomenon, and a few evangelists who feared a US shift to irregular warfare. The discussion is based on one assumption: that conventional tactics and irregular tactics are different. This conversation garnered so much emphasis that glaring issues of strategy were largely ignored. It is built on a false assumption: that there are two different styles of warfare. In fact, there is no meaningful difference between conventional and guerrilla (or irregular) warfare when it comes to tactics, and continued artificial segregation obscures more important military issues. This is a vital point for those thinking about strategy to understand since matters of strategy rest on tactics. At the same time, a focus on allegedly new tactics cannot be allowed to obscure higher, and more important, issues of strategy.

Definitions and Doctrine

Similarities can be seen in definitions of guerrilla and conventional warfare. T. E. Lawrence described the guerrilla tactics his Arab revolt would use against the Ottomans in terms of “orthodoxy” that were simply translated to the characteristics of his forces and terrain.[i] Mao Tse-Tung, arguably the greatest theorist of guerrilla warfare, described guerrilla tactics as:

“based primarily on alertness, mobility, and attack… select the tactic of seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west. Avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow… engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws…the enemy’s rear, flanks, and other vulnerable spots are his vital points, and there he must be harassed, attacked, dispersed, exhausted and annihilated.”[ii]

Robert Taber recognized the similarities as well:

“The policy of hitting the enemy when he is weak, evading him when he is strong, taking the offensive when he falls back, circling around when he advances- all of this is only common sense. There is no great novelty in it… What is new… is the application of guerrilla activity, in a conscious and deliberate way, to specific political objectives…”[iii]

This last statement – that activity is tied to political objectives – is of course applicable to all warfare. Thus we are left with only similarities. In his recent book, Invisible Armies, Max Boot also points out the similarities:

“At the lowest level, guerrilla war has much in common with the small-unit tactics of conventional armies: both rely on ambush and rapid movement. The difference is that guerrilla warfare lacks front lines and large-scale, set-piece battles – the defining characteristics of conventional conflict.”[iv]

Are set-piece battles and front lines still defining characteristics of conventional conflict? A quick look at modern descriptions of combat belies the notion. The US Army describes its “Unified Land Operations” as a method that “begins and ends with the exercise of collective and individual initiative to gain a position of advantage that degrades and defeats the enemy throughout the depth of the enemy’s organization.”[v] Guerrilla organizations also stress individual initiative, only fight where they possess an advantage, and fight throughout the depth of the enemy organization rather than recognize front lines. In fact, the US Army’s conception of how it fights is so “guerrilla-esque” it could be used as a definition of guerrilla warfare. The US Marine Corps’ MCDP-1 Warfighting goes even further, describing what that service defines as maneuver warfare:

“…warfare by maneuver stems from a desire to circumvent and attack it from a position of advantage rather than meet it straight on… enemy concentrations are generally avoided as enemy strengths. Instead of attacking enemy strength, the goal is the application of our strength against selected enemy weakness… Maneuver relies on speed and surprise…”[vi]

Modern conventional tactics are so similar to so-called guerrilla tactics that even the same words must be used to describe them. Both US definitions above show far more of Mao’s DNA than any other theorist. The distinguishing feature of conventional warfare, “front lines and set pieces battles,” does not even merit mention in definitions of so-called conventional warfare. Steven Biddle terms this the “modern system,” where modern combat forces military organizations to use cover, concealment, dispersion, small-unit independent maneuver, suppression, and combined arms integration”[vii] far more than they used to. Mao’s Three Stage ladder has collapsed into one step.

It is this modern system that both conventional and guerrilla organizations practice at a fundamental level. The differences are only uniform deep. Conventional armies and guerrilla organizations have no monopoly on any one tactic or set of tactics, even combined arms. A complex attack that combines an IED strike on an entry control point followed up by infiltration attacks is a form of combined arms. The principles of warfare and technological change drive soldier and guerrilla alike towards the same tactical adaptations. For example, the devastating capability of field artillery and close air support since the early 20th century has made large unit concentrations more and more dangerous. In fact, they are nearly suicidal. Ideas of front lines and set-piece battles still ensconced in doctrine are vestigial. Soldiers may enjoy more training than the guerrilla before they arrive on the battlefield, but the guerrilla’s deficit is quickly reduced in the harshest of schools. The only tangible differences between conventional and non-conventional organizations are uniforms, codified regulations, and official designation. History shows that such pomp and circumstance is no guarantor of success in battle. Speaking tactically, there is no “guerrilla” system or “conventional” system. There is simply good tactics, and the guerrilla and the soldier can become equally adept at them. In other words, “irregular” always refers to actors, not the tactics that actors utilize. When combatants as varied as the Lashkar-e-Taiba[viii] in Mumbai, the US Army and Marine Corps, and developing armies like the Somali National Army[ix] are coming to the same conclusions and utilizing the same tactics in vastly different contexts, the idea that a true guerrilla/soldier dichotomy exists falls apart.

The Battle of Wanat

Take, for example, the Battle of Wanat in 2008. For a period of about four hours, Taliban fighters used direct assaults and massed firepower in an attempt to overrun a US Army unit defending a position from sandbag barriers and bunkers. The Taliban force, estimated at about 150 strong, used high ground and dead space around the combat outpost to their advantage just as a conventional force would.[x] The Taliban force very nearly overran the Army position, and it took sustained close air support, field artillery support, and the commitment of two Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) on the part of the Army to end the battle. There is almost nothing to distinguish the tactics of either side from, to pick just one example, an Imperial Japanese Army banzai charge against an entrenched US position on a Pacific Island in 1943. The tactics chosen by the Taliban were chosen solely for their effectiveness given the situation and environment rather than their alleged adherence to a particular tactical style.

There is little that needs to be said about the proliferation of so-called guerrilla tactics in conventional forces. The soldiers, as well as the guerrilla have long utilized the staples of ambushes, cover and concealment, and hit and run attacks. In recent years, many conventional armies have greatly expanded their special operations forces that are even more focused on so-called guerrilla tactics.

The 2006 Lebanon War

The best example, perhaps, is Hezbollah- specifically the performance of that organization’s armed forces against the Israel Defense Force in Southern Lebanon in 2006. Hezbollah used tactics, specifically kidnapping and rocket attacks, to attack Israel until the IDF responded. When the IDF did respond, they assumed that Hezbollah could not contend with conventional forces and armored offensives. Instead, the Hezbollah fighters were well prepared in strong defensive positions, which they refused to abandon as the Israelis expected.[xi] In fact, Stephen Biddle and Jeffrey A. Friedman wrote that Hezbollah in 2006 was, “in many ways, as “conventional” as some state actors have been in major interstate warfare.”[xii] Even Hassan Nasrallah recognized the blurring of lines when describing his organization’s fighting: “It [Hezbollah] did not wage guerrilla war, either. I want to clarify this point: it was not a regular army, but [it] was not a guerrilla [army] in the traditional sense, either. It was something in between.”[xiii]

The conflict between Hezbollah and the IDF in 2006 has been very influential and Hezbollah is now seen as the quintessential “hybrid threat.” Hezbollah clearly used sophisticated tactics in this instance but sophistication does not constitute the development of a new and distinct form of warfare. It only appears to be so on the surface. The appearance of a blend of conventional and irregular tactics is not new. In fact, it is rather ancient. For example, it occurred during the Peloponnesian War when the Athenians used conventional forces and “irregular” tactics to defeat the vaunted Spartan phalanxes in the Battle of Sphacteria in 425 BC. The 2006 Lebanon War does not signal a new form of warfare or the convergence of two distinct tactical styles. It is just more evidence that tactics are tactics. This “modern” system is the new normal and actors- be they state or non-state- will either need to adopt it or they risk defeat.

Just Good Tactics

Whether it is called the “modern system,” maneuver warfare, or hybrid warfare, we are simply discussing warfare – professionally and historically known as tactics. Armies that are effective and adaptable will utilize these tactics to a greater or lesser degree because they are effective given a situation and the operational and technological environment in which it occurs. A “large-scale maneuver,” for example, makes little sense on the modern battlefield against an irregular actor, such as so-called guerrillas; “guerrillas” will simply evade it, and a “conventional” enemy will utilize the massive firepower available to modern combatants to annihilate it. Colin Gray has written that a distinction between “something” and “irregular” warfare in strategic theory is not useful and unnecessarily confusing.[xiv] Beyond theory, it is clear there is no fundamental practical difference either. What does this realization mean for strategy?

First, theorists are too quick to say that changing tactics represent fundamental changes in war. Tactics are the currency used to buy strategic effect and they are far more tangible than the item that they are intending to purchase. Observers tend to focus on the tangible at the expense of the intangible: the underlying nuances. Much ink has been spilled in recent years debating counterinsurgency tactics with little progress and less focus on the strategic context within which tactics must be used.[xv] Meanwhile, the US has prosecuted two wars with murky policy, and subsequently strategic, objectives – seemingly predicated on rebuilding whole societies in its own image – with very little to show for it. The currency of tactics will have little worth if the shopper has no idea what he is supposed buy.

Second, there is too much worry about the atrophy of conventional armies that participate in counterinsurgency campaigns. Some warn that such militaries will lose essential skills needed to defeat conventional threats because they are focused on fighting guerrillas. But good tactics learned against insurgents will transfer to the battlefield against professional armies. Lieutenant General John Lejeune, Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1920-1929 and World War I veteran, attributed the success of Marine Corps units in Europe during that war to the skills they had learned fighting guerrillas in Haiti and Santo Domingo in the years before the war.[xvi] The idea that a military’s skill in good tactics will atrophy when they are actually engaged in practicing good tactics is nonsensical. Dodging Taliban ambushes in Helmand is better training than armored maneuvers at Fort Benning, where every slightly dangerous action is sanitized to prevent injuries and protect soldiers from friction. Techniques like division-sized armored maneuvers atrophy but this is because they are rarely useful in modern combat. The sterile training environments favored by US forces have two deleterious effects. One, it deprives troops of realistic training that simulates the experience of combat. As Clausewitz said, such experience is “the only lubricate that can ease the grip of friction.”[xvii] Second, unrealistic training will produce mutated and stunted tactical evolution as troops learn bad habits and then carry them forward. This is particularly dangerous during peacetime when training is the only experience troops have access to.

Third, as warfare changes some tactics – as the currency of strategy – are more valuable than others. The ambuscade is clearly up, as is the landmine (albeit in improvised fashion), and so is small unit-independent maneuver enabled by auftragstaktik or mission command. Combined-arms integration is an old and stable currency, as is concealed movement and maneuver. These tactics are common because they work in the current tactical environment but this does not signify a tectonic shift in the nature of war. Many theorists look for patterns and try to ride rising tactics to literary glory by declaring new ways of war, new generations, new revolutions, and the death of stodgy old theories. The realization that there is little meaningful difference between irregular and conventional warfare at the tactical level clears up the confusion such theorists have wrought. New tactical patterns are not changes in the nature of war, but simply a reflection of the ebb and flow of the strategic context: a product of swirling eddies in the geopolitical situation and technological trends. Forays into the concept du jour only distract from the underlying strategic principles that truly are different from conflict to conflict, combatant to combatant. Facile changes in tactical trends do not constitute revolutions in theory. Hybrid warfare is perhaps the most egregious example of this. Rather than a new threat or form of warfare, hybrid warfare is just a misrepresented and misunderstood recognition of the utter lack of a fundamental difference between conventional and irregular warfare at the tactical level. Nor is the mixture new. Military leaders as varied as Fabius Maximus, the Marshall de Saxe, and George Washington used “guerrilla” methods in conventional contexts.

Ends, Ways, Means

The breakdown of the conventional/guerrilla dichotomy has important implications for the ends, ways, means construct. The means, of course, is combat- victories gained, or not gained, on the battlefield through the application of tactics. But since the tactics employed by soldiers and guerrillas are basically the same the only difference lies in the ways that those tactics are employed. For example, in the use of tactics in the employment of either a strategy of attrition or annihilation, conventional armies typically pursue strategies of annihilation while guerrilla armies pursue strategies of attrition (or exhaustion). But this difference lies in the strategy- a la Hans Delbrück- employed by each, not in the tactics. The means will be much the same, but ways as determined by the ends may be quite different.

If we use the much more clear attrition versus annihilation dichotomy rather than the conventional/guerrilla construct, our thinking about war and warfare can become clearer as well. Force planners should take comfort in the realization that, where bullets and bayonets meet, tactics are tactics despite facile appearances. An infantry battalion well trained in basic small unit tactics can be equally adept at fighting a like infantry force or a guerrilla cell. The practitioners that employ tactics will always turn to better ones, whether they wear a uniform, enjoy state sanction, or not. Theorists would do well to realize what the practitioners have already discovered. Commanders confronted by a guerrilla enemy pursuing a strategy of exhaustion should spend less time writing tactical manuals and more time focusing on the strategy. Finally, clarification of modern tactics and how they fit in with strategy will go far in ending what Colin Gray calls a “conflation of war with warfare.”[xviii]


The artificial separation of guerrilla and conventional tactics has insidious effects conceptually and practically. Established militaries create centers of “irregular warfare” that soak up resources and manpower while writing documents that only serve to further cloud tactical trends. Such centers also allow the rest of the organization to ignore changes in the tactical environment and focus on archaic “conventional” tactics. Such segregation leads to the idea that counterinsurgency, as defined by the U.S. military, is more political than other forms of warfare – a preposterous statement. In the US military, this has led to an Army and a Marine Corps that understand and preach how to fight in modern warfare, but typically fail to practice it. Both organizations are beholden to a vestigial conventional warfare system that is only relevant when placed in mythological juxtaposition with the so-called guerrilla system.

Successful militaries will not get bogged down in defining styles of warfare, will not agonize over how much to focus on one style of warfare over the other, and will not bemoan the atrophy and loss of tactics useful in bygone eras. An armed force interested in victory at the tactical level will practice good tactics until they are second nature, and then employ them at an appropriate place and time. While it lies in the realm of strategy to tie those tactics to policy goals, it is incumbent upon theorists and practitioners to understand the tactics that are the currency of combat and what they can purchase. Strategy depends on the execution of tactics and thus tactics are important. But, tactics never trump strategy. The unnecessary schism between so-called conventional and guerrilla tactics is simply chaff that he must see through.


[i] Lawrence, T.E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. New York, Anchor Books. 1991. Print. Page 194.
[ii] Tse-Tung, Mao. On Guerrilla Warfare. Trans. Samuel B. Griffith II. Chicago, University of Illinois. 2000. Print. Page 46.
[iii] Taber, Robert. War of the Flea. Washington, D.C., Brassey’s. 2002. Print. Page 17.
[iv] Boot, Max. Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. New York, Liveright. Print. Page XXII.
[v] United States. United States Army. Army Doctrinal Publication 3-0: Unified Land Operations. Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2011. Digital. Page 5.
[vi] United States. United States Marine Corps. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication-1 Warfighting. Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, Washington, D.C. 1997. Digital. Page 37-38.
[vii] Biddle, Stephen. Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2004. Print. Pages 35, 44.
[viii] Kilcullen, David. Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. New York, Oxford University Press, 2013. Kindle. Page 65.
[ix] Kilcullen, 81-82.
[x] United States. Staff of the US Army Combat Studies Institute. Wanat: Combat Action in Afghanistan. Fort Leavenworth, Combat Studies Institute Press. 2010. Digital. Page 196.
[xi] Blanford, Nicholas. Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel. New York, Random House. 2011. Kindle. Location 6486.
[xii] Biddle, Stephen and Friedman, Jeffrey A. The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy. Carlisle, United States Army War College Press. 2008. Digital. Page 73.
[xiii] Quoted in Blanford, Location 6811.
[xiv] Gray, Colin S. Categorical Confusion? The Strategic Implications of Recognizing Challenges Either as Irregular or Traditional. Carlisle, United States Army War College Press. 2012.
[xv] Gray, Colin S. “Concept Failure? COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory.” Prism 3, Number 3. Digital. Pages 17-32.
[xvi] Lejeune, John A. The Reminiscences of a Marine. Philadelphia, Dorrance and Company. 1930. Kindle. Location 3024.
[xvii] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, Princeton University Press. 1989. Print. Page 122.
[xviii] Gray, Colin S. “The American Way of War: Critique and Implications.” Rethinking the Principles of War. Editor Anthony D. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press. 2005. Print. Page 15.