PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Urban Guerrilla Warfare

by Anthony James Joes

Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 2007

232 pages. Notes, bibliographic references, and index

$35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-2437-7

To the layman, the term “guerilla warfare” implies a man in worn-out fatigues, sometimes with a beret or cigar, fighting in the jungles of either Asia or Latin America, typically associated with some socialist or communist agenda. Fidel Castro and the popular image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara on T-shirts come to mind. As with all things, the reality of the guerrilla is more complex, different in time and space, and often not nearly as sexy a topic as portrayed by the movie and television industries. Castro and Guevara belong to the traditional mode of the guerrilla fighter. These men, agreeing with the maxims of Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, and Mao Tse-Tung, utilized the countryside to wage a conventional guerrilla conflict, a mode of fighting even seen in the United States at times. As the global population has continued to shift toward urban environments during the twentieth century, guerrilla groups have followed. Accordingly, this mode of warfare has changed to fit these new surroundings. Anthony James Joes, professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University, continues his long-term study of politics, revolutions, and insurgency in Urban Guerrilla Warfare. Seeing a continued trend in global urbanization, Joes suggests analyzing urban guerrilla conflicts to build a new set of doctrinal rules for the counterinsurgency as the urban environment challenges traditional military responses towards guerrilla revolts. Using superb research and presentation, he observes that urban guerrilla groups typically fail to achieve their objectives. Moreover, the counterinsurgent forces do not always achieve theirs, either. Thus, engaging in urban guerrilla warfare or counterinsurgencies creates a dangerous, slippery slope that Joes thinks the United States should avoid at all cost.

Joes begins by defining the traditional approach to guerrilla warfare. This mode of war is the weapon of the impoverished that lack the training, weaponry, and fiscal support of conventional, established militaries. As a result, they lack the power to directly attack a regular force. Instead they rely upon stealth, ambush, intelligences, and mobility. Applying the axioms of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, Mao suggested only attacking when and where the guerrilla chose, picking smaller, softer targets to prevent the conventional forces from bringing power to bear. Winning the trust of the local population, the guerrilla gathers needed intelligences and strikes the opponent at will. Furthermore, the civilians supply the guerrilla with morale, provisions, and fresh troops as the counterinsurgents often blindly grope at this nearly invisible force. Often, these guerrillas desperately need foreign assistance to support their movement. These insurgents often understand the forlorn reality of their actions, but engage in resistance based upon their convictions, believing that they are more devoted to their cause than the opponents, and in their minds they will win because they are right.

Along with the global trend toward urbanization, modern technology has made the use of the rural landscape difficult for the guerrilla. Satellites, night vision, heat detection devices, other surveillance equipments have eliminated much of the cover and concealment offered by the hinterland; therefore, the guerrilla has moved to the urban jungles of the third world as well as other modern, industrial centers. This move violated every instruction from the guerrilla masters. As a result, all the urban guerrilla events Joes examines, Warsaw (1944), Budapest (1956), Algiers (1957), Sao Paulo (1965-1971), Montevideo (1963-1973), Saigon (1968), Northern Ireland (1970-1998), and Grozny (1994-1996), result in insurgent defeat. The author did not intentionally choose these examples because they failed. On the contrary, he made wise choices to vary his study. Using the twentieth century as his parameter, he made every effort to avoid similarities in chronology, landscape, culture, motives for insurgency, and group applying the counterinsurgent pressures. With this in mind, the outcomes should prove different and a trained eye should be able to detect the natural laws of urban guerrilla battlefield. Surprisingly, the outcomes were not different.

Joes found the urban setting did not support one guerrilla group over another. Sites of popular uprisings such as those in Warsaw, Budapest, and Grozny should provide advantages for the guerrilla because of the large population. Due to the oppression of the majority by an opposing force, these warriors should be able to use this population to garner better intelligence, widespread support from the populace, and move with stealth within the masses; however, they did not fare better than those started by a small, elitist groups seeking political change against the will of the majority. In places such as in Belfast, Sao Paulo, and Montevideo, these small groups lacked popular support and had to focus upon secrecy, thus cutting them off from a source of potential power, the people. Contrary to the conventions of guerrilla warfare, all the forces studied found themselves condensed in urban areas away from safe bases in the countryside where training and rest could occur. Furthermore, the guerrillas were too close to the counterinsurgent forces and away from easy, outside supply lines. Consequently, they could be enveloped and eventually defeated.

Considering the case studies, Joes strongly discourages the commitment of United States troops to counterinsurgent activities. While most counterinsurgent groups win, the struggle often is difficulty and bloody. Multiple soft targets in an urban environment are difficult to defend, combat occurs quickly, the confusing foreign environment works against quick response, and zealous opponents can inflict mass casualties on counterinsurgents or destruction upon their facilities. To counteract this, the United States military needs to continue building armies of overwhelming size to apply violent, devastating assaults upon the insurrectionists. Prior to military operations, the successful military planner must isolate the guerrillas from supply lines and reinforcements, gather real-time, verifiable intelligence, and make every effort to thwart the guerrilla’s political objectives through pinching some of the aims of the insurgents. Furthermore, the counterinsurgents must maintain a high level of professionalism and avoid unwarranted treatment of civilians, prisoners, and others that might provide the guerrillas with moral ammunition against the counterinsurgency.

A wonderfully crafted, comprehensively researched work, Urban Guerrilla Warfare proves to be a smart and insightful read. Joes, an apt wordsmith, meets the desires of academics for well-documented scholarship, but does not exceed the grasp of the common reader or, more importantly, bore them to death. Furthermore, his systematic structuring of the chapters and outstanding use of the statistics, political background, and geographic descriptions allows the reader to shift from Brazil to Chechnya, Vietnam to Poland without losing the overall point of the shift. Joes utilizes thorough endnotes for further explanation and documentation, provides a detailed bibliography for further investigation, and presents a complete index of the topics discussed. Accordingly, this work will provide wonderful fodder for a classroom, a book club, or the thoughts of an armchair general. With this said, only one suggestion could improve the work. The reader may benefit from the inclusion of a few carefully selected maps to illuminate the occasional geographic question. Overall, Joes produced a fantastic work. It will be a wise addition to any academic, general, and personal libraries focusing on the history of warfare.


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