An insurgency is an armed attempt by native elements acting outside the government to overthrow the government or repudiate its control over a region. It is characterized by a protracted campaign between the armed forces of the state and those of the insurgency. An insurgency is differentiated from a coup d’etat by the facts that a coup is a very sudden event and one that often involves persons working from within the machinery of the government.
Insurgency is as old as the institutions of government; presumably, the act of asserting governmental authority over a group creates the possibility that they will violently resist that authority. But the postwar era has seen a new dimension added to insurgency. It is now used by the superpowers as a vehicle for furthering their own geopolitical interests. The revulsion that nations of the world have developed for blatant imperialism has forced the superpowers to take their imperialism underground and cloak it in more respectable garb. The native insurgency offers a superpower an ideal opportunity to further its own interests while playing the role of benefactor rather than invader. Insurgency is thus the first vehicle of competition in Balance of Power.
Three primary ingredients are necessary to cook up an insurgency. First, you must have a government or other legitimate authority against whom the insurgency is directed. After all, you can’t have a rebellion against no one! Second, you must have the insurgents themselves: the people who rebel against the government. Third, the insurgents must be willing to use armed force against the government. The element of armed force is not necessary to ensure success (witness Mohandas Gandhi), but without it you have civil disobedience or a coup d’etat, not an insurgency.
The first ingredient in this ugly stew is the government. The government seems to hold all the cards. It has a great deal of military power at its disposal, in the form of the regular armed forces. Contrary to common American beliefs, the armed forces of most Third World nations exist not to defend against external enemies, but to keep the local population under control.
For most of history, these nations did not need much in the way of armed forces to maintain order. A few thousand troops armed with rifles were sufficient to contain almost any situation. When you remember that the average peasant had little weaponry, the poor state of Third World armies makes a great deal of sense. But since World War II, we have seen a dramatic leap in the size of Third World armies and the weapons available to them. Part of this is due to increases in population, but the superpowers have played a major role in militarizing the Third World nations. By making them the arena for superpower competition, they have forced these nations to arm themselves heavily. Guerrillas armed with surface-to-air missiles and semi-automatic assault rifles can only be combated with pretty hefty military forces. Unfortunately, when all this firepower is unleashed among large numbers of ignorant peasants, it is the peasants who take most of the casualties.
The second advantage of the government is legitimacy. Any government, no matter how corrupt or oppressive, has a tremendous moral advantage over those who would overthrow it. A government represents law and order, civilization, and stability. Those citizens who don’t want to be bothered will support the government, if only by their inactivity.
The third advantage of the government is its control of the nation’s infrastructure - the web of basic services such as transportation, communication, and medical services that are essential for carrying on a protracted conflict. Against this well-established infrastructure the insurgents are hard pressed to communicate with each other, move troops and weapons, provide medical care for their wounded, and spread their propaganda to the masses.
Against the government are pitted the insurgents. The first question that occurs to most people is, why would anybody take on such a formidable power? What motivates people to engage in such seemingly hopeless efforts?
There are many reasons for insurgency. In modern times we most often hear of the social revolution - a revolution that seeks to supplant an oppressive social order with a supposedly more enlightened one. A large number of left-wing insurgencies operate under this banner.
But there are other motivations for insurgency. A common one is separatism, the desire of one social group to break loose from its political ties with the larger nation. If the group is large enough, and its cultural or geographical differences with the parent state great enough, then we call such separatist sentiments nationalist.
For example, the Irish insurgency against Britain was, throughout most of its course, primarily nationalistic in sense. The early economic depredations that the English had visited upon the Irish had slowly abated, until the time of the final break, there were plausible arguments that a break with England would be economically disadvantageous to the Irish. Yet nationalism was not to be denied. The Irish break with England did make cultural and geographic sense, since the Irish differed from the English in religion, language, history, culture, and geography. This was a clean, nationalistic break.
On the other hand we have Catalonia, a portion of Spain. Catalonians consider themselves distinct from the rest of Spain, but in language and culture the distinction is not so great as that between the Irish and the English. More important, Catalonia could not function as a separate economy; its economy is too closely woven into the fabric of the entire Spanish economy. Thus, efforts directed toward Catalonian autonomy are more separatist than nationalist.
Religious factors, too, can play a role in insurgency. Westerns may think of religious insurgency in terms of recent expressions of Islamic extremism, but religious factors played a large role in insurgencies during the Reformation and were the primary expression of insurgency during Roman times. It is not that religion exerted life-and-death influence over peoples hearts and minds in these societies; its just that churches were the primary locus of social activity in these societies. Were a major insurgency to form in the United States, it would probably be based in shopping malls.
A final motivation for insurgency is anti-colonialist sentiment. This is often closely associated with a developing sense of nationalism, but is more economic in flavor. The revolt of the American colonies against England was more anti-colonialist than nationalist. Many of the Founding Fathers considered themselves loyal Englishmen, but they could not acquiesce to the continuing economic penalties that the mother country extracted from them.
These motivations are often mixed in any real insurgency. For example, the Vietnamese insurgency of 1945-1975 started out primarily as a nationalistic uprising, an assertion of Vietnamese national identity. The Japanese had done a great deal of propagandizing during World War II to present their war as a crusade of Asian against Westerner, and the propaganda left a mark in Vietnam. There was also a goodly dose of anti-colonialism mixed in, for the French had not been the most benign of imperial powers. Only later, when Ho Chi Minh began to seek foreign support, did he seriously add a social agenda to his insurgency. His shift toward communism was primarily to curry favor with the Chinese and Soviets. There is nothing unique about this - insurgency leaders have been notoriously fluid in their ideological foundations. After all, when you’re running an insurgency, you find it difficult to recruit people to risk near-certain death for a highly dubious proposition. So, its nice to be able to spice up your insurgency with an enticing menu of causes to get the maximum number of recruits.
Recruitment is at once the greatest weakness and greatest strength of any insurgency. The government can draft all the soldiers it needs, albeit of dubious quality and motivation. The insurgency is not so lucky. You can kidnap a bunch of people, and it is often attempted, but all too frequently the soldiers you shanghai run away at the worst possible moment, taking precious guns and ammunition with them. Most insurgencies must therefore run on volunteer power. That’s tough - not many people are hot to die for a cause. On the other hand, insurgency soldiers are usually better motivated than the government troops they fight. The typical government conscript would much rather loaf around in the barracks than rummage around in the bush getting shot at. The typical insurgency fighter is there to fight.
The insurgency has one other advantage, and it is a huge one: It has the initiative. The insurgents decide how, when, and where they will strike; the government can do very little until they act. The insurgents can remain hidden, looking for a weak spot, and then hit when they have local superiority. In this manner, a small force of insurgents can inflict repeated defeats on a much larger government force. This is the one factor that makes insurgency so effective in so many situations.
Development of an Insurgency
Let’s trace the history of a hypothetical generic insurgency. The story always starts with an unpopular government — this includes just about every government in human history. Some malcontents are angry enough to do something about it. Initially, opposition to the government is scattered; the various malcontents are all isolated from one another and unable to communicate.
The first step comes when some hothead carries out an act of violence against the government. It is necessarily rather puny; after all, we cant expect every hothead to have much military power at his disposal (thank heaven!). This act, however, serves to galvanize opposition. Once people realize that there are others willing to fight back, they gravitate toward each other and the insurgency begins to take shape. During this early stage, the insurgents still lack any real military power. They operate as part-time rebels, living during the day as regular citizens, but plotting their revolution in secrecy and making occasional strikes. This stage of an evolving insurgency is characterized in Balance of Power as terrorism.
After a while, the terrorists establish a macabre sort of credibility by blowing up enough innocents. People start to fear and resent them, but they take them seriously as a real challenge to the government. As their credibility grows, they attract more recruits and possibly some weapons from a foreign source, most likely a superpower on the make. If all goes well, they graduate to the next level of insurgency: guerrilla warfare. Three factors differentiate the guerrilla from the terrorist. First, the guerrilla is normally a full-time operator while the terrorist is more likely a part- timer. Second, guerrillas tend to live together in camps, while terrorists more often split up in small groups. Finally, guerrillas normally operate in a rural environment, leaving the cities and towns to the government, while the terrorist is more of an urban animal.
If the guerrilla war goes well, it will eventually graduate to the highest level of insurgency, the civil war. This requires the guerrillas to gain so much military power that they can stand up to the government forces in direct combat. Three factors differentiate a civil war from a guerrilla war. The first is the military power of the insurgents. Guerrillas can operate successfully with only a small fraction of the military power available to the government, but in a civil war, the force ratio is much closer to 1:1. The second indicator of a civil war is the fact that insurgents are able to control territory. Guerrillas may be able to operate freely in certain regions of the country, but they cannot claim to openly control land, for the government can occupy and hold any location it desires. In a civil war, this is no longer true; the rebels are able to assert control over a portion of the national territory and the government does not have the strength to oust them. This gives rise to the third distinguishing trait of a civil war: the claim to legitimacy. The rebels form a provisional revolutionary government and advance the claim that their government is indeed the true and proper government of the nation.
At this point a very tricky issue arises: international recognition. The old government claims that it is the true and proper government of the nation; the provisional revolutionary government claims that status for itself. The issue will probably be decided on the battlefield, but in the interim, whom will the other nations of the world believe? The matter is of great significance for several reasons. First, recognition by foreign nations confers great prestige upon a provisional revolutionary government and goes a long way toward swaying undecided citizens. A civil war is a battle for the hearts and minds of the nation, and prestige is as much a weapon as artillery. If a series of nations abandon the old government and recognize the rebels as the legitimate government, this creates a momentum of prestige that operates against the old government.
A second major consequence of recognition is that it legitimatizes a greater level of military assistance to the rebels. Providing weapons, or, worse, troops, to an insurgency is generally recognized as a dirty business; a superpower must accept a certain amount of international opprobrium for such behavior, since it is undeniably meddling in the internal affairs of a nation against the wishes of the legitimate government. However, the situation changes dramatically once the superpower has recognized the provisional revolutionary government. It can now claim that it is only assisting the legitimate government of the country, at the express request of that government.
This may sound like so much diplomatic double-talk, but there is a great deal of substance to it. You see, a nation cannot recognize two governments for one country; the act of recognizing the provisional revolutionary government necessitates withdrawal of recognition from the old government. This requires the foreign power to withdraw its ambassador and terminate diplomatic relations. This step is fraught with risk. If the old government wins the civil war, the nation that severed diplomatic relations will be caught in an embarrassing position. Moreover, for the duration of the civil war, it will have no means of furthering its interests with the old government. None of the normal diplomatic housekeeping that goes on between nations will be possible. For this reason, most nations are quite conservative about recognizing new governments; they will wait until victory has clearly gone to the rebels before recognizing the new government.
Sometimes a nation will withhold diplomatic recognition for reasons of policy. For example, the civil war in China led to an outright communist victory in 1949; the Nationalist forces fled to the island of Taiwan. At this point, most nations of the world recognized the communist government as the legitimate government of China. However, the United States had made strong commitments to the Nationalists, and refused to recognize the communist government. For nearly thirty years, we operated under the apparently ridiculous position that a group of bandits had seized control of a part of China (the mainland), but the real government continued to operate out of Taipei. This policy arose not from stupidity but from our refusal to abandon a down-but-not-out ally. What good are our commitments to our other allies if they know that the USA abandons its commitments when the going gets rough? After a decent interval of several decades, we could back off from the Nationalist government without overmuch damage to our credibility.
The Role of the Superpowers
Insurgency would be a much more difficult game if it were not for the meddling of superpowers. Since World War II, there have been very few insurgencies that did not in some way benefit from the aid of a major power. Sometimes this aid is limited and indirect. The Soviet Union sometimes funnels small quantities of weapons to minor terrorist groups through a variety of middlemen. More often, the aid is provided without such attempts at concealment, such as the American aid to the contras of Nicaragua.
Support in the form of weapons shipments is vital to the progress of an insurgency, for the weapons directly available to insurgents are not adequate to the task at hand. The central tactical maneuver of all insurgents is to carefully concentrate their power on a vulnerable target, pour large quantities of firepower onto the target from a safe distance, and then melt away. The ideal weapon for such an attack is an assault rifle, a semi-automatic rifle that can fire lots of rounds quickly. The problem for most insurgents is that an assault rifle has absolutely no civilian use, and hence is banned in most of the world. Insurgents who must make do with civilian weapons such as pistols and hunting rifles simply cannot bring much firepower to bear, and are easily outgunned by just a few soldiers armed with proper weapons. The good news, then, is that insurgencies cannot prosper without weapons shipments. The bad news is that such shipments are easily obtained. The United States alone has produced more than 6,000,000 M1 carbines, 3,500,00 M16s, and 1,500,000 M14s. That is 10 million weapons for a country with only 2 million soldiers. A great many of these weapons have made their way into the shadowy international arms market. When South Vietnam fell, for example, Hanoi captured nearly a million American M16s. When you have millions of loose weapons running around the world, it is not difficult for a few thousand to make their way to any given insurgency. A typical assault rifle with a small stock of ammunition costs about $300. Thus, a superpower can set up an insurgency with quite an arsenal for less than a million dollars. In the inflated world of arms procurement, thats loose change. And it buys a lot of power. In terms of projecting power around the world, arming insurgents is far and away the most cost-effective way for a superpower to throw its weight around. That’s why it’s done so often.
Of course, there is another way for a superpower to involve itself in an insurgency, and that is to directly intervene in the fighting with its own forces. This is far more effective than weapons shipments. As it happens, most armies of the world are hopelessly ineffective, at least when compared to the armies of the superpowers. Their soldiers just can’t seem to get into the spirit of things. Thus, the injection of well-trained superpower troops can have a dramatic impact on the course of the fighting. However, intervention is politically and diplomatically a sensitive action, and so most interventions are sharply limited in both size and the freedom of action accorded the combatants; this has tended to cancel out the advantages of the superpowers superior troops. The American interventions in Vietnam and Lebanon are generally regarded as failures. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan has, so far, not been able to secure victory.
[2014: The Soviets lost in Afghanistan, so the Americans rushed to copy the Soviet failure, which they have almost accomplished.]
Insurgency Calculations in Balance of Power
Balance of Power must calculate the behavior of the insurgency in each country of the world. This means that it must first calculate the strength of the insurgency and the strength of the government forces. It must then determine how these two forces fare in combat with each other. Then it must determine the significance of this outcome, such as whether the insurgency has graduated to the status of a civil war. Finally, the program must compute the consequences of an insurgency victory on the makeup of the government and its relationships with the superpowers. There are a number of special terms that must be defined before I can present the equations used in Balance of Power. The first of these are:
Soldiers: simply the number of soldiers that the government has in its army;
Weapons: the amount of government money spent on weapons;
Military Aid: the amount of weapons received from superpowers by the government;
Government Power: the net military power that results from these soldiers and weapons;
Intervention Power: the military power provided by any intervening superpower troops.
Draft Rate: the portion of the population drafted for the army. Not good for popularity.
The equations that determine the military power of the government are:
This equation says two things: First, more soldiers means more power; second, more total weapons means more power. That’s natural and obvious. What is special about this equation is the way that it creates a natural balance between weapons and soldiers. Suppose, for example, that we have a country like China that has lots of soldiers but not many weapons. Suppose that the values for China are 100 soldiers and a total of 2 weapons. This would yield a total power of 3. Now comes the good part. Suppose that the Chinese added one more soldier; how would that increase their power? Well, if you try the equation with 101 soldiers and 2 total weapons, you still get a total power of only 3. Now suppose that the Chinese added one more weapon instead of one more soldier; then their military power would jump up to 5. The moral of this equation is that you need a proper balance between soldiers and weapons. If you have too many of either, it doesn’t hurt you, but you just don’t get much benefit from the additional resource.
The military power of the insurgency (Insurgency Power) is computed in a similar manner, except that the number of insurgency fighters and the amount of insurgency weaponry must be computed in a different fashion. The number of fighters in the insurgency is based on three factors: the population of the country, the maturity of the political institutions in the country, and the degree of success of the insurgency. These last two require some explanation.
Political Maturity (The Rule of Law)
Why is it that so many Third World nations seem to be caught in a perpetual cycle of violence? Whichever side is in power must torture and kill its opponents, while the opponents carry on a violent resistance. We Westerners shake our heads in dismay at the senseless violence and, perhaps, indulge in the vanity that we are spared such bloodshed because we are in some way superior. Our advantage lies in the stability of our cultural and governmental institutions. Our civilization has not known outright anarchy for more than a thousand years. We have slowly built up a common understanding as to what is fair and proper in societal behavior. When Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, people didn’t grab their guns and head for the streets — we all shared a common respect for the institutions of a society and a confidence that our own interests would be protected by those institutions. That confidence has been developed over a thousand years of steadily growing lawfulness.
Such is not the case with many countries of the world. Many of the sub-Saharan nations have no tradition of strong legal institutions before 1960. While we were struggling with the Magna Carta and developing concepts of representative government, they were still digging their way out of the Bronze Age. They may sit down at the parliamentary table to play by the rules, but they keep their hands close to their guns. And why shouldn’t they? What basis do they have for trusting each other?
This vitally important element is encoded in Balance of Power as an array called Maturity. The values are encoded at the beginning of the game and remain constant throughout the game. Serious students of political history will be dismayed to learn that I simply fabricated these values. I had to — there were none available. After all, what respectable scholar would attempt something so arrogant as to quantify the level of lawfulness of each nation of the world? So I relied on my vast knowledge of world affairs (ahem!) and performed a feat of prestidigitation. Some sample values used in the game are:
Country: Maturity Value
Saudi Arabia 40
[2014: with 30 years of hindsight, I’d make quite a few changes in these numbers.]
There is, of course, plenty of room for argument about these numbers. I gave them a great deal of thought but cannot justify any single number.
Nothing succeeds like success
The second factor in the recruitment rate for insurgency is the degree of success of the insurgency. This is a variation on the bandwagon effect. Nobody wants to have any part of a losing proposition, especially when losers get shot, but once the insurgents start to rack up some victories, the hopes of the discontented start to outweigh their fears, and recruitment picks up.
Put it all together, and we have a pair of formulae for the number of fighters available to an insurgency:
Insurgency Military Strength
Insurgency weaponry is computed in a different fashion. Insurgents don’t have taxes or a military budget; they instead scrape together weapons from the international black market or whatever they can steal from the government. Their main source of weapons is usually a Sugar Daddy superpower. In the rare absence of such a benefactor, they make do. Since insurgents tend to fight in a manner less dependent on weaponry, my formula compensates for this:
This equation doubles the effective value of any weapons shipped to the insurgents. This is because insurgents tend to extract greater value from their weapons than government soldiers do. Since they have so little, they use it more carefully. We can now calculate the value of insurgency power with this formula:
This equation is analogous to the equation for government power and operates in the same fashion. In this case, intervention power applies only to those superpower troops who intervene in favor of the insurgency.
The mathematics of killing
The next task is to let the insurgency and the government shoot each other up for a year’s time and ask how much damage they inflict each other in that time. Now, calculations of this nature can be quite involved. Many experts spend a great deal of time trying to develop such combat result systems. One American expert, Colonel Trevor Dupuy (U.S. Army, Ret.), has devoted many years to studying the problem. My approach is, by such standards, ridiculously oversimplified. But Balance of Power is not a game about combat, it is a game about geopolitics, and I felt a need to keep my combat results systems simple. I therefore settled on the following very simple system:
This will boggle the mind of any educated person who is not a programmer. How can Government Power be equal to itself minus something? The trick lies in realizing that this is not an equation (even though I call it that). This is a command to the computer. It says “Calculate what’s on the right-hand side and put the result into the left-hand side.” Thus, what it really means is that we subtract one-quarter of the Insurgency Power from the Government Power, and vice versa.
These equations mean that the amount of damage that each side can inflict on the other is equal to one-quarter of its own strength. The more powerful the government is, the more insurgents get killed, and the more powerful the insurgency is, the more government troops get killed. If they are both powerful, then lots of people die.
Victory or defeat?
This done, we are ready to see how well the insurgency is doing. The ratio of government strength to insurgency strength tells the story. If the ratio is greater than 512, then the government has everything under control, and Balance of Power calls it peace. If the ratio is less than 512 but greater than 32, then we call it terrorism, and if the ratio is less than 32 but greater than 2, we call it guerrilla war. If the ratio is between 1 and 2, then we call it a civil war. And, should the ratio of government strength to insurgency strength ever fall below 1, then the rebels are stronger than the government and they win.
Victories have consequences
When this happens, a whole host of changes take place. The insurgency trades places with the government; the old oppressors take to the hills and yesterdays freedom fighters enjoy the satisfying sound of the whip cracking in their own hands. The new government’s position on the political spectrum is the opposite of the previous government’s position. In other words, if the old government was right-wing, then the new government is left-wing, and the more extreme the first was, the more extreme the other will be. I call the variable reflecting the position on the political spectrum the Government Wing. Hey, can you think of a better name?
If either superpower had intervened in favor of the insurgents in the civil war, then the insurgents gratefully compromise their political values to be more in tune with those of their beneficiary:
An extremely left-wing government will have a value of -128, an extremely right-wing government will have a value of +128, and a moderate government takes a value of 0. USA Government Wing is the political leaning of the government of the United States, which I set at about 20, while I set USSR Government Wing to -80.
The new government starts with a clean slate in its relations with the populace; its initial popularity decreases with the extremity of its political philosophy:
In this equation, “Abs” means the absolute value: this turns a negative number to positive, but leaves a positive value untouched. Thus Abs(-6) = 6. Government popularity is important for determining the likelihood of a coup d’etat and will be discussed in the next chapter.
Next, we must calculate the state of diplomatic relations between the new revolutionary government and the superpowers. This will be based on the political leanings of the superpower in question, and the amount of aid that the superpower had given the rebels or the government. I used this equation:
In this equation, Insurgency Wing is the political leaning of the now-victorious rebels, while Government Wing is the political proclivity of the old government. This equation says that the political compatibility of the new government with the intervening superpower is equal to the difference between their political match with the superpower and the old government’s political match. In other words, centrist governments tend to start their diplomatic relationships with a kind of neutrality, whereas extremist governments either love or hate a superpower.
This reflects the new government’s attitudes towards a superpower based on the aid it gave to either side. Direct intervention is twice as impressive as weapons shipments. Aiding the successful insurgency is a good thing; aiding the loser government is very bad in the eyes of the new government.
This equation covers two areas of affect: political compatibility and past support. It says that the warmth of relations between the superpower and the new government is greater if the new government is politically simpatico with the superpower. In other words, left-wing governments tend to favor the USSR and right-wing governments tend to favor the USA. The second part of the equation expresses the good or bad will generated by past support for, or opposition to, the old insurgency. If you helped the insurgency that won, you will be rewarded with good relations. If you helped the government that lost, then the new government will hate you. In both cases, the intensity of feeling is proportional to the amount of assistance you gave. I multiply by 8 to ensure that history is much more important than politics. This change in diplomatic affinity will, of course, generate a gain or loss of prestige points for both superpowers.
And that is how Balance of Power computes the development and results of an insurgency.
How accurate is this model?
The system of equations used to model the behavior of an insurgency may strike you as rather brief. One might wonder how so short a set of equations could hope to accurately model so complex a phenomenon as an insurgency. There are two answers to this question, a positive one and a negative one. The positive answer is to point out that the descriptive power of mathematical equations is very high, so even a small set of equations can carry a great deal of meaning. I spent a great deal of time working out, tuning, and polishing the equations in this model.
On the negative side, I must admit that there are many aspects of insurgency that are not properly covered by this model. It doesn’t factor in the basic asymmetries of style between right-wing and left-wing governments and insurgencies. Balance of Power treats the right wing and left wing as two faces of the same coin. In the real world, right-wing governments and insurgencies are quite different from their left-wing counterparts. Both tend to be equally bloodthirsty, but their styles can be different. Left-wing insurgencies tend to be more populist in style, while right-wing insurgencies normally obtain more support from the upper classes. Because of this, left-wing insurgencies tend to be more weapons-poor and fighter-rich.
Another shortcoming of the model is its assumption that right-wing governments favor the USA. Although there has been a statistical trend for right-wing governments favoring the USA and left-wing governments favoring the USSR, there is no universal law to this effect. The revolutionary government of the Iran is so far to the right that it is downright medieval and yet it cannot be called a friend of the USA. In some cases, American policies have pushed neutralist left-wing governments into the arms of the Soviet Union. The most renowned example of this is Cuba; a strong case has been made that Castro’s swing to the USSR came only after it became obvious that severe American opposition to his regime would not abate.
The model also suffers from an overly determinist style by assuming that the progress of an insurgency is a simple matter of military confrontation. No provision is made for special events that can radically alter the course of history. Had Castro died before his victory, it is doubtful that his ragtag army could have held together without the binding power of his personality. The fall of South Vietnam in 1975 is partially attributable to a contradictory set of orders given to a crucial division rushing to stabilize the situation. Had it not been jerked around, South Vietnam might today be in existence.
These are only the most important shortcomings of the model. There are also objections that can be raised against the model from those of strong political persuasions. For example, left-wingers could complain that the model makes no consideration of the element of populist justice, the notion that most right-wing governments have no legitimacy and that insurgency against these right-wing governments is not merely a military action but an expression of cosmic justice, an act of righteous anger by the oppressed masses against an evil government. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, right-wingers could argue that the model fails to include factors for the perfidious talent that International Communism has developed for subversion of legitimate governments. There is some truth in the claim that left-wing insurgency has been better organized in the 1950s and 1960s than right-wing insurgency, but the renewed interest of the American government in supporting insurgency may be changing all this.
Insurgency Scorecard, 1945 - 1985
Despite all the press that insurgencies generate, insurgency is not a likely way to get ahead in the world. Most insurgencies fail, and rather ignominiously at that. There will always be maniacs crazy enough to take up arms for hopeless causes. In his book, A Quick and Dirty Guide to War, James Dunnigan, a historian and Defense Department consultant, lists sixteen separate movements in the United States alone that have spawned political violence in recent years. Each of these could be termed an insurgency, albeit a very low-level insurgency. But that is precisely my point: Most insurgencies never go beyond the occasional bombing. The police round up the perpetrators, shoot or imprison some, and the rest lose heart and give up. Even though every single government in the world faces some degree of insurgency, very few insurgencies ever rise above pointless terrorism. I have not been able to locate data on the total number of terrorist campaigns in the last forty years. This should be no surprise, given the shadowy nature of terrorism.
In the forty years since the end of World War II, there have been some two hundred insurgencies that passed beyond the threshold and generated significant numbers of casualties. Of these, about forty (20%) resulted in victories for the insurgents. The government won 80% of the guerrilla and civil wars.
During these forty years, about 42 million casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) have been generated by insurgency. This figure is dominated by the Chinese Civil War of 1945-49, which generated 30 million casualties. Next come the Indochinese (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) wars, which accounted for about 8 million casualties. The remaining 4 million casualties are distributed among the many smaller insurgencies.
Military factors in insurgency
Insurgency presents special problems for both the rebels and the government. Guerrilla wars are fought in a completely different fashion than conventional wars. A few words on conventional warfare are necessary to bring the special problems of guerrilla war into focus.
The central problem in conventional warfare has always been getting rational human beings to risk their lives in battle. The songs may sing of courage and self-sacrifice, but in the real world of blood and death, normal human beings, if they had their druthers, would much rather drop their weapons and run away. How does the commander prevent such undesirable but rational behavior? The solution has been to create a very strong social group with a powerful grip on the minds of its members. All of the odd customs and values of armies arise from this necessity. The uniforms, the marching about, the flags and the traditions - all these things exist to create a strong sense of identification with the group. If that bond is strong enough, the soldier will stay on the battlefield with his group rather than run away as an individual. Of course, this requires that the soldier fight with his group, as an obvious member of the group, rather than as an individual. Concomitant with this approach is the idea of achieving victory by breaking up the social bonds of the opposing army. If you can shock your opponents soldiers into running away, you can achieve victory far more cheaply than by killing them all. The fact that some bloodshed is avoided with this philosophy is a pleasant secondary result of this form of military efficiency. This thinking has led to the high-density, set-piece battle which has become the standard form of conventional combat.
Leaders of insurgencies quickly learn that their troops cannot fight in this manner, for several reasons. First, set-piece battles tend to favor the side with more and better equipment, and insurgencies are always under-equipped. It is insanity to face artillery, tanks, and fighter-bombers with rifles. Second, insurgency fighters tend to be poorly trained, especially when compared with their government opponents. The government can take the time to train its soldiers in safe havens; insurgency soldiers normally get on-the-job training. Third, insurgency forces are normally outnumbered by the government forces. In a set-piece battle, God favors the side with the bigger battalions.
For all these reasons, insurgency leaders have developed, over the centuries, a different style of warfare, a style that takes best advantage of the insurgency’s strengths. The insurgency has two primary advantages: motivated soldiers and initiative.
The issue of motivation is often clouded by government propaganda about guerrillas kidnapping young men and pressing them into service, and this probably does happen on occasion, but the bulk of the troops in any insurgency must be highly motivated. It is no great challenge for a guerrilla to slink away from his comrades, with far less fear of retribution than a government soldier might have. Insurgencies rely less on group identification than on cause-identification. The tremendous advantage of this approach is that it allows the soldiers to fight as individuals rather than as members of the group. This makes possible much lower troop densities during combat. It also makes possible far more diffuse approaches to combat. For example, during the Tet offensive in the Vietnam war, Vietcong fighters engaged government forces deep inside Saigon, Hue, and other major cities. They did not fight their way into the cities as organized units, but rather infiltrated and fought as small groups. Government soldiers could never have been trusted to demonstrate such initiative and drive.
The other advantage that the insurgency holds is initiative. The insurgency leader can decide when, where, and how he will fight. The government commander can only sit and wait for the insurgency commander to make his move. A defense is only as strong as its weakest point; every defense has its weak spots; the insurgency commander need only find them and hit them. In this fashion, an insurgency commander can win one small victory after another, chipping away at the government forces, growing stronger as they grow weaker.
Thus has evolved the classic guerrilla strategy: hit-and-run attacks on government outposts, nuisance raids, and night engagements. The guerrillas keep their forces dispersed, infiltrate government territory, then suddenly concentrate on their target, do their destruction, and immediately disperse again. They never give the government a large target unless they have local, temporary superiority.
Against this strategy, governments have developed their own counter-insurgency techniques. Many experiments have been tried, and many have failed. Perhaps the most spectacular failures arose from the American attempts to win the Vietnam war with firepower. The American forces learned the hard way that hosing down the countryside with quantities of artillery, napalm, and Agent Orange is not an effective way to defeat guerrillas. It appears that victory over a guerrilla force requires a substantial amount of plain old infantry. However, there have been some successful counterinsurgency efforts. The defeat of the Malaysian insurgency is an example often used. The primary government tactic was to deny the insurgents sustenance from the population by securing the villages both militarily and politically. At least, that was attempted; it seems unlikely that so ambitious a goal was truly achieved in entirety. However, the Malaysian insurgency never reached the level of intensity that the Vietnam war reached; perhaps the tactics used there can only be successful in low-level insurgencies.
Another counter-insurgency technique is being developed by Soviet forces in Afghanistan. It is a variation on the classic hammer and anvil battle tactic, in which a mobile force (the hammer) drives the enemy into a static force (the anvil). The Soviet counter-insurgency version of this tactic is to maintain an extremely mobile force of infantry in helicopters. When the Mujahedeen strike, the airmobile infantry moves quickly to place itself astride the likely escape routes of the guerrillas. Meanwhile, the regular forces pursue the retreating Mujahedeen. When the scheme works, the Mujahedeen stumble into the airmobile infantry and are trapped and destroyed between the hammer and the anvil. The technique’s success is founded on the vastly greater mobility of helicopters and the extended visibilities possible in the Afghan terrain.
[2014: Once the Mujahedeen obtain surface-to-air missiles from the USA, they started shooting down the Soviet helicopters. Scratch one more counter-insurgency tactic.]
Insurgency before the 20th Century
We normally think of insurgency as a modern problem made possible only by Soviet largesse with AK-47 assault rifles. Insurgency has been with us as long as governments have. (The very first battle in recorded history, the Battle of Megiddo, was the culmination of an insurrection against Egypt. It gave us the name for what might be the last battle of recorded history: Armageddon.) As long as there has been a government, there has been somebody unhappy with it and willing to raise arms against it. Although the fundamental reason - dissatisfaction with the government’s treatment of some group - has never changed, the focus of expression has changed somewhat. In ancient times, insurgency was mostly a tribal matter. The military reach of a powerful government, such as the Babylonian or the Egyptian empires, exceeded their cultural and economic spheres by such a large margin that subject peoples were seldom integrated into the fabric of the empire and bided their time in smoldering resentment until the opportunity for revolt arose. Insurgency in ancient times most often took the form of direct separatism: a town or city would kill the hated imperial tax collectors and close its gates, awaiting the inevitable retribution. Within a few months the imperial army would appear at the gates. Sometimes a magnanimous emperor or terrified populace would initiate a peaceful settlement in which the city got off easily with only an impoverishing tribute and the execution of their leaders. If not, the siege was played out to its bitter end, with either the besieging army departing in defeat, or the city stormed and sacked and the population massacred or enslaved. The Assyrian king Assurnasirpal II records his handling of one insurgent city:
“While I was staying in the land of Kutmuki, they brought me the word: The city of Suru of Bit-Halupe has revolted, they have slain Hamatai, their governor, and they have set over them as king Ahiababa, the son of a nobody; whom they have brought from Bit-Adini. With the help of Adad and the great gods who have made great my kingdom, I mobilized my chariots and armies and marched along the bank of Habur. To the city of Suru of Bit-Halupe I drew near; and the terror of the splendor of Assur, my lord, overwhelmed them. The chief men and the elders of the city, to save their lives, came forth into my presence and embraced my feet. I took Ahiababa captive. In the valor of my heart and with the fury of my weapons I stormed the city: All the rebels I seized and delivered them up. Azu-ilu I set over them as my governor. I flayed all the chief men who had revolted; I cut off the limbs of the officers who had rebelled. I took Ahiababa to Nineveh, I flayed him, and I spread his skin upon the wall of Nineveh.”
(D.D. Luckenbill, Ancient Roman Records of Assyria and Babylonia)
[2014: I suppose this makes Guantanamo look good by comparison.]
An interesting example of the timelessness of the problems of insurgency is the English attempt to subdue Wales during the thirteenth century. The Welsh had little love for English kings and stayed in a semi-permanent state of rebellion. The English strategy for pacifying Wales anticipated one American technique in Vietnam by 700 years. They built castles, or, in modern parlance, strategic hamlets, in which government forces could station themselves in absolute safety against attack. By encouraging (or coercing) the population to settle in towns around the castle, they were able to bring a good portion of the Welsh population under the control of the government. The rebels found themselves driven deeper and deeper into the wilderness, cut off from the population. The insurgency withered and died.
The Renaissance and Reformation brought a series of bloodthirsty insurrections. Although these wars are often characterized as primarily religious in nature, closer examination reveals the same old motivations to throw off oppression. The social makeup of the various Protestant and Catholic armies certainly indicates that these wars were as much social as religious. Most of the early conflicts were little more than peasant revolts dressed up in religious garb.
The Hussite insurgency was typical. Bohemia in the early sixteenth century was infiltrated by Germans who displaced many of the resident Bohemians. The simmering resentment against these invaders exploded into violence when John Huss, a Bohemian heretic, was burned by the Church. The Hussites, as they were called, formed an army under the leadership of Jan Ziska, a one-eyed old knight, who created the very first tanks by mounting guns on wagons. For twenty years the Hussites fought off the armies sent against them, massacred Germans and Catholics, and maintained a defiant independence. However, their insurgency eventually disintegrated in fratricide and anarchy, and an exhausted population welcomed the return of law and order provided by the Holy Roman Empire.
The American Insurgency 1765 - 1783
The American Revolution followed the standard pattern of a successful insurgency, with several unique twists arising from the period and the special military circumstances. The insurgency began in the 1760s with the growing disenchantment of the American colonists toward the mother country. The Stamp Act of 1765 triggered widespread violent resistance; by the standards of Balance of Power, this marked the onset of terrorism. It is noteworthy that the actions of the American terrorism phase were mostly directed against tea, property, and other symbols of British oppression rather than taking a bloodier expression. The pressure built up through the late 1760s and into the 1770s with increasingly bolder defiance of the Crown’s authority, and the British response was to clamp down harder in a vain effort to assert its authority. The transition from terrorism to guerrilla war came at Bunker Hill in 1775.
The Revolutionary War was not fought with so clean a division between the guerrilla phase and the civil war phase. The primary reason for this lay in the poor accuracy of the musket. Beyond about 50 yards, the concept of aimed fire was meaningless with the musket. Thus, there were only two ways to use a musket in combat: (1) get within 50 yards to deliver aimed fire, a very risky business, or (2) deliver the massed fire of several hundred muskets in the hope of getting a few dozen hits. Conventional European tactics stressed the latter, and the British fought in this manner throughout the war. The problem the Continentals faced was that only a tiny number of their soldiers possessed the marksmanship required for effective guerrilla tactics. Continental tactics were therefore divided between the conventional stand-up battle and the sneak-and-hide tactics used nowadays by guerrillas. They got away with premature resort to conventional combat only because the British forces were far too small for the task they faced.
The French government quickly saw its opportunity to gain some geopolitical advantage and began shipping aid to the American insurgents. Later, they escalated their aid to direct military intervention, and in fact the participation of the French navy was crucial to the final American victory at Yorktown. The Spanish government also provided assistance.
By 1778 the Continentals had gained the upper hand. Operations were conducted in the manner of a conventional civil war; it took three more years to achieve the final British surrender at Yorktown.
If I were giving awards for the most notable insurgencies in history, my awards list would look like this:
Bloodiest: This is a tie between the Thirty Years War, an insurgency by North German (Protestant) groups against the (Catholic) Holy Roman Empire in 1618-48, and the Chinese Civil War of 1934-49; each took 30 million lives.
Longest: The Basque separatist insurgency. The Basques have fought the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Arabs, and the Spanish, only achieving success for a few hundred years during the Dark Ages. One would think they would have given up (or won) by now.
Most Confused: The Russian Civil War of 1918-22. The original government was overthrown in a coup, its replacement was overthrown six months later in another coup, and then a reactionary insurgency developed against the new (Red) government. We had the Reds (communists), the Whites (royalists and republicans) contesting the form that the new government of the Russian empire would take. Then we had the nationalists of the various subject peoples, trying to break away from the Russian empire: the Poles, Czechs, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanian, Ukrainians, Cossacks, and Siberians. Then we had the interventions from France, Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan, half-heartedly pursuing a number of diverse opportunistic goals. The war rambled along for a while, generating millions of casualties, until it drowned in its own blood. The Reds did not so much win as simply outlast everybody else.
Most Futile: A tough choice here, as there are so many worthy contestants, but the Jewish Revolt of 70 A.D. takes the cake for the utter futility of a small, unorganized people challenging the Roman Empire at the height of its power. The brutal truth was that the revolt against the Romans was doomed from the start. Under normal circumstances the majority of the population would have realized this and refrained from making matters worse. But the intensity of Jewish national and religious feelings drove the population into furious resistance, with consequent catastrophic casualties - perhaps a million people died in the fighting, and nothing was gained.
Best Stage-Management: Castro’s Cuban insurgency. The military reality was this: Castro’s guerrillas skulked about impotently in the remote mountains, assiduously avoiding combat and generally losing when they did get into combat. The Batista regime was disintegrating under its own venality. At the moment it disintegrated, Castro came down from the mountains and declared himself the victor in the heroic struggle. The fact that the 30,000-man Cuban army fell apart after sustaining only 200 killed is a pretty good indication of how little combat there really was.
Best Supporting Role: The American assistance to the South Vietnamese government during its losing battle. Never has a supporting actor so completely supplanted the leading man.
Best Special Effects: Again, the American effort in Vietnam takes the prize for its liberal use of smart bombs, napalm, Agent Orange, and a whole host of other ingenious devices.
[2014: Obviously the American wars in the Middle East have overtaken Vietnam in this category.]
Best David-And-Goliath Scene: The Neuchatel affair. In 1856, republicans in the city of Neuchatel in southern Germany seized power and repudiated the suzerainty of Prussia over their city. They instead chose to federate with Switzerland. Prussia was at the time a major European power. It seemed to everybody that the Prussian elephant would simply step on the Neuchatel fly. However, the French and British, wary of Prussian power, sided with the insurgents and pressured Prussia into accepting an unfavorable settlement.
Best Insurgency-Related Names: Top honors go to Stenka Razin, ill-fated leader of a sixteenth-century Cossack revolt against Moscow. He was taken to Moscow in a cage and executed. Honorable mention goes to Sendero Luminoso, the bloodthirsty Shining Path of Peru, for having the courage to shun trite acronyms involving People, Liberation, and Fronts.