The Evolution of Irregular War

Insurgents and Guerrillas From Akkadia to Afghanistan

Pundits and the press too often treat terrorism and guerrilla tactics as something new, a departure from old-fashioned ways of war. But nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout most of our species' long and bloody slog, warfare has primarily been carried out by bands of loosely organized, ill-disciplined, and lightly armed volunteers who disdained open battle in favor of stealthy raids and ambushes: the strategies of both tribal warriors and modern guerrillas and terrorists. In fact, conventional warfare is the relatively recent invention. It was first made possible after 10,000 BC by the development of agricultural societies, which produced enough surplus wealth and population to allow for the creation of specially designed fortifications and weapons (and the professionals to operate them). The first genuine armies -- commanded by a strict hierarchy, composed of trained soldiers, disciplined with threats of punishment -- arose after 3100 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia. But the process of state formation and, with it, army formation took considerably longer in most of the world. In some places, states emerged only in the past century, and their ability to carry out such basic functions as maintaining an army remains tenuous at best. Considering how long humans have been roaming the earth, the era of what we now think of as conventional conflict represents the mere blink of an eye. 

Nonetheless, since at least the days of the Greeks and the Romans, observers have belittled irregular warfare. Western soldiers and scholars have tended to view it as unmanly, even barbaric. It's not hard to see why: guerillas, in the words of the British historian John Keegan, are "cruel to the weak and cowardly in the face of the brave" -- precisely the opposite of what professional soldiers are taught to be. Many scholars have even claimed that guerrilla raids are not true warfare.

This view comes to seem a bit ironic when one considers the fact that throughout history, irregular warfare has been consistently deadlier than its conventional cousin -- not in total numbers killed, since tribal societies are tiny compared with urban civilizations, but in the percentage killed. The average tribal society loses 0.5 percent of its population in combat every year. In the United States, that would translate into 1.5 million deaths, or 500 September 11 attacks a year. Archaeological evidence confirms that such losses are not a modern anomaly. 

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