War of the Flea


The following text consists of excerpts from Robert Taber’s “War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare.” Although this book was written from the perspective of counter-insurgency, it provides valuable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of both insurgents and counter-insurgents alike.

The Wind of Revolution: Popular Will as the Key to Strategy

The will to revolt…seems to express a newly awakened consciousness, not of “causes” but of potentiality. It is a spreading awareness of the possibilities of human existence…an entirely new attitude toward life…that the conditions of life that had seemed immutable can, after all, be changed. Limitations that were formerly accepted all at once become intolerable. The hint of imminent change suggests opportunities that had not been glimpsed until now. The will to act is born…

This describes the state of mind of the modern insurgent, the guerrilla fighter, whatever his slogans or his causes; and his secret weapon, above and beyond any question of strategy or tactics or techniques of irregular warfare, is nothing more than the ability to inspire this state of mind in others. The defeat of the military enemy, the overthrow of the government, are secondary tasks, in the sense that they come later. The primary effort of the guerrilla is to militate the population, without whose consent no government cannot stand for a day.

The most fundamental tactics of the guerrilla simply are not available to the army that opposes him, and are available only in the most limited way to the counterinsurgency specialist who may try to imitate him. The reasons are clear. The guerrilla has the initiative; it is he who begins the war, and he who decides when and where to strike. His military opponent must wait, and while waiting, he must be on guard everywhere. Both before and after the war has begun, the government army is in a defensive position, by reason of its role as policeman, which is to say, as the guardian of public and private property.

The guerrilla can afford to run when he cannot stand and fight with good assurance of winning, and to disperse and hide when it is not safe to move. In the extremity, he can always sink back into the peaceful population—that sea, to use Mao Tse-Tung’s well worn metaphor, in which the guerrilla swims like a fish. The population, as should be clear by now, is the key to the entire struggle. Indeed, although Western analysts seem to dislike entertaining this idea, it is the population which is doing the struggling… The noncombatant civilian populace is his camouflage, his quartermaster, his recruiting office, his communications network, and his efficient, all-seeing intelligence service. Without the consent and active aid of the people, the guerrilla would be merely a bandit, and could not long survive. If, on the other hand, the counterinsurgent could claim this same support, the guerrilla would not exists, because there would be no revolution—the popular impulse toward radical change—cause or no cause—would be dead.

Here again we come to the vital question of aims, on which the strategy and tactics of both sides are necessarily based. The guerrilla fighter is primarily a propagandist, an agitator, a disseminator of the revolutionary idea, who uses the struggle itself—the actual physical conflict—as an instrument of agitation… By contrast, the purpose of the counterrevolutionary is negative and defensive. It is to restore order, to protect property, to preserve existing forms and interests by force of arms, where persuasion has already failed. His means may be political insofar as they involve the use of still more persuasion—the promise of social and economic reforms, bribes of a more localized sort, counter-propaganda of various kinds.

The guerrilla’s mere survival is a political victory: it encourages and raises the popular opposition to the incumbent regime. Thus he can afford to run and to hide. The counterinsurgent gains nothing by running and hiding. He surrenders everything. His military campaign must be sweeping, continuous, and cumulative in its effects. Either he clears the country of guerrillas, or he does not. If he does not, he continues to lose.

For the best of economic reasons, modern governments must seem to be popular. They must make great concession to popular notions of what is democratic and just. The government of the dominant states themselves, even more than those they dominate, are strapped politically by this factor of the domestic “image.” They must use the liberal rhetoric and also pay something in the way of social compromise—schools, hospitals, decent concern for the well-being of all but the most isolated poor—if they are to retain power and keep the people to their accustomed, profit-producing tasks.

They are vulnerable because they must, at all cost, keep the economy functioning and showing a profit or providing the materials and markets on which another, dominant economy depends. Again, they are vulnerable because they must maintain the appearance of normalcy; they can be embarrassed out of office. And they are triply vulnerable because they cannot be as ruthless as the situation demands. They cannot openly crush the opposition that embarrasses and harasses them. They must be wooers as well as doers. These are modern weaknesses. The weaknesses peculiar to the modern, bourgeois-democratic state make popular war possible, and give it its distinctive forms, which cannot be imitated, except in the most superficial way.

The counterinsurgent seeks a military solution: to wipe out the guerrillas. He is hampered by a political and economic impediment: he cannot wipe out the populace, or any significant sector of it. The guerrilla, for his part, wishes to wear down his military opponent and will employ suitable tactics to that end, but his primary objective is political. It is to feed and fan the fires of revolution by his struggle, to raise the entire population against the regime, to discredit it, isolate it, wreck its credit, undermine its economy, overextend its resources, and cause its disintegration.

Creating “The Climate of Collapse” and Organization of Insurgent Forces

In general, all warfare involves the same basic problem: how to use one’s strength to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses. In an internal war, the government’s strength is its powerful army, its arsenal, and its wealth of material means. Its weaknesses are social, political, and economic. This provides both military and psychological targets. Constitutional democracies are particularly exposed to the subversion that is the basic weapon of the revolutionary war. Constitutional law is an embarrassment.

The guerrilla, for his part, finds his strength in his freedom from territorial commitments, his mobility, and his relationship to a discontented people. His weakness is merely—I use the word advisedly—a military weakness. He lacks the arms, and usually the manpower, to risk a military decision.

As a natural consequence of his actions, the intensification of the political repression that already exists will deepen popular opposition to the regime and hasten the process of its dissolution. Militarily, his tactics will be designed to wear the enemy down, by chipping away at the morale of the government troops and by inducing the maximum expenditure of funds, material, and manpower in the effort to suppress him. At the same time he will endeavor to build his own forces through the capture of government arms and by recruitment from an increasingly alienated populace, avoiding a military confrontation until the day—and it will come late—when an equalization of forces has been obtained.

Analogically, the guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with. If the war continues long enough—this is the theory—the dog succumbs to exhaustion and anemia without ever having found anything on which to close his jaws or to rake with his claws. But this may be to over simplify for the sake of an analogy. In practice, the dog does not die of anemia. He merely becomes too weakened—in military terms, overextended; in political terms, too unpopular; in economic terms, to expensive—to defend himself. At this point, the flea, having multiplied to a veritable plague of fleas through a long series of small victories, each drawing its drop of blood, each claiming the reward of a few more captured weapons to arm yet a few more partisans, concentrates his force for a decisive series of powerful blows.

It follows that it must be the business of the guerrilla, and of his clandestine political organization in the cities, to destroy the stable image of the government, and so to deny it credits, to dry up its sources of revenue, and to create dissension within the frightened owning classes, within the government bureaucracy (whose payrolls will be pinched), and within the military itself.

If people are to accept the risks and responsibilities of organized violence, they must believe first that there is no alternative; second, that the purpose of the cause is compelling; third, that they have reasonable expectation of success. The last named is perhaps the most powerful of motives… Isolation, military and political, is the great enemy of the guerrilla movements.

Usually the revolutionary political organization will have two branches: one subterranean and illegal, the other visible and legitimate. On the one hand there will be the saboteurs, arms runners, fabricators of explosive devices, operators of a clandestine press, distributors of political pamphlets, etc. On the other hand, there will be those operating for the most part within the law, but sustaining the efforts of the guerrillas, and, of themselves, accomplishing far more important tasks. The visible organization will, of course, have invisible links with the revolutionary underground. It will be capable of promoting funds, organizing boycotts, raising popular demonstrations, informing friendly journalists, spreading rumors, and in every way conceivable waging a massive propaganda campaign aimed at two objectives: the strengthening and brightening of the rebel image, and the discrediting of the regime… The government is not concerned about the loss of a few policemen, or even an arsenal, but it is terrified of the attendant publicity, which casts doubts on its stability and thus on the future of the economy.

Protracted War

In the political sphere, the government is subjected to constant, wearing pressure that comes from that great expense and anxiety of the anti-guerrilla campaign and from the constant cry of the opposition, the banks, the business community: When will it all end? What are you doing about it?

Sabotage is one aspect of it. The loss of credit and investment suffered by a country engaged in civil war is the other, far more important, aspect. Few great nations can stand the deprivation indefinitely. Yet the painful fact is that the guerrillas, for their part, can carry on indefinitely. Having no vested interest, no political opposition within their own ranks, no economic problems other than those that can be solved by extending the war and capturing what they need, the insurgents have nothing to lose and everything to gain by continuing the struggle.

Lacking the arms with which to confront well-equipped armies in the field, Mao avoided battle by surrendering territory. In so doing, he traded space for time, and used the time to produce will: the psychological capacity of the Chinese people to resist defeat. This is the essence of guerrilla warfare.

Mao’s problem, then: how to avoid battle on the enemy’s terms. His answer: hit and run, fight and live to fight another day, give way before the determined advance of the enemy. But in his Selected Military Writings, Mao makes it clear that nothing is gained unless the time is used to produce political results. Political mobilization—involving the people actively in the revolutionary struggle—is the first task of the guerrillas; and it is the nature of this effort, which necessarily takes time, that accounts for the protracted character of revolutionary war. Time is required, not alone for political mobilization, but also to allow the inherent weaknesses of the enemy to develop under the stress of war.

Sun Tzu on the Art of War

All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, when capable, feign incapability; when active, inactivity. When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are near. Offer the enemy bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him. When he concentrates, prepare against him; where he is strong, avoid him. Anger his general and confuse him. Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance. Keep him under a strain and wear him down. Attack where he is unprepared; sally out when he does not expect you. These are the strategist’s keys to victory.

“If I am able to determine the enemy’s disposition while at the same time I conceal my own,” writes Sun Tzu, “then I can concentrate and he must divide. And if I concentrate while he divides, I can use my entire strength to attack a fraction of his.” And again: “The enemy must not know where I intend to give battle. For if he does not know where I intend to give battle, he must prepare in a great many places. And when he prepares in a great many places, those I have to fight in any one place will be few… And when he prepares everywhere, he will be weak everywhere.”

1. When conflict occurs, whether spontaneous or induced, the revolutionary leaders must be capable of explaining and rationalizing its confused and often apparently accidental character. Isolated actions of defiance must be given coherency within a revolutionary frame of reference. The leadership must be prepared to make the most of every opportunity to accelerate the process of social ferment and political disruption. The first task of the revolutionary cadres must be to relate each incident and each phase of the conflict to a great “cause,” so that revolutionary violence is seen as the natural and moral means to a desired end, and that the masses of the people are increasingly involved… It must arouse great expectations and appear crucial at every stage, so that no one can stand outside of it.

2. The specific techniques or tactics of guerrilla warfare are not, except in unimportant detail, to be learned from texts. They relate always to the specific local situation and are supremely expedient: The guerrilla is, above all, an improviser. The nature of his improvisation depends, naturally, on immediate and long-range objectives, the terrain, the relative strength of his forces and those of the enemy, the material means at his disposal, and similar factors.

3. To be successful, the guerrilla must be loved and admired. To attract followers, he must represent not merely success, but absolute virtue, so that his enemy will represent absolute evil… If enemies are to be disposed of, it must be for moral reasons: They must be traitors, murderers, rapists. The revolution must show that its justice is sure and swift. By contrast, its enemies must be revealed as venal, weak, and vacillating.

4. Even when the war is at bottom a class struggle, class rivalries should be softened rather than sharpened, subordinated to a transcendental, national cause. Those in doubt, even the adherents and servants of the regime, must be given a clear moral choice. They must be told, in effect: It is still not too late to join forces with virtue, to have a share in the bright future, more secure and certain than the property or the position you value now.


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