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A Review of Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 1, 2015

Mao Tse-Tung On Guerrilla WarfareMao Tse-Tung On Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Tse-tung
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t believe I discovered this treasure in a Maryland antique store last week while visiting the Eastern Shore from Tennessee with my wife. As a long time student of the Vietnam conflicts and Ho Chi Mihn, and to a lesser degree, Mao Tse-Tung, I had heard of this classic guerrilla primer for some time, but I’ve never been able to find it. Until now. In hardback. And it was pricey. But worth it.

Mao wrote this small book in 1937 while leading the Chinese Red Army guerrillas against the Japanese invaders. The book was later translated and published by the US military in 1940. My edition was re-translated and published in 1961 by Brigadier General Samuel B. Griffith, who wrote a most excellent introduction to the book. In fact, while short, it’s so excellent, that when combined with Mao’s text, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if the French and US governments and military had read the original first, and for the US later, this edition. They could have learned some lessons, taken some advice, maybe taken some pointers, and perhaps saved countless lives in futile efforts to take over a people. It’s beyond idiotic. It’s actually something I’ve long thought, dating back to Edward Lansdale’s CIA efforts in 1950s Indochina and the conclusions he drew about probable guerrilla warfare the US would be facing if we were drawn into conflict there. Simply stunning how no one in charge ever listened to the experts, the “real” experts.

Mao wrote this primer while allegedly on the “Long March,” I believe it’s called if I remember correctly, which would have put him under serious stress while doing so. It’s quite comprehensive for such a small volume. It covers things such as what guerrilla warfare is, the history of guerrilla warfare, the relationship of guerrilla operations to regular army operations, the actual organization of guerrilla units and armies, political issues for guerrillas, and more. He writes quite convincingly of his firm belief that while the enemy may be technologically superior, they can’t fight on all fronts at all times of day or night and eventually a long term war will wear them down and defeat them. Griffith, the translator, makes a point that both Ho Chi Mihn and Castro used this primer and this strategy successfully and it’s hard to argue against its success.

Mao writes of political goals for guerrillas. These include:

1. Arousing and organizing the people.
2. Achieving internal unification politically.
3. Establishing bases.
4. Equipping forces.
5. Recovering national strength.
6. Destroying enemy’s national strength.
7. Regaining lost territories.

He also lists the essential requirements for all successful guerrilla operations:

1. Retention of the initiative; alertness; carefully planned tactical attacks in a war of strategical defense; tactical speed in a war strategically protracted; tactical operations on exterior lines in a war conducted strategically on interior lines.
2. Conduct of operations to complement those of the regular army.
3. The establishment of bases.
4. A clear understanding of the relationship that exists between the attack and the defense.
5. The development of mobile operations.
6. Correct command.

One thing Mao makes clear is guerrilla warfare is to be an offensive-only operation. Strike and strike quickly, move fast, run away if you have to, run away a lot, hit from behind, from the flanks, at night, strike supply lines, get arms and supplies from your enemies. His original guerrillas had perhaps three rifles and a few pistols per unit. The rest had swords and spears. They had to wait until they had successfully attacked and defeated Japanese units and taken their equipment before they could arm themselves.

Of course it’s always important for guerrillas to win the hearts of the people, especially in China’s case (and Vietnam’s later), the peasants. Everyone — even children — can help out. Anyone can be militia, spy, courier, cook, medic, soldier, etc. It’s imperative to politically educate the population so everyone will know why you’re fighting and why it’s important to fight. And why it’s important to find and eradicate traitors.

Griffith’s introduction, as I mentioned, is short but excellent. He gives a brief overview of Mao himself, on the nature of revolutionary guerrilla war, on strategy, tactics, and logistics of such a war, and some conclusions. Among his conclusions are the notion that fighting such guerrillas is definitely a losing proposition for a conventional army and even counter-guerrilla tactics won’t work! He even goes on to say that if any country or government were to try to aid a country or government fighting against a guerrilla army, it would be wise to ONLY offer advisers and equipment. Remember, he wrote this in 1961, about the time when America was starting to openly send advisers to South Vietnam. I guess he could foretell things. Pity no one in the US government read this or listened to him or took him or this book seriously. Cause he was right. We had no chance. And if you believe Mao — and Griffith — virtually any government or army fighting a conventional or counter-guerrilla protracted war against a “revolutionary” guerrilla army is pretty much destined to lose. Fact. Tragedy. Too much loss of life.

This book was everything I’d hoped it would be. It was superb. It was a history, a strategy, a tactic, a warning — it was fascinating. And to read it with the benefit of history’s hindsight made it especially amazing. Mao wasn’t right about everything. He couldn’t be. But it seems to me that Ho picked Mao’s brains and used what he could and improved upon everything to totally destroy the US effort in the war we lost against North Vietnam, a war that could have been avoided if we had only looked at history. This is a book I’m keeping in my library and will undoubtedly be reading again. It’s quite short and easy to read. And it’s most highly recommended.

View all my reviews

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