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Unconventional Or Guerrilla Warfare Throughout World History

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Almost every conventional war has had to use some form of unconventional warfare (UW) throughout History. The definition of Unconventional warfare has been debated in recent years and the term more frequently used since the 1950s. President J. F. Kennedy gave a speech in 1962 at West Point where he stated: ‘This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin — war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him”.

Unconventional Warfare and Irregular Warfare are defined differently by the US Army, and specifically, US Army Special Operations Forces, which is the proponent within the US Government for maintaining these concepts, doctrine and training requirements. Army doctrine uses Irregular Warfare to contain Unconventional Warfare in a non-conventional combat context (along with counterinsurgency, stability operations, counterterrorism, and foreign internal defence). Whereas Irregular warfare is everything, the General Purpose Forces do not focus on and are not organised, equipped or trained in. In UW, the lead military actors are not large-scale armies, navies or air forces (i.e., Special Operations Forces, specifically Army Special Forces, working with populations and forces competing with the government-in-power and fighting against its military and security force) For the US government, the differences between Irregular Warfare and Unconventional Warfare are precise, very well-defined, and require different agencies and forces to be in charge and leading the effort. However, it is debated that a combination of unconventional warfare and irregular warfare which combined asymmetrical war all form part of modern-day Grey zone war, which is considered a way to conduct warfare and gain power without combat war. Equally, there are clear distinctions between who operates unconventional war often considered to state against state. However, irregular warfare is a state and non-state actors, however, it is crucial to establish that irregular warfare contains unconventional warfare methods.

During WWII, unconventional elements of warfare were brought to fruition and used to incredible advantage. With the establishment of the Special operative’s executive (SOE) department in 1940 in the United Kingdom, the sole purpose of SOE was to carry out unconventional warfare that involved espionage and sabotage. Recruits went through intensive training (often being recruited for specific skill sets they pertained like being bilingual, etc.). The intensive training involved physical and mental tests that ensured that recruits had what it took to carry out the highly dangerous order of the SOE. They had to be involved in simulated interrogation scenarios to ensure they would not crack under torturous investigation and give away state secrets and positions and tactics of the entire department and Government. They were required to be highly trained in arms and explosives and radio communications. The SOE worked closely with secret underground resistance groups throughout occupied Europe. They had operatives in over 11 different nations. Equally, during WWII, allied governments relied heavily on resistance groups set up in occupied zones. Resistance groups were prevalent in almost all occupied countries, but the most significant groups were from France, Poland, Soviet, Yugoslav and the Netherlands. The secret armies in Europe played a considerable part in the defeat of the Nazis, by gathering intelligence for allied forces, sabotaging communication and transport links, aiding in the rescue of POW, and later on open warfare against the German and axis powers. In 1941 operation Barbarossa involved Germany invading Russia which saw 3 million axis personnel deployed over the East soviet front. It was one of the most extensive military invasions to date and saw horrific atrocities carried out to the Russian people, and over 5 million Russian soldiers captured. The Germans killed or neglected to death over 3.3 million soldiers, and the murder of over 1 million soviet Jewish people as part of the holocaust. Operation Barbarossa would prove to be a turning point for underground resistance groups.

Many joined the communist resistance groups who were known for their successful techniques and tactics. The SOE recognised that it would benefit the allies to join forces and try to centralise the local resistance groups across Europe. The French resistance was critical to the allied landings in Normandy on D-day and fast movement across France to send Germany in defeat. In 1946 the SOE was formally disbanded. Due to the Official Secrets Act, many operations carried out by SOE personnel were not know about until more recent times. Although it recognised the support of both the secret service of allied forces and the underground resistance were essential tools that helped to win WWII it is argued by many that it has proved to be a system emulated by terrorist cells in recent years.The German army believed those in the secret service and resistance acted unlawfully and therefore were not protected under the Geneva convention, which is why operatives carried cyanide as if captured they would not be treated humanly and would almost certainly face torture and then death

The success of the SOE is argued by many historians, as it was linked heavily to the ongoing dynamics and change between the allied powers and discussions on land grabbing. Poland suffered heavily because of this. The SOE played a critical role in supporting the polish resistance during WWII. However, when it became apparent that Stalin was going to seize parts of Poland once the war had was won, the SOE support in Poland pulled back which left the polish resistance unsupported and lead to the horrific results of the Warsaw uprising. The Soviets who were approaching Poland on the East ignored communications from the polish resistance fighters for assistance. Despite both the United Kingdom and the USA providing airdrops for support, Stalin refused to help and effectively stood down his troops to let the uprising fail. It is suspected. It can be argued that the resistance groups spread out across the globe during WWII were crucial in enabling individuals to protect their national interests and feel a sense of pride and involvement of being able to fight off their oppressors. Equally, after the war, those heavily involved in resistance were able to take back ownership of their countries and ensure political powers could be reinstated to those who had landed on the right side of History.

Nevertheless, in recent discussion, the acts of resistance groups are still debated. In particular the discussion on the morality of having partisan groups carrying out orders that are not all centralised and can equally carry their agenda and ideology which may not be the same as allied powers. Michael Walzer theory of just war comes from catholic moral theology of the middle ages. Which argues when is it just to fight? Often arguments are not only what constitutes going to war but also the justice in the conduct of the war, such as soldiers fighting other soldiers. With unconventional warfare and in particular, the resistance during WWII, the implications of their actions were often felt profoundly with civilians. However, the just cause was aligned at removing Axis powers from Europe and restoring governments by any means necessary that appeared to justify the actions of resistance groups.

During the Vietnam war, guerrilla warfare was utilised by the Vietcong throughout the conflict. The American invasion was preceded by 29 years of guerrilla warfare: First, from 1946 to 1954, against the French, for independence; Second, from 1955 to 1975, against South Vietnam, and until 1973, the United States, for the unification of the two Vietnams One of the reasons the United States left South Vietnam was the United States’ inability to stem the guerrilla warfare, which was being waged by the South Vietnamese guerrillas – the Viet Cong. Guerrilla warfare if placed on a graph depicting forms of warfare based on the intensity of combat, would be located between terrorism and conventional warfare. Terrorism involves a limited amount of combat against any target, military or civilian. Guerrilla warfare involves combat which is mostly quick clashes, but may include extended battles and is still generally limited to military targets. The Vietnamese guerrilla warfare saw booby traps and mines planted that caused extreme damage to America’s capabilities. The USA dropped 3 million tonnes of bombs on Vietnam throughout the war. The Vietcong soldiers who were very used to the jungle terrain and were able to operate guerrilla warfare with easy success against the American soldiers. The American soldier’s morale dwindled rapidly overtime during the war, and The American government sought to use more and more unconventional warfare to win. The regularly dropped napalm bombs which were a chemical that could strip the skin with chemical burns. Civilian causalities were rife and following the Mai le Massacre which American military covered up for a year which leads to Internationale outcry and even more support against the war and calls for peace. The Vietcong wore no uniform and operated in small cells, and they utilised the terrain and basic weaponry like daggers and swords in opportune environments. Not only did this lead to constant confusion and exhaustion of the American soldiers, but it also impacted the trust of American soldiers with Vietnamese civilians. The Vietnam war and its failure to progress other than death and destruction created an anti-war divide in America. The Vietnam war ended with a ceasefire in 1975. As soon as America removed its troops, there was a communist take over that unified the North and the south. n 1975, the reunification of Vietnam was accomplished when North Vietnam invaded and defeated South Vietnam. The success pf the Vietcong guerrilla warfare compelled one of the most powerful military forces in the world to abandon a cause which had lasted eighteen years, and at the cost of over 50,000 the United States lives.

Most conflicts that happen within the modern world are not between states but between contesting groups that are within states, or between adversaries and existing states. These types of conflicts can be described as asymmetric because the stronger actor, frequently a state authority, can draw upon a various number of power resources. The resources can widen the range of activities in the conflict. Whereas, non-state actors are much more restrained and limited in the options that they have. In recent years Asymmetric conflict has developed in use while there remains no universal agreement as to their meaning. The term asymmetric warfare can be applied in the context of new terrorism where non-state actors use unconventional and unpredictable acts of political violence against states. Asymmetric conflicts do not just relate to military resources. (In asymmetric conflict, groups can usually find themselves without adequate access to the political system. Asymmetric conflict can stem from a group being deliberately marginalised within the state, which can be applied to Israel vs Palestine. States often use power to construct and enforce state legitimacy. Legitimacy can be achieved through dominant discourses and political and legal systems. However, challenges to the state from non-state groups often begin from a dispute around illegitimacy. Legitimacy, then helps groups form a basis of moral judgment that contributes to the asymmetry of conflict. It is evident in that a victory for one side over the other does not necessarily mean a victory for the best-equipped army or state. However, there are differing explanations that can include various forms of resolution such as negotiation, or mediation of the conflict to a point where agreement is reached between the contesting groups. Aggestam argues that for a weaker party, negotiations can become a valuable tool. Mainly as negotiations can involve outside forces, with an international intervention that in turn, may guarantee legal regulation and legitimacy for their position.

A key component of modern-day unconventional warfare is discussed by using three levels. Those levels include a public opinion in support of the conflict, how the use of military forces is formulated and the decision and policymaking at a national level. Unconventional warfare still has to be regarded as justifiable and not immoral or against international law. Post world war II Nuclear arms mean that conventional wars between nations cannot pose a more significant threat if one or both sides have access to nuclear weapons. The threat of nuclear and chemical warfare leads to the strategic stalemate. As this precludes any meaningful gains, conventional warfare between nation-state has become mostly obsolete. At the same time proxy wars, colonial wars and imperial policing have become more relevant again. These are conflicts where most actors are only semi-state actors or less. Alternatively, where the attacked nation cannot hope to win a conventional conflict and reverts to guerrilla warfare. With increasing urbanisation and ever higher population, density cities are the new battlefield, and those especially reward guerrilla warfare and unconventional warfare.

Unconventional warfare throughout History has had its place as an essential strategy used. During the American Revolution, France became a sponsor for the revolutionists. France provided them with weapons, funds, and expertise to support the cause. Espionage played a vital role in the American Revolution, which portrayed key unconventional warfare tactics. Carl Von Clausewitz claimed, “war is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means’. Many argue that Clausewitz theory on war can be applied to modern warfare. Modern warfare has changed, and violent conflicts tend to last longer and involve more non-state actors claiming power through identity rather territory. The nature of war has evolved due to technology which has enabled an expansion of unconventional war tactics that can be applied to modern-day conflicts.  

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Unconventional or Guerrilla Warfare Throughout World History. (2022, July 07). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from
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