What Is a Guerrilla?
A guerrilla is a member of an independent body of fighters carrying on irregular warfare against authority. This usually involves fighting on a small scale against units of national armies. Guerrillas often use unconventional weapons and equipment, and are extremely mobile. Psychological warfare, including the use of sabotage and terrorism, is also part of their system of fighting.
“Guerrilla” is a Spanish word meaning “little war”. The word came into use during the Duke of Wellington’s campaigns when the Spanish-Portuguese irregulars or guerrilleros helped drive the French from the Iberian Peninsula.
Lawrence of Arabia, who made great use of guerrillas against the Turks in the First World War, once said: “Guerrilla war is much more intellectual than a bayonet charge”.
Irregular warfare, based on elements later characteristic of modern guerrilla warfare, has existed throughout the battles of many ancient civilizations. The growth of guerilla warfare in the 20th century was inspired in part by theoretical works on guerrilla warfare, starting with the Manual de Guerra de Guerrillas by Matías Ramón Mella written in the 19th century and, more recently, Mao Zedong’s On Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare, and Lenin’s text of the same name, all written after the successful revolutions carried by them in China, Cuba and Russia respectively.
Those texts characterized the tactic of guerrilla warfare as, according to Che Guevara’s text, being “used by the side which is supported by a majority but which possesses a much smaller number of arms for use in defense against oppression”. Che Guevara of Cuba also made his name as a guerrilla. He was eventually shot while fighting in Bolivia for the communists against the country’s government.
The Chinese general and strategist Sun Tzu, in his The Art of War (6th century BC) or 600 BC to 501 BC, was the earliest to propose the use of guerrilla warfare. This directly inspired the development of modern guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla tactics were presumably employed by prehistoric tribal warriors against enemy tribes. Evidence of conventional warfare, on the other hand, did not emerge until 3100 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Since the Enlightenment, ideologies such as nationalism, liberalism, socialism, and religious fundamentalism have played an important role in shaping insurgencies and guerrilla warfare.
One of the most remarkable guerrilla warfare warriors was Viriatus, a Lusitanian who led the resistance against the Roman Empire by obtaining several victories between 147 BC and 139 BC in the region of Zamora, Spain. Because of the innovative tactics he used during his command, he made himself the name of Terror Romanorum (Terror of the Romans).