War and Conflict

Latin America & the Caribbean

How old is guerrilla warfare?

Guerrilla warfare dates back to ancient times but got its name during the Peninsular War of 1809 to 1814 when Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) fought for control of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). In Spanish, guerrilla means “small war.” The resistance to Napoleon’s troops employed tactics that are typical of what we know as guerrilla warfare—fighting in small bands, ambushes, sudden raids, and sabotage.

It is Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung (1893–1976) who, in his 22–year fight against the Chinese nationalists (from 1927 to 1949), is believed to have developed the techniques of modern guerrilla warfare. Chairman Mao slowly but surely gained the support and sympathy of the common people—in particular those living in rural areas. Eventually, he had control of the masses who believed the reforms he would make once in office would be favorable to them. The people would provide the manpower and supplies that would sustain the fight. If any followers faulted in their loyalty to the cause, they would be punished.

Today, guerrillas rely on terrorist attacks against governments, goading the military into action, which, in turn, rallies the public in its outrage against government. In this way, guerrilla movements can gain popular support over time. Such movements are by no means limited to the countryside: Urban attacks include tactics such as kidnapping and assassination. Such guerrilla measures have led to the outbreak of civil wars.


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