Washington’s wars and guerrilla strategy, now and then


The Bush administration seems stymied by the tenacity of the Iraqi insurgency and frantically in search of a successful strategy. Amidst a growing storm of controversy in Washington, highlighted by the Iraq Study Group’s report, the White House is expected shortly to announce its plan for a temporary troop “surge” to stabilize Iraq.

History teaches the futility of this course. It is difficult, often impossible, for even the most powerful conventional army to win against a smaller, but well led and highly motivated, guerrilla force. It’s a lesson George Washington first taught us 230 years ago.

In December 1776, Gen. Washington’s Continental Army was in full retreat from a larger British army. Through the late summer and autumn, the British had driven the Continentals from New York City, across New Jersey and into eastern Pennsylvania by outflanking and out-muscling Washington, who futilely tried to resist with conventional military tactics. With his army demoralized and down to about 3,000 men, Washington faced almost certain defeat unless he could score a quick dramatic victory. Instinctively, he turned to guerilla tactics.

With a force of 2,400, Washington staged a daring raid on Christmas night 1776. He stealthily crossed the Delaware River to New Jersey, fording the ice-choked water on flatboats against a bitter northeast storm. His men marched quickly to Trenton, where a large detachment of Hessian mercenaries – Britain’s allies – were garrisoned.

Arriving early the next morning, the Continentals achieved complete surprise and routed the Hessian troops. Then, on Jan. 3, 1777, Washington again staged a lightning strike at Princeton, surprising and defeating two British regiments sent to pursue and “bag” him.

Although these engagements inflicted minor tactical setbacks on the British, they were a strategic bonanza for the Americans. News of the victories buoyed the sagging spirits of the new republic and prevented disintegration of the Continental Army. A conventional general by temperament, Washington did not return to guerilla tactics for the duration of the Revolutionary War, but his renowned “Crossing of the Delaware” served its purpose and bought his army time to fight on to victory.

Guerrilla warfare typically involves small fighting units, light weaponry, reliance on the local populace for food, refuge and intelligence about enemy movements, employment of tactical surprise and avoidance of pitched battles. Guerillas attack and retreat swiftly, often hide in remote, inaccessible places or in plain sight among civilians, and are adept at “winning hearts and minds” by posturing as champions of the people against oppression by foreign invaders or a hated government.

Throughout its history, the United States has – with few exceptions – fielded conventional military forces built upon a hierarchical chain of command, complicated communications and logistics, sophisticated technology and the deployment of large land, naval and air formations.

After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union possessed the most powerful conventional military establishments on earth. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989 solidified U.S. superpower status, seducing some leaders into the belief we could militarily impose our will to reshape global politics.

Reality proved different – thanks to guerilla warfare.

Although guerilla warfare is the desperate strategy of weak conventional forces, it can be effective against a formidable conventional adversary given the right conditions. The guerilla army wins by staying intact and not losing. It outmaneuvers and outlasts conventional opponents, stretching resources, fraying nerves and wearing down morale.

Such as after the Vietnam War, when two former enemies – a North Vietnamese colonel and an American colonel – met and compared notes. “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” said the American. “That may be so,” replied the Vietnamese, “but it is also irrelevant.”

The United States has faced many guerilla foes and found them both tenacious and resourceful. It has had to re-learn the lesson of 1776 from the perspective of countering an insurgency, such as during the Indian wars of the Western plains, the Filipino insurrection after the Spanish-American War, and especially Vietnam.

Is the Sunni insurgency in Iraq (and the burgeoning civil war it has provoked) winnable with the addition of more U.S. troops? Unlikely. Winning, if possible at all against such a tough guerilla force, would require not only far more troops, resources and time than the American public is willing to tolerate, but also a sophisticated political strategy and the undoing of severe damage already inflicted upon our credibility among Iraqis by past policy failures.

Failure to carry out advance planning for the occupation, secure abandoned enemy weapons, seal borders with Iran and Syria, keep Saddam Hussein’s army intact and woo the Sunni minority has led to a chaotic and violent environment in which kidnappings, shootings, mortar attacks and bombings are a daily hazard for occupation troops, Iraqi police and civilians alike. As a result, the one common bond largely shared by Iraq’s divided population is the belief that their country would be better off with the United States gone.

That does not bode well for countering a guerilla insurgency by “winning hearts and minds.”

Elliott L. Epstein, a Lewiston attorney, is founder and board president of Museum L-A and an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He can be reached at [email protected]