Review: On Guerrilla Warfare, by Mao Tse-tung

A manual on the kind of war that defined the 20th century (3 stars)

On Guerrilla Warfare was one of the books left by Chinese leader Mao-Tse Tung, but unlike his more famous Red Book, this one is dedicated entirely to military strategy. This was a difficult book to rate and review, because I liked reading the foreword by Samuel B. Griffith, who translated the book in the 40s, more than On Guerrilla Warfare itself.

After atomic weapons came along, conventional warfare became a lot costlier to nuclear nations. This made guerrilla the kind of “low key” conflict that defined the 20th century, and promises to continue to shape the 21th. What the preface shows is how guerrilla it is a lot more powerful that one may think.

“It is often said that guerrilla warfare is primitive. This generalization is dangerously misleading and true only in the technological sense. If one considers the picture as a whole, a paradox is immediately apparent, and the primitive form is understood to be in fact more sophisticated than nuclear war or atomic war or war as it was waged by conventional armies, navies, and air forces. Guerrilla war is not dependent for success on the efficient operation of complex mechanical devices, highly organized logistical systems, or the accuracy of electronic computers. It can be conducted in any terrain, in any climate, in any weather; in swamps, in mountains, in farmed fields. Its basic element is man, and man is more complex than any of his machines. He is endowed with intelligence, emotions, and will. Guerrilla warfare is therefore suffused with, and reflects, man’s admirable qualities as well as his less pleasant ones. While it is not always humane, it is human, which is more than can be said for the strategy of extinction.”

Mao pretty much updates the thoughts of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, emphasizing speed, stealth and the surprise factor. The preface also shows very well the particulars of Chinese thought in Mao’s text.

“An important postulate of the Yin-Yang theory is that concealed within strength there is weakness, and within weakness, strength. It is a weakness of guerrillas that they operate in small groups that can be wiped out in a matter of minutes. But because they do operate in small groups, they can move rapidly and secretly into the vulnerable rear of the enemy.”

“It is often a disadvantage not to have heavy infantry weapons available, but the very fact of having to transport them has until recently tied conventional columns to roads and well-used tracks. The guerrilla travels light and travels fast. He turns the hazards of terrain to his advantage and makes an ally of tropical rains, heavy snow, intense heat, and freezing cold. Long night marches are difficult and dangerous, but the darkness shields his approach to an unsuspecting enemy.”

On Guerrilla Warfare is a fascinating read in which it shows how sheer human determination can knock whole empires down. Griffith even suggests it is impossible to be beaten by a conventional army after about one forth of the population is converted to the cause. The basic element of a guerrilla is man, and man is more complex than any of his machines.

Guilherme Solari is a Brazilian writer and journalist from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has written about movies, literature and videogames for some of Brazil’s biggest news sites. He is the author of THE CASCAVEL CHRONICLES, a love letter to 80's action movies, as well as the cyberpunk CYBERSAMPA series.