Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Great Bushwacker War, Or "It is ok to jump over the cliff as long as all your friends are doing it"

In the 1990's, I was lucky enough (or stupid enough, depending on your perspective) to be chosen to teach military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. To do this, the Army sent me for two year to graduate school at Texas A&M (please, hold the Aggie jokes) for an MA in History.

As many of you have had to survive, the thesis process is a bitch. The worse part, for me at least, was finding the "question" to ask--the research process pretty much took care of itself past that.

So, in the summer of 1995, I began to root through the archives and library at TAMU looking for something to write about. I found material on irregular warfare in the Civil War--letters, papers, etc.--and found that outside of a handful of biographies on Mosby, Quantrell and others, and Michael Fellman's wonderful Inside War (about the guerrilla war in Missouri), little existed. So I wrote my Master's thesis on the Confederate guerrilla war in Arkansas, and how it literally destroyed the state for the Confederacy, eased the transition back to the Union, and ensured that Arkansas would remain a poor and ignored state until this very day. That work became the basis of my Ph.D. dissertation and my later book, The UnCivil War.

Now, I tell you that in order to tell you the rest of the story. When I was at West Point, I tried to teach irregular warfare. You know, the idea that a country/region/etc., when invaded by another, more conventionally powerful country, will resort to irregular warfare (e.g. 'terrorist attacks,' or 'guerrilla warfare' or some other sort of thing) to defend itself.

I was, in general, told several things by my fellow faculty members (sans one then Captain (now LTC) Robert Lane Bateman, who was my officemate for two years and was firmly convinced that I was writing a field manual for my Ozark redoubt, and Dr. Fred Kagan, my officemate for my first year at USMA, who was bemused by the idea that anyone would actually study American guerrilla warfare, but I digress) and cadets.

First, "the U.S. will never fight another guerrilla war. Only the Special Forces guys will do that anyway."

Second, "where's the tanks? What, no Germans? What kind of military history is this anyway?"

That is when I learned my first truth about writing about irregular warfare. This truth is quite simple, and I have put it in a list of precepts for all to enjoy:

Colonel Bob's Rules of Irregular Warfare

1. Don't expect anyone to listen to you on guerrilla warfare, unless you can involve Mao, the First Cav in the Ia Drang, armored vehicles, or the British after 1945.

2. Guerrilla warfare is NEW. Never happened before the Chinese Revolution and the Long March. So don't even bother talking about it before, we won't listen.

3. The Civil War is about either slavery or Robert E. Lee. No one wants to hear about the Federals burning towns along the Mississippi for guerrilla attacks, or Confederate guerrillas raping and torturing their way across Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. Now, if you can write about Lee's feelings towards slavery, or slaves feelings toward Lee, why boy, you got a winner on yer hands!

4. Guerrilla warfare exists in a vaccum. No one likes talking about the simple fact that no guerrilla war in history has succeeded without external help from a nation-state (or simulation thereof). That might lead people to the idea that "proxy wars" are still "wars."

5. When writing about guerrilla warfare, make sure to include either Chinese, British, or Vietnamese participants. People will consider it "applicable" then. Never include Americans, unless they get to be the heroes. Makes people uncomfortable to think great-great grandpa was raping his neighbors for the sake of the Lost Cause.

6. Guerrilla warfare, from a publication standpoint, is not about (to paraphrase Mao) "the fish in the sea." It is about Communism, armored vehicles, and helicopters. If you can involve Dreadnought-class battleships and supply-side economics, you are on your way to a bestseller.

7. Lastly, when publishing on irregular warfare in the American Civil War, ensure that you title your work appropriately.

At the recommendation of one reader/critic/helpful suggester, my next book will be entitled "Lesbian Bushwhackers of the Applachians." I am in talks now with two adult film stars for the cover shoot.

Oh, and I need a Sherman tank for the front cover as well.

Any self-respecting irregular warfare expert knows that.


James F. Elliott said...

Hi Mr. Mackey,

After reading your posts, this looks like an excellent blog, and I look forward to continued reading. (I was linked here by Spencer Ackerman, which is enough of an endorsement for me!) I've added you to the Recommended Reading list at my own site.

While in undergrad at UC Davis, I took a course with Dr. Scott Gartner titled simply "War." Dr. Gartner's research divided warfighting into three general types of strategy: maneuver, static, and one other which I can't remember the name for that was a hybrid of the two and corresponded with conventional warfare. His research had found that employing a movement strategy was the most optimal for achieving one's goals and the most innovative.

Wouldn't guerrilla warfare be a form of movement warfare?

Robert Mackey said...

@james: Interesting point. I suppose, in some manner, irregular warfare (when doing my research for the UnCivil War, I divided mid-19th century irregular warfare into three categories--guerrilla war, partisan warfare, and raiding) is a maneuver-based form of war. The guerrilla, by his very nature, must be "mobile" to be successful, both physically and mentally.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons that more extreme ideologies in the 20th century used irregular warfare; they were often led by intellectuals.

Having said that, I would add that irregular warfare does have an end-state---the guerrilla doesn't want to be "the Liberation Front of Northwest Bobostan" forever. They want to be "The People's Republic of Bobostan"--a legitimate nation-state. At the heart of any real irregular war is the desire for legitimacy.

Chris said...

This is why I get weird looks here at the University of Alabama when I tell them I'm interested in small wars and insurgencies that aren't Vietnam - though I look at it as well.

I wonder, though, why so few people bring up guerrilla warfare in the southern colonies during the American Revolution, or even the tradition of the Minutemen? Surely guys who our national mythology claims sniped at British troops from behind trees and fences while not wearing uniforms qualify as guerrillas?


Robert Mackey said...

well, yes and no about the Revolution. I buy into Weigley's thesis that there was a choice in the AmRev--a conventional army fighting conventionally (Washington) or irregular warfare/insurgency. The colonies chose the former over the latter. However, the widespread guerrilla fighting (from both pro-colonial and pro-Brit factions) was its own conflict, a pattern that was repeated in the Civil War.