Thursday, January 18, 2007

Furrows in the water

David Bell on the world's first guerilla war:
The decision to escalate in Iraq reminds me of a series of letters I read a few years ago in the French military archives, from the French commanding general in Pamplona, Spain, in the years 1810-11. All right, it may not seem like an exactly obvious connection. But the war fought in Spain against Napoleon between 1808 and 1814 was a classic case of insurgency, seen by many historians as the first great modern example of the phenomenon. In fact, the word "guerrilla" was first popularized during the conflict (it comes from the Spanish for "little war")....

The letters from the French commander, Honoré-Charles Reille, are eloquent about the frustrations of fighting an insurgent force, and eerily reminiscent of our own current quagmire. Again and again, Reille complained of attacks from men his troops could not even see, who approached and fired, then quickly melted back into the countryside. He worried that the French could not move about except in large detachments, lest guerrilla bands pick them off (lacking "improvised explosive devices," a favorite tactic was attacks by hundreds of guerrillas at once on small and isolated French units). He blamed the insurgency on religious fanaticism, in this case of Catholic Spaniards who had missed out on Enlightenment and French Revolutionary anti-clericalism....

"Unfortunately," he wrote, "in this region as in many others of Spain, our influence extends only as far as the range of our cannon [...] The Spanish say quite rightly that our troops are plowing furrows in the water."

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