Élie Tenenbaum: Partisans and Centurions

Elie Tenenbaum
Ed. Perrin
pp. 552

Élie Tenenbaum's well documented and dense book (Partisans and Centurions. Une histoire de la guerre irréguliere au XX° siecle, Perrin), researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), traces the history, the "Odyssey of history", to quote the author, of irregular conflicts, along a chronological and thematic path that spans the whole century XX and reaches up to the present day.

Tenenbaum defines this form of warfare as going against the grain of "Western modernity": “Where regular warfare emphasizes firepower and linear formations, irregular warfare prefers mobility, skirmishing and guerrilla warfare, raiding and ambush ”(p.15); mixes combatants and non-combatants, does not respect a state-based international order; and its fighters are moved by a political motivation that distinguishes them from soldiers. And if the objective of regular warfare is the destruction of the enemy, in irregular warfare the aim is rather to demoralize the adversary, to weaken his “rear lines, resorting to guerrilla warfare, sabotage, propaganda and terrorism.

The author describes with great accuracy not only the development of a form of conflict, but also of strategic thinking, the history of which he divides into four phases: the first, born on the ashes of the Great War, develops according to the revolutionary and colonial experiences of the interwar period, and sees Great Britain as the "incubator" of a doctrine and a generation of specialists in unconventional warfare; the second phase has Asia as the protagonist, which becomes with China "the strategic laboratory of irregular warfare" (p.21), where the Maoists had developed new revolutionary tactics and techniques that rapidly spread throughout the region; the third is that of the "globalization of irregular strategic knowledge" at the time of decolonization. This phenomenon is perceived by Western powers as a "vast globalized subversion" (p.21) against the West.

As a response to the subversive threat, the Western powers adopt the tactics coming from Asia, which however are taken out of context, and rethought in view of their application in other theatres.

Thus we witness the birth of an "irregular strategic community" made up, among others, of the British Robert Thompson, the Frenchman David Galula and the American Edward Lansdale. These soldiers play not only the role of theoretician and/or experimenter of various techniques of irregular warfare, but also that of "strategic couriers". A fundamental role in spreading the spread of counter-subversive doctrines among the various Western powers on a global level.

France is the first to theorize its own "doctrine of revolutionary warfare" (DGR). The major exponents of this strategic thinking are a handful of colonels who shared the experience of the war in Indochina, such as Charles Lacheroy (who is believed to be the inventor of the same concept of "revolutionary war")*, Jacques Hogard, Roger Trinquier. But after the defeat of the French in Algeria it will be the United States, under the presidency of Kennedy, who will revise the tactics and techniques of irregular warfare by developing their own doctrine of counterinsurgency (COIN).

The fourth and final phase, which coincides with the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War, marks the gradual disappearance of Western irregular grand strategy. But another cause of its decline is the discredit that has hit Western democracies after the use on the national territory of irregular practices, which contradict the rule of law, to repress "the enemy within".

However, irregular warfare survived cyclically until the end of the last century in the practices of clandestine action and international terrorism. To then re-emerge at the outbreak of conflicts at the beginning of the XNUMXst century. Conflicts which, according to the author, catch the Western strategic community unprepared, which has not been able to understand or adapt to the transformations that have taken place in the new Theaters of intervention. Think of the US military bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it will be precisely the United States' difficulties in these Theaters that will prompt a renewed interest in irregular warfare in US military circles and strategic think tanks, such as the RAND Corporation. This strategic reflection, and its consequences on military practices, will offer a fundamental contribution to the elaboration of the "Petraeus doctrine" on counter-insurgency, which will be codified in the US Army doctrinal publication Field Manual 3-24 (Counterinsurgency Operations) of December 2006.

However, this resurgence of irregular strategy unaccompanied by political reflection on the issues underlying the conflicts may have led the West, after the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011 and the end of the NATO mission in the country in 2014, to now consider unconventional warfare as out of the strategic horizon.

But, warns the author, the eruption on the international scene of the "Arab revolutions" or the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, with Russia's recourse to special forces and mercenaries, clandestine actions and a virulent campaign of disinformation and of psychological warfare, demonstrate that irregular warfare had not disappeared.

In the Epilogue, Tenenbaum warns against making the serious mistake of considering "irregularity as a temporary strategic issue": "it is as integral a part of the spectrum of conflict as nuclear deterrence or conventional warfare" (p.413).

An accurate work built on an impressive amount of research in the French, American and British archives, that of Élie Tenenbaum, which can become the reference work for anyone interested in a particular form of warfare, today more relevant than ever.

Nicola Festa

* On Charles Lacheroy, allow me to defer to N. Festa, Lacheroy, Theorist of the "Revolutionary War", History in Network, February 1, 2016, http://www:storiain.net/storia/2016/02.