Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla Warfare

“An army marches on its stomach,” said Napoleon (or maybe it was Frederick the Great; it’s unclear). But in Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara is keen to remind us that an army also marches, rather more prosaically, on its feet. For he repeatedly stresses the importance of shoes, “one of the fundamental accessories in the struggle” (83). “Above everything else,” indeed, it is a vital necessity that a guerrilla army “have adequate shoes” (29). These should be “of the best possible construction” and “one of the first articles laid up in reserve” (50). After all,

it is not possible for a troop to walk without shoes in wooded zones, hilly, with many rocks and thorns. It is very difficult to march without shoes in such conditions; only the natives, and not all of them, can do it. The rest must have shoes. (102)

No wonder that one of the very first tasks of the guerrilla army, once it has liberated even the most limited of zones, is to establish “shoe factories” that “can initially be cobbler installations that replace half-soles on old shoes, expanding afterwards into a series of organized factories with a good average daily production of shoes” (29). Along with an armory, this is one of the “two fundamental industries” a rebel army has to establish–and in fact, it is mentioned in first place (102). Not just for the human combatants, what’s more. The mule train also “should be well supplied with shoes” (85).

These comments on cobbling indicate the practical nature of Che’s guide to guerilla strategy and tactics. Nothing is too mundane to go unsaid. He equally notes the importance, for instance, of salt, and methods of procuring it. There are discussions of how to string a hammock, and how much underwear a fighter should carry (answer: not much). More obviously to the point, there are diagrams outlining how to make a device that can launch Molotov cocktails and how best to train new recruits in target practice without great expenditures of precious ammunition. This is a manual for the would-be revolutionary that leaves little to chance.

But more than this, the focus on footwear is a clue to the specificities and idiosyncrasies of what we’d now call “unconventional warfare.” For “the basic tactic of the guerrilla army is the march,” which is also why “neither slow men nor tired men can be tolerated” (119). The guerrilla band is relentlessly on the move: its “fundamental characteristic [. . .] is mobility” (18). It always attacks far from its base, and is prepared to retreat if necessary. At times it “can dedicate itself exclusively to fleeing from an encirclement”; at other times “it can also change the battle into a counter-encirclement” (19). The guerrilla constantly changes front, redefines the lines of combat, advances, steps back, circles around, advances again. No wonder Che compares tactics in the field to a “minuet” (19). Creativity and innovation are at a premium: “Against the rigidity of classical methods of fighting, the guerrilla fighter invents his own tactics at every minute of the fight” (20-21). The all-important shoes have as much in common with ballet slippers as with hiking boots. As well as mobility, guerrilla warfare requires extreme flexibility. The guerrilla must be prepared to turn, side-step, glide, perform arabesques, and then melt away, always en pointe, in a heightened state of awareness.

The foco theory at the heart of Guevara’s book has long been much maligned. The notion that a small vanguard of rural fighters can create the conditions for its own success failed dismally in many Latin American countries, not least in Bolivia under Che himself. Not many people will now be taking this book as the practical guide that it was initially intended–even though it was anxiously examined as much by the would-be experts in counter-insurgency as by trigger-happy leftists. But there’s still surely something for revolutionaries to learn here on a more abstract level. For instance about the importance of space, of knowing the lay of the land, and finding suitable terrain that best aids your cause and disadvantages your enemy. But also the importance of timing, of the tactic of surprise, of knowing when to break off an engagement and regroup. Or the observation that it is the enemy that will be the best source of your ammunition (another reason why shoe factories are if anything more vital than armories), that nomadic adaptability outweighs even the virtues of ascetic purity and sacrifice that the book also (and less convincingly) preaches.

For if Emma Goldman complained that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” a contemporary Che might respond that the Revolution itself should be a dance, playful and joyous. So go get your shoes.