Books of War: War of the Flea by Robert Taber

The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare, as the subtitle for War of the Flea by Robert Taber, immediately communicates the ambition of this published work. Guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and terrorism are three terms diluted from both excessive and partisan use, but that does not negate the difficulty of grasping just what they mean. In War of the Flea, Taber begins by describing guerrilla warfare as “refined in our time to a politco-military quasi-science – part Marxist-Leninist social theory, part tactical innovation.” By identifying the murky nature of the topic from the onset, the book begins by defining the subject through examples such as Castro and Mao, and transitions into how revolutions fail and how to combat them.

Referencing Carl von Clausewitz, Robert Taber draws a connection between politics and warfare. As a form of prolonged political warfare, it is the objective of the guerrilla, the insurgent, to produce, nurture, and inspire revolution within the population, turning them against their own government. He identifies the lifeblood of an insurgency to be the belief or hope that revolution is possible. Thus idealistically motivated, the objective of the guerrilla is to convince the population around him to lose trust in their institutions, turning them into his long-range weapon.

The two most important relationships of an insurgency are between the guerrillas and the government or authority they oppose, as well as between the local population and the revolutionaries. At first, the revolutionaries cannot defeat the military might of those they call their oppressors (and Taber acknowledges this claim need not even be legitimate), so they cause damage to the reputation of the local peacekeepers by first forcing them to cover a wide area. Once spread out, rapid, pointed attacks humiliate the larger force, with the most important impact landing on the population, who begin to see the army or government as ineffective or unable to keep them safe.

In order to survive, however, the insurgency must cultivate a positive relationship with the population, to the extent that Taber concludes that alienating the population from the insurgency is a necessary part of counter-insurgency. It is not the size of the guerrilla force that sustains the insurgency, but the belief in the inevitability of revolution.

If the people are to accept the risks and responsibilities of organized violence, they must believe first that there is no alternative; second, that the cause is compelling; third, that they have a reasonable expectation of success. The last named is perhaps the most powerful of motives.

Robert Taber, War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare (Lincoln, Neb, Potomac Books, 2002.) 22.

Taber identifies the anticipation of revolution as more important than the cause. In describing the motivation he presents an asymmetry:

Having no vested interest, no political opposition within their own ranks, no economic problems other than those that can be solved by extending the war and capturing what they need, the insurgents have nothing to lose and everything to gain by continuing the struggle. And, on the other hand, they have nothing to gain and everything to lose by giving up. In fact, once the banner of rebellion has been raised and blood has been shed, it is no easy matter to give up. The rebels begin to fight for whatever reason: they continue because they must.

Robert Taber, War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare (Lincoln, Neb, Potomac Books, 2002.) 39-40.

war of the flea by robert taber

Cultural Relevance

Considering that War of the Flea was first published in 1965, it has the reputation of a foundational contribution to understanding both insurgency and guerrilla warfare. While we may now live in the post-information age, where violent movements are suspected of having ties to political actors, and the concept of revolution has been further diluted by activist rhetoric, the work of Robert Taber establishes the importance of relationships by distinguishing the insurgents from the population.

He identifies the timeline and process of fomenting a revolution, and defines the resources, physical and abstract, that both the insurgency and counter-insurgency operate on. If the military strength is in favor of the existing government, time favors the guerrillas.

The underlying danger of War of the Flea is for the reader to be consumed by a monomania: explaining all political and adjacent activities in their world as some form of guerrilla activity. While the use of insurgency has become the dominant method of subverting governments and a method of weaponizing ideology and victimhood, the information gained is corrupted if expanded beyond its scope.

Robert Taber’s War of the Flea brings clarity to an inherently confusing subject. When a government or administration is sandwiched between guerrilla violence and maintaining the social support of the population, the prolonged political conflict quickly becomes a death by a thousand cuts if the mechanism of revolution is not properly understood.

War of the Flea by Robert Taber

Pages: 199
Publisher: Potomac Books, and Imprint of the University of Nebraska Press
First Publised: 1965
ISBN: 978-1-57488-555-2

War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare for $20 on Amazon

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