Playing by Mogadishu Rules

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In the seventh grade, my children read April Morning, a coming-of-age novel by Howard Fast. It's the story of a boy, Adam Cooper, whose father is shot by the British on Lexington Common on April 19, 1775. In the chaos that follows, Adam joins a group of men who, in their everyday clothes, hiding behind walls and trees, mow down a column of Redcoats marching back from Concord.

Adam and his friends were guerrillas — though the word wasn't commonly used until some 40 years later, when Spanish peasants harried Napoleon's army in the Peninsular War. Indeed, the Columbia Encyclopedia notes that guerrilla tactics have been called "the great contribution of the American Revolution to the development of warfare." In this early part of the conflict in Iraq, Saddam Hussein's forces have borrowed heavily from that old American innovation. Now, before you send off enraged e-mail, I'm not suggesting any moral equivalence between the Minutemen and Saddam's thugs. But it is surprising that both the Pentagon and the American public seem to have been taken aback by the Iraqis' hit-and-run attacks.

War on Iraq's ongoing coverage of the U.S.-Iraq conflict

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Who will step in to fill the void?

 Tools of the Hunt
 On Assignment: The War

 Perry: Street Fighting in Karbala
 Robinson: Chaos at a Bridge
 Ware: Last Stand for Saddam

 When the Cheering Stops
Jubilation and chaos greet the fall of Saddam's regime, leaving Iraqis and Americans puzzling over how to rebuild the nation
 The Search for the Smoking Gun
 Counting the Casualties War in Iraq

In any armed conflict, guerrilla tactics can be an equalizer. They are weapons, China's Mao Zedong once wrote, "that a nation inferior in arms and military equipment may employ against a more powerful aggressor." That's precisely the situation in which Iraq now finds itself. The coalition rules the skies over Iraq — Saddam's tiny air force hasn't once scrambled its jets since the start of fighting — raining down Wagnerian fury on cities and armies. In open combat, Iraq's armored divisions are being annihilated by allied forces. In such circumstances, it is natural for the Iraqis to resort to small-scale strikes on lightly armed targets, to avoid open combat, and to practice deception at all times.

It's pointless for American generals to bleat about Iraqi irregulars not wearing uniforms or hiding behind civilians; this is what guerrillas have always done. ("The guerrilla must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea," said Mao.) Our leaders in uniform would serve us better if they explained that, increasingly, guerrilla wars are the ones we will have to fight.

That education is overdue. The heroic narrative of American warfare stresses great, set-piece, conventional battles: Antietam and Gettysburg, Normandy and Okinawa. When a military operation departed from those norms — as in Vietnam and at the battle of Mogadishu in 1993--it was dismissed as a mistake, the consequence of political meddling rather than a cool decision by the military to use force. In fact, the ambush in Somalia by armed men indistinguishable from peaceable civilians is more relevant to our future than a full shelf of books on the World War II heroics of the "greatest generation." Given the conventional power of the U.S. military, any probable adversary will choose unconventional tactics. The fighting in Afghanistan, for example, has settled into a classic pattern of guerrilla warfare, with hit-and-run attacks on U.S. bases followed by search-and-destroy missions by small units of American forces.

For the "strong" power, guerrilla wars are extraordinarily demanding. Guerrillas typically melt away into the general population, either because they have political support there or because they terrorize civilians into protecting them. (My guess is that in Iraq today both conditions are met.) So the strong power has to hunt the enemy not on the battlefield but in towns and villages. The risks are twofold: an ambush like that in Mogadishu or a gradual alienation of the local population leading to unbearable political pressure to end a war — which is how the French were forced out of Algeria. In the 1950s, the British perfected antiguerrilla warfare in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya. But that was before the invention of the video camera and the globalization of news. It was one thing to frog-march a Malay headman to jail or torch a Kenyan village in the privacy of one's own colony; it's quite another to do so in the full glare of TV lights. One unarmed Afghan — or Iraqi — killed by a scared G.I. can have greater political consequences than a truckload of humanitarian aid.

It is not just the armed forces that will have to adapt to guerrilla warfare. So will the public. Americans like their wars to have clean endings, with ticker-tape parades and a memorial on the Mall in Washington. But guerrilla wars aren't like that. Parents of fighting men in the old colonial powers got used to hearing that their sons had died in sordid skirmishes whose names nobody had heard of or — like the six Americans killed when their helicopter crashed in Afghanistan last week — in accidents far from home. Guerrilla warfare may have fine American antecedents, but we have always recoiled from accepting a slow, endless drip of casualties from contests whose stated purpose we have long forgotten. Soon we may have to get used to it.