Profiles in Resistance: The Calculus of Defiance by Joshua Van Buskirk

Georgio Grivas

Publisher’s Note: Joshua is a former student of mine and I am honored that he is inaugurating our new series, Profiles in Resistance, with a real firecracker of an opening salvo.  Every new millenium is filled with hope of changing the eternal dynamic and ratcheting back the factors in human slavery.  Many suggest this may well be the Chinese century and I would like to hope that may not be the case at all; it may very well be the final century that the predatory state and its apparatchiks retain humanity in its clutches.

Joshua’s timely Cypriot observations dovetail nicely with the frustrated British experience trying to keep the Irish under their thumb from 1916-22. -BB 

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Resistance is not a new part of the human experience. Resisters have challenged the meddlers of the world for as long as anyone has asserted authority where it ought not be asserted. Those that challenge the meddler known as the state have several unique qualities that enable them to resist and, in many cases, win against overwhelming odds. The principles that make resisters successful are critical thinking, forcing the enemy to fight on the resister’s terms, exposing the vulnerability of the state, and economic sustainability.

    Critical Thinking

Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in their readiness to doubt.

H. L. Mencken

Resisters are the contrarians among us. Skeptics by nature, resisters ask “why” until the answers become insufficient. The ability to ask these types of questions requires critical thinking. Therefore, the resister is often middle class, highly educated and skeptical. For example, Fidel Castro and Mohandas Gandhi studied law before leading revolutionary social movements. Both Abimael Guzmán, of the Shining Path, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had PhDs in philosophy before they challenged their respective governments. Mao Tse-Tung worked as a librarian before taking on both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists. Ernesto “Che” Guevara  was a  medical student before joining Castro in Cuba.

Not only must the founders of revolutions be critical thinkers, but the foot soldiers and junior leaders of a resistance movement must also be independent-minded. Often operating using a de-centralized model, the resister must be able to think for himself and act in the absence of orders from his chain of command. A good example of this is the cell structure implemented by the Shining Path. Although highly centralized at the strategic level, at the tactical level, the Shining Path’s decision making was left to individual commanders:

Local militants were organized into cells, similar to contemporary terrorists cells, and for security reasons had limited contacts outside their immediate five- to nine-member unit. Even a regional commander had direct contact with no more than eight other insurgents.[1]

The Shining Path, like many resistance movements, was forced by military necessity to operate independently, thereby enabling its fighters to adapt their plans to the situation on the ground. Such flexibility and the capability to operate without guidance from higher headquarters allows the resister to out-think and out-maneuver his government opponent, whose focus is not on critical thinking.

Government forces are focused on blind obedience and ensuring that orders are not questioned. The ability to think independently may lead to soldiers having thoughts that deviate from government-approved opinions and, consequently, dissension in the ranks. The soldiers of the state spend their time implementing a national policy drafted by academics and politicians, not considering whether something is right or wrong. These soldiers are also unable to think about the long-term effects of such policies when applied to the local situation. The government’s steadfastness to policy and doctrine enable the resister to out-maneuver state forces by being flexible and adapting to the situation. By being a critical thinker, the resister forges his own path and refuses to fight a traditional battle.

Fighting on the Resister’s Terms

The Guerrilla has the initiative; it is he who begins the war, and he who decides when and where to strike. His military opponent must wait, and while waiting, he must be on guard everywhere.

 -Robert Taber

Part of being a critical thinker is doing what works. Typically, governments rig the rules to ensure that the customary or acceptable means of opposition are ineffective. In Guerrilla Warfare, Mao Tse-Tung illustrates how the successful resister will do the opposite of what is expected. When the conventional forces zag, the resister zigs.  During a resistance, Mao says to:

“…select the tactic of seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west; avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning decision. When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws. In guerilla strategy, the enemy’s rear, flanks, and other vulnerable spots are his vital points, and there he must be harassed, attacked, dispersed, exhausted and annihilated.”[2]

Mao says that fighters should be contrarian and use the advantages that being small affords the movement: speed, agility and being seemingly undetectable to the heavy hand of conventional forces and conventional thinking. Do not play by the rules or use the conventional wisdom; make your own rules. As Malcom Gladwell has pointed out, the Davids of the world beat their Goliaths by refusing to do what was expected by the opposition. By following this advice, the resister leaves the conventional forces of the state baffled, confused and, in many cases, bankrupt.

Countless successful insurgents have utilized these principles. For example, insurgents often hide in mountainous terrain, where conventional forces have difficulty with both the physical and human landscape.

A mountainous physical terrain is difficult for large mechanized forces to traverse and easy for guerrillas to hide in. By refusing to fight in the open, the resister forces the government to fight on his terms. A good example of this is Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra. When Castro’s men  were pursued into the mountains, the Cuban government’s forces were frustrated through ambushes, thick vegetation, and an elusive enemy that seemed to be everywhere, but at the same time nowhere to be found. Castro so effectively fought the government’s forces that he was able to convince the Cubans in the urban areas that opposing the Batista government was possible. Without the myth of state invulnerability, Batista was forced to flee the country, thereby dissolving his government.

In the mountains, the human terrain is also inhospitable to government forces. These rural areas tend to receive less government funds and services. Rural people are also unaccustomed to having others tell them how to live their lives. Zomia is perhaps the best example of this principle. As a mountainous rural region, its people remained, as James Scott stated, masters of “The Art of Not Being Governed.”

This type of resistance is not limited to Southeast Asia. In Peru, for example, the government only provided security, infrastructure and money to those of European descent residing in the lower elevations of the coastal region. Simultaneously, it ignored the needs of the indigenous people in the mountainous interior of the country. Such disparity made the area ripe for revolution and led to the rise of the Shining Path.

The Shining Path was able to use the mountains to hide within the countryside and among the people. The leader of the Shining Path, Abimael Guzmán, directed his followers to engage in hit-and-run tactics against the Peruvian government, steal from the government, and assassinate political opponents. By adopting unconventional tactics on difficult terrain, the Shining Path pushed the Peruvian government outside of its comfort zone. Had Guzmán not been captured in 1992, it is possible that the interior of Peru would have won de facto independence from the coastal areas.

Destroying the Invulnerability of the State

The government is not concerned about the loss of a few policemen, or even an arsenal, but it is terrified of the attendant publicity,which casts doubt on its stability.

-Robert Taber

Part of not playing by the rules is ensuring that military operations come second to the battle of persuading the people. Ultimately, a government cannot exist without some sort of consent by the governed. At the very least, the ruled must resign themselves to government control. The two most dangerous ideas to state are therefore 1) that the people do not need it, and 2) that the government can be defeated. Once the people are persuaded of these two points, no government can exist.

Of these two ideas, proving the vulnerability of the state is the more difficult. The state has a powerful Army, Navy and Air Force, all outfitted with the latest technology. Many believe the only thing that could beat such power is another state with an equally powerful military. The resister proves the vulnerability of these conventional forces by opposing them and surviving to tell the tale. Most people assume that any one individual opposing the state would be crushed by the full might and power of an empire. However, when the state fails to crush that individual, it shows that resistance is possible and lowers the cost of others joining the resister’s movement. It also makes the resistance leader appear larger-than-life. For example, Mullah Omar and members of the Haqqani Network actively opposed the Soviet Union and the United States in Pashtunistan and are still alive to inspire others. The inability to stop these individuals illustrates the failing of massive armies with overwhelming technological superiority. Of course, the loss of such leaders is a propaganda coup for the government. However, as Al-Qaeda has proven, such leaders are easy to replace at a very low cost.

 The Economics of Resistance

He who wishes to fight must first count the cost. When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be dampened. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor dampened, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue… In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

 –Sun Tzu, the Art of War

Perhaps the best trait the resister brings to a war against the state is economic sustainability. Unlike traditional states, resisters can fight at significantly reduced rates compared to their opponents. As it stands today, for instance, insurgents in Afghanistan can make highly effective Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) for the shockingly low rate of 265 USD as of 2009. Compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the Counter-IED Operations Integration Center (COIC), it is not surprising that the US government has racked up 16 trillion USD in debt in order to fight people who refuse to play by the rules.

The concept of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency being financially unsustainable is not isolated to recent times or to the mountainous terrain. On the small Greek island of Cyprus, Georgios Grivas was able to frustrate British forces between 1955 and 1960. Grivas was able to force the British Empire to hemorrhage both men and resources while fighting against a relatively small group of guerrillas. By 1956, the British had increased their forces to 22,000 men to fight 273 of Grivas’ full-time soldiers.[3] Fielding such a large army came at large expense for the British. On the other hand, Grivas’ men maintained their supplies by raiding remote British outposts, from which they stole food, ammunition and weapons. By the end of the conflict, the British had increased their presence in Cyprus to 43,000 soldiers. The increased number did little to stop Grivas’ forces and did much to convince both the British people and the British government that the occupation of Cyprus was not economically feasible. Due to exhaustion, cost and lack of political will, the British granted Cyprus its independence in 1960.

The example of Cyprus is one of many. One can look to Tito’s struggle against Hitler, Castro’s against Batista and many others to see how a small band of dedicated resisters can be an expensive opponent. Moreover, it is an endeavor that often only forestalls the inevitable defeat of the state.


The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all.

– Thomas Jefferson

As the internet and technology continue to spread information and even the battlefield between non-state and state actors, this problem will only get worse for governments and empires. In the American military, it costs billions to build a surface ship, but the missile that destroys it costs merely a fraction of that. Empires fall for financial reasons, and governments may collapse for the same reasons. When that happens, we can thank the resister.

[1]Buikema, Ron; Burger Matt “Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path)” page 85: Casebook on Insurgency and Revolutionary Warfare Volume II

[2] Tse-Tung, Mao “On Guerrilla Warfare” page 46

[3] Taber, Robert “War of the Flea” Page 130

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