Both Forgotten and Misread: Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
Oct. 5, 2009

Just finished re-reading the ’60’s counterinsurgency classic, War of the Flea, by Robert Taber. I think I read it back in high school, as it has that real familiar feel to it of a book you’d read years ago. The details were gone from my memory; if you’d asked me about it last week or earlier I couldn’t have told you jack about it. Right now it is being bruited about as a necessary and essential read in military/diplomatic circles. I’m tending to agree; the author aint dumb and aint blind neither. Most all the US written stuff in that time frame–the ’60’s–dealing with counterinsurgency and wars of national liberation and third world security issues was all puerile garbage. This aint. There’s more than a touch of wisdom to it.

Taber seems to have been forgotten almost like his books have. There aren’t any more details readily available on his life than the liner notes on his books, which state that he was an investigative journalist for CBS in the ’50’s, and was among the first journalists who searched out and interviewed Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains in 1958. He wrote a book on that, M-26–Portrait of a Revolution, in 1960, and this book, in 1965. This book came to me courtesy of Trinity University via ILL, and it apparently has been checked out exactly once in its lifetime, in 1995.

The book is a quite well-written survey of all the major guerrilla movements in the 20th Century, up to 1965. Taber manages to keep the material lively, which isn’t generally the case for military writings, and also manages to keep it short, which is rare most everywhere. See for yourself–here’s some of Taber’s writings:

Taber, quoting our old friend Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese commanding general from 1944-1978, on guerillas fighting a conventional Western army:

“The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: He has to drag out the war in order to win it, and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long, drawn-out war.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself about our two wars ongoing. Giap’s apt turn of phrase–“the psychological and political means to fight a long, drawn-out war”–is something we overlook completely, both in our foes and in ourselves. We look to the power of our weapons and the prowess of our troops in using them. Giap looked to the soldier’s and citizen’s hearts, where individual will and patriotism reside, and he defeated us and the French both.

Taber quotes a news article dated 4-21-64, which pointed out that the number of ARVN (our South Vietnamese ally’s army) small-unit operations in the preceding week totaled 5190. Only 70 of them made contact with the enemy, and contact meant as little as a single bullet fired at them from a hedgerow. Shows that even back then, the truth was out in the open, if anyone had their eyes open to see it. Can’t say as anyone has produced similar statistics from Afghanistan or Iraq–haven’t heard of any, and the fact that nobody in the reportorial corps has tried to turn them up, as the percentage of contacts per operation, and the percentage of contacts you, and not the enemy, initiate, are probably THE key statistics in explaining how the war is going–shows what a bunch of military illiterates the fourth estate are, and how they haven’t learned anything from Vietnam, either.

Another one from Giap, this the classic dilemma of an invading foreign army:

“The nature and the very aim of the campaign the (colonialist) enemy is conducting oblige the enemy to split up his forces so as to be able to occupy the invaded territory…the enemy was thus faced with a contradiction: It was impossible for him to occupy the invaded territory without dividing his forces. By their dispersal, he created difficulties for himself. His scattered units thus became an easy prey for our troops and mobile forces.”

And one from Bernard B. Fall, from his The Two Vietnams:

“For the French, the Indochina War was lost then (after the RC-4 defeats in 1950) and there. That it was allowed to drag on inconclusively for another four years is a testimony to the shortsightedness of the civilian authorities who were charged with drawing the political conclusions from the hopeless military situation.”

So there it is. The United States, and our good friends the Limeys, have a political system more broken than the French Fourth Republic’s. We’ve been fighting more obviously lost wars for longer, and apparently are doubling down on one of them as we speak. Maybe starting a third one, too.

For all the talk of this book being greatly read in military circles, well, hell, it’s time to test the officer corps on their reading comprehension and see if it is up to a sixth-grader’s level. Maybe the State Department’s, too. Stuff like this not jumping off the page and hitting you square between the eyes–and making you wince at how little we learned from Vietnam then, or since, and how shamefully we are repeating ourselves in self-delusion and contempt for our foes’ intelligence, motivation, and bravery–well, hell, whatever happens to us bad we’ve got coming to us. The almighty might smile on fools and children, but to the best of my knowledge his mercy doesn’t extend to the stupid.

Part 2

Taber, in his War of the Flea, shows himself a first-rate analyst of political situations, both past historical ones and (then current) ones. Back when Flea was written, the United States, and other countries, Mao’s China foremost, were infatuated with the notion of guerrilla wars and wars of national liberation, wherein nationalist (per Mao) or Communist (per the US) guerilla forces would form up and attack and defeat the established post-colonial governments in the Third World, and establish some new (nationalist/communist) order. In the United States, theories of counterinsurgency, how to fight and win these wars of national liberation, were all in vogue throughout the 1960’s, and a great deal of forest products were wasted on books and articles on the subject. Most all stank. They were uncritically read then, and are completely unread today. It should be a permanently disqualifying embarrassment to cite Taber, harsh critic of US policies then, as an inspiration for US policy in our current wars, as the pundits are doing, but nobody has called them on it, alas.

At the time it was thought that quite potentially these wars would spread to older, more established countries with similar sets of problems of social inequality, such as the Latin American and Central American republics, and spread even to industrialized Western countries, like the US. As it was, nationalism proved the driving force in most of these wars, not the US feared desire for a communistic social order. Once the postwar questions of nationalism were sorted out, finally, in Africa (Insofar as they have been–the LRA {Lord’s Resistance Army} in Uganda, which is generally portrayed by the newsmedia as a lunatic band of child-soldier zombies led by Joseph Kony the African Manson, is fundamentally a guerrilla movement by the Acholi in northern Uganda against the central government.) the topic of guerrilla wars faded out from military and political discourse and fashion both.

Since our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency theory has come back into fashion, again. Most all the comments by military and pundits are a dreadful rehashing of the ’60’s American writers and theorists, without, as pointed out earlier, their having read them. A significant part of Flea is Taber’s discussion of these writers’ failings, and his writing on them is spot-on. From p. 173, Taber discusses the rationales for the guerrilla wars professed by counterinsurgency experts:

“Whether the primary cause of revolution is nationalism, or social justice, or the anticipation of material progress, the decision to fight and to sacrifice is a social and a moral decision. Insurgency is thus a matter not of manipulation but of inspiration.

I am aware that such conclusions are not compatible with the pictures of guerrilla operations and guerrilla motivations drawn by the counterinsurgency theorists who are so much in vogue today. But the counterinsurgency experts have yet to win a war. At this writing, they are certainly losing one.

Their picture is distorted because their premises are false and their observation faulty. They assume–perhaps their commitments require them to assume–that politics is mainly a manipulative science and insurgency mainly a politico-military technique to be countered by some other technique; whereas both are forms of social behavior, the latter being the mode of popular resistance to unpopular governments.”

Things haven’t changed any since 1965. Insurgency remains a matter of inspiration. No counterinsurgency expert has ever won a war. And dang but Taber cuts to the bone when he remarks then how US politicians regard politics as a manipulative science. We certainly haven’t changed there.

Taber’s analysis of the simple possibility of suppressing a war of national liberation, and more important, its desirability, from p 177:

“Conditions have changed in the world. What is wanted today is manpower and its products. The raw materials of the undeveloped areas are of no use to the industrial powers…without the human effort that makes them available; strategic bases require the services and the good will of large populations; industry requires both large labor pools and ever-expanding consumer markets.

Under such conditions, to try to suppress popular resistance movements by force is futile. If inadequate force is applied, the resistance grows. If the overwhelming force necessary to accomplish the task is applied, its object is destroyed. It is a case of shooting the horse because he refuses to pull the cart.”

Taber’s analysis of the US’ position in Viet Nam in 1965 is the best analysis I’ve ever read, and events proved him prophetic. From p. 177-8:

“The choices open to Washington in Viet Nam appear obvious. Unless the dissident Vietnamese population can be persuaded to embrace a solution acceptable to the United States (certainly a forlorn hope), the alternatives are: (1) to wage a relentless, full-scale war of subjugation against the Vietnamese people, with the aid of such Vietnamese allies as remain available; (2) seek a solution acceptable to the Vietnamese people, a step that would clearly entail negotiating with the Viet Cong; (3) quit the field and let the Vietnamese work out their own solution.

A fourth possibility does exist. Essentially it is a monstrous variation of the first. The United States can change the character of the war, or its apparent character, by expanding it; that is, by taking arms against Hanoi and, inevitably, against China. To do so, with the right kind of window dressing, could conceivably be justified in the minds of the American people and perhaps of their allies despite the tremendous expense and risk involved, where a losing war in the limited theater of South Viet Nam cannot be justified. Under cover of a general war, the two Viet Nams could, perhaps, be occupied and put under martial law, and the communist movement suppressed by overwhelmingly superior military force.

But then what? A southeast Asia held by American troops in the overwhelming numbers that would be required (and it would have to be all of Southeast Asia, not merely Viet Nam) would be a burden almost beyond endurance for the American economy and the American electorate, and would be of no conceivable use under such conditions except as a base for the ensuing war against China. War to what end? It staggers the imagination to think of the vast, interminable, and profitless conflict that would ensue, even assuming that it were confined to Asia–and we have no such assurance. The bloody, costly Korean war would appear as a child’s game by comparison.”

Our situation in Afghanistan and Iraq is a repeat of the above, except we don’t have to fear a bigger war from big-power China or Russia. Just a bigger war from smaller players Iran (pop. 70 million) or Pakistan, (pop. 180 million) {South Vietnam’s population in 1965 was all of 14 million}, that’s all. Change some of the nouns, and all the rest of Taber’s words read as well now as then. Nobody now in American politics sees things this clearly or talks this frankly about them. We have to ask again Taber’s question above about Vietnam–“War to what end?” about our two ongoing wars. “But then what”–suppose that we did in fact achieve our military objectives, then what? Iraq a basketcase military dictatorship that conveniently allows us to station, at great expense, a large number of soldiers, for some uncertain purpose. The idea of any military success in Afghanistan is just to ridiculous to contemplate, and the idea that that country is usefully a ward of the US, as it would have to be, for any good purpose is insanity. There’s no good end for our wars, and it is only a question of how long it takes us to pack up and leave, and whether or not we bother to negotiate some settlement with the locals before we do. That, and whether or not this time we have sense and are honest enough with ourselves to figure out why we did something so wrong and stupid twice in my lifetime.

Taber, alone of all the American writers on counterinsurgency from the 1960’s, is worth reading. It is sad that current events grant him the utmost relevance and may yet rescue him from obscurity, but we should all be thankful for his perceptive and accurate writings that are still of such great utility.

14 thoughts on “Both Forgotten and Misread: Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea by Daniel N. White

  1. This book as old as it is should be compulsory reading for “All Persons at all levels” in the military throughout the “Western World”. As well as this book the “Art of War” and “Devils Guard” should be compulsory reading.

    Talking political heads and their military slaves continue to make the same mistakes time and time again.

    Maybe the reason for this is the fact that politicians are simple minded puppets of the Multi National Arms Manufacturers and Petrochemical Companies who all profit from war. Anyone who opposes these two industries is very quickly unemployed or suffers public character assassination or even the real thing.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Dan. Like you I read Flea back in the days and recall being impressed by it but cant remember why. And like you I am stunned by the ongoing debacle in Iraq. As Solzhenitsyn said, “Folly did not begin with us. Nor will it end with us.”

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  4. I volunteered for the Vietnam War in 1968 knowing the US leadership had given up “winning” the war and was then looking for some satisfactory closing. In my opinion the Viet War was a loose-loose situation. I have read and re-read War of the Flea three times and agree with the author’s descriptions of revolutionary war but strongly disagree with his conclusion that the US should surrender and support the revolutionary movements. Our involvement in Afghanistan is a serious mistake as is our involvement in Iraq. The wisest statement in Flea is “pick your fights” and limit them to wars you can win. As a soldier and the father of soldiers I believe we should only involve ourselves in wars which (1) are vital to our interests; (2) we can win; and (3) in which we “stomp them, not slap them.”

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  6. The issue of whether Robert Taber knew Lee Harvey Oswald is a red herring, which in the present-day inaccessibility of archival records should only be of interest to diehard conspiracy speculators. As his son, I can state with complete assurance he never knew the man accused of assassinating John F. Kennedy. Furthermore, he despised the sort of prankster schoolboy incompetents who made up the CIA and would never have affiliated himself with them. Certainly Robert Taber was sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution, both in the romantic sense and as it promised to be both politically and culturally before the United States of the Dulles brothers mindset foolishly drove Cuba into the Soviet orbit. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee was founded by my father and fellow former CBS reporter Richard Gibson in an attempt to bring public attention to this tragically short-sighted vision of the U.S. policymakers of the time. Sadly, it was ultimately unsuccessful and almost half a century later we have all paid and continue to pay a stiff price for not learning the lessons that might have been learned. Incidentally, by the time Kennedy was assassinated and Oswald was briefly linked to a shadowy New Orleans chapter of FPCC, the national organization had been thoroughly infiltrated by a motley assortment of government agents and the expected collection of half-baked malcontents which together with the by-then confirmed direction of American foreign policy rendered its original purpose moot. By the time Kennedy was shot my father had long disassociated himself from the group and gone back to Cuba for a couple of years to work directly on behalf of the revolution. That included taking up arms against U.S.-supported mercenaries parachuted into Oriente Province. He also participated with the defending forces at Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) where he was gravely wounded, He returned to the United States to rejoin his family the following year and was vilified by the scurrilous likes of Senators Thomas Dodd and James Eastland before settling back into an honorable and otherwise ordinary enough life as a journalist and freelance writer. He died in 1995.

    • Peter-

      I’m really saddened to hear that your father is dead.
      Could you contact me at hankalbarelli [at] mac [dot] com.
      I’d like to ask a few questions privately. -HPA

      • Peter, my name does not matter but my questions do. If you could contact me privately I would like to ask you questions about your fathers death.
        seizedtiger [at] gmail [dot] com

  7. Robert Taber also is listed as a contributing author to The Killing of Corporal Kunze, about a WWII German prisoner murdered by other inmates in a U.S. prison. An interesting, quick read. Taber obviously wrote it. Taber’s connections with Lee Harvey Oswald, the Fair Play for Cuba committee and his admiration for Castro indicate a bias in his work, if not advocacy. Kind of wonder if he worked for the CIA, which had been rumored. Taber definitely was a product of a different time, and an interesting personality. I ‘ll have to read “Flea.”

  8. Robert Taber, was sympathetic to the Cuban Revoulution and Fidel Castro, And was for a short time in 1961, was a commemtator, on Radio Havana Cuba”s, English service via shortwave. And on his return to the U,S. headed the “FAIR PLAY FOR CUBA COMMITTEE” and probably new the accused president assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. who also was a member. Taber in 1963 was investigated by conqress looking into possible communist influence at CBS, because of his association with CBS

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  10. One of my favorite books in the Vietnam era was The War of the Flea. It explained how a guerrilla army could defeat a highly technologically advanced country with the most modern and extremely devastating weapons. The Viet Cong had no air force, which is crucial and often decisive in modern warfare. B-52s carpet bombed not only Vietnam, but Laos and Cambodia. They were fighting with small arms against American troops supported by helicopter gunships and fighter jets dropping napalm . Later American forces used Agent Orange to take away jungle cover. Yet the Viet Cong and Viet Minh had popular support for food, shelter, intelligence reports, digging miles of underground tunnels, hauling artillery pieces incredible distances and to mountain tops like at Dien Bien Phu against the French. The point of The War of the Flea is that popular support is always essential for the the success of a guerrilla war and those guerrilla wars that lack this essential ingredient of success will inevitably fail.

  11. Superb to see someone who realises the significance, relevance, and importance of this important book

    It had, and still has, an impact that cannot be underestimated

    Read it


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