Rothbard on People's Wars

"Q: Do you care to comment on the view that the only war in which the United States has been involved which could be justified is the Revolutionary War?

A: Yes, I agree 100% with that! The difference between the Revolutionary War and an interstate war is that, in the first place, an interstate war is a war of one government against another – it’s a war that aggresses against the innocent civilians of the opposite government, it’s a war that increases taxes at home, and conscription usually, to pay for it. Revolutionary war is a war against the state apparatus, a war from below by the armed public. It doesn’t have to injure innocent civilians, and it usually doesn’t. It often does not involve taxes or conscription – if it does, it does so on a very small scale.

The American revolutionary effort didn’t have any taxation even on a state level for the first few years of the Revolutionary war. In other words, put it this way – when you have a revolutionary war against the existing state apparatus – say the American people against the British Crown and their collaborationists at home, the guerrilla revolutionary effort can pinpoint their attacks against the State apparatus. They do the pinpointing, and they have to do the pinpointing. They can do it and they have to do it – in other words, they don’t spray innocent people with machine guns, they don’t H-bomb if they have the H bomb, their object is to zap the forces of the existing government of the Crown – the Crown officers and so forth.

On the other hand, the reason why they don’t injure civilians is usually not just from moral reasons, but from basic strategic ones – that is, that no revolutionary, no people’s war can succeed unless it has the broad support of the mass of the population. Mao tse Tung and Che Guevara, of course, enunciated this – as "The guerrillas are to the people as fish are to water." But actually Charles Lee saw this much earlier – he was the brilliant Revolutionary theorist who was the second in command to George Washington for the first few years of the American Revolution. He was a British soldier of fortune and libertarian and wandered all over the world picking up military insights. As soon as the American Revolution broke out, Lee rushed to the United States to help out in the war effort, and was made second in command.

Lee set the pattern for the American victory, not Washington – well, I won’t go into that, but Lee set the pattern by pointing out that the American Revolution could only succeed as a people’s war from below – a guerrilla struggle, it you will – against the superior fire power of the British government. The government’s lacking the essential popular support, the guerrillas therefore become the people, and people became the guerrillas in the old battle grounds of Lexington and Concord, which victories were the first great American guerrilla action. The British, just as the Americans now in Vietnam, had very great difficulty distinguishing between the peasants and the guerrillas. They say they all look alike – well, they are alike, they are them. In other words, peasants in the daytime pick up the guns at night and pop the British soldiers.

Joey Rothbard: Not the British soldiers.

A: Well, in the American Revolution, it was the British soldiers, in the Viet Nam war, it is the American soldiers, but the principle is the same. The interesting thing is that on the other hand, the counterrevolutionary forces, in other words, the Government battling against the Revolution, has to do just the opposite: they have superior fire power for various reasons, they have the official army, but they don’t have the support of the population – so in their kind of warfare, they have to amass genocidal terror against the civilian population, they try to break the morale of the civilians, try to cut their support off from the guerrillas and so forth. The Americans have done this with the infamous strategic hamlet policy in Viet Nam, herding the peasants into hamlets so that they couldn’t support the guerrillas; the British did it in the Boer War in the early 20th century; the American government did it in the Philippines in the early part of the 20th century; and I think the British would have done it in the Revolutionary war if they had had the resources to do so. The British actually did some of this, you know, though they had not carried counterrevolutionary warfare to its present height. But the principle is there so that if you have a revolution against the State apparatus, the revolutionary warfare—apart from the goals of the revolution or the counterrevolution – is almost necessarily libertarian and the counterrevolutionary warfare is almost necessarily genocidal or anti-libertarian."