Ending the Game of Guerrilla

Neurotic suffering indicates inner conflict…Each component asserts itself. claims priority. insists that something else yield. accommodate. The conflict therefore is fixed. stubborn. enduring.

— Wheelis, How People Change. Harper & Row 1973

Nations, like people, play games. The most important ones are the neurotic ones, described with immortal clarity by Eric Berne in Games People Play and other writings. For many years now the United States has been playing a high- stakes neurotic game with the Soviet Union. The Game is Guerrilla. It was devised by Russia, and by playing it skillfully and consistently Russia has, piece by piece, added greatly to its empire in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with its biggest gains yet to come. The game, like all neurotic games, only exists because we repeatedly agree to play it. The survival of Western civilization depends on our finally recognizing the game and what it costs us — and stopping the play.

Seeing and Changing

For various fairly obvious reasons, both notions and people tend to act in patterns that are repeated over time. Some of these patterns are stable structures that we think of as “national character” — Italians voting out their governments every few months, Japanese busily striving to dominate world markets. Others are patterns of growth and achievement, such as those of the Roman Empire up through Julius Caesar, and the first two centuries of the United States of America. And of course still others are of decline and/or self-destruction — slow like the late Roman Empire, or rapid like Hitler’s Germany.

Again like people — and here the analogy is especially acute — the ability of a nation to break a repetitive pattern of behavior depends on its ability to perceive the pattern for what it is, and to accept the idea that it is changeable, not something built into the immutable order of things. Often this perception accompanies a major traumatic event. The two great traumas of American history, the Civil War and the Great Depression, were precisely of this nature. With the Civil War — late in it, actually — came the perception that human slavery had become not just distasteful, but totally incompatible with the precepts of our civilization. And with the Depression and its aftermath came a double perception: that the recurrent, uncontrollable financial “panics” that had scarred our history could at least be mitigated, and that we could provide a social-welfare “floor” without sacrificing the vitality of our economic system.

As with any neurosis, this process of recognition and pattern-breaking change is more difficult than it appears in historical retrospect. The challenge is not so much to find a solution to a problem once it has been squarely presented; it is to see the facts — that there is a pattern, that the pattern has harmful consequences, and that the problem involves choices that we collectively make, not necessary aspects of reality. To take the example of boom-and-bust bank failure whereby people lost their life savings: when the situation became bad enough that our cultural existence was threatened, we saw that with relatively little cost we could governmentally insure everyone’s bank deposits so that even if a bank failed, no one would lose their personal savings. Thus, we saw that we were letting people lose their savings — they didn’t have to. The change, with many others that were made at that time in our financial system, made an enormous difference in the very way that people thought about money, savings, and investment.

One of the great strengths of free-thinking democracies is their ability to examine themselves, perceive destructive patterns before they are overwhelming, and arrive (often through debate and compromise), at solutions. Because they are not based on a monolithic creed or a totalitarian dynasty, democracies can bend without breaking.

One of their great vulnerabilities, however, is their potential for inner conflict that, if not constructively resolved, can lead to repetitive, self-defeating behavior — collective behavior that corresponds to neurosis in an individual. As it turns out, these conflicts are seldom the class conflicts of Marxist theory. They seem to be more often clashes of values, reflecting various types of background differences in individuals — rural vs. urban, individual/ambitious vs. collective/passive, intellectual vs. non-intellectual, traditional vs. avant-garde, and so on. They are seldom expressed as direct conflicts in desired outcomes. If they were, they would be resolvable through the traditional democratic means of conflict resolution, of which the most basic and important is the vote. Neurotic conflicts evade such direct resolution: they give rise to “yes- but” and “no-but” dialogues, just as they do with individuals.


One other characteristic of psychological games must be taken into account — one that plays an equally important role with individuals and with nations. That is manipulation, whereby one of the game-players controls the game, takes advantage of its rules, and consciously benefits from the outcome. The manipulator is not “outside” the game — he is part of it, just as caught up in it as his dupes or victims. The difference is that at one level, at least, he understands it, and while the victim also receives a psychological “payoff,” the victim seldom gets his desired outcome. All games do not involve conscious manipulation, but the most vicious and damaging do.

In one manipulative game, for example, described by Eric Berne, a woman flirts with a man, inviting his attention to an increasing degree, until he reaches the desired (by her) degree of intimacy and excitement, at which point she springs the trap door, so to speak, and tells him to “Buzz off, Buster.” In this game, presumably she is a manipulator, since she knows what the outcome will be, and is playing it consciously for her own satisfaction. More extreme and dangerous games involve domestic violence. Couples often live together for years, undergoing repetitive behavior patterns that culminate in the weaker partner being seriously beaten, yet bound by neurotic ties that resist breaking.

Calling these repetitive patterns “games” is not slang, is not metaphorical, nor is it an attempt to make light of them. They are repetitively played by rules, the rules are at least tacitly agreed on by the players, and they are played for definite goals.

The Korean Effect

Guerrilla warfare goes far back into prehistory, but the modern neurotic Game of Guerrilla is new. The Korean War both preceded it and set the stage for it. The war was in one sense a victory for the U.S. and its allies: Communist aggression was definitely beaten back, and a stable non- Communist state of South Korea remained in place, stronger than ever. But Russia learned some important lessons from it, while the U.S. was taking on some false impressions that led to Vietnam — and the Game.

The most important negative lesson that Russia learned in Korea was that a direct invasion of a non-Communist state by a Communist one would immediately bring on full- scale military action by the U.S. and probably its allies, even if it took place half way around the globe. Perhaps more obvious, but also important, it learned that the U.S. could apply enormous military force to a distant location, and sustain it for several years, without visible strain to its economy. In short, Korea taught Russia how not to expand its empire.

Russia also learned some encouraging things in Korea, however. It was a vital experiment. It turned out to be the first modern limited war, in which superpowers fought each other in a carefully limited arena, without threatening each other’s strategic lifelines, and with much of the fighting and suffering done by smaller allies and client states. Throughout history these small wars had often turned into big ones. But now, with the development of modern strategic weaponry (nuclear or otherwise), losing an all-out war meant losing a large part of one’s industrial base and population. Even though in the Fifties there was no chance that the U.S. would have lost an all-out war, Russia took the chance that we would not view it as the primary transgressors in Korea — and the gamble paid off. Although the U.S. showed no hesitation in invading North Korea, which was the overt aggressor, when MacArthur threatened the Chinese border, bringing down a horde of Chinese in retaliation, the U.S. tacitly accepted this border as the limit, and did nothing further to widen the war. In fact, the U.S. was quite willing to accept the status quo ante as a conclusion.

In keeping with the times, the terminology of the conflict was crucial. In the euphoria that followed the Second World War, the United Nations formally renounced the use of war as an instrument of national policy. When North Korea invaded the South, the United Nations took action to “enforce the charter.” Thus, although in casual discourse it was referred to as the Korean War, American and UN officialdom made a great point of calling it not a war, but a “police action.” This was magnificently suited to Russia’s goals. First, it took attention away from the questions of who was the instigator and who were the instigator’s allies — questions that had played an important role in the beginning of both World Wars. Germany, after all, had not bombed Pearl Harbor. Second, it brought a peculiar new twist into the goal of the fighting. Traditionally, the goal of war had been to bring the enemy government, in some sense, to its knees — traditionally to sign a peace treaty dictated by the victor. Police, however, (at least in the sense that we were using the term) act not to conquer but to enforce order. Thus, by calling it a police action we declared that we were only fighting to stop the ruckus. In so doing, we virtually eliminated the downside risk of aggression. If North Korea had won, it would have taken over the entire peninsula. In losing, it only had to accept the status quo ante. Few gamblers can resist that kind of game. It created an incredibly favorable atmosphere for an expansionist empire, and set the stage for almost every conflict that has followed.

These two aspects of the Korean War, emphasized by our calling it a “police action,” led to another lesson not lost on the Russians: the value of tiering. Physically, and more importantly politically, Russia was two tiers away from the Korean War, since China was apparently a staunch ally then. Although it was clear that North Korea was a fully committed member of the Communist bloc, our actions made it clear that we did not want to think of this as a war with Russia — or even with China, despite the fact that the Chinese Army was heavily committed. Despite the fairly obvious facts that Russia was the strategist, munitions supplier, and ultimate beneficiary of North Korea’s aggression, the U.S. insisted on viewing the conflict as a semi-domestic squabble — an aggravated border dispute — between two closely related neighbors.

In the meantime, while Russia was learning, we were acquiring illusions. They centered around this concept of a “police action.” The first was an illusion of omnipotence. Since 1812, at least, we had never lost a war. Police are able to act the way they do, applying carefully modulated force to keep order without trying to destroy the enemy, because they act from a position of overwhelming strength. Although the massive counter-attack by the Chinese Army, which nearly drove us from the peninsula, almost destroyed the illusion, the fact that we were able to recover the scramble back to the 38th Parallel kept it alive. We never seriously contemplated (at least publicly) absolute defeat — it was just a question of how many of our resources we would have to commit.

 The intervention of the Chinese also, in a negative way, helped to foster the idea that as long as we kept the conflict “local,” and did not threaten what the Communist considered to be “their” territory, we could get off cheaply, restoring order between squabbling neighbors while not unleashing the fearsome forces of the superpowers.

Another critical illusion, in the nature of a false generalization, had to do with the condition of the victim state, in this case South Korea. The Koreans were and are a proud, talented, and fiercely nationalistic people, determined after years of foreign domination to be free and independent. Although much of the war was fought on South Korean soil, and the enemy was in a sense their own kinsmen, the war seemed to strengthen South Korea’s cohesion and its determination to survive as a nation. They made tough, increasingly dependable soldiers — a fact that helped the war effort, stiffened their pride, and stabilized the peace when it finally arrived. And of course geography was also on our side; as a peninsula with only a “waistline” of an unfriendly border, and plenty of friendly bases a few sea miles away, South Korea was eminently defensible as long as we controlled the seas around it.

The illusion was the generalization that we could fight a bloody conflict on the soil of a state that was the victim of aggression, and have the state emerge intact, stronger than before, and ready to resist further aggression. The fact that it happened in South Korea was a result of the peculiar circumstances of that conflict. In addition to those already noted, not the least of them was the tactical error of the Communists in resorting to open invasion, which immediately committed not only the United States, but many of our allies in the name of the United Nations, to its all-out defense.

It was not a mistake the Communists would make twice.

The Rules of the Game

In Vietnam the Game of Guerrilla burst into being on a grand scale. The superficial resemblances to Korea were striking: two small countries of approximately the same size, both on the borders of China, divided recently into a Communist North and a non-Communist South. But the main geographical difference was crucial: instead of being a peninsula suspended in a friendly sea, South Vietnam had a densely forested border along its entire western edge with Laos and Cambodia, countries that afforded both invaluable military sanctuary for the Communist forces, and prototypical areas for the political intricacies of the great Game of Guerrilla. Even more important, Russia had learned how to play the Game — one that they would always win.

Let us examine the rules.

1. THE PLAYERS. As in any game, the especially psychological ones, the main players and their roles are carefully assigned. The first two are the Superplayers, the main antagonists.

a. The Manipulator: Russia. Invented the Game, controls the timing of main events, receives the substantive (non-neurotic) payoff.

b. The Dupe or Supertarget: the United States. Cooperates with Russia’s rules, including timing, receives a neurotic payoff.

c. The Victim State. This is the Game prize, Russia’s payoff.

d.The Revolutionary Front. These are forces that nominally come from the Victim State. They are supplemented by fighters and support personnel from the Staging-Area State, but enough of them must be from the Victim State to keep up their status as a domestic “front.” Normally they are formed from the pro-Communist cadres supported by Russia in every non-Communist country.

e. The Staging-Area State(s). One or more. These are Russian satellites that are located close to, preferably but not necessarily at least one bordering on, the Victim State.

In addition there are usually minor players. One fairly important minor player is the Subvictim or Short Game Victim, a state usually bordering on the Victim State that the Superplayers agree will be a payoff bonus when Russia acquires the Victim State. Laos and Cambodia played this role in the Vietnam Conflict; Honduras may assume it in the current El Salvador Game. Other minor players comprise the Chorus, uninvolved states that — usually declaiming in unison — reinforce the rules of the Game by assigning Guilt Burdens to the U.S. whenever it fails to follow the rules strictly.

2. TERMINOLOGY. The Superplayers never refer to the Game as a “war,” despite the fact that it involves all the features of war, including full-fledged battles and thousands of military and civilian casualties. Preferably the word “war” is avoided by all parties. But where it does creep in (as it did in Vietnam, perhaps due to careless journalism), the Superplayers are both careful to explain that any war is confined to the Victim State — that it is actually a civil war.

3. ARENA. The most important rule of all — the one that makes the Game work for everyone — is that all the action, all the suffering and destruction, takes place on the soil of the Victim State. Whenever the U.S. or the Victim State attempts to carry on any activity that infringes on the territory of the Staging-Area States, they must be immediately condemned as aggressors and given a Guilt Burden by the Chorus, in this case joined by U.S. leftists.


a. Russia, either directly or through satellites, moves arms, other military supplies, and personnel into the Staging-Area State, and from there to the Revolutionary Front.

b. The Front uses these resources to conduct steadily escalating terrorism and guerrilla warfare against the Victim State and its military and police forces.

c. Communist and pro-Communist propaganda machinery around the world portrays the Front as “freedom fighters” rebelling against an oppressive tyranny. U.S. leftists condemn the Victim State’s efforts to save itself as violating “human rights,” hail the Front as heroes and humanitarians, warn against any U.S. involvement, and attempt to have Congress cut off even economic aid to the Victim State.

At this point, the Game takes one of two forms: the Short Game or the Long Game.

5. THE SHORT GAME. If the U.S. does not assist the Victim State, in most cases there will be a Short Game. The Victim State government will quickly fall to the Front, with its relatively infinite resources of military supplies and manpower.

PAYOFFS: Russia collects the Victim State as a satellite, and, depending on geography, may quickly convert it to a Staging-Area State for a new Game. The neurotic payoff for the U.S., like all neurotic payoffs, reflects its inner conflict. The leftists get self-congratulation for avoiding war. (The subject of human rights, which is prominent in leftists circles while the Game is going on, is dropped when the Victim State becomes a Russian satellite. In fact, at that point leftists, along with most of the media, tend to drop the whole subject of the Victim State, except for a few eccentrics who travel there to report that there is now universal education and the workers sing in unison on their way to the fields.) The rightists get righteous indignation against the leftists for causing the creation of a new Russian satellite.

6. THE LONG GAME. If the U.S. decides to try to help the Victim State stave off the Front, there is a Long Game. The vital aspect of the Long Game is that it proceed in gradual stages. (See the Importance of Timing, below.) These stages are:

a. Giving training and supplies to Victim State military. At this stage the U.S. left moves into high gear with denunciations of the Victim State government and warnings against “another Vietnam,” which continue throughout the Game.

b. Limited engagement of U.S. troops in battle.

c. Major involvement of U.S. troops in battle. Given the drawn-out nature of the conflict, this results in many U.S. casualties.

d. Massive protests by U.S. leftists, supported by pro-Soviet cadres around the world, leading to disengagement of U.S. troops.

g. Removal of U.S. troops. This may be accompanied by some sort of negotiated “peace treaty” with the Front, which both sides tacitly agree is only a face-saving devise to last until the last U.S. troops leave.

h. Takeover of Victim State by the Front. As in the Short Game, the state becomes a Russian satellite and a possible Staging-Area State for other Games.

PAYOFFS: For Russia, same as the Short Game. In addition, the U.S. payoff after a long Game may lead to several quick Short Games (i.e., payoffs for Russia). For the U.S., the neurotic payoff is more complex and long-lasting than for the Short Game, since its involvement is greater. Leftists receive righteous indignation at all the lives, U.S. and foreign, that were lost because of our involvement. This is coupled with, and enhanced by, a major Guilt Burden for having acted in a warlike rather than a “humanitarian” manner. Rightists receive their own righteous indignation at the leftists for having forced the disengagement of our troops and allowed aggression to succeed. They also feel a Guilt Burden, along with a sense of dread, for having failed once more to successfully resist Communist expansion. Nationally, the combined payoff is a feeling of ineffectuality, hence uselessness, of our military power, which allows us to indulge in a period of passivity and military weakness. This will normally set the stage for several Short Games, whereby Russia adds satellites without U.S. resistance.

7. THE IMPORTANCE OF TIMING. Since the Superplayers agree on the vital rule that the U.S. must not invade or threaten the government of the Staging-Area State, there is no significant danger that Russia will fail to receive its payoff eventually. Nevertheless, for the Game to proceed smoothly, it is important that the steps of the Long Game be gradual. Funneling troops and munitions from the Staging-Area State to the Front is a laborious process in the early stages, and if the U.S. engaged itself too rapidly in opposition, it might succeed in temporarily driving organized units back into the Staging-Area State, thus creating the illusion of “winning” in the conventional-war sense. It would not affect the outcome, because the U.S. would eventually withdraw under pressure of casualties or the cost of maintaining troops there, and the Game would be restarted. But the Long Game basically consists of the long cycle of mutual buildup of forces, causing maximum casualties for both the Victim State citizens and U.S. troops.

In managing our domestic affairs, the liberal- conservative polarity has not been especially neurotic (i.e., not repetitive and self-defeating), but has produced a creative tension in our societal and governmental goals that seems to be healthy. It is only in foreign affairs that we have acted self-destructively. There is good reason for that. But first let us examine the nature of the conflict.

The liberal views the world from a personal standpoint. To the liberal, the proper disposition of policy questions is an extension of personal ethics: how should the good person act in this situation? In particular, the liberal is concerned with personal goodness in our behavior toward others. Thus, the paramount liberal concepts center around words such as caring, loving, concern, generosity, and sympathy. Flowing directly from this altruistic Weltanschauung is a great deal of attention to suitable objects of concern: the poor, dispossessed, disabled, downtrodden everywhere who are “less fortunate than ourselves.” These groups, though not necessarily liberal themselves in outlook, are the natural political allies of liberals, since they constantly benefit from their largesse.

It is no mystery, therefore, why liberalism is the natural bent of many religious leaders, of teachers of the young, social workers, and others in the “caring professions.” Adolescents of the American upper middle class also come to it naturally; “caring” is the characteristic spirit of many of their homes, so that it seems natural to extend the spirit to broader groups. In addition, as a perpetually emerging underclass, adolescents tend to identify, briefly at least, with other under classes such as racial minorities.

Conservatives, in contrast, tend to look at the world in institutional terms. While in their personal lives conservatives are probably just as altruistic, on the average, as liberals — contributing to charities, working as volunteers, caring for their children and their neighbors — they do not carry this over into public policy. To the conservative the ultimate source of Good is not the caring individual but the bountiful society. The conservative believes history to have shown that by far the most effective route to a bountiful society is robust democratic capitalism, which channels personal savings and corporate profits into streams of investment that produce new jobs and higher incomes, and increase each individual’s opportunity to “pursue happiness.”

On the domestic front, these two different ways of perceiving the world lead to the familiar tension between the liberal drive for redistribution of wealth, and the conservative drive to channel it into investment. The conservative, while valuing charity for its effect on both the giver and the receiver, believes that the welfare of the society generally depends on the success of its institutions — primarily businesses — in producing the wealth that is the necessary basis for all our “goods.”

It is on the international scene, however, that our characteristic American division between the personalized liberal view and the institutional conservative one becomes neurotic. One fundamental problem is that the liberal view of the world — caring for others, viewing nations as collections of individuals, “people to people” — is incompatible with, and intolerant of, prolonged institutional conflict. Internationally as well as domestically, the liberal vision of good is to feed the hungry, care for the sick, relieve or release the victims of oppression. This vision is impaired by institutions such as governments, alliances, and ideological movements. When the liberal perceives hungry people in a foreign country, he or she is impatient with arguments that the country is a sworn enemy of ours, and that assistance to it may help our enemies expand their empire.

Thus liberals are impatient with conflict itself. And with their personalized view of the world, they tend to consider international strife to be the product of individuals who are defective in their “loving mechanisms.” Just as they tend to think of businessmen who are focused on the success of their institutions as greedy and self-serving, they tend to think of military men and other strategic thinkers as defectively hostile and pugnacious. There is a notable tendency among liberals, especially those toward the leftward end of the spectrum, to lump all people in those professions together — to think of “our Military” and “their military” as (1) essentially the same in their drives, goals, and defects, and (2) the cause of the conflicts in the world. They suspect conservative leaders of having character defects that cause them to want war, or to want conflict, or at least not to want peace ardently enough.

Another aspect of liberalism should be noted. Because of their tendency to view businessmen, with their institutional preoccupation, as greedy and non-altruistic, liberals’ attitudes toward business itself range from suspicion to hostility. Liberals tend to avoid working in business, and cluster strongly in the alternative areas of government, education, law, religion, art and entertainment, and the health professions. As a result, their allegiance to, and often their understanding of, capitalism is weak. (I am not referr¬ing here to the intellectual elite on either side, but rather, say, to your average urban social worker or elementary school teacher.) Labels in this area are inflammatory and misleading, but it seems fair to say that liberals generally tend to be tolerant of the loose and widely varying collection of non-capitalist ideas and attitudes grouped under the heading of “socialism” — occupying at least in theory the middle ground between capitalism and communism. As a result, to liberals the lines of world ideological conflict often are blurred.

Conservatives, with their institutional orientation, are contrastingly comfortable in dealing with foreign affairs as essentially between nations, not between “people who happen to be foreign.” They tend to view conflict and competition between nations and ideologies, analogously to those between businesses, as normal features of the international landscape, not unfortunate impediments to individual altruism, or the result of defectively matured individual leaders. They are also more tolerant of autocratic and economically backward foreign governments, tending to view the individual welfare of foreigners as something over which we have, and should have, little control.

With all this in clear view, Russia found that left-wing revolutionary movements turn these differences into an agonizing rift in our national consciousness. In turn, these produce neurotic responses that can be fine-tuned, by careful manipulation, to produce the desired result — the Game of Guerrilla.

While conservatives are anxious to resist the guerrilla gambit by whatever means are necessary, liberals are torn by their sympathy for revolutionaries who promise to uplift  the downtrodden, and also by their abhorrence of the strife that intercepts and renders irrelevant their natural altruism. Communists and their allies openly and covertly cultivate the liberals’ misgivings by aligning themselves with them against “the evils of capitalism,” and against the sins of the government of the Victim State. At all times we are bombarded by the media with portrayals of human suffering caused by the conflict — impliedly by our participation in it and our support of the Victim State government.

Faced with possible deadlock, our government in its military effort (assuming that it is able to muster any support for resistance) is forced to take a succession of middle-ground positions, which always allow Russia and its satellites to stay one step ahead, and to move the Game inexorably into the next stage. We force the Victim State to tinker with the niceties of land reform, civil rights, and participatory democracy, despite the fact that it is a mortal struggle for survival. When we give it military assistance, it must be limited. And always we must avoid enlarging the struggle, carrying it outside the borders of the Victim State.

An important aspect of this neurotic deadlock is the familiar psychological mechanism of denial, whereby the subject refuses to accept an unpleasant or stress-causing fact, despite its obviousness. A person who cannot accept a loved one’s death may maintain a room as if the person were still living there, and refuse to hear mention of the death; or a man who has lost his job may refuse to accept the consequences of it, and spend money to maintain his lifestyle even when by so doing he is ruining his chances of weathering the crisis. In our case, people who cannot accept the fact of decades-long institutional struggle against Russia may refuse to believe that Russia leads a totalitarian system that thoroughly excludes the altruistic values they hold dear; or that Russia has any intention of expanding its empire; or that countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, or Syria represent any extensions of Russian power.

This denial process seems to be close to the heart of our acceptance of the most vital rule of Guerrilla: that the conflict must be limited to the Victim State. As long as we talk only of “Salvadoran rebels,” we can continue to deny the existence of a global struggle between contending superpowers. As long as we do not really commit ourselves (like the student who doesn’t study for his exams), we can deny that the Victim State is (was) “essential to our national interests.” As long as we limit ourselves to reacting to the next move of the guerrillas, we can avoid any accusation that we are the cause of anyone’s problems, and thus ultimately deny responsibility for them. And, above all, as long as we play “policeman” with the declared aim only of restoring order, we can deny that we are fighting a war.

Breaking the Game

Neurotic games can be stopped. This is as true of nations as it is of individuals. The way to do it can be divided into three steps:

(1) Recognizing the game for what it is — identifying the stages of the game, the rules that we have tacitly accepted, the players, and the foreordained outcome (payoffs).

(2) Realizing the destructive and self-defeating nature of the game. Sometimes this is obvious, sometimes not. It is not enough simply to say, “Yes, I see what we are doing.” The game and the pain must be connected.

(3) Adopting behavior that breaks the game.

We have already discussed the first step, so we can move to the second.

Within the carefully limited arena where each game is played, the Game of Guerrilla represents close to the worst of all possible worlds for the United States. Most obviously, of course, the Victim State joins the Russian empire, and its people, whatever their previous condition, lose their freedom forever. But there are other consequences that are deeply damaging to us. In our preoccupation with the loss of American lives and engagement of our forces, we are unable to devote needed attention to what is going on in other parts of the world. Americans have a deep hatred of losing, and in the aftermath of an experience like Vietnam turn their bitterness against the military organization that did not succeed in doing what was demanded of it, against their government, against patriotic love of country, and against any direct involvement in foreign affairs. Russia made vast, virtually unresisted inroads into Africa, for example, in our period of self-disgust after Vietnam.

In addition, the experience of losing a war against forces that actually have only a tiny fraction of our strength seems to have a profoundly deleterious effect on our domestic health as a nation — to make us neurotic in other ways. The decades after our victorious wars have been times of ebullient expansion and prosperity; the decade of the 1970’s, in contrast, seemed all bad news — declining industry, rampant inflation, domination by the OPEC cartel, widespread drug use and decline in educational achievement by our young, great Russian gains in the strategic military balance, revolt against the very process of self-government that had always been the envy of the world, and a vague feeling that our country was in a state of permanent decline.

It should be noted that these destructive effects of the Game are present even if one adopts the leftist view that Russian expansion of its empire offers no threat to our country or our civilization (or even, perhaps, that Russian expansion is not taking place at all — that Cuba is a free and independent member of the Third World). Liberals and conservatives alike find no comfort in the Game of Guerrilla.

So we come to the third step — breaking the Game. Eric Berne called this finding the antithesis.

It helps to step back and view the problem in historical perspective. While the artificial, dance-like steps of the Game of Guerrilla are new, guerrilla warfare itself is not. Nations have always been tempted to meddle in other nations’ affairs, to support and supply rebellions against systems they did not like. But as international order progressed, they developed ways to sharply inhibit, at least, this kind of mischief-making. The most important for our purposes was the concept of the casus belli — “an act or event that justifies the declaration of war.” Any nation whose government supported organized groups committing acts of violence on a neighboring nation’s soil could expect to find itself at war, formally declared. This was a significant deterrent, to put it mildly. The nation supporting the guerrillas would, moreover, be labeled the aggressor, and since nations generally realized that they might be the next victim, there might have been a tendency to rally around the victim. This is largely hypothetical, of course, since the deterrence of the system largely worked. There were always plenty of wars, but for more substantial goals — supporting guerrillas simply invited war on the other fellow’s terms.

As noted above, the United Nations renunciation of war as an instrument of policy was the formal reason for not calling the Korean War a war. It would probably be a mistake to make much of this as a causative factor in the development of the Game of Guerrilla, but at least it supplied the verbal formulas for the denial process that followed, and may have given the Russians some ideas. With formal wars now unfashionable, their formidable global network of Communist parties and supporters was in a fine position to engage in undeclared wars — “little wars,” “guerrillas.”

The irony of all this is that in our passion to “avoid war,” we have allowed to develop a monstrously murderous Game in which millions of people, most of them non-combatants, have died, been wounded, or lost their homes and livelihoods, with seemingly little we can do to stop it, and in the end to no avail.

The Antithesis

The antithesis of the Game is to eliminate the vital rules that make it work: the concept of the Staging-Area State that must remain inviolate, and the rule limiting conflict to the Victim State. Harboring and supplying guerrillas always has been, and should continue to be, a casus belli. As the aggressor, the would-be Staging-Area State must be the one to suffer the consequences of its aggression. It has always been a primary goal of American arms to bring the conflict to the aggressor’s soil — always, that is, until we became psychologically enmeshed in the Game of Guerrilla.

The simple justice of this cries out to us. The people of the Victim State should not be the ones to suffer. Often they suffer from both sides. Guerrilla wars are cruel, and they force even the most humane-minded government to cruel acts in trying to preserve itself, as the guerrillas try to merge with the general population to escape detection.

Conventional war, strangely, is by far the most humane course. It is true that relatively innocent people may suffer and die in an aggressor state if the war is fought there — but there are differences of degree and kind. If they are the ones to suffer from the aggressive acts of their government, they are less likely to tolerate an aggressive government in the future. We would not be fighting a guerrilla war, but a conventional one, which offers far more protection for non-combatants. Such a war must have a conventional military objective, such as we had and achieved in World War II — The defeat of the aggressor state, the removal of its government, and its replacement with one more committed to peace with its neighbors. And such a war, considering the strength of conventional American arms, fully employed, would probably be very short.

Most importantly, such a war would probably not take place at all. Several preliminary events would happen that would tend to preclude it. First of all, the U.S. position in the conflict would be based on clear-cut and public treaty commitments, to defend the Victim State in the event of aggression. We should do everything we can to make all states in the region aware of how we will react in the event of aggression such as harboring, sending, and/or supplying guerrillas who do violence to our treaty partners.

Second, any actions we would take would be based on strong, unambiguous evidence that the would-be Staging-Area State was indeed committing these acts. This does not, by and large, pose a difficult problem. In none of the Games of Guerrilla that have been played out so far has there been any doubt of the roles the Staging-Area States were playing. We are not talking here of casual banditry. It takes a substantial effort to supply a guerrilla operation, especially for a relatively small, less-developed country, and modern intelligence operations and equipment can easily detect it.

Third, in most cases (excepting only those where the size and power of the Staging-Area State make it militarily too costly) any military action on our part should be preceded by an ultimatum: stop it now or else. This is time-honored practice-to be sure, the aggressor government is aware of the impending consequences of its action. It also has a definite legalistic purpose. In international law, when such an ultimatum against aggression is issued, any further aggressive action, such as continuing to supply foreign guerrillas, itself, creates a state of war, with no further declaration needed. It makes it clear who has started the war.

It should be clear that what would follow, in the unlikely event the aggressor Staging-Area State persisted, would not be a guerrilla war, a “you hurt us therefore we’ll hurt you” operation. It is that kind of sneaky, protracted, limited-commitment, bloody engagement that has so drained our national will, and caused such agonizing over the effectiveness or the usefulness of our military forces, and even our role in the world. Those conflicts, whatever they are called, are unworthy of a superpower, and are not the kind of war that the United States is emotionally prepared to fight. The Congressional Democrats who are resisting sup-porting guerrilla warfare against the Nicaraguan government, whatever their other reasons, have a good moral point here; we should be opposing organized banditry and terrorism everywhere, not using it where and when it suits our own ends. Our method should be to apply utterly overwhelming force with maximum speed and impact, to end all armed resistance as quickly as possible, disarm the country, and remove and replace the government. Such a course is the one that would hold casualties and destruction to a minimum on both sides. It would also clear the way for the generous restorative help for the conquered country that has characterized our clear victories in modern times.

Of course another important effect, and one of the main reasons why such a war would seldom if ever take place, once our position was clear, would be to remove a satellite from Russia’s list. Once Russia realizes that we will no longer play the Game of Guerrilla by its rules, but will remove its chip from the boat if it starts one, it seems highly likely that it will give up the game.

This is an important point, and a main (though not the only) reason why we should not adopt the different antithesis that some might suggest: measured retaliation — the infliction of damage to the Staging-Area State that is measured by what is done to the Victim State. This is the response that has been used so effectively by Israel in the face of guerrilla activity. The problem is that Staging-Area States in the U.S.-Russia Game, in contrast with the Arab-Israeli situation, are Communist satellites run by totalitarian cadres. They would probably be willing, with an infinite source of supply, to have their people endure great suffering in the process of wearing down the Victim State.

This is exactly what happened in our attempts to “retaliate” with air power against North Vietnam. So, again, the U.S. would be accused of continually inflicting damage and death, without accomplishing its objectives. The Game would still be a game, it would still drag on, and it would bring into agonizing conflict all the national neurotic tendencies described above. And in the end, still playing Russia’s Game, we would lose out.

Let us consider some possible objections that might be made to the antithesis:

“After we conquered the aggressor (Staging-Area) state, we would have to garrison it, or as soon as we left the Communists would get right back in power and start over again.” Though plausible at first glance, this argument stands up to neither analysis nor history. With the possible exception of countries that are contiguous to Russia or China, which this article is really not concerned with, Russia’s satellites are ruled by small elites, not by majority will. If these governments are removed from office, the country demilitarized (at least until its future course appears stable), and a peaceful non-Communist government installed democratically, it will not be easy for a Communist government to come back into power. At the very worst it would be a long process. In Africa and the Western Hemisphere, the Communist satellites have generally come into power by some variant of the Game of Guerrilla — which we now would have ended. In the Western Hemisphere, our special concern, the U.S. would be able to enforce continued demilitarization if necessary. In this century, countries that have suffered totalitarian government, which has then been smashed, have not shown much inclination to reinstall it.

“Once we started a war, it might escalate into a regional or world war.” Though this argument is certain to be made by Soviet propagandists (it is one of the main tactics in the Game of Guerrilla), it makes no sense at all. In the first place, guerrilla war is war — which we would not be starting. Our open and foreshadowed engagement would make it clear that the aggressive Staging-Area State was responsible. It is two-sided or multisided guerrilla warfare that threatens to escalate and spread. An immediate, crushing military action would be the action least likely to escalate, since the enemy would be quickly removed, other states would not have time to meddle, and the presence of overwhelming U.S. force would remove everyone’s appetite for a fight.

This point can and should be made more broadly, because fear of world war, carefully nurtured by Soviet propaganda and much of our artistic (especially movie) establishment, is a strong strain in American thought. Russia is ruled by a coldly calculating totalitarian elite, with no public opinion to contend with, and with a strong sense that the long flow of history is on its side. There are few things clearer in this world than that it is not going to start a world war because of a remote provocation. It will start a world war, if ever, only when and because it is sure it will win it without suffering unacceptable losses. If we ever reach the point where we are truly afraid to defend our allies against external aggression, for fear that Russia will start a world war over it, then at that point the end is at hand and we might as well hand over the keys to the White House. Allowing Russia to take over, by the Game of Guerrilla, all of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America up to the Rio Grande makes Armageddon far more likely. Ending the Game of Guerrilla now is the true antiwar position.

“Moving in and throwing out the government of the Staging-Area State would be an unacceptable interference in the affairs of sovereign states.” This argument is especially likely to be heard — some variants have already been made — with respect to Latin America and the Caribbean. It is not only illogical, it is grossly immoral. What it amounts to is saying that Russia may act through Cuba and Nicaragua (and perhaps Grenada and Suriname) to overthrow the governments of peaceful victim countries like El Salvador or Honduras, but El Salvador and Honduras may not form an alliance with the United States to fight back. Being forcibly thrown out of office has always been a penalty (one of the lesser ones, at that) for acts of aggression, and there is no reason to change that now. In fact, ending the Game would make non-interference a reality, rather than a piece of anti-U.S. propaganda. It would not prevent countries from choosing by their internal processes any type of government they wished — anti-U.S. or otherwise. But it would end the world-wide nightmare of guerrilla warfare that subverts those processes.

A shabby variant of this argument is that such forthright action would “make us unpopular” in the Third World. It is morally disreputable on its face, because it places our popularity above other people’s freedom. But even aside from that it has little support in history. The Third World reserves its deepest level of hatred and contempt for the rich giant that is too flabby or neurotic to defend its commitments or its friends. The Third World response to the British defense of the Falklands — pro forma to the point of nonexistence — provides one more lesson if we need it. Ending the Game would restore the respect for the United States that we have lost by our neurotic game playing, and restore respect for peace and order among all countries that still are free to make choices.

Our deep and intense desire for peace has been manipulated to the point where we are almost ready to acquiesce in a state of endless, bloody, losing war. Not border squabbles, but wars of aggression, fostered by a foreign power, some of them in the hemisphere that since Monroe we have purported to guard against precisely such intrusion.

But the manifest need to end such aggression does not depend on the finding that Russia is behind it, however plain that may be. Surely even Americans who cling to the position that Cuba and Nicaragua are acting with total independence must, if their loyalties are to freedom and self-determination, support the proposition that armed aggression must be resisted, and resisted effectively. This is not a “hawkish” or right-wing position. It is simply based on the acceptance of the two cold realities that recent history has forced upon us: first, that aggression by guerrilla warfare is no less aggression, and in many ways more effective, than tanks rolling over borders; and second, that guerrilla warfare cannot be won by fighting on victim soil. The only effective defense — the only deterrent that will finally achieve peace — is to oust the aggressors from their base of operations.


  • Richard Dyson

    At the time this article was written, Richard Dyson was the Associate General Counsel of the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington.

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