Painting Guerrillas or Guerrilla Painting?

By: LT Edval Zoto, Albanian Army

Military historian Max Boot started and ended his presentation at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School by showing a widescreen image of the cover of his book, Invisible Armies.1 The cover reproduces a colorful painting by the most famous painter of the Greek Revolution, Theodoros Vryzakis (1814–1878), titled "The Destruction of Dramali at Dervenakia." It depicts an epic battle in which a dozen men and women are shown fighting courageously atop a hill, surrounded by enemies. This battle occurred in 1822, a central year for the Greek revolutionary struggle for independence. Of course, the painting is a product of the imagination of Vryzakis, since at the age of eight he would have not been able to capture that image with his own eyes. But he had strong emotions about that period of time, having lost his father during the Revolution. The painting is a fine piece of art that makes the book look very handsome and interesting, but apart from aesthetics, what meaning does it have for a book that, according to the author, is about "telling the story of irregular warfare from its origins" (p. xxi)?

After listening to Dr. Boot's presentation on the book, I argued with the author about the picture's meaning, observing that to my knowledge it didn't represent a story of true guerilla warfare. Of course, the author's opinion on that is clear enough! In the end, both of us were wrong. The reason lies in finding a proper definition of the kind of warfare we were discussing. For my part, I was right because the story behind the painting, the real Battle of Dervenakia, cannot be considered a guerrilla, an irregular, or a non-conventional battle. Boot, in the introduction to the book, tries but does not succeed in giving a proper definition of guerilla warfare. He writes that guerilla warfare is characterized by "the use of hit-and-run tactics by an armed group directed primarily against a government and its security forces for political or religious reasons" (p. xxii), while guerilla armies are distinguished from regular forces by their organizational structure (p. xxi). Also, according to the author, guerillas "rely on ambushes and rapid movements" (p. xxii), "undertake the strategy of attrition, trying to wear down the enemy's will to fight," and "wage war from the shadows" (p. xxiv).

If we analyze the Battle of Dervenakia, or the Greek Revolution, or any of the revolutions that aimed to obtain independence from the Ottoman Empire during its five centuries of dominance over the Balkans, it is hard to decide who is the guerilla. In the case of Dervenakia, Mahmud Dramali Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman forces, was himself sent with his troops to hit, destroy, or disband the Greek forces, who had started their anti-imperial struggle inspired by a former Ottoman governor. (This man had risen against the sultan, only to then run back to his own safe possessions.) The concept of government was very fluid, and imperial governance was effective only in the cities and villages located in the plains of the Balkan Peninsula. The counterrevolutionary practice of the Ottoman Empire was primarily an endeavor to find the most capable subordinate, who would gather his most capable troops and march them wherever they were needed to suppress a rebellion. On their return route, the troops were then allowed to expropriate the goods of the defeated populations. Other than that, the suppressing force had no pre-established organization. Dramali himself "contracted" with 1000 local Muslims to support him during the fighting or act as scouts to explore the trails.

From the other side comes the same story. Theodoros Kolokotronis, the Greek commander, was largely independent from the "higher council of the war" and so were his "captains," leaders of men who were paid with war booty. Given their organization and objectives, the opposing forces in this fight, or at least the substantial part of them, did not differ much from each other. Their tactics also were similar. On his punitive adventure, Dramali moved fast enough to defeat any resisting enemies, and held territory only when he believed his opponents' will to fight was draining. The same tactics were embraced by the Greek forces. Most important, none of the above strategies or ways to conduct warfare was considered non-conventional by the participants. Centuries of rebellions had made the Ottoman forces aware of the "shadows," and they knew what the battles would look like, while the rebels had adopted those techniques as the most rational ones given the hard terrain and communication routes. Nor were the battles themselves "guerillas" in their Spanish meaning of small wars, as Boot explains in his book. The Battle of Dervenakia, the one that brought the defeat of the Ottomans, lasted for three days (26–28 July 1822). The Greek revolution itself lasted six years, from 1821 to 1827.

But Boot was not wrong either, in defining the battle as an episode of guerilla warfare or even for characterizing the Greek Revolution as an example of a successful guerrilla campaign. The problem here does not lie with the Battle of Dervenakia or the Greek Revolution, but with the lack of a clear and fully representative definition of guerilla warfare. Boot doesn't provide the reader with that. His book offers an extensive collection of examples, each different from the other and explained in an original way by the author. From this perspective, even Vryzakis's picture makes sense. The artist's view of the battle is different from the story behind it, but he chose to paint it as a short, decisive, and epic battle—an image quite attractive to Boot as well. What should have distinguished one from the other is precisely their approach to myth-making when presenting their works to the public: the epic painter may make his image ambiguous, while the historian cannot— or should not. This difference between the reality of the battle and the image of it offered on the book's cover is what truly distinguishes guerilla warfare from traditional warfare.

About the Author(s): LT Edval Zoto, Albanian Army, is a student at the Naval Postgraduate School.


1. Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Liveright, 2013). Dr. Boot spoke at the Naval Postgraduate School on 28 February 2013.

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