Few figures in the history of guerrilla warfare have been as influential and successful as Michael Collins (1890-1922), the Irish revolutionary leader. His tactical and strategic mastery of urban guerrilla techniques showed what a determined minority could do against an oppressive system of domination. His career is said to have been studied carefully by such widely disparate figures as Mao Zedong and Yitzak Shamir.
He was born on October 12, 1890 in County Cork, Ireland, as the youngest of eight children. The Ireland into which he was born was subject to direct British rule. But Irish nationalism was in his blood: his father’s family had had connections with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and he imbibed from this well as a youth.
He was known as an intense and bookish lad, always working one project or another. His father, on his deathbed, predicted that the young Michael would one day “become a great man.” After passing the British Civil Service exam in 1906, he held various white-collar positions in London and even New York, and Dublin. It was during these early years that he apparently joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
Collins’s charisma and ability was obvious to all who came into contact with him. When nationalist groups began planning to stage an uprising in Ireland while the British were embroiled on the European continent in World War I, Collins devoted his energies accordingly. He participated in the Easter Rising of 1916, but felt that it had been ineptly handled.
He resolved to do better. By 1917 he had risen to positions of importance in both Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers. It was at this time that he began to appreciate the importance of intelligence collection. His network of spies and informers were key to many of his later successes. He became a master at using small teams, at moving around without detection “in plain view”, and at confusing his opponents with ruses and feints.
It was during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) that he finally came into his own. His extensive reading of history had taught him that, despite the frequency of Irish revolts since the beginnings of British rule, all had failed due to: (1) poor planning; (2) inadequate intelligence; (3) disorganization and ineffective leadership.
He would not make these mistakes.
Perhaps more than any other man in revolutionary circles, he understood that the British crown’s control of Ireland depended on its network of informers and agents. Using one of his agents, he was able to examine some of the archives of British intelligence, he was shocked at the extent of British intelligence collection in Ireland. This system of control, he knew, could only be neutralized by force: destroy the network of British informers, and the occupiers would lose their eyes and ears.
Some of Collins’s key contributions to modern warfare were the following:
- The degree to which he understood the connection between intelligence and informational warfare.
- His understanding of the need for small, mobile teams to carry out missions.
- His emphasis on total operational secrecy.
- The need to stay one step ahead of the enemy by executing daring, unconventional operations.
It was one thing to know this fact, but quite another to have the ruthlessness to take the necessary next steps. Collins was not by nature a violent man; on the contrary, he was urbane and cultivated, and possessed considerable charm. Yet he was determined to secure Irish independence, and to do this, certain realities had to confronted.
He and his newly formed Irish Republican Army conducted an unrelenting campaign of assassination against the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the instrument of British control of Ireland. This prompted reprisals in kind. By 1921, the country had become engulfed in violence. Eventually, the British recognized the futility of maintaining a colonial presence in Ireland, and agreed to a negotiated settlement.
Collins was sent to negotiate peace with the British in London in 1921, a job he believed himself ill-suited for. He was not an experienced negotiator, yet the treaty he did come back with was probably the best anyone could have done in the circumstances. There was simply no way that the British would agree to give up the northern-most counties of Ireland.
Some of Collins’s comrades were bitterly disappointed with the treaty establishing the Irish Free State, and believed (unfairly, in this writer’s view) that he had betrayed the Irish nationalist cause. He was killed in a roadside ambush in 1922; he was only 32 years old. His contributions to the history of guerrilla warfare were considerable. With very few men, he had confronted the might of the British Empire in its own backyard, and he had prevailed. His feats of daring became legendary: his ability to know the location of his targets, his ability to move about Ireland without being detected, and his organizational genius.
To get to the negotiating table in the first place, one must win victories. And this is precisely what Collins did. His genius was to pursue realistic goals, in alignment with his capabilities and logistics. If success is defined as doing more with less, then he must be counted as among the great guerrilla commanders of the twentieth century.
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