Two very different innovations have dominated warfare in the past 60 years. The first was the invention of nuclear weapons, which brought to an end 150 years of a military system based on total war. Nuclear weapons have, at least until now, been the preserve of an exclusive minority, headed by the United States. Even today, only eight nations admit to possessing them. The second innovation could not have been more different. It was, as Jonathan Schell points out in his new book, The Unconquerable World, the development of a new kind of people's war against foreign invaders. Whereas nuclear weapons were an expression of the very latest technology, and therefore the preserve of the rich world, people's war belonged to the opposite end of the scale. People's war could not afford the latest technology, or anything like it. Instead, it depended on mobilizing popular support.
Schell argues that the first example of people's war was the resistance displayed by the Spanish to Napoleonic conquest during the peninsular war at the beginning of the 19th century. But its defining moment was probably the guerrilla war fought by the Chinese communists against the Japanese occupation of north China in the late 1930s. It was in this cauldron that Mao, the first philosopher of successful people's war, expounded the centrality of grassroots support and the primacy of politics - rather than violence - in achieving it. However, it was not until after the second world war, with the tidal wave of anti-colonial struggles, that people's war really came into its own. As empires crumbled - the Japanese, British, French, Dutch and later Portuguese - people's war became the weapon of choice of many independence movements, from south-east Asia to north Africa. In the face of overwhelming military power, it delivered self-rule to hundreds of millions of people.
The classic exponents of people's war were the Vietnamese communists. The Vietnamese struggle pitted the world's most powerful military machine against a profoundly poor nation of 80 million, whose only weapon was people's war. It was the epic conflict of the past 50 years. It is, perhaps, not surprising that every imperial nation during the past 60 years has profoundly underestimated the ability of a poor people to resist overwhelming military force. With wealth not only goes military power but also overweening hubris, a sense of arrogant superiority in the face of the backward and the uncivilized, the alien and the Other. No doubt this largely explains why no imperial power ever gave up its possessions voluntarily.
What lies at the core of people's war is the desire of people to rule themselves rather than be governed by foreign countries, often from thousands of miles away, that are possessed of utterly alien values and their own self-serving priorities. This is a principle that the west has found extremely difficult to learn. And even when it appears to have finally learned the lesson - always the hard way, by defeat - it seems to suffer another bout of amnesia: how could this country not be served better by adopting our values and our institutions, even if the ministering of the medicine does require application with more than a little force?
The Vietnamese proved, with extraordinary courage and intelligence, that people's war could triumph against the most formidable and frightening odds. The Americans may have possessed awesome weapons, but the Vietnamese commanded the hearts and minds - and eventually even managed to convince the American public that the war could not be won. Their victory was to transform the conduct of American foreign policy for a quarter-century - until the arrival of the Bush regime, which declined to accept the verities of the Vietnamese conflict and preferred to believe that defeat was a consequence of a lack of US military resolve.
Epochal change inevitably brings into question old assumptions. The end of the cold war clearly belongs to this category. The Americans regarded the war against North Vietnam as a crucial plank in the fight against communism: if South Vietnam should fall, the domino effect would surely follow. Self-determination, though, was no creature of communism. True, the great anti-colonial struggles historically coincided with the high tide of communism and some of the most effective protagonists of people's war were communist parties. Moreover, the Soviet bloc gave sustenance and support to these struggles, while the west was almost invariably arraigned as their enemy. But self-determination and people's war were, and remain, utterly distinct phenomena, quite independent of communism.
This lesson seems to have been forgotten by the Americans and by many others in the west as well. Come Iraq, it was as if the power and virtue of self-determination and people's war belonged to another, bygone era, without application to the times in which we live. They had gone the same way as so much else during that absurd decade of the 1990s, when everything of worth was "new", and history was only relevant to the past. Perhaps also the western mind was diverted by the fact that, following the heroic achievements of the Vietnamese, many self-determination struggles took the form of extremely bloody and unpleasant ethnic wars, with minority national groups seeking independence from what they saw as their new oppressors.
A year ago, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, few anticipated, least of all the Bush administration, that there would be any sustained resistance. On the contrary, Bush and Blair expected the "coalition" troops to be embraced as liberating forces: after all, with good old western imperial hubris, were they not the bearers of our own infinitely superior values? The new breed of liberal imperialists, refugees from the left, swallowed that whole and forgot the lessons of half a century of history. Even when the resistance began to get under way, it was almost invariably described - by governments and media alike - as the remnants of the Saddam regime, together with foreign terrorists, and thereby summarily dismissed.
It is now clear to everyone - apart from Donald Rumsfeld and his cronies - that, far from being a rump of Saddamist malcontents, the resistance enjoys broad based support among the Sunnis and increasingly the Shias too. The old truths are alive and well. People do not want to be ruled by an alien power from thousands of miles away whose interests are self-serving. The resistance in Iraq bears all the hallmarks of a people's war for self-determination.
Iraq is far messier than Vietnam. The latter enjoyed a very long history and ethnic (if not religious) cohesion. It was also lucky to have an inspired leadership, whose moral virtue was far greater than their would-be American conquerors. Iraq is a much more recent and cynical colonial creation, has been ruled by a brutal dictator and is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. While Vietnam survived and prospered, even fighting off an opportunistic Chinese invasion in 1979, Iraq could, in contrast, descend into a bloody civil war and split asunder. For the time being, though, what increasingly unites Iraqis, with the exception of the Kurds, is their opposition to the American invasion - and rightly so. Will the west never learn?
· Martin Jacques is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Asian Research Center
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004