Time is Short: The Effectiveness of Sabotage

By Norris Thomlinson / Deep Green Resistance Hawai’i

To most of us with no military experience, the Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy (DEW) of Deep Green Resistance can seem abstract. The aboveground efforts of rebuilding local food systems, local economies, and local decision making are straight-forward and well known to citizens engaged in any sort of social justice or environmental activity. More confrontational public direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience are familiar to most activists, from historical examples of women’s suffrage and civil rights movements to modern fights like the tar sands blockade and the Unis’tot’en Camp. However, the crucial underground role of directly attacking critical infrastructure, though it sounds exciting in theory, has little grounding in our daily experience or even in the history we’ve learned.

This is probably a deliberate omission from our history books, as sabotage is a highly effective tactic for small groups, outnumbered and outsupplied by opposing forces. In any situation of asymmetric warfare, sabotage plays an important role. This is precisely why the DEW strategy depends on one or more underground resistance groups carrying out unpredictable attacks on infrastructure to cause cascading systems failures. The aboveground work of slowing down destruction and building alternatives is crucial to easing the transition to a sane and sustainable way of living, but only decisive action by an underground can stop the entire juggernaut of industrial civilization in the time available to us before complete biotic collapse.

In 1987, Captain Howard Douthit III of the US Air Force published a thesis on “The Use and Effectiveness of Sabotage As a Means of Unconventional Warfare – An Historical Perspective From World War I Through Viet Nam.” Douthit performed an extensive literature search on the subject, and his report describes historical concepts and many specific instances of sabotage. He makes the subject much more accessible to the layperson, and demonstrates the effectiveness of sabotage in a wide range of circumstances.

Douthit provides summaries of different aspects of historical sabotage, distinguishing between forms such as passive (carried out by people forced to work for the occupying power) vs active, land-based vs aquatic targets, and targets of vehicles vs industry vs utilities. He found that among the most often used (and presumably most effective) forms of active sabotage were the use of explosives and mines, cutting power and communications lines, and arson. The most common targets included fuel depots, supply warehouses, oil pipelines, ships, railway infrastructure and trains, roads (including bridges & tunnels), communications infrastructure, and electrical facilities.

Sabotage groups that were better organized, trained, and supplied were able to pull off more complex and effective actions, often causing disruptions behind enemy lines in coordination with traditional military maneuvers on the front lines. But even small, amateur, destitute groups such as the Viet Cong were able to leverage the little they had to inflict disproportionate damage on their enemies.

Conventional forces had an extremely difficult time preventing the sabotage:

The only countermeasure that stopped sabotage was the manpower-prohibitive act of exterminating the saboteurs. Committing the number of forces necessary for effective counter-sabotage also produced too much of a drain on the front line. Indeed, as this fact became known, sabotage efforts increased in a deliberate move to force the enemy to guard against sabotage in the rear area. Thus, this research indicated there were no effective countermeasures to sabotage.

Douthit concludes:

[H]istory supported the thesis that sabotage is an effective means of warfare. Sabotage was used against both strategic and tactical targets. It was proven capable of being used near the front line, in the rear areas, and even in support areas out of the theater.

[…]

Sabotage can be used against both tactical and strategic targets.

Any nation, rich or poor, large or small can effect sabotage against an aggressor.

Sabotage is an economical form of warfare, requiring only a mode of transportation (possibly walking), a properly trained individual, and an applicable sabotage device.

To read more, download the PDF of “The Use and Effectiveness of Sabotage As a Means of Unconventional Warfare” (6.3 MB). For a detailed review of sabotage operations organized by chronological period and by country, start reading at page 13 of the report (page 25 in the PDF), or jump straight to the conclusions starting on page 92 (104 in the PDF).

Many films about historical resistance, especially about opposition to Nazi occupation, show successful examples of sabotage and other asymmetric warfare actions. Browse our Deep Green Resistance IMDB Lists for recommendations.

Time is Short: Reports, Reflections & Analysis on Underground Resistance is a bulletin dedicated to promoting and normalizing underground resistance, as well as dissecting and studying its forms and implementation, including essays and articles about underground resistance, surveys of current and historical resistance movements, militant theory and praxis, strategic analysis, and more. We welcome you to contact us with comments, questions, or other ideas at undergroundpromotion@deepgreenresistance.org

16 thoughts on “Time is Short: The Effectiveness of Sabotage”

  1. Great to read a thorough exploration on this. When I read in the Deep Green Resistance book that we need to “start thinking like Field Sargeants” I was a bit stymied. But then I took some self-defense classes, and gained some insights on asymmetric warfare in the context of self-defense techniques. And articles such as these help in this ongoing process, especially for those of us who thought the environmental movement would have truly won this by now, and that boycotts would do it (lol).

    The point about the deliberate omission of sabotage from our public school curriculum is well made. So too, the omission of indigenous genocide, and the elimination of native languages by colonizers via torture and imprisonment of native peoples who did not comply.

    Ethical Field Sargeant and Earth Warrior schooling here, thank you.

  2. Thanks for your comment MCkali; I’m glad you found the article useful! You’re absolutely right about the omission from schooling of the bloody facts on which our current systems are based. There are so many ways we’re trained not to recognize the violence and force inherent in the system, which leads us away from thinking about using force (let alone violence!) to change or resist the system.

  3. Great. Most marxists speak about revolution and “bring down this system”, but are very opposed to think seriously about sabotage. I think that it’s inevitable. Maybe they avoid this idea because they have that fear of the possible consequences of an poorly planned sabotage act, both for them and for the people who may be affected by the action. I dont have idea if people can get theoretical material about these “real” militant techniques to learn more about planning.

  4. I agree, Carlos, it’s great that so many people want to “smash the system,” but they don’t usually go further than riots and fights with the police. Those can be useful, but the state expects it, and direct confrontations are where the state is strongest, so usually the state will win. These fights dissipate a lot of resistance energy on a strategy that usually fails, and encourages toxic hypermasculinity instead of a healthy culture of resistance.

    As you said, sabotage can definitely be dangerous, especially when not planned well. But as the thesis shows, sabotage can also be very useful and is important to study and better understand. Hopefully those who are serious about resistance will learn more about all the tools available.

  5. “only decisive action by an underground can stop the entire juggernaut of industrial civilization in the time available to us before complete biotic collapse.”

    um, false. it would still require millions of people coordinating all over the world launching attacks every day for years–global civil war. It took the total warfare of the entire world to destroy the economy of Europe during WW2, and they built it back up in how long? and you think that is going to happen in developed economies, where privilege reigns supreme, and the only threats are coming from disenfranchised combatants and the only victims are civilians?? Newsflash, it won’t. Not until people are out of food and water that is.

    DGR needs to shut the fuck up and stop telling people how to think, and go out and ruin their own lives doing some stupid shit before inspiring impressionable children to ruin theirs. I want to hear Captain Howard Douthit III rip your plan to shreds and explain how in an age of the PATRIOT act NDAA, etc, the only way change will occur is through processes they approve.

    Figure out a different strategy besides inciting people to do things that amount to shooting the “juggernaut” with a pea shooter and inviting repressive measures that disarm and discredit real activists.

  6. Hi “porn culture”,

    First, if you want to continue this conversation, please abide by the Deep Green Resistance commenting policy, especially not using abusive or inflammatory language and not promoting the sex industry by linking to porn. It’s fine to disagree with DGR’s analysis, but please remain respectful while engaging in discussion.

    That said… A crucial difference between WWII era and now is that we have reached peak oil and half a dozen other limits to the growth of this culture, which are putting pressure on the system to collapse anyway. Modern resisters can work with the inevitable trend to strategically apply pressure to hasten that collapse. MEND, a handful of impoverished people in Nigeria, has reduced the oil output of that country by up to a third. It really wouldn’t take many people worldwide to bring it all down.

    I would also like to hear Captain Douthit’s analysis of the Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy. So far, those with military training who have looked at the strategy say it could work, as it’s based on historically tried and true tactics of asymmetric warfare. Douthit’s thesis confirms the effectiveness of the general approach.

    Certainly if we only implement the changes approved by those in power, nothing will fundamentally change. We have fifty years of evidence painstakingly compiled by mainstream activists to prove that. And we have decades of experience proving that any effective action will be met by repression from the state: expectations of such a response are no reason to remain deliberately ineffective.

    I’m not sure why you accuse DGR of “telling people how to think” unless you make that accusation of everyone who voices an opinion or publishes an article. Free discourse is a necessary to people making up their own minds as to how to respond to the threat of civilization eliminating all life on earth.

  7. Advocating that civilians perform strategies that are theoretically effective is at least misguided. With this past week of making peaceful assembly carrying felony charges we must be mindful of the consequences for even more extreme actions. Please DGR show us by example.

    1. Hi Arwen,

      I’m confused by your comment. I doubt this is your actual intent, but you seem to be arguing against tactics that might be effective? Or maybe that is what you mean…the environmental movement in general is still advocating tactics proven ineffective by decades of failure, which is why Deep Green Resistance argues for a new approach. I don’t understand why you think it’s misguided to advocate tactics which are not only theoretically effective, but proven so in multiple historical conflicts?

      The criminalization of aboveground activism is all the more reason to switch to underground action. We’ve already known that any aboveground resistance which hinders business as usual is met with violence – administered in the moment by police, and/or drawn out by the court system. It’s always been less risky to act clandestinely with well-planned acts of sabotage than to openly resist with effective aboveground action, and of course underground actions are much more likely to make a beneficial impact. If even symbolic protest is outlawed, the relative risk/reward ratio only improves for tactics like sabotage.

      1. It seems with the advocation of DGR methods, one I have wondered whether the authors practice or jusy preach, should always be grounded in the realization that to enact any of these missions is to accept one may be killed in the process. This is not the same kind of acceptance that anything can happen, so love life to the fullest, etc. Those with military experience understand the difference.

        1. Yes, effective resistance, whether aboveground or underground, involves a real risk of long imprisonment or even death. That may be a subconscious motivation for the left generally sticking to symbolic and indirect action; even those who want a full revolution are, on the whole, loathe to advocate serious strategic action.

          It’s necessary to maintain a firewall between aboveground and underground activists. The Deep Green Resistance organization is aboveground, which means we can’t engage in acts of sabotage ourselves. (It’d be way too easy to investigate us, since we’re already painting big targets on ourselves.) Our role is to advocate for strategic action, and to support underground activists if they’re caught. For now, we’re not a prioritized target of the authorities, subject only to low level harassment. But once resistance starts being effective, we’ll be increasingly harassed and subject to imprisonment.

          Those carrying out carefully planned and executed underground actions should be at a low risk of being caught…but as you observed, the potential consequences are severe if they are caught.

  8. It is interesting to see people talking about doing illegal acts on the Web. What this means is that nobody here could even think about personally getting involved after leaving such a messy trail. The only way to be successful is not to have a cell phone, nor a credit card, nor a passport, never to use a computer, to essentially disappear, maybe even by faking your own death.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Though the resistance movement will have different phases and parts, the Deep Green Resistance organization is, will always be, and is committed to only being an aboveground group. We suggest that all activists carefully study and adhere to strong security practices, such as maintaining a firewall between above- and underground activists and organizations: https://deepgreenresistance.org/get-involved/security-culture

    2. Hi Andrew,

      You’re absolutely right that those of us openly advocating sabotage of critical infrastructure can not engage in illegal activities. But I don’t think hypothetical people who want to go underground need to “essentially disappear.” It should be adequate to blend into the mainstream, avoiding any aboveground political activism.

        1. Oh yeah, definitely. Hypothetical underground activists should definitely learn how to cover their tracks – not leave fingerprints, DNA, or other evidence at job sites; pay cash in distant cities for materials; anonymize work-related web browsing; encrypt communications; etc.

          But going completely dark is not only extremely difficult, but likely to make more of an impression in government databases than living a dual life. The most realistic and probably the safest approach is a mainstream appearance to blend in, and underground activities carefully thought out so as not to leave a trail.

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