Teacher's Guide: Guerrilla Wars

Despite their small numbers, guerrilla movements defeat larger, more sophisticated military forces in Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. In addition to using the natural terrain to their advantage, the movements' strong political philosophies inspire the loyalty of peasants.

Unit Themes and Topics:
the Cuban Revolution
guerrilla warfare
human endurance
the Soviet war in Afghanistan
the Vietnam War

Ahmed Shah Massoud
(guerrilla leader, Afghanistan)

"Strong motivation and belief in your own victory are the most important things in a guerrilla war. The other keys to victory are the proper use of terrain by guerrillas and the mobilization of the people."
photographic portrait of Ahmed Shah Massoud

Note to Teachers

This program contains graphic depictions of violence. We recommend that you preview the program before using it in the classroom.


Before Watching

1. Define the term guerrilla warfare. How is it different from conventional warfare?

2. As students watch the program, have them write down examples that illustrate or expand their definition of guerrilla warfare.

After Watching

1. What were the similarities among the uses of guerrilla warfare in Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan? What were the differences?

2. Based on the quotation by Ahmed Shah Massoud, what were the strengths and weaknesses of the guerrilla movements in each country? How did the guerrillas' tactics in each country capitalize on their strengths? What tactics did the American and Soviet militaries use to try to defeat guerrillas? How did guerrillas respond? Why did the more sophisticated militaries fail?

3. What reasons did people give for supporting or participating in guerrilla movements? What were some of the hardships they faced and why do you think they were willing to endure them? How do their experiences and attitudes compare to those described by American and Soviet soldiers? What psychological factors contributed to and affected the outcome of the guerrilla wars?


Divide students into small groups to research the historical context of the guerrilla movements depicted in the program. Assign each group one of the three countries and one of the following time periods: the period leading up to the war, the war, or the period since the war. Ask groups to prepare a timeline of key events and to present the significance of the events in relation to the war or the goals of the guerrilla movement.

Have students explore the ways in which the American Revolution was a guerilla war. What tactics did the American soldiers use against the British? Create a chart comparing and contrasting the American Revolution's goals and tactics with those of the Cuban Revolution or the Vietnam War.

The Cuban Revolution

The following lesson focuses on a program segment about the success of the Cuban Revolution despite great odds, and how it inspired other Latin American guerrilla movements. Former guerrillas describe their role in the revolution.

Program Segment
approximately 11 minutes

The beginning of the program

The narrator describes other Latin American guerrilla movements.


Before Watching

1. Describe what you know about the geography and political history of Cuba. Is Cuba a political threat to the United States? Why or why not?

2. As students watch the program segment, have them write down the guerrillas' strategies and what the guerrillas promised to bring the people, if they won.

After Watching

1. Why did the guerrillas' victory inspire fear in the United States and Latin American governments? What qualities made the Cuban Revolution an appealing model for rebels in other countries?

2. Why do you think the guerrillas succeeded in defeating the military forces that outnumbered them? How did the guerrillas earn the loyalty of peasants? How did they use peasants?


Have students explore the motivations and experiences of guerrilla fighters through Latin American poetry. First, give students the poem "Song to Fidel" by Cuban Revolution leader Che Guevara, written on the eve of the Granma expedition (available in Our Word: Guerrilla Poems from Latin America, translated by Edward Dorn and Gordon Brotherston, Grossman Publishers, 1968 and Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, edited by Stephen Tapscott, University of Texas Press, 1996). Discuss how the poem relates to the events portrayed in the program segment, how it expresses the idealism and commitment of the guerrilla soldiers, how it might have helped build support for the Cuban Revolution, and how it might have inspired guerrilla movements in other countries. To follow up, have students read poems by other revolutionary Latin American poets and identify important themessuch as the quest for justice, anti-imperialism, justification of violence, and confrontation of deathand discuss why guerrillas and their supporters chose poetry as a vehicle for self-expression.

Have students investigate the United States' recent history with Cuba by exploring different points of view on the U.S. embargo with Cuba. First, ask students to bring in news clippings on the issue. Then ask them to take the points of view of different interest groups (U.S. trading partners, the Clinton administration, the Cuban government, Cuban émigrés living in the United States, Cuban citizens, and American business groups) and conduct a roundtable discussion on the pros and cons of maintaining the embargo.

About the Series | Episodes | Timeline | Your Stories | Thematic Overview | Teacher's Guide

People's Century | WGBH | PBS Online | Search PBS | Feedback | Shop | ©