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The War Nerd November 3, 2006
The Doctrine of Asymmetrical War
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

FRESNO -- For the eXile's 250th issue celebration, I've decided to step back a bit and take a look at modern warfare, a sort of mid-term summary of everything I've been trying to teach you folks over the past hundred or so issues I've been writing for this paper.

I'll give you the bad news first: no 21st century war is "purely military." The days when countries duked it out on the battlefield are over for the foreseeable future. What we have now is something very strange. It goes by a lot of names, from "terrorism" to "asymmetrical warfare" to "fourth-generation warfare," depending on whether you're for it, against it, or just trying to sound cool. But whatever you call it, the key factor is that it never involves WW-II style conventional war between nation-states.

Oh, there'll be a few good old-school conventional wars from time to time. My favorite is the Ethiopia vs. Eritrea war of the 1980s. And you could include the Iran-Iraq War from that same decade.

But those wars are rare, and going to get rarer. Because there's a much cheaper, easier way to make war. This way doesn't require any of the building blocks of conventional war: you don't need industry, aircraft, armor or massive armies. In fact, this kind of war can be played by any group of wackos that can round up a dozen or so bushwhackers. All you need is small arms and a grudge -- and those are the only two commodities most of the world has a surplus of.

It's a heartbreaker for you hardware freaks, this idea that it just doesn't matter whether our tanks are better than their tanks (or planes or artillery or whatever). But it's time you grew up, guys: haven't you kind of noticed that in most wars, the other side doesn't even use tanks, or planes, or artillery (except mortars, which are so portable they can be considered small arms)? You guys are stuck in the dream about a classic NATO/Warsaw Pact Sumo match in Central Europe, and you just don't want to think about all these brush wars. Well, time to wake up. The Warsaw Pact doesn't exist any more, so that war is never going to happen. The fact is, it never was. If the Soviets had sent the tanks into the Fulda Gap, it would have been a nukefest, not a tank battle like Kursk. Not exactly a wargamer's dream: before you can even get your corps deployed, the whole playing field would melt down.

So I'm preaching real war here. If you want tank duels, go replay the Kursk Salient or project yourself fifty years into the future, where maybe, just maybe, the Asian powers will have a good all-out war. If you want to know about war now, then you have to jump into the weird world of "asymmetrical war."

And I'll tell you: once you make that jump, you find this kind of war is just as interesting, just as satisfying as setpiece battles. I made the jump ten years ago, when I realized my hardware research wasn't helping me understand the wars that were actually happening in Africa and Asia. And I'm glad I did, because I understand the world way better than most people. I knew Iraq would go bad because I've studied this kind of war. I wish more people had. Maybe we wouldn't have jumped into this mess.

To get your head around this kind of war, you have to delete most of your ideas about warfare. That's right: get your Black & Decker out of the garage, charge that puppy up, and do some brain surgery on the part of your cortex that stores your favorite ideas about war. Here's a list of War Myths, so you'll know where to drill:

1. War involves battles.

Wrong! Most of the "armies" in the world right now avoid battle and focus on killing civilians. This is the hardest thing for Americans to understand: armies that don't aim at victory and actually avoid battle. So many war buffs who ought to know better just won't see this. If you read military blogs, you know the type: guys who say "we won every battle in Nam!" as if that proves we should have won. Boneheads! The NVA/Viet Cong strategy was classic irregular warfare stuff, based on outlasting the enemy, not defeating him in battle. When they did go for military victory, like in the Tet Offensive, it was a near-disaster, saved by the other key fact about this sort of war:

2. You win by killing the enemy.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. In this kind of war the enemy wants you to kill a lot of people. A lot of irregular warfare groups start their campaigns with a suicide raid, where they expect to be slaughtered.

3. Hi-tech beats lo-tech.

Not lately it doesn't. Here again it's a matter of you hardware freaks facing hard facts. If we take Iraq 2003 as a familiar and painful example, you saw a classic outcome: our hi-tech beat their wanna-be hi-tech in the conventional battles. Then we started getting picked off by low-tech ambushes where the insurgents used homemade IEDs in combination with old, rugged Soviet weapons like the RPG-7 and Kalashnikov. After two years, those simple weapons are still effective -- and they're actually getting lower- and lower-tech! Take IEDs: when the Iraqi insurgents started using them, they'd hook the detonator up to a garage-door opener or cell phone so they could be set off by remote control signals. Our convoys started using jammers to stop those signals from getting through to the detonators. So now the insurgents are using wires or even string to set off the IED. You can't get much lower-tech than a string. And that's why it works, because you can't jam a string either.

4. "Overwhelming force! Hit the insurgents hard enough, and they'll quit."

Wrong. Americans are pretty well anti-death, but lots of other tribes are in love with the idea of the martyrdom thing. Like the Shi'ites, whom I've written about already, some might say with admiration. People who woof about "hittin' 'em hard" haven't thought cold and hard enough about what they mean. We have a problem with the Iraqi Sunnis. There are about seven million of them. All you need for an effective insurgency is a few hundred urban guerrillas (with a much bigger base of civilian supporters). So they're never going to run out of young men. And no overwhelming force short of neutron bombs will solve the problem. Which brings us to another very interesting question, the future of genocide and nuclear weapons. But as long as we're wimping around with this "no nukes" rule, there just ain't no kind of overwhelming force that can convince every testosterone-poisoned Sunni kid to join the Pepsi Generation. Consult your own experience, remember what young males are like! Remember high school PE! How hard would it have been to get those guys, Beavis and Butthead times 80, to plant a bomb or shoot a sentry if they thought they could get away with it, or better yet, be seen as heroes by their fellow countrymen? Teenage boys are the cannon fodder of any guerrilla war, and teenage boys are nothing but weasels who stand on their hind feet sometimes. Keep that in mind when media types try to hand you our next piece of total crap:

5. People want democracy and peace and all that kind of stuff.

No. In fact, HELL no! Let me repeat your first lesson: consult your own experience instead of believing the talking heads. Do you care about those things -- I mean, compared to money and sex and taking revenge on the MR2 that cut you off a couple of blocks back? The only ideology I see around me is God. Most people in Fresno have a bad case of God. It takes up all their brain power trying to read the Bible and mind everybody else's business. They wouldn't care if Charles Manson took power as long as he said God and Jesus every few seconds. Out of all the people I've met, I can only think of one who cared about democracy: my Social Studies teacher. But he was one of these decent old Minnesota Swedes, goodhearted, too soft for Bakersfield, committed to ignoring reality. His wife, another big Secular Humanist, left him for a dyke, his students called him "Gums" and he admitted once to our class that he'd lost his Faith. That made him Public Enemy #1 with the Christians and he had to transfer to another school district. That's what believing in that stuff'll get you.

If this is a democracy, it's weird how the only people who go in for it are conmen and closet cases like Rove. No normal American would go near it. They know better. We all know local politics belongs to real estate developers at civic level and to the corporations at Federal level. Which is fine with me, and with most Americans, but why call it democracy?

And as for peace, I was always against it. Peace is for people who have satisfying lives. The rest of us want that flood, that real rain. Like the man said, "Bring it on."

Look around the world and you'll see that people are divided into ethnic gangs, like the planet's one big San Quentin. All they want is for their gang to win. If they have any ideology beyond that, it's more of the God stuff, and you need Thorazine to cure that. Godfearing gangbangers, that's exactly what we ran into in Somalia, 1993. Half the population of Mogadishu turned on our guys who were trying to provide aid for the starving. They didn't want peace, democracy or any of that shit. They wanted their clan to win and the other clans to lose. And if stopping the aid convoys from getting food to those enemy clans was the only way to win, they were ready to make it happen, ready to die fighting our best troops backed by attack helicopters and APCs. We killed maybe a thousand of these "civilians" and lost 18 Rangers and Delta operators. And the Somalis made the anniversary of that fight a national holiday. It's worth giving a moment to let that sink in: these people fought to the death against overwhelmingly superior US forces, because they wanted their clan to win by starving rival clans to death.

Yes, Grasshopper, you must meditate on the fact that People are superstitious tribalists. Democracy comes about 37th, if that. Nobody wants to face that fact: we're tribal critters. We'll die for the tribe. More to the point, we'll kill for it. We don't care about democracy. And I'm not just talking here about people in tropical hellholes like Somalia, I mean your town, your street. Most Americans are just like me: old-school nationalists. We want America to be Roman, to kick ass. The rest is for Quakers.

Just remember, everything they told you is wrong. Here's a quick list of the main points. Go and meditate upon them. Memorize them while I whack you with this stick like a good Zen teacher should.

1. Most wars are asymmetrical / irregular.

2. In these wars, the guerrillas / irregulars / insurgents do NOT aim for military victory.

3. You can NOT defeat these groups by killing lots of their members.

In fact, they want you to do that.

4. Hi-tech weaponry is mostly useless in these wars.

5. "Hearts and Minds," meaning propaganda and morale, are more important than military superiority.

6. Most people are not rational, they are TRIBAL: "my gang yay, your gang boo!" It really is that simple. The rest is cosmetics.

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Gary Brecher
Browse author
Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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