Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

The Absurdity of “Asymmetric warfare”

some insurgentSo, recently, I’ve been reading military history and tactics again, inspired partly by my nightly reading of the the Air Force PFE study guide (Promotional Fitness Examination).  I’ve run into this gem of a term “asymmetric warfare”.   A quick pursue of the Google News showed 51 entries under the title “asymmetrical warfare”.  All I can say is this:  What a crock of crap.

Wikipedia defines “asymmetrical warfare” as:

“…originally referred to war between two or more actors or groups whose relative military power differs significantly. Contemporary military thinkers tend to broaden this to include asymmetry of strategy or tactics; today “asymmetric warfare” can describe a conflict in which the resources of two belligerents differ in essence and in the struggle, interact and attempt to exploit each other’s characteristic weaknesses. Such struggles often involve strategies and tactics of unconventional warfare, the “weaker” combatants attempting to use strategy to offset deficiencies in quantity or quality.”  This is in turn quoting Robert R Tomes, a Senior Adviser for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.  (Say that 10 times fast.)

The Air Force defines asymmetrical warfare this way “Asymmetrical warfare is based on countering an adversaries strengths by focusing on its actual or perceived weaknesses.”

The first problem is the very phrase “asymmetrical warfare”.  Terms have implied meanings that they smuggle in with their overt meaning.  For example: pro-life and pro-choice.  By overt meaning we could also say pro-life and anti-life (or even pro-death) or anti-choice and pro-choice.  But people who identify with the pro-life side resent the heck out of being called “anti-choice”  Just as people on the pro-choice side resent the heck out being called “anti-life”.  So both define themselves with “pro” statements. They say what they are for rather than what they are against.  In this way, both terms smuggle in the idea of what should be, according to their respective believers.

The phrase “asymmetrical warfare” sneaks through the back door an idea, and that idea is that warfare should be symmetrical, a basically fair contest between two basically matched adversaries, much like say, formula racing or boxing.  In some forms of formula racing, every driver races an identical car with identical engine.  In fact, the engines are sealed, and if at the end of the race the seal is broken, the competitor loses the race and may well be kicked out of the racing league.  In boxing, competitors are matched up in narrow and rigidly controlled weight categories. The purpose in both cases is to limit the role which technology, and genetic luck play in victory, ensuring that the contest is between how much heart and skill the competitor has at the expense of any other characteristics.

The problem with applying this to war is: war is not a game. If a race car driver loses a race, or a boxer a match, he remains able to fight again. In fact he will often use the knowledge of his defeat to compete more successfully next year.  Warfare offers no such grantees, quite the opposite actually.  No less a expert on the subject than Genghis Khan said “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters.”   And by “gather into your bosom” he meant rape to death the ugly ones keep the pretty ones as concubines. (Other translations of this quote say “ravish” rather than the bowdlerized “gather into your bosom”.)

The second problem is more clear from the Air Force definition.  “…countering an adversaries strengths by focusing on its…weaknesses”.

Um… isn’t that what warfare is all about?  What do you think every successfully concluded war in history was about?  Begin with Alexander the Great.  When he had his point leaders take battle axes (not a common weapon in the middle-east) to attack the enemy’s elephants by severing their trunks and destroying their legs, wasn’t that asymmetric?  When the English decimated the French by striking them with longbows while staying out of French bow range wasn’t that asymmetric? When the Prussians had quick loading needle guns against the muskets of their enemy wasn’t that asymmetric?  When the French had recoil absorbing cannons (they keep aim between firings) and their enemy had none, wasn’t that asymmetric?  When the Germans had the Blitzkrieg and the Allies didn’t wasn’t that asymmetric? I could go on with these polemics but I let me get more specific.

The German Air Force was quite good at first.  The Allies could only attack with precision bombing if they were willing to take large causalities.  Studying the nature of modern war, they decided the most valuable possible target would be ball bearing plants.  (Almost all modern machinery needs ball bearings. This was a logical and effective strategy.) Well, by the argument of symmetrical war, the British should have left those ball bearing factories alone.  They should have stood by their guns, stayed on the battlefield and lost in gentlemanly and symmetrical way.

So this carping about asymmetrical warfare is totally bogus.  In fact, I think its pretty much clear that the way wars are won is by achieving asymmetry.  Let me say that again for clarity.  The key method of victory is discover and exploit asymmetry. Only a fool or a mad man would fight a war in such a way that gave his enemy a fair chance at victory.

In fact, I put forward this idea: The greatest single impetus to the evolution of warfare is the desire to achieve asymmetry.

So now I need another explanation of where this asymmetry BS comes from.  I think it comes from xenophobia.  Its not labeled “asymmetric” when we use semi-autonomous robotic planes to shoot bearded goat herders on camel back.  But when they use cell phone bombs to hit our trucks, well that’s just plain un-American.

Now, let me add my usual qualification here, I’m not saying that the terrorist are right, or that we are wrong.  I don’t want to live in a world with terrorists.  I may not always agree with the way we fight them, but I agree whole heartily that they need to be fought, and like any good service member in a democracy’s military, I can put my personal preference aside to fulfill the oath of enlistment that I took.  That’s not with this is about at all.

I am more saying to the American public at large: xenophobia isn’t cool.  Stop complaining about asymmetrical warfare.  Warfare is supposed to be asymmetrical, at least if you want to win, and they want to win as badly as we. The side the finds and exploits asymmetry the best will win. Period.

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June 26, 2008 - Posted by | Government, Politics, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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