Symmetry in Warfare

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Asymmetric


As one of the most famous irregular warfighters once said, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” In our case, “hokey religions” might refer to those myriad of concepts, doctrines, and concepts that have sprung up since 2001 to try to describe the type of warfare that has characterized conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pundits, both military and civilian, have committed countless hours of commentary to try to describe what an “insurgency” looks like and how it differs from a “rebellion,” “uprising,” or “guerrilla war.” By now, the print from the books and blogs on this subject could dwarf a small moon. Or space station.

“That’s no insurgency, that’s low-level asymmetric warfare brought on by a dissatisfied populace and a strengthened Iran.”

The idea of asymmetric warfare is all the vogue right now, which necessarily annoys me, as I am mentally an 80 year-old codger who enjoys taking the joy out of everything. With that in mind, let me proceed to show you the principal problem with all the cogitations around what I am now calling “asymmsurgentilla warfare,” and guess what: it’s a PowerPoint slide. A simple Google search of “asymmetric warfare” will bring up pictures of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a jumble of graphs and slides attempting to show why they’re there (admire my daring use of homonyms, please). I grabbed one at random, from the site defenceandstrategy dot eu.

Victory through superior PowerPointing is the mantra of today’s military.

The above slide illustrates a common misconception: that population, military, and government are independent spheres that are not intertwined. Looking at the history of warfare, population centers, government centers, and armies have always been military targets, or, as Clausewitz would say, “centers of gravity.” Napoleon liked to target armies and destroy his enemies’ ability to resist. However, this bit him in the arse when he overextended and let the Spanish guerrillas wreak holy havoc on his garrisons in Spain. He also believed that seizing government facilities, such as capitals (Moscow, Berlin) was an important move. One can look at the Civil War and see Grant targeting Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Sherman’s March to the Sea to target the population as examples of “total war.” In this case, total war means engaging all the facets of an enemy society. In World War II, both the Axis and the Allies engaged in warfighting that leveled cities and towns, demonstrating that the destruction of the enemy’s army was more important than preserving the good will of the population. History has many examples of how all aspects of society can be engaged in war, and how they are mutually supportive rather than mutually exclusive.

The other common mistake is to confuse tactics with strategy. As @Amphibionus brilliantly ranted about the other day on Twitter (and equally brilliantly storified by @AthertonKD here), young officers in today’s U.S. military are being taught tactics to the exclusion of all else. This symptom can be seen in America’s obsession with all things Special Operations Forces, the overriding drive to arm and train rebel groups as the new “soft power,” and (now I’m gonna make all the Air Force readers mad) the mind-numbing desperation with which policy-makers believe that Air Power can win conflicts on their own. People focus on how Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS/ISIL/IS/RIGHTBASTARDS use suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, and leverage the population for support. Which are all tactics. People see these indicators, see fighters with no uniforms or “state affiliation,” and yell “Irregular/Asymmetric/Insurgent Warfare!”

So what makes warfare, um, regular? Well, historically, armies have fought on broad operational fronts, seeking to destroy their enemy’s will to resist. They engage in battles that range from localized skirmishes to test the enemy’s strength, to all out brawls ranging over miles of countryside, lasting from days to weeks (World War I comes to mind). These armies depend on copious supply lines or survive off the land for a limited time. Armies and governments depend on the support of their population for money, arms, and equipment. Armies typically have some type of uniform, have a rigid and clear command structure, and are broken into formations for tactical and operational use.

Now me, being a controversial type of fella, would argue that AQ, TB, and ISIS/ISIL/IS/RIGHTBASTARDS fall into that definition, although it might at first not seem that way. They fight across broad fronts, seeking to seize geographic and human terrain (yeah, the COINistas got me saying that). Their strategic and operational ways and means are very similar to what we would call regular warfare: seizing territory, establishing supply lines, and engaging in public relations to consolidate seized territory. No, they don’t wear uniforms per se and they do have a tendency to hide amongst the population. But the Germans used that same tactic in World War II, resulting in the destruction of countless towns and villages by Allied artillery and airplanes. I would posit that warfare hasn’t changed, but our views on what is acceptable have. Destruction of population centers has been a staple of war. Most European towns and cities, and some American ones (my town was burnt three times in colonial wars and the Revolution) have been destroyed or sacked several times. The death toll of civilian populations throughout history has been an untold story, because we just don’t know how bad it really was. Records get destroyed, elders die in the fighting, and whole histories vanish. Civilian populations have been bombed (World War II), massacred (Thirty Years War), and depopulated (Acadians in the Seven Years War), and these are only a few examples.

Bear in mind, I am not condoning the killing of civilians as a way of making war: merely pointing out that this has been the norm in warfare since the dawn of time. We have grown more as a culture, since the 1940s. Death is not acceptable to us, whether military or civilian. In fact, too much death can stop wars altogether as the human cost is seen as outweighing the benefits of fighting the war.

So, to all you pundits, I argue that you are not seeing the rise of irregular war as the norm of the 21st century: you are seeing the true side war. It is truly horrible. Well might Thomas Hobbes, looking on the cruelties of the English Civil War, declare that life without a civilized government “is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” War in itself ensures that is so. The application of violence, whether in a “police action” or “counterinsurgency” cannot disguise this. Is it sometimes necessary? Yes. Does that make what happens to brothers, sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers any less terrible? No. But let’s call a spade a spade, and not confuse everyone with more PowerPoint slides.