All Warfare is Asymmetric Warfare

I’ve had this idea rolling around in the back of my head for a while.  I want to put down in words some thoughts on the state of socio-political discourse in America.  Part of a chain of at least 3 posts.

“If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn’t plan your mission properly.” – Anonymous


Everyone loves a fair fight.  When fighters are evenly matched, things like heart, determination, and skill affect the outcome, and some feel-good moral import can be read into the victor’s achievement.  If Rocky so outclassed his opponent he never needed to train a-la 80’s rock montage, it wouldn’t be much of a movie.  If he was so outclassed no training would make a difference, it wouldn’t be worth watching either.  Sportsmanship can only be displayed on a level playing field, and thus we go to great efforts to provide that arena to our athletes.

Obviously soldiers in combat will pursue every advantage they see to come out alive.  No one sets down his night-vision goggles because his enemies don’t have them, and no ground unit has ever called off airstrikes because his side’s total dominance of the air has rendered bombing runs “unsportsmanlike.”  Life-and-death situations have a way of motivating people to win.

Yet it is an American phenomenon to view war as a sportsmanlike contest between equals and anything other than that as something less-than war.  If nations go to war over notions of right-vs-wrong, and right is to prevail, then the fight must be an even and fair one to have similar moral significance.  In practice, this translates to America’s use of the World Wars as cultural reference points to what war “should” look like; lots of tanks, planes, and ships on both sides going at it in a war of attrition until only one side remains.  This seems fair and even, much like a real-time strategy war game would have to be in order to be enjoyable.

Post-WWII, nuclear weaponry capped the scale of conventional conflicts and the world recognized that no military could face America on a “conventional” battlefield.  As a result warfare since WWII has largely been “unconventional.”  The notion that the majority of armed conflict is understood as unconventional speaks volumes to the American way of understanding war, and conflict in general.  In particular, unconventional warfare is largely synonymous with asymmetric warfare.  The West isn’t concerned with guerrilla-on-guerrilla or similar unconventional action; it is concerned with conventional uniformed troops encountering unconventional “forces” of varying degrees of formality.

The unconventional forces can’t and therefore don’t field sophisticated weaponry against the sophisticated weaponry of conventional forces.  This is an asymmetry in tactics brought about by readily observable necessity.  However, they aren’t fighting the same fight as conventional forces-but at at a disadvantage-they are also pursuing totally different objectives.  The conventional forces need to destroy the unconventional ones; the unconventional ones often merely need to outlast the conventional ones.  The invader needs total conquest; the defender needs only make the cost of the conquest unacceptable.


I imagine this approach to viewing things extends across nearly every issue in America.  Every conflict is viewed as a symmetrical contest between two equal parties with equal but opposing goals, a la WWII.  In reality, neither the conflicts nor the goals are equal or opposite.

Consider any of the hot-button political issues of the day and the way they are commonly, if often incorrectly, understood.  One side wants more taxes, the other less.  One wants bigger government, the other wants smaller.  One side favors minorities, the other oppresses them.  One side is ignorant, the other educated.  And so on.

This understanding perfectly suits the American paradigm of the moral virtue of fighting fair: each side has roughly half the vote, and so has a “fair” chance of winning if only it works extra hard, states better ideas, and is extra sensitive to the voter’s demands.  This is a nice idea.  It lets us feel good about our democractic system.

It is also a fantasy.  On a small scale, voting can help reconcile minor conflicting priorities, such as, “do we spend money on repairing potholes this year or build a new overpass downtown?”  On a large scale, however, people don’t vote on issues; the vote to support their “tribe.” 


(Linked from:

Charts like these lend weight to the various quotes describing democracies as constant civil wars where bullets have been exchanged for ballots.  And if warfare is usually asymmetrical, then it is likely that the tactics and goals employed by the right and left in this war will be different.


Cataloguing every difference between right and left would fill volumes.  Instead I want to cut straight to one of the biggest overarching asymmetries.  I think  it is best expressed in a Tweet (paraphrased because I can’t find the original):

“You neoreactionaries just want to rule,” said the liberal Brahmin white male.

This is a sentiment that Michael Annisimov rebutted in a good article at More Right yesterday, which concluded:

…To understand neoreaction, imagine people who see hierarchy as providing stability and prosperity, even if they personally aren’t in the ruling class.

Mostly, neoreactionaries just want to be left alone….

There is a huge amount of ironycontained in this short statement.  The Left portrays itself as the party of freedom, but it behaves as the party most obsessed with absolute control.  For example, in past discussions of birth control laws, the Left used to chant, “Keep the government out of my bedroom.”  However, recently, it seems like the Left can’t get the government into our bedrooms fast enough.  Progress involves the a pathological need to remake the people of the world in the Brahmin image, and any and all social and political pressures to make that happen are fair game.

Being Americans, these Brahmin percieve their opponents as equal-but-opposite.  Progressives attempt to make everyone exactly like them, and the imagine that surely Conservatives must be trying to do the same.  Having no interest in leaving anyone alone, Progressives can’t imagine opponents fighting for just just that.  It is an asymmetry they are blind to.

I don’t believe this is mere speculation on my part.  The Left constantly broadcasts its characterizations and understanding of its opponents.  It believes in the “Patriarchy;” the shadowy conspiracy of all men busily oppressing all women.  It characterizes any and every interaction between demographics as “privileged” groups “oppressing” exploited groups.  Anyone insufficiently “for” them is “against” them.  Ideological opponents are not merely “wrong,” they are “bad.”  Anyone who is “against” them enough and “bad” enough is an existential threat who must be publically defamed, and preferably fired from their jobs, or “strongly encouraged” to resign. 

This is the opponent the Left believes it is facing down.  This is how it understands the battlefield.


Given its understanding of itself, the battlefield, and the stakes, the tactics of the Left make sense.  It is the conventional army which believes it needs to fight unconventionally.  It is the “good guys” doing “bad things.”  This is why the Left infuriates moderates; the faction with the self image most centered on intelligence, tolerance, understanding, and compassion acts as the most un-self-aware, intolerant, extreme, and vitriolic.  The Academy, supposed to be a bastion of reason discussing ideas, has devolved into a launching point for ad hominem attacks.  To anyone on outside, it feels like the betrayal of our highest ideals.

The focus of this article is reasons the Left does what it does.  (At least it was supposed to be.  Be the judge, readers.)  Discussion of specific tactics will get its own article.


4 thoughts on “All Warfare is Asymmetric Warfare

  1. Minor quibble:

    Post-WWII, nuclear weaponry capped the scale of conventional conflicts and the world recognized that no military could face America on a “conventional” battlefield. As a result warfare since WWII has largely been “unconventional.”

    Correct conclusion, but slightly askew to the reasons. It was generally held (IIRC) that the USSR did have superior conventional forced to USA through much of the Cold War. This is why the USA would never promise, mutually with the USSR, not to use first strike nukes, whereas the Soviets desperately wanted such an agreement.

    (Back to my reading…)

  2. “Anyone insufficiently “for” them is “against” them. Ideological opponents are not merely “wrong,” they are “bad.” Anyone who is “against” them enough and “bad” enough is an existential threat who must be publically defamed, and preferably fired from their jobs, or “strongly encouraged” to resign.”

    My experience has been that people advocating for the usual progressive topics, when comfortably among friends, express the desire to witness the death of opponents, usually at one person removed from the killing. For instance, I was once in attendance at a majority progressive atheist gathering where members openly advocated for death panels that would persecute conservative Republicans, purportedly in jest. I can’t help but conclude that some among that group would gladly “pull the plug” or administer a lethal euthanasia drugs to opponents if given the opportunity.

    By contrast, as you observed, most conservatives are satisfied to be unmolested. At his worst, an “evil” Republican might hope that his opponent would be left to drown in his own depravity, but that’s a decidedly passive hate compared to progressive-directed killing.

    Here’s my question for you. To date, I believe we have prosecuted this so-called war as if we are the superior force, when evidence indicates that we lost our advantage sometime before 1970, at the latest. If we are a comparatively-weaker guerilla army, which seems a plausible assumption, then what’s left is to determine if we are seeking to eject an invader, in which case we must make the invader’s advance costlier than the spoils of conquest, or if we are seeking independence or revolution, in which case we must ultimately not just overcome the opponent, but utterly drive our opponent from our nation lest it retain some influence on our lives.

    Which is it? Are we ejecting an invader, or fomenting a revolution?

  3. Pingback: All Warfare is Asymmetric Warfare | Reaction Times

  4. Pingback: All Warfare is Asymmetric Warfare | Neoreactive

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