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Irregular Warfare: Asymmetric Conflicts in Recent Years Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jun 17th, 2022

Andrew Mack’s “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars”

Andrew Mack developed the general theory of asymmetric conflicts in an attempt to understand the recent military defeats of developed nations by poorly armed local forces. The author strives to comprehend the inner workings of a state to analyze how they influence its ability to wage war. Mack (1975) argues that the weak opponent’s victories are connected to its determination to go through the war to the end, along with a strong spirit and a deep understanding of a powerful state’s vulnerabilities. According to Mack (1975), a large nation’s power is often linked to its exposure, neutralizing many of the advantages it might have. Mack (1975) connects this phenomenon because small wars with an incomprehensible enemy are poorly perceived by the population and the elites of strong states, based on opinion polls and elections. Mack found a tendency according to the closer wars occur to modernity, the more often the weaker side wins in asymmetric conflicts.

Mack combined previously disparate facts into a single conceptual model of asymmetric conflict. Mack (1975) noted that the great powers’ failure was due to several reasons: the loss of political will to continue the war, and the complex asymmetric relations between opponents. The irregular war also blurs the lines between military and non-military targets and objectives, which benefits the side capable of controlling the initiative in the conflict. This tends to be the smaller, more irregular force, which explains why public and international opinion often disfavors the large nation. In general, Mack thoroughly explains why some powerful states have failed to utilize their considerable resources to overcome smaller countries.

Mao Tse Tung’s “Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War”

Mao Tse Tung sought to understand the methods through which a poor, relatively disorganized force could effectively fight a professional military in revolutionary warfare. The author based his methodology on practical insights gained in the Chinese Civil War and Marxist ideology (Tse Tung, 2008). While personal experience is valid, it is questionable how effective the works of Marx and other communist thinkers are to the practicalities of irregular warfare. However, it is worth noting that Mao ultimately was successful in the conflicts he participated in, lending some legitimacy to his observations. He taught how to build the Red Army, without which the revolution would have been impossible.

The central argument is that the conditions and the means of warfare should be bloodless, focusing on obtaining the trust of the proletariat and directing them towards the correct objectives. This should not be done as part of an organized military, but rather, through mass actions and irregular warfare. According to Mao (2008), the proletarian parties’ task in capitalist states is to educate the workers through a lengthy legal struggle, accumulate strength, and prepare for the final overthrow of capitalism.

Moreover, Mao created six additional principles that supported its core principle. The first is the use of initiative, flexibility, and planning in offensive operations in defense and battles in a protracted war and operations on the external line within the military action framework on the internal chain (Tse Tung, 2008). Secondly, it is necessary to consider coordination with the actions of regular troops (Tse Tung, 2008). Moreover, it is essential to create primary resistance zones and a strategic defensive and strategic offensive (Tse Tung, 2008). While irregular war often is synonymous with an insurgency, Mao’s approach still requires a great deal of coordination and management of objectives and forces. Overall, Mao’s approach is novel, yet steeped in his ideology; however, his success in the conflicts with Nationalist China and the Imperial Japanese validate some ideas.

Thomas Edward Lawrence’s “Science of Guerilla Warfare”

Lawrence’s central research question is to examine the science behind guerilla warfare. The author’s methodology is established upon personal experience and extensive observations; therefore, his conclusions are not based on secondary-source research. I believe that the author chose to utilize such a method because fieldwork and hands-on experiences lead to unique findings. The primary sources of data used by Lawrence (2008) are irregular Arab soldiers participating in the Arab Revolt against the Turks in the early XXth century. Formally, most Arab rebels were led by the Arab Prince Faisal, but Lawrence had a significant influence on him and led the process. These references are especially convincing, as the event plays an essential role in the history of the Middle East.

The author suggests, first, time might play in favor of the opponent by using mixed warfare methods. Lawrence (2008) noted in connection with the Arab uprising that the ultimate victory looked certain if only the war lasted long enough. Lawrence (2008), reflecting on increasing Anglo-Arab efficiency, wrote that the Arabs did not want to suffer losses because they fought for freedom. Moreover, instead of creating a regular army and expelling the Turks from Arabia to Syria, the Arabs had to act as guerrillas and bind the Turks by fighting in Arabia and Syria. Lawrence (2008) focused on the economic factor: “Soldiers are made a caste either by being given great pay and rewards in money, uniform or political privileges; or, as in England, by being made outcasts, cut off from the mass of their fellow citizens” (p. 271). Lawrence’s main argument is that guerilla war or rebellion can resemble science. The author’s reasoning is valid, as he presents concrete factors contributing to the definition of irregular wars.

David Galula “Revolutionary War: Nature and Characteristics”

These days asymmetrical wars are usually associated with insurgency and war against irregular military formations. Modern counterinsurgency strategy theories also imply the creation of observed asymmetry in the fight against the so-called asymmetric adversary. In counterinsurgency operations, the author of this theory is used to be considered David Galula. Galula’s central research question was to analyze numerous revolutionary wars and to determine whether there are certain similar characteristics. Galula’s (1964) primary methodology is his personal experience in various countries, including Algeria, Greece, and Indochina. The decision to explore his background might be due to the diversity of revolutionary examples he encountered, which were especially interesting to study. Overall, the choice of data utilized by the author is significant, as it provides broad instances of the matter.

Galula proposed a strategic plan of action that begins with the destruction or displacement of the insurgents as an organized combat unit but ends – after forming an effective local political structure – with all insurgent forces’ defeat. Galula’s central argument (1964) is the idea that military actions must be subordinate to political aims, primarily to provide protection and support at the local level. The author was also skeptical about killing insurgents since guerrillas, like the heads of a mythical hydra, tend to grow back (Galula, 1964). Besides, Galula argued that the search, arrest, and interrogation of suspected rebels or persons with any information should be carried out by the civilian, not the military, police.

Galula conducted a system of phased actions; it is impossible to defeat the rebels all over the country at once. It is necessary to recapture the state and citizens area by area consistently (Galula, 1964). In the field of tactics, Galula (1964) prioritizes the need for a unified command of the entire operation. With the undoubted priority of politics, leadership should be under civilians’ guidance (Galula, 1964). Still, with a noticeable shortage of them, which is typical for this type of war, the military forces should be involved.


Along with an active discussion in the media on asymmetric conflicts in recent years, there is the topic of discussion of “new” wars. They include actions of low tension, small wars of world powers, and local armed conflicts, including asymmetric, information, and economic wars (Mack, 1975). Mao Tse Tung laid down the fundamental principles of guerrilla warfare, according to which guerrilla actions’ success is determined by using hard-to-reach terrain, which reduces the advantages of traditional military forces (Tse Tung, 2008). Galula also emphasizes that the confrontation with partisans cannot be realized without a clear understanding of guerrilla warfare as an incentive to use it (Galula, 1964). Moreover, irregular warfare’s most characteristic feature is the predominance of non-military factors of victory and defeat (Mack, 1975). For new conflicts, it is evident that the nature of hostilities changes – the transition from direct military-force confrontation to indirect forms of struggle and the waging of small wars with world powers’ participation in third-world countries.

An analysis of the history of wars and armed conflicts shows that military actions, characterized by an asymmetric character, took place between powerful states and countries at a lower stage of development. Concerning its application in the 21st century, it is the most widespread method used by opponents in conflicts. After the Iraqi invasion, the ongoing wars, the renewed Taliban insurgency in the 2001 Afghanistan war, the war in Darfur, the uprising in northern Uganda by this Lord’s Resistance Army, and the second Chechen war are fought almost entirely by irregular forces on one or both sides.


Galula, David. 1964. “Revolutionary War: Nature and Characteristics” in Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, 3-12. New York: Praeger.

Lawrence, Thomas Edward. 2008. “Science of Guerrilla Warfare” in Strategic Studies (edited by Thomas G. Mahnken and Joseph A. Maiolo, 274-306. London: Routledge.

Mack, Andrew. 1975. “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict.” World Politics 27 (2): 175-200. Web.

Tse Tung, Mao. 2008. “Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War” in Strategic Studies: A Reader, edited by Thomas G. Mahnken and Joseph A. Maiolo, 274-306. London: Routledge.

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