James Holmes

The Insurgent’s Playbook: Start Cumulative, Go Sequential

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James Holmes

The Insurgent’s Playbook: Start Cumulative, Go Sequential

A weak combatant cuts a stronger adversary down in size, while amassing the wherewithal to prevail.

So let me try out a hypothesis on you. This week was Vietnam (and Malay Emergency, and Huk Rebellion) week in our course. Each time I review or write about these historical cases, it strikes me afresh that you could sum up the insurgents' strategy in a bumper sticker: start cumulative, go sequential. As Admiral Wylie counsels, echoing Clausewitz, pounding away at enemy forces repeatedly — landing blow after blow until they succumb — is the key to victory. For Wylie and Clausewitz, then, it takes a sequential campaign to bring the ultimate triumph. Cumulative operations — scattershot actions unrelated in time or space — make a useful adjunct but are indecisive in themselves.

Or, put more simply, an opportunistic though weaker combatant does what it can, where it can, to whittle a stronger antagonist down to size while amassing the wherewithal to prevail. Over time the weak may weary the strong while building up sufficient strength to meet the adversary on his own terms — and win.

Isn't that the gist of Maoist theory? Mao maintained that Japan commanded only one advantage during its prolonged war in China, namely military supremacy. Sounds like enough, doesn't it? But the Japanese army was strategically adrift, while China's defenders held all of the remaining cards. Territory, resources, manpower: these latent assets would all work in China's favor provided it had enough time to tap them. Mao foresaw long, grinding, intrinsically cumulative struggles against superior foes.

Chinese forces, that is, would deny the enemy a decisive battle while looking for opportunities to mount small-scale tactical engagements against isolated or otherwise outmatched enemy units. In the meantime insurgent captains would recruit manpower, establish base areas, accumulate supplies, and so forth. They would tauten the sinews of armed might. Ultimately the trendlines would come to favor the weaker side defending its home turf. Mao's Red Army would seize the offensive and defeat the once-superior, newly beleaguered foe in conventional — sequential — fashion.

Ergo, start cumulative, go sequential.

This helps explain the course of the Vietnam War. The U.S. war effort was largely cumulative in nature. Bombing campaigns such as Operation Rolling Thunder and Linebacker I and II were cumulative; so was hunting insurgents in the hinterland or urban areas; so even were conventional-seeming search-and-destroy operations, since the communist adversary determined when the vast majority of actions started and stopped. American commanders passed up their sequential options, such as invading North Vietnam, for sound political and strategic reasons. Doing so nonetheless left the United States and its South Vietnamese ally fighting at a disadvantage. They seldom lost on the battlefield but couldn't quite win the war, either.

So if the insurgents can keep it cumulative until they're ready to go sequential, what's the bumper sticker for the counterinsurgents? Alas, there doesn't appear to be one. The counterinsurgent should look for opportunities to force the campaign into sequential mode, the realm where conventional victory is attainable. Short of that, it has to fight on the insurgents' terms. There's no substitute for patrolling, ambushes, building and rehabilitating infrastructure, and all the myriad of cumulative tasks that befall an incumbent regime — and its allies — that wants to consolidate its legitimacy. And political legitimacy is what insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are all about.

Maybe that disparity helps explain the frustrations and setbacks are inherent in unconventional warfare.