Being a Global War on Terror era Marine, I recently came to realize that my understanding of Asian military history has been limited primarily to studying the Marine battles on the island-hopping campaign during World War II. As the Department of Defense continues to shift focus and “rebalance” their efforts on China and North Korea, I decided to re-read Mao Tse-Tung’s book, On Guerrilla Warfare. While I believe that a full-scale war with China in the future is still a long shot, there are three lessons that Marines and soldiers can take away from Tse-Tung’s work as they prepare for a potential deployment to or war in Asia sometime in the future.

1. The Role of the Guerrilla

In the first few chapters of On Guerrilla Warfare, Mao Tse-Tung drives home his view that guerrilla warfare exists to support conventional operations. He acknowledges that guerrilla units cannot win a war, but discusses that the employment of these small units alongside conventional forces is a crucial step to the eventual defeat of their enemy. What attracted my attention to this idea relates to the sequence and the timing in the raising of guerrilla units.

In the wars the U.S. military has fought over the last fourteen years in Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgent cells were formed primarily following the defeat of the regular army. It was after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in April of 2003 and after the Iraqi Army was disbanded the following month when the insurgency in Iraq began to grow. In Afghanistan, it was after the Green Berets and CIA operatives defeated the Taliban while fighting alongside the Northern Alliance that the group turned to terrorist and small unit tactics. If U.S. Marines and soldiers were to land on China’s shores, and assuming that China’s military would not fall as quickly as our last two enemies did, there may not be a distinct transition in combat from conventional warfare to guerrilla warfare. It is possible that units could be tasked with defeating both conventional and unconventional threats simultaneously.

2. Earning the Population’s Support

Mao Tse-Tung goes to great lengths throughout his work to discuss the importance of earning the support of the location population. He repeatedly brings up the need to persuade and convince the population to volunteer to fight and provide intelligence or resources to the Chinese military. He stresses that only volunteers are acceptable to service and that vicious people must not be accepted. Those that are needlessly harsh need to be immediately dismissed from the Army (Griffith, p. 86). Compare that mentality with that of the Al Anbar Awakening in Iraq. It was during this time that Marines were able to capitalize on the fact that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) attempted to garner support of the local population through fear and intimidation. When the council of Sheiks decided that AQI’s aggressive tactics had crossed the line and became too brutal, the local population abandoned them and helped the Marines run them out of the cities. As guerrilla warfare is focused around attaining the support of the local population, it shouldn’t be assumed that Chinese guerrillas would make the same mistake of abusing and frightening the local population into cooperation as the Iraqis did.

While operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marines and soldiers got to play the role of the “good guy” to the local population because the Taliban and AQI were the frightening parties. However, Tse-Tung’s philosophy on guerrilla warfare is designed to make the occupying army perceived to be the ones who are oppressive, thus making it easier to elicit the support of the locals. I certainly acknowledge that following his rise to power, the millions of people that Tse-Tung was responsible for killing, prosecuting or sending to forced labor camps is in stark contrast to “earning the voluntary support of the population.” For the units beginning to think through what operations in China would look like, they should consider an enemy force who motivates villagers through respect instead of fear.

3. The Military’s Role in Politics

In America, the Department of Defense has a policy that prevents members of the military from becoming involved in partisan politics. While this policy is actually focused on actions taken while wearing a uniform or representing themselves as a member of the military, the actual effect of this rule is that most members of the military simply avoid any involvement in politics during elections outside of casting their vote. While the document doesn’t explicitly state the intent of the DOD’s directive, the impact often quiets any conversation amongst the military about political goals.

Even though warfare is the violent implementation of national political strategy, it wouldn’t be uncommon during the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan to hear Marines get told to stop asking questions if they asked things like, “Why are we deploying?” or, “What is our goal here?” As you read On Guerrilla Warfare, you will notice that Tse-Tung takes the exact opposite approach with his service-members and discusses the need for political indoctrination before a person is even taught to fire a weapon. He dedicates an entire chapter in his work to “the political problems of guerrilla warfare” (Griffith, p. 88). Tse-Tung’s philosophy is that, by ensuring that people have a deep conviction towards the beliefs of the cause they support, they will be able to overcome the discouragement that begins to exist during a long war. He goes as far as calling out the militarists who say:

‘We are not interested in politics but only in the profession of arms.’ It is vital that these simple-minded militarists be made to realize the relationship between politics and military affairs. Military action is a method used to attain a political goal. While military affairs and political affairs are not identical, it is impossible to isolate one from the other (Griffith, p. 89).

For any Marine or soldier who fights in a war, it is essential that the political goals are well understood and communicated throughout the ranks. While questions about the economic relationship and trade deficits between the U.S. and China might not intuitively be understood at first, it is the responsibility of leaders to be able to communicate these dynamics to all levels throughout their organization. While the impact of China building islands in the South China Sea might be novel, it is something that every leader, from the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and all the way down to the fire team leader, need to be able to explain the impacts of to their Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen. While the issues at stake are not always linear or easily identified, it is truly important that everyone has a shared understanding of the tasks that the military is expected to accomplish.

The People’s Republic of China has a history that marks October 1, 1949, as their birth as a country. This is the date when Mao Tse-Tung proclaimed victory from atop Tiananmen Square after defeating Chiang Kai-Shek’s American-equipped military. While reforms and progress have been made since Tse-Tung died in 1976, the roots of China’s current military history go back to On Guerrilla Warfare. Even though Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter continues to bring up how future conflicts in Asia will be a shift from the counter-insurgency battles we have fought for the past thirteen years in Iraq and Afghanistan, there isn’t anything to say that ground forces couldn’t be committed to the fight at some point. As we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to “surge” an understanding of the culture, history and languages of the areas we are fighting in. While a war in China is an improbable event, should tensions rise, the military will certainly be looking within their ranks for those who have put in the time to build knowledge of Asian military history and tactics from the ground up.

Book Version:

Griffith, S. (1961). Mao Tse-tung: On Guerrilla warfare. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

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