Posted by: hobbesonafob | May 14, 2009

Asymmetric Warfare – size doesn’t matter

In his novel John Barleycorn Jack London describes a bar as a place, “where men come together to exchange ideas, to laugh and boast and dare, to relax, to forget the dull toil of tiresome nights and day.” Last night I found myself in such a situation at a local pub where your voice does not have to compete with music or ridiculous cell phone ringers to be heard. Throw in some stout and some interesting discussions will occur! 

One of these discussions revolved around asymmetric warfare as a type of competition where one actor is not “playing by” the conventions. To quote at length from Dr. Marc Tyrrell’s blog:

As with any symbol, “warfare” is polysemic (i.e., it has multiple meanings and connotations). For the Western world, at least since the Peace of Westphalia, the general “rules if the game” have been established by general “agreement”, and these rules include both when the “game” may be “played” and the general form of acceptable game tactics (see Gomes, 2008). Not surprisingly, these rules are grounded in Christian theology and cosmology. Wars fought within these general rules are “conventional”, at least in the sense that the conventions that compose the game rules are generally accepted by most of the players. And, even if specific rules are not accepted by one played, the underlying principles that structure the specific rules is assumed (i.e. the mapping convention). Thus, for example, while Japan did not accept many of the specific conventions relating towarfare in World War II, they did accept the principle that war was conducted between “states”, which is a core assumption contained in the Peace of Westphalia.

Within the broad definition of a game, i.e. the acceptance of underlying principles, any conflict where the “players” accept those principles (mapping conventions) and operate according to them will be, by definition, “symmetric” because of that agreement. Conflicts which a) do not accept those principles and b) include “battlespaces” beyond the “rules” are, by definition, “asymmetric”. Thus, for example, al Qaeda accepts a definition of media and symbol system regardless of geographic boundaries as the primary “battlespace” (workspace), while Coalition forces use the concept of bounded geography as the primary battlespace. This is a classic example of an asymmetric conflict; it is “asymmetric” because the players are using different workspaces and different game rules.


I believe this to be an important observations because asymmetric conflicts have always been set up in a David versus Goliath motif as exemplified in Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article in the New Yorker: Despite the conventional portrayal of asymmetric warfare, Gladwell uses an example that highlights both the “game”aspect (using a basketball team’s penchant for full-court presses) and the “rule breaking” that is typified in asymmetric conflicts. 

The point of this blog entry, is to highlight that asymmetric warfare can be conducted by large players and small players alike.In other words,  asymmetric warfare is not the weapon of the weak, but it is instead the weapon of those willing to operate outside conventional boundaries – however they may be described.  


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