Small Wars Journal
What could a German theoretical physicist and a communist revolutionary possibly have in common? On the surface, nothing whatsoever. Dig a little deeper though, and they shed light on an unavoidable reality of modern conflict. As the United States emerges from the two longest wars in its history and attempts to absorb the lessons learned, perhaps the biggest lesson is the one Werner Heisenberg and Chairman Mao combine to teach us. For years, during both the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanders struggled to find methods to decrease the level of enemy activity. This they always seemed to do without considering how their mere presence in the battlespace drove insurgent activity. Before we embark on our next foreign adventure, Americans need to remember one simple fact: as long as we accept the moral responsibility for ungoverned spaces, insurgent forces will attack us. Acceptance of this simple truth should drive our nation’s cost-benefit analysis in light of perceived national interest.
The reader is no doubt asking, “What does this have to do with Werner Heisenberg and Mao Zedong?” Werner Heisenberg was a theoretical physicist who first recognized the Uncertainty Principle. This is closely related to the observer effect. Quite simply stated, the observer effect describes the changes the mere act of observing a phenomena has on the behavior of that phenomena. A zoologist observing a pride of lions will affect the behavior of that pride. For a physicist to observe an electron, a photon will first have to interact with it, changing the path of motion for that electron.[i] As the Uncertainty Principle and observer effect are often confused and the particulars are germane in a strategic sense, I simply refer to the work of Heisenberg colloquially.
This relates to counterinsurgency and stability operations in that it is impossible to properly evaluate the security status in a given theater of operations without considering the presence of the outsiders. As Americans, we are loath to ever view ourselves as occupiers. Our opinion does not count in these matters, though. We must be able to step back and view ourselves from the indigenous population’s perspective. Regardless of the foreign soldier’s moral attitude, he is carrying a weapon through their neighborhoods, making him an occupier. Whatever the circumstances that placed the soldier there, his presence will eventually be viewed as an outside intrusion into their affairs. This intrusion will breed resentment and given enough time, resentment will boil over into violence.
The desire to purge foreign invaders can be strong enough to bring even the most implacable enemies together. By 1936, Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces fought each other over control of China for nearly ten years. In response to an outside threat, these two formed a temporary alliance to expel Japan from their homeland. Mao and Chiang Kai-shek were able to cooperate for four years, culminating in the 1938 Battle of Wuhan. A strategic Chinese victory there prevented Japan from launching another large-scale offensive in China until 1944.
Mao Zedong’s On Guerrilla Warfare is highly enlightening in the way it reveals the thinking of a revolutionary insurgent commander. At the time he penned it, Mao was not yet the leader of the largest nation on the planet, but an insurgent leader in a deadly struggle against one of the fiercest military machines the world has ever seen. Imperial Japan possessed vastly more military power than the Chinese forces. Mao believed the Chinese could prevail with the use of mobile, decentralized operations executed on a timeframe dictated by his forces, not Japan’s. Victory would be achieved by surviving, not allowing themselves to become decisively engaged, and extending the war indefinitely until the Japanese lost the will to fight.
Picture: SRA Nathanael Callon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons