"People say to me, 'You are not the Vietnamese. You have no jungles
and swamps,' " Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is quoted as telling a
University of Warwick researcher six months ago. "I reply, 'Let our cities be
our swamps and our buildings our jungles.'‚''
How did the sands of the Iraqi desert turn so suddenly into a quagmire? How
did an Iraqi military that we pictured in fixed positions on Kuwaiti border or
arrayed along "highways of death" (as in 1991) awaiting incineration by Apache
helicopters and F-16s suddenly morph into an incipient guerrilla force?
As the nascent Chinese Communist movement fought for their lives against
Chiang Kai-shek in 1928, Mao Zedong wrote "The Struggle in the Qinggang
Mountains." By doing so, he bequeathed to the modern world the mother-of-all
handbooks on how weaker military forces can paralyze, if not defeat, far
superior ones. Mao's answer to conventional pitched battles was a "mobile" and
"protracted" form of warfare that won through harassment. And, although far
weaker and less well-equipped, the Red Army did ultimately outlast both the
invading Japanese army and the Nationalist government.
The ingredients of this new kind of "asymmetrical warfare" were:
decentralization, surprise, agility and deception. Above all, counseled Mao,
weaker forces should avoid major engagements and settle instead with a victory
of attrition by means of repeated, small-scale raids.
Mao was inspired by the classical Chinese strategist Sun Zi, whose ancient
classic, "The Art of War," first codified the basic tenets of guerrilla war
more than two millennia ago.
Counseling against direct confrontation, Mao reminded his followers that a
weaker army should "strike only when positively certain that the enemy's
situation, the terrain, and popular support are all in our favor and not in
Mao's triumph in China helped proliferate an almost mythic legacy of
"people's war," one that Americans confronted in an agonizing way in Indochina
as we fought against a convert Maoist strategy, General Vo Nguyen Giap, who
led the Vietnam People's Army (NVA) and the National Liberation Front (NLF).
Such a strategy is precisely what Iraqi supporters of Saddam Hussein have
begun to use. But what may prove to be even more disruptive of coalition plans
are Iraqi intentions to engage in urban guerrilla warfare -- even suicide
bombing -- as U.S. and U.K. troops finally enter their cities and start trying
"to build a peace." An indiscriminate urban counterinsurgency effort could
prove as compromising to America's image as the campaigns to "win the hearts
and minds of the people" in rural Vietnam did decades ago. As Sun Zi warned:
"The worst policy is to besiege cities."
Body counts, B-52 strikes, wounded GIs in medi-vac choppers, downed
helicopter gunships surrounded by AK-47 toting peasants, "Five O'clock Follies-
like" Centcom briefings, anti-war demonstrations, troop escalations, and a
repetition of official expressions that the war is still "on track," all have
a haunting ring.
If over the last few days, U.S. military planners have come to view
"irregular forces" like the Fedayeen Saddam and the Special Republican Guard
commandos as "a major annoyance" -- the "equivalent of the black pajama Viet
Cong," as one senior U.S. intelligence official put it -- we can only wonder
what kind of an annoyance such insurgents will be to the process of "nation
Few countries have ever welcomed foreign air strikes or invasion and
history is replete with occasions when nationalism trumped a people's loathing
of dictatorship. No greater example exists than Hitler's invasion of Russia.
Despite Stalin's tyrannical rule, Russians fought heroically to repel the
We know that Saddam Hussein is student of Stalin, but it now looks as if he
and Tariq Aziz have been reading a little Mao on the side. And it is a
stunning lapse that as it planned to topple him by military means, the Bush
administration did not understand that Saddam would inevitably turn to
guerrilla warfare fired by nationalism to save his Arab dignity, if not his
country and himself. As the Washington Post has reported, intelligence-agency
warnings of a possible guerrilla war in Iraq fell on deaf ears in the White
Did Bush strategists view Aziz as such a propagandist that his words should
be utterly discounted? It is difficult to believe, especially since short of
instant occupation or abject surrender - options that few thought the Iraqi
government would accept -- Saddam Hussein had no other realistic options other
than to borrow a leaf from Chairman Mao and engage in urban guerrilla warfare.
Orville Schell is the author of numerous books on China, covered the war in Indochina and is now dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle