How to Be an Underdog, and Win

Rann Chandric/eyevine/Redux
Malcom Gladwell, 2008

The RAND Corporation is a think tank in Santa Monica, California, where scholars from many disciplines work for the Department of Defense, mixing academic research with practical advice concerning military problems. The experts at RAND consider themselves the brains of the military establishment. Two fat documents were among those produced at the RAND Corporation during the years of the American war in Vietnam. One was a magnum opus in six volumes with the title Oregon Trail, written by a large group of historians, many of them eminent university professors. The other was a single volume with the title Rebellion and Authority, written by two economists, Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf.

The two works were discussing the same problem, made urgent by the situation in Vietnam, of a big and powerful country fighting a weak but determined enemy. The problem was later given the name “asymmetric warfare.” The two RAND Corporation studies were both trying to elucidate the strategy of asymmetric warfare. They reached diametrically opposite conclusions.

The historians writing Oregon Trail looked in detail at a hundred examples of asymmetric wars, most of which were colonial wars with a large and wealthy imperial power fighting a group of native rebels. Examples that they examined in depth were the American war of independence, the French colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam, and the British colonial wars in South Africa and Malaya. Their purpose was to find the general pattern of such wars, to understand why the rebels sometimes won and sometimes lost. They found that the outcome was determined more by psychological than by military factors. Most of the wars lasted between five and ten years, and they usually ended because one side or the other lost the willpower to keep on fighting.

The most important conclusion of the Oregon Trail study was that the rebels usually won if the empire spent most of its effort on military operations, but that the rebels usually lost if the empire spent most of its effort on political and social responses to grievances. It was obvious to anyone who read Oregon Trail that the American war in Vietnam was likely to be a losing proposition. Unfortunately, very few people had a chance to read it. By one of the worst abuses of the secrecy system that I ever encountered, the military authorities stamped the whole thing secret. By keeping it secret, they made sure that it had no influence on public discussion of the conduct of the war in Vietnam. I do not know whether it was later declassified. Meanwhile, Rebellion and Authority was published openly with the blessing of the Department of Defense. It has become a widely accepted guidebook for armies occupying foreign territory and dealing with insurgency.

Forty-five years later, Malcolm Gladwell has written another book about asymmetric warfare, beginning with the combat between…

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