How the weak win wars
The Vietnam War lasted from 1965 to 1975. The U.S. military had a 50:1 advantage in soldiers, weapons, and resources. But they still lost. What happened?
For the first 4 years, North Vietnam fought head-on battles. The United States crushed them. Learning from failure, North Vietnam changed strategy to guerilla warfare—small, fast attacks then back to the jungle. The main U.S. force had no one to fight.
War dragged on. Body bags piled up. Atrocities mounted. Peace activists organized bigger and bigger protests. Finally, politicians bowed to public pressure and ordered a retreat. David had defeated Goliath.
If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
Political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft studied 197 wars over the past 200 years. When the weak side fought directly, they lost 76% of the time. But when they fought indirectly, they won 63%.
This strategy applies to the modern world:
For your career, develop a unique talent stack that avoids competition
Start-ups win by creating new markets, or targeting low-end customers unwanted by big companies
Toyota learned to manufacture high-quality cars in small batches instead of copying Ford’s high-volume assembly lines
Blue ocean strategy challenges companies to break out of the red ocean of bloody competition by creating uncontested market space that makes the competition irrelevant.
-W. Chan Kim
Winning without fighting
In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi wanted to free India from British rule. He began by targeting an unfair law that forced Indians to buy all salt from the government. In the “Salt March”, Gandhi dramatically defied the law in front of thousands of supporters. This simple act catalyzed peaceful protests across the country.
Bureaucrats cracked down with stricter laws, brutal beatings, and 100,000 arrests. But this caused public opinion to turn against the government. It was only a matter of time before the British were forced to withdraw.
The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
Arreguín-Toft I. (2001). How the weak win wars: A theory of asymmetric conflict. International Security. 26(1): 93–128.
Correlates of War is a data set of 197 wars fought around the world from 1800 to 1998
There were 170 asymmetric wars where strong actors started with a military advantage of 5:1 or more
Strong actors won 76% of all same-approach interactions, whereas weak actors won 63% of all opposite-approach interactions
Same-approach interactions lasted an average of 2.7 years, whereas opposite-approach interactions lasted 4.9 years
During the Vietnam War, the United States had a military advantage of 53:1
Christensen CM. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail. Harvard Business School Press.
According to the “Theory of Disruptive Innovation”, new-market disruptive innovations bring existing technology to new customers
Low-end disruptive innovations target existing customers overserved by incumbent companies
Engler M, Engler P. (2014, October 8). How did Gandhi win? Waging Nonviolence. https://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/gandhi-win/
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