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.

-Sun Tzu


Asymmetric strategy

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:


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.

-Sun Tzu


Arreguín-Toft I. (2001). How the weak win wars: A theory of asymmetric conflict. International Security. 26(1): 93–128.


Christensen CM. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail. Harvard Business School Press.


Engler M, Engler P. (2014, October 8). How did Gandhi win? Waging Nonviolence.

Did you enjoy this chapter? Read the full book. Download your free copy: EPUB PDF

Copyright © by Raven Dojo Inc.

Limit of Liability/Disclaimer of Warranty