From Sands to Quagmire
By Orville Schell
March 31, 2003, The San Francisco Chronicle
"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
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 his."
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 building."
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 German advance.
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
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,