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Mao Zedong’s Theories on Warfare

Excerpt from The Future of Warfare, by Bevin Alexander, pages 130-31

Lawrence [of Arabia] and Mao [Zedong] recognized it is destructive to throw weakly armed forces directly against conventional armies with heavy weapons and air power. Instead, both came to the dictum first recorded in the fifth century B.C. by the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: "The way to avoid what is strong is to strike what is weak." Both saw that weak forces had to deliver quick, hard, and unexpected blows against a vulnerable, but weakly defended, enemy point, and just as quickly disappear before overwhelming conventional power could be marshaled against them.

Mao adopted another Sun Tzu dictum---that a commander should strike at an important point the enemy has to defend. But, unlike countless unimaginative generals over the ages who have attacked the objective directly in front of them, Sun Tzu called for striking a point that is important to the enemy but one he does not expect to be attacked. Such a goal is almost certain to be weakly defended or not at all. Sun Tzu wrote: "You may advance and be absolutely irresistible if you make for the enemy's weak points." To open a way to these weak points, Sun Tzu wrote that the general must deceive the enemy: "Make an uproar in the east, strike in the west." Striking enemy weak points and deception are the essence of his indirect strategy, and can succeed against conventional armies.

A conventional army commander most often sees the striking elements of the enemy army as his primary objective. Historically, this has led to massive direct clashes between armies on battlefields, like Waterloo in 1815 or the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.

But Mao Zedong saw other objectives than the heart of the enemy army's offensive power. These objectives were the enemy's supply lines, rear bases, and isolated enemy detachments, outposts or garrisons. If Mao could strike at these objectives, while avoiding the enemy's main strength, he could force the enemy to defend them. This would give the initiative to Mao's weaker force and compel the stronger enemy to concentrate most of his strength in guarding his rear and his lines of communication and supply.

Recognizing that the enemy's rear is his most vulnerable target, Mao abandoned any attempt to defend a front or main line of resistance. This obliged him to give up orthodox warfare in which one army directly confronts another and attempts to destroy it. In Mao's system, orthodox war could only come at the final stage just prior to victory, after the enemy had been weakened and demoralized. To prepare for this culminating stage, he adopted indirect warfare, essentially guerrilla or semiguerrilla in its operation, that avoided a straightforward challenge to the enemy's main strength. This turned the enemy rear into the guerrilla's area of operation---in effect, the guerrilla's front. Mao's system not only distracted the enemy, but solved the Reds' logistical problems as well: the enemy became the guerrilla's principal source of weapons, equipment, and ammunition.

As Lawrence had concluded in Arabia, Mao saw that his best strategy was to defend nothing. This allowed his forces to conceal their weakness---lack of hitting power---and exploit their strength: the capacity to move at speed and appear at the time and place of their choosing, and thereby surprise the enemy.

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