The First Rule of Fight Club and Irregular Warfare Should be the Same
By David Maxwell
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Scholars, practitioners, and policymakers continue to contemplate the definition of irregular warfare (IW) and what it means for U.S. national security and defense strategy. Many electrons are flowing through cyberspace with debates and arguments about what constitutes irregular warfare, why it is or is not important, who should conduct it (e.g., specific forces or all forces) and how it should be taught in professional military education.
Recently a mentor and expert on China and Special Operations pointed some of us to a 2021 Modern Warfare Institute article, “China’s Irregular Approach to War: The Myth of a Purely Conventional Future Fight,” with this excerpt about China and irregular warfare.
The term “irregular warfare” does not itself appear frequently in Chinese military writing. Ironically, this is a sign of its centrality. Irregular warfare activities are so fully integrated with conventional tactics and operations that they are not identified as “irregular.” The leadership of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) no longer sees utility in the conventional “people’s war” approach, which involved human-wave attacks in land-centric battles. The PLA is now preparing to fight concurrently across multiple domains, is focused on winning what it calls “informationized wars,” and takes information superiority as the driver of operational planning. Many elements of irregular warfare, such as psychological warfare, legal warfare, and cyberwarfare, are central to the PLA’s concept of information warfare and its theory of victory in a conventional conflict. In Chinese military writing and current operations, we find three principal elements of irregular warfare: the “three warfares,” special operations forces, and paramilitary forces.
The key point of this excerpt is that by not talking about irregular warfare China indicates its importance. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has evolved from its concept of “People’s War” which could be considered a loose parallel to large scale combat operations (LCSO) to a focus on a broader form of warfare which has been described in the seminal work of two PLA colonels in 1999 as “Unrestricted Warfare.”
Like the film “Fight Club,” it seems for the PLA the first rule of irregular warfare is to not talk about irregular warfare even as they are intensely practicing their own form of it.
There are two observations from Unrestricted Warfare that reinforce this “rule.” First, "unrestricted warfare" is used only three times in the entire 224 page document; on the title page, in the introduction (page 12) and the last sentence of the last paragraph on the last page (page 219). Consider how many times the words “irregular warfare” are used in U.S. manuals, directives, and concepts. As a point of reference in one version of the Joint Publication 3-05 Doctrine for Special Operations, the term “special operations” is used some 306 times. In the DODD 3000.7 Irregular Warfare “irregular warfare is used three times and IW is used 60 times. The U.S. military seems to violate the Chinese rules of IW - the first rule of IW is “don't talk about IW.” Maybe IW is just not that important in the U.S. Or perhaps it is.