Small Wars Journal

The Ties That Bind: Chairman Mao, Che Guevara, and Al Qaeda

Sat, 05/21/2016 - 7:17am

The Ties That Bind: Chairman Mao, Che Guevara, and Al Qaeda

Jeff Wong

Mao Tse-tung borrowed the revolutionary vanguard from Vladimir Lenin, Ernesto “Che” Guevara liked Mao’s ideas about sanctuaries, and Al Qaeda valued Guevara’s focoist approach to global insurgency.  At first glance, the revolutionary strategies of Mao, Guevara, and the intellectuals who devised Al Qaeda’s doctrine for jihad have much in common.  They integrated violence into the greater political struggle, viewed the support of the people as essential to the revolution, and stressed the importance of an intellectual vanguard to lead the revolt and ensure military ways and means aligned with political ends.  A closer look, however, reveals differences in how Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda tailored their approaches to suit the unique needs of the rebellions they led and the strategic environments in which they fought.  A deeper assessment also develops a fuller understanding of revolutions and insurgencies, and inform an approach to fighting the Islamic State, or Daesh.

Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda revealed their beliefs about revolutionary warfare in their writings.  Mao outlined his thoughts in two seminal documents, On Guerrilla Warfare and On Protracted War, both of which detailed his strategy to unite China and defeat Japan in the 1930s and 1940s.  Guevara wrote Guerrilla Warfare: A Method to guide his post-Cuba revolutionary efforts in Bolivia and the Congo in the 1960s.  Three authors – Abu ‘Ubeid Al-Qurashi, Abu Mu’sab al-Suri, and Abu Bakr Naji – provided the backbone to Al Qaeda’s approach to global jihad in essays published in the early to mid-2000s.

Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda agreed that violence should support the revolutionary struggle, but they disagreed about whether it should be the most important factor fueling the rebellion.  In the initial stage of the revolt, Mao viewed political agitation as being the main effort, with military action in a supporting role.[i]  The movement needed to first build the infrastructure by organizing, consolidating, and securing base areas before guerrillas could launch attacks against regime forces as part of a counteroffensive.[ii]  Coherent political action needed to be a precondition for the armed struggle, according to Mao.  “Without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail, as it must if its political objectives do not coincide with the aspirations of the people and their sympathy, cooperation, and assistance cannot be gained,” he wrote.[iii]  Mao argued that a revolutionary war could not be constrained into military action alone – the rebellion also required complementary economic, social, and psychological elements that allowed the revolutionaries to establish a new state structure.[iv]

Like Mao, Guevara and Al Qaeda viewed violence as essential to the revolution.  Unlike Mao, they saw violence as the primary effort in the early part of the revolt, setting the conditions to provoke a wider rebellion.[v]  Guevara used military action as a form of “armed propaganda,” in the words of Regis Debray, that triggered a reaction from the regime, with the backlash providing a sharp contrast between the regime’s repressive, abusive power and the guerrillas fighting for the people’s freedom.  The foco, the small guerrilla center or base, would spark the revolution.[vi]  “Violence is not only for the use of the exploiters; the exploited can use it too, and what is more, ought to use it at the opportune moment,” Guevara wrote.[vii]  Similarly, Al Qaeda saw military action as a tool to foment its political movement.  In The Management of Savagery, Naji devoted a chapter to the primacy and characteristics of violence in the jihad.  “If we are not violent in our jihad and if softness seizes us, that will be a major factor in the loss of the element of strength, which is one of the pillars of the Umma of the Message,” he wrote.[viii]  Naji also justified brutal tactics such as burning to death captured enemy forces, apostates, and infidels because the subsequent shock value deterred opponents and attracted new fighters to the cause.[ix]  Through the use of small, dispersed bands of focoist guerrillas, Al Qaeda fought a global insurgency that used violence to control territory and radicalize the people.[x]  “Every military battle,” Qurashi concluded, “is a speech that aims at increasing revolutionary awareness.”[xi]

Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda recognized the importance of popular support, but their differing conceptions of what constitutes a people’s war are notable.  Mao and Guevara customized their revolutionary narratives to the agrarian realities of China and Cuba, respectively, reframing a Marxist-Leninist proletariat revolt into a rural uprising to capitalize on the grievances and additional manpower the latter could provide.  Guevara even deemphasized the plight of the urban proletariat.  “No matter how hard the living conditions of the urban workers are, the rural population lives under even more horrible conditions of oppression and exploitation,” Guevara wrote.[xii]  After continuous attacks by rural guerrillas diminished the ranks of regime forces, the working class and urban masses could eventually join the revolution and participate in a decisive battle, according to Guevara.  Al Qaeda also subscribed to Mao’s conception of a people’s war, attempting to leverage social, political, and economic grievances to recruit more fighters to the jihad.  Qurashi wrote that the mujahidin could not be defeated “because they are part of the people and they hid among the masses.  This strategy is enough to end the superiority of advanced weapons, which are primarily designed for use in open areas with well-defined features.”  As a result, “stateless nations” have the ability to defeat nation-states, Qurashi concluded.[xiii]  Writing about the mujahidin fight against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, Naji stressed the need to revive “dogma and jihad in the hearts of the Muslim masses,” particularly after witnessing “the example and model of these poor, Afghani people – their neighbors – in jihad.  They were able to remain steadfast in the face of the strongest military arsenal and the most vicious army (in the world) with respect to the nature of its members at that time.”[xiv]

Guevara and Al Qaeda agreed that people living within the foco do not necessarily need to be on the side of the rebellion at the beginning of the struggle, and that it might be necessary to build the revolution externally, using foreign fighters, to spark the revolution and spur neutral locals to the cause.  Guerrilla violence – and the oppressive regime’s response to the violence – could radicalize neutrals living in rebel sanctuaries.  “We should not be afraid of violence, the midwife of new societies; only such violence should be unleashed precisely at the moment when the people's leaders find circumstances most favourable,” Guevara wrote.[xv]

Yet both Guevara and Al Qaeda encountered significant problems trying to harness local grievances to their focoist approach.  Guevara and his Cuban vanguard failed to inspire a larger revolt in the Congo in 1964 and struggled to gain local support from the local populace in Bolivia in 1965 – the latter campaign ending with Che’s capture and execution at the hands of government forces.[xvi]  Similarly, Al Qaeda has had difficulty aligning myriad local grievances into a global jihad.[xvii] “Political, economic, social and geographic conditions differ radically across the Muslim world,” wrote Mark Stout.  “Hence, it is difficult to imagine that a generic blueprint for revolution will work in all countries.”[xviii]

Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda all stressed the need for an intellectual vanguard to lead the revolution, educate the masses, and ensure military actions aligned with political objectives. Both Mao and Guevara discussed the importance of synchronization of military and political objectives.  Without any irony, they prescribed the use of political elites to lead revolts with the ultimate goal of a dictatorship of the proletariat and equality among all people.  “The war that we are fighting today for the emancipation of the Chinese is a part of the war for the freedom of all human beings, and the independent, happy, and liberal China that we are fighting to establish fighting today will be a part of that new world order,” Mao wrote.  “A conception like this is difficult for the simple-minded militarist to grasp and it must therefore be carefully explained to him.”[xix]  Guevara also defined the relationship between the political elites leading the revolution and the rural guerrillas who provide the bulk of the manpower and support from the foco.  “The peasantry is a class which, because of the ignorance in which it has been kept and the isolation in which it lives, requires the revolutionary and political leadership of the working class and the revolutionary intellectuals,” Guevara wrote.  “Without that it cannot alone launch the struggle and achieve victory.”  The vanguard bears a special responsibility to ensure the people are aware of the political objectives for which they are fighting, according to Suri.  “It is necessary that an elite bears the costs of reviving the jihad in people’s reality after it has been completely forgotten,” he wrote.[xx]  Al Qaeda’s vanguard would design a military campaign that exhausted enemy forces and drained regime coffers, as well as a media strategy that recruited new jihadists and marginalized those who refused to join, according to Naji.[xxi]  “The people will be patient with us as long as we are in the vanguard of those who are patient,” he wrote.  “But if we begin to complain, lament, and worry from now on, then the people have the right to be worried (about us).”[xxii]

Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda each developed a framework for revolution and guerrilla warfare shaped by their respective experiences in China, Cuba, and parts of the world where totalitarian Islamism thrived.  Although Mao himself never tried to export revolution beyond Asia, his ideas found receptive audiences among rebellions around the world.  Guevara borrowed the chairman’s ideas about political action, violence, popular support, and an intellectual vanguard to fit the conditions of his revolts in Cuba, Latin America, and Africa.  Both Mao and Guevara influenced Al Qaeda’s leading thinkers, who stressed the primacy of violence in setting the conditions for the revolution and the value of brutal tactics that shocked opponents into obedience and radicalized new members.  Although Mao, Guevara, and many of Al Qaeda’s leaders and thinkers are dead, their ideas have lived on to shape Daesh the next generation of revolutionaries.


Guevara, Ernesto “Che.” “Guerrilla Warfare: A Method.” Cuba Socialista (September 1963).

Mao, Tse-tung. On Guerrilla Warfare, trans. by Samuel B. Griffith. New York, NY: Praeger Publishers (1961).

Mao, Tse-Tung. On The Protracted War (May-June 1938).

Naji, Abu Bakr. The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Phase Through Which the Ummah Will Pass, trans. by William McCants. John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University (May 2006).

Payne, Kenneth. “Building the Base: Al Qaeda's Focoist Strategy.” Conflict & Terrorism 34, no. 2 (2011).

Stout, Mark. “The Makers of Jihadist Strategy.” War on the Rocks book review of Michael W. S. Ryan’s Decoding Al Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (February 4, 2014).

End Notes

[i] Kenneth Payne, “Building the Base: Al Qaeda's Focoist Strategy,” Conflict & Terrorism 34, no. 2 (2011), 125.

[ii] Mao Tse-Tung, On The Protracted War (taken from a series of lectures given by Mao Tse-tung in May-June 1938), paragraphs 36-37. works/volume-2/mswv2_09.htm

[iii] Mao Tse-tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, trans. by Samuel B. Griffith (New York, NY: Praeger Publishers, 1961), 43.

[iv] Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, 7.

[v] Ernesto “Che” Guevara, “Guerrilla Warfare: A Method,” Cuba Socialista (September 1963), 9-10.

[vi] Payne, “Building the Base: Al Qaeda's Focoist Strategy,” 125.

[vii] Guevara, “Guerrilla Warfare: A Method,” 8.

[viii] Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Phase Through Which the Ummah Will Pass, trans. by William McCants (John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University, May 2006), 73

[ix] Naji, The Management of Savagery, 74-75.

[x] Payne, 124.

[xi] Ibid, 130.

[xii] Guevara, 7-8.

[xiii] Payne, 129.

[xiv] Naji, The Management of Savagery, 30.

[xv] Guevara, 9.

[xvi] Payne, 127-128.

[xvii] Ibid, 128.

[xviii] Mark Stout, “The Makers of Jihadist Strategy,” War on the Rocks book review of Michael W. S. Ryan’s Decoding Al Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America, February 4, 2014 (accessed March 20, 2016).

[xix] Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, 40.

[xx] Payne, 132.

[xxi] Naji, 50-51.

[xxii] Ibid, 105-106.


About the Author(s)

Jeff Wong is the president of StratEdge Consulting LLC, a defense consulting firm.  As a US Marine infantry officer, he deployed twice to Iraq (2003 and 2008) and Afghanistan (2003-04), and continues to serve in the reserves. He has a master’s degree in security policy studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.  In his previous career, he was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press.


Re: My argument below -- that it is the U.S./the West today that has taken on the role of the "insurgent;" this, given that it is the U.S./the West today that is the one seeking to undermine, upset, eliminate and replace the "status quo," (to: wit: states and societies organized, ordered and oriented along political, economic and social lines other than those of the West). Re: this such argument, consider the following from the current issue of Foreign Affairs; specifically, the article entitled "The Case for Offshore Balancing," by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt:


... The setbacks are the natural consequence of the misguided grand strategy of liberal hegemony that Democrats and Republicans have pursued for years. This approach holds that the United States must use its power not only to solve global problems but also to promote a world order based on international institutions, representative governments, open markets, and respect for human rights. As “the indispensable nation,” the logic goes, the United States has the right, responsibility, and wisdom to manage local politics almost everywhere. At its core, liberal hegemony is a revisionist grand strategy: instead of calling on the United States to merely uphold the balance of power in key regions, it commits American might to promoting democracy everywhere and defending human rights whenever they are threatened.

There is a better way. By pursuing a strategy of “offshore balancing,” Washington would forgo ambitious efforts to remake other societies and concentrate on what really matters: pre­serving U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere and countering potential hegemons in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf ...


Thus, as outlined above, essentially what the U.S./the West has done, post-the Old Cold War of yesterday, is to step in to the footsteps of the Soviets/the communists. In our case today, however, the U.S./the West seeking, via our very own "world revolution," to cause all outlying states and societies of the world to be organized, ordered and oriented along OUR political, economic and social lines. (This, rather than along communist political, economic and social lines, as the Soviets/the communists sought to achieve, via their "world revolution" efforts, in the Old Cold War of yesterday.)

Attempting to come full circle now:

Given that it is the U.S./the West, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, much as it was the Soviets/the communists, in the Old Cold War of yesterday, that appear to be the "insurgents;" to wit: those seeking to upset the "status quo" and, via "world revolution," achieve a "new world order." (As per our such version of this "new world order," see Mearsheimer/Walt's first quoted paragraph above),

Given this such, common it would seem, "insurgent"/"undermine, destroy and replace the 'status quo' mission" (the true understanding of the "ties that bind" -- the U.S./the West to Mao, Che, etc., today?), should we not be looking to such luminaries as Mao, Che, etc..; this, so as to show us how we might better proceed to achieve our "revolutionary" goals of today?

This, rather than looking at these such individuals (Mao, Che, etc.), in some other light?

Bill C.

Fri, 06/17/2016 - 8:01pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

In the 19th and early 20th Century, "colonization" was well-ensconced and, indeed, represented THE "status quo;" one that had been achieved and established often centuries before.

When rebellion against colonization began in the more-recent era; these "rebels" (those local populations seeking political, economic and/or social "change" from the foreign domination represented by "colonization"); these such local folks would indeed seem to be the "insurgents."

And, accordingly, those foreign entities seeking to retain their colonies (the "status quo"); these such folks would, indeed -- in this specific scenario -- seem to be the "counterinsurgents."

Our conflicts today, however, appear to more-closely resemble those that occur during period in history when Western imperialism begins -- not when it ends.

To wit: a time when much more-modern, and much more-powerful states and societies (primarily those of the West) sought to overcome the "cultural backwardness" of other states and societies; this, so as to better accommodate "normal economic intercourse" and "free trade" ambitions of these more-modern/more-powerful nations of the West (Schumpeter).

In these such instances (yesterday and today), is it not the much more-modern and much more-powerful imperialist nations of the West that should be seen as the "insurgents?"

This, given that THEY are the ones that are attempting (via "colonization" then; via "transformation" more along modern western political, economic and social lines today) to undermine, overthrow and replace the "status quo?"

Herein, both yesterday and today, various state and non-state actors -- thus targeted and attacked -- resisting the warm embrace of the West. And, thus, taking on the role of the "counterinsurgent"/the guy seeking to retain the "status quo?"

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 06/17/2016 - 7:42am

Mao, Che, and Ho all viewed insurgency through the lens of the insurgent. As did our founding fathers. It is a clearer, purer view than that seen by the counterinsurgent. Current US/Western perspective is that of the counterinsurgent.

Revolutionary insurgency, illegal political conflict within a single system of governance, is a different genus of political conflict from that described by Clausewitz as "war." Over-application of war-theory to revolution is a common, and devastating mistake made by counterinsurgents. So is thinking that one is a counterinsurgent when one is in a foreign land helping another resolve an insurgency of their own.

Revolutionary Insurgency is the rawest form of democracy. It is also the most tragic, disruptive and inefficient form. It is the final argument of the people, and typically occurs when and where powerful grievance exists, and legal forms of democratic change are denied. Dictators are better at suppressing insurgency, but inclusive and effective democratic processes are best at preventing and resolving revolution.

Bill C.

Fri, 06/10/2016 - 1:19pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Given my thesis below, which suggests that it is the governments of such great nations as the U.S./the West today, much as it was the governments of the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday, that one should look to for who is fostering, promoting, projecting and/or generating "revolution" -- on a regional and/or even world-wide scale -- consider the following excerpt from a 1973 paper, by author D.M. Condit, entitled: Modern Revolutionary Warfare: An Analytical Overview:



Interestingly enough, governments have also exploited revolutionary techniques, in a number of situations, including both offensive and defensive postures during general war, localized warfare, and even peacetime. These uses, as well as some possible defensive and offensive uses of revolutionary warfare in conjunction with nuclear, are posited in chapter III. It is certainly feasible for governments, including this one, to consider support of revolutionary warfare as a useful tactic.

At the same time, the United States remains under a number of constraints in the possible support of revolutionary warfare in foreign areas, both in relation to the ideologically-opposed communist powers and the less-committed Third World.

First, the United States generally lacks the useful, committed local proxies that have abetted and shielded communist efforts.

Second, the United States lacks the cohesive motivational force of a communist philosophy, with its built-in incentives to revolution. While identification of the United States with an abundant economy may be attractive, many nations are not ready for industrial modernization. Attempts at modernization create stress and pain, and capitalism as a philosophy is identified with an alien and unattractive colonial and imperialist past. Despite its failure to "deliver," communism continues to attract revolutionary fronts. Despite its successes, capitalism does not "sell."

Third, partly for the first two reasons, the United States lacks a revolutionary clientele, particularly one that would accept direction in return for support.

Fourth, the success of insurgency, despite popular myth, is highly uncertain.

Fifth and further, revolutionary success has often required time-for example, 26 years in China, 27 years thus far (and still no unification) in Vietnam-and even time does not necessarily spell success, as the Greek communists and Angolan nationalists have discovered. Could this country afford to wait so long for a policy of aid to revolution to bear fruit?

Sixth, the passage of time increases the cost of supporting insurgency in terms of price escalation, possible embarrassment, concessions made elsewhere, and opportunities lost in the interim.

Seventh, one of the prices must be the loss of internal stability, as even the U.S.S.R. has discovered. Can it be that encouragement, of external revolution also encourages internal instability?

Eighth, a further price is likely to be a high cost in external relations, as other regimes and governments ponder the security of their relations with the United States. To support a policy of aiding revolution abroad would mean undoing the work of over 25 years in attempting to develop a stable international system-just as the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China appear more ready to accept the constraints of the state system.

Feasibility, value, and cost all appear to argue against any new and radical policy of support for external revolution.


Of course, with the winning of the Old Cold War, and the rise of such ideas as "universal (Western) values," "the end of history" (the Western version) and "the overwhelming appeal of our way of life," etc.:

a. These such understandings and cautions, as outlined by Mr. Condit above, were shit-canned/thrown to the wind. And

b. The U.S./the West, instead, embarked upon a "world revolution" project of its very own.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 06/10/2016 - 12:05pm

In reply to by Bill M.

The driving power behind revolution is always the grievance against government as it currently exists, not the promise of governance as it might become.

Governments/Politicians always fixate on the wrong end of the equation. This is why governments tend to suppress insurgents rather than resolve insurgency. This is why governments fixate on ideology as being causal rather than mere accelerant. This is why governments wonder why Libya isn't a stable democracy "already." This is why large segments of the Iraqi and Afghan population continue to revolt against the "legitimate" governments we crafted for them.

Mao, Ho and bin Laden did not invent insurgency, but they all understood it far better than the post-colonial, governmental perspective that corrupts Western doctrine on the topic.


Fri, 06/10/2016 - 5:32am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M,

In my personal experience the difference between how we read historical accounts of military conflict and how our interpretation of these accounts differ from those ‘who were there’ -but have no desire to propagate the experience - lies at the very core of why so much has gone wrong in our wars since the end of WW2.

When we cite Sun Tzu, CvC, Jomini, Yosemite Sam etc. - regards their first and foremost lessons, know thy self as thine enemy, COG, long-eared vermin blah, blah, blah, we all nod our solemn agreement but dwell very little on the inescapable fact that the advice we proscribe to these sages is based on data that is in fact 2nd, 3rd, 4th hand opinion/gossip/antidote/hearsay. This essayist’s supposed intimacy with the doctrine espoused by Mao, Guevara, and Bin Laden is obviously a construct based on personal bias at best or hearsay at worst. It is all a matter of opinion, and as we all know, we’ve all got one of those.

A case in point is those who were on the Long March with Mao. Despite Mao’s 'golden' praise for those comrades who survived the epic retreat, you could not have encountered an individual more of a contrarian to Mao’s legacy than the political/philosophical mind-set embodied in the Long March veteran Deng Xiaoping.

Looking back thru a lens granted by the privilege of hindsight you could not have imagined a more counter-revolutionary opposing Mao’s political philosophy than that that instigated by Deng. Deng proved to be Mao’s nemesis. If you reflect upon the 40 million who died as a consequence of Mao’s Great Leap Forwards, the Cultural l Revolution and the Little Red Book and the 500 million people Deng’s reforms have lifted out of poverty, the so-called greatness of Mao seems idiotic. You have to wonder at what point during their 9000 km long flight from the Kuomintang did Deng come to realize the Great Chairman had lost the plot.

Winston Churchill is another famous figure who was evidently a complete moron when it came to military strategy. Bizarrely Churchill’s dashing and bold Gallipoli campaign of 1915 - which ranks as one of the most poorly conceived campaigns in military history - did not/does not cause pause for those who claim the greatness of Churchill. Churchill's insistence, 25 years later, to open a second front in Norway, another even more disastrous front in Greece and ' Fortress’ Singapore in 1940-41 came as no surprise to those who had witnessed his vain-glorious deluded state of mind when it came to military strategy.

Churchill provides an insight into the problem himself ‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it myself!’ No one who had served in either world war were surprised when the ‘Great Man’ lost the British General Election in 1945.

As I have banged on ad nausea the Green Team who were with Ho and Giap in 1945 testified to the reality that the impoverished assumptions by our leadership that condemned us to the Vietnam War, defied the simplest of basic ground-truths that are as irrefutable today as they were in 1945.

Way back then, men who had gone thru the cauldron of WW2 (wherein 200 US KIA every day was the norm) testified to the notion that an alliance with Vietnamese nationalism; as a buffet opposing Chinese expansionism, was a strategic sentiment in sync with ground-truth and their understandings were at complete odds to the fit of fancy epitomized by the Domino Theory. Look at the strategic picture today and you would consider the notion of Vietnamese nationalism countering Chinese expansionism as a no-brainer - much as it was apparent in 1945.

Go down to the Wall in DC and ponder that the depressing implications of that ground-truth and reflect upon the absurdity of our Domino Theory and the implications of our current inability to analyse the strategic dynamic.

When confronted by our decision to support French colonialism, coupled with the absurd notion the Vietnamese nationalists would submit to Chinese domination, the Viet Minh and the Chinese had no choice but believe our position was a clumsy lie and we were in fact attempting to re-establish Franco colonialism and intended to invade China.

15 years after the end of the Vietnam War; whilst rattling along the night train to Kunming, I had a discussion with a group of men who had constructed the Chengdu-Kunming railway on this very subject. The railway with its 800 tunnels cost the lives of 2100 PLA navvies and was built by the PLA to prevent the invasion of China by the US up thru the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam.

When I countered it was they who were hoping to exploit the Vietnamese and expand Chinese Realpolitik down thru SE Asia – they all burst out laughing. It took another whole bottle of whisky to convince them I was serious. The upshot of our drunken agreement was best described by the quote attributed to Ho himself.

"I for one would rather sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”

As far as these old men were concerned nobody ever described the Chinese-Vietnamese relationship better.

A more vivid and succinct example of the historical perception parting ways with ground-truth is the nuclear strikes on Japan in August 1945. Everyone at the time (including a Japanese Major who surrendered to my father in September 1945) realized the two attacks saved the lives of millions of Japanese who would have otherwise perished if the Japanese mainland had been invaded.

Perhaps 50 million people who are alive today, owe their existence to 3 generations who were born to those folks who survived the cancellation of the ground invasion. In other words all of that humanity exists thanks to a few square miles at the center of Nagasaki and Hiroshima being wiped off the map.

Move on to Afghanistan and the whole notion that the conflict is based upon a philosophy pertaining to an inspiration determined by a super-natural being suggests to me we have not progressed beyond the folly of those who propagated the validity of the Domino Theory, the Gulf of Tonkin torpedo attacks , Iraq WMDs etc. etc. In fact if one chooses to embrace that laundry list of folly the reality of Santa Claus would not look out of place on the ‘Big Board’ at the Pentagon.

In Afghanistan we have attempted to shape a strategy that adhered to the notion that Pakistan was in some way an ally in our effort to bring political stability and economic prosperity to Afghanistan. IMO this absurdity ranks with the notion that the Vietnamese would have welcomed a Chinese occupation after the Viet Minh defeated the French.

I mean to ask what possible reason would the Punjabi elite wish to bring about political stability for the ethnic Persian ‘other’ who occupy the Hindu Kush and its approaches beyond the Indus River. They have fought countless wars and despised the “pig-skin colored” Pathans for 6000 years. Extrapolate the weight of that prejudice onto the Vietnamese attitude shaped by a mere 2000 years of anti-Chinese hatred and go figure the amount of co-operation you should expect from the Pakistanis.

In the wake of 9/11 one could be forgiven for hoping such a heavy blow would have opened such a painful wound in the national psyche that an unadulterated examination of OBL and ALQ would have been absolutely sacred. An examination in the much the way Belleau Wood, Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Buna-Gona, Pelalu, Ch'ongch'on River, Chosin Reservoir, Ia Drang, Hill 937 all provoked a response to cut thru the hubris that had conspired to bring on the disaster. IMHO we have failed so utterly to respect ground-truth in our response to 9/11 that we are now facing nuclear proliferation within rogue states - some of who deny our right to even exist.

The sense our leadership is in denial regards ALQ is overwhelming. Straight off the bat is the notion that ALQ was born out of the war against the Soviets in AF is one that really breaks my balls. Hundreds of US Gov personnel know for a fact that the Wahhabi influence in AF was a post-Soviet entity. OBL's ambition was to replace the HoS with his own political construct and the absurdity of his religious leanings was a consequence of a painfully obvious Savior Complex that was comical to behold. The notion that the 9/11 attacks were acts of religious devotion and not an attempt to unseat the HoS flies in the face of a mountain of evidence.

The Wahhabi support for the Taliban and their PAK UW campaign is considered by many in positions of leadership to be a religiously motivated desire to bring religious enlightenment to the Afghans and not as a down-payment for Saudi access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. I mean to ask have these folks ever left the Beltway.

Saddam's support for ALQ, Saddam's WMD etc. etc. - the list of logical fallacies and impoverished assumptions in the face of so many voices begging to differ is staggering.

Rather than strategic set-back being the catalyst for positive change (as our forbears managed to instigate) our generation's reaction is to pile misunderstanding upon misunderstanding, failure upon failure, misery upon misery. IMHO we are fast approaching the point wherein speaking truth to power will not redeem the situation. Our circumstance has become so dire that those in power are unable to recognize the truth even when they choose to hear it.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to a nuclear exchange is paved with our current deceit.


Enjoyed this short thought piece, but I also see it as another piece that perpetuates the myth of Mao. We should give Mao his due, but his due needs to be viewed from a wider perspective. He exiled at propaganda, and as most understand now,information in its own way can be decisive in war. Mao effectively leveraged a naïve U.S. journalist, Egar Snow, as a tool to largely create the myth of Mao within the U.S., a myth that even GEN Marshal bought into. To some degree this myth in the U.S. contributed to Mao's ultimate victory (and arguably at great cost to the Chinese people who paid dearly under Mao's leadership), because the U.S. sought a political solution at the end of WWII, and pulled the rug out from Chiang's feet (not without reason, but when you're dealing with two evils, you pick the lesser of the two).

The Chinese communists in the early phases of WWII would have been defeated handily if Chiang Kai-shek was not detained by a warlord and his own generals in order to convince him to ignore the communists until the Japanese invaders were defeated. This was a black swan event that created an opportunity for Mao (who had only recently assumed leadership of the movement) by giving him and the communist movement breathing space that they used wisely.

The myth of Mao defeating the Japanese needs to be challenged, while Chiang was corrupt and inept in many regards it was still his forces that did the heaviest fighting against the Japanese. Mao's forces did little during the early phases of war so it could build up its fighting strength, and then engage the Japanese toward the end when the outcome was more certain. Of course Chiang's forces were increasingly depleted by this time (and never united, they were largely a coalition of the willing warlords).

Mao received a lot of propaganda credit for fighting the Japanese at towards the end of the war, an effort that was supported by the USSR. Yet, it was never Stalin's intent for Mao to win. At the end of the day Stalin was more of a realist than an idealist, he wanted China to remain divided and weak. The USSR was dealing with a significant threat on their western border, so they wanted a weakened China on their Eastern border. At the of the war Chiang's forces were exhausted, and due largely to Snow creating the myth of Mao a legitimate leader in China, the U.S. decreased its support for Chiang's forces.

As for Mao allegedly coming up with the attack when you're strong, and retreat when you're weak, that is nonsense. Sun Tzu wrote the same centuries before, and George Washington, and many others used the same tactic long before it was popularized by modern media as Mao's unique contribution to strategy. Mao certainly used this approach effectively, but it can't be attributed to him. His conventional forces certainly didn't due that when they opposed us during the Korean War.

Giving Mao his due as a strategist, he knew how to leverage violence to achieve political ends. A strategic concept that the U.S. has lost sight of. We also shouldn't forget that despite Mao's writings about the importance of winning over the population, he didn't hesitate to use terror to do so in many cases.

When studying these leaders, Mao, Che, and your assorted Jihadists, you can't study their strategies in isolation, you have to study them within the larger strategic context of their location and time. Strategies are always competitive, so who were they competing with? What were the environmental factors? What were the black swans that unexpectedly created a new situation that they either exploited as an opportunity or failed to adapt to and lost? I think we focus too much on reading their strategic approaches, without seriously looking at the context in which it was applied.

Still a great article, just some additional thoughts.

The appropriate question today would seem to be: Given that we have now, post-the Old Cold War, embarked on a "world revolution" attempt ourselves, what can Che, Mao, etc., teach us; that will help us get our "world revolution" project done?


Today, we continue to ignore the elephant in the room. To wit: the fact that what we are witnessing today is:

a. The effort by the U.S./the West, to achieve "world revolution;" this, via the transformation of outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines. Herein, the U.S./the West believing that it can (could) achieve this objective -- largely minus the use of violence -- by appealing to such things as "universal (Western) values" and "universal (Western) aspirations. And

b. The effort by the U.S./the West's various state and non-state actor opponents (example: Russia; the Islamists) acting to prevent the U.S./the West from achieving its such "transformational" objectives. Herein, appealing -- quite logically -- to such things as local values, local traditions, local aspirations, local beliefs, etc.

Thus while:

a. The U.S./the West, re: its "world revolution" effort outlined above, hopes to appeal to those individuals and groups less-entranced by and less-ensconced within their local system and surroundings.

(President Obama, in his introductory letter to his 2015 National Security Strategy:

"Underpinning it all, we are upholding our enduring commitment to the advancement of democracy and human rights and building new coalitions to combat corruption and to support open governments and open societies. In doing so, we are working to support democratic transitions, while also reaching out to the drivers of change in this century: young people and entrepreneurs.")

b. Our state and non-state actor opponents (Russia, ISIS, etc.) hope to stop us in our tracks -- and indeed roll us back -- by appealing to those who hold local ideas, beliefs, aspirations, etc., closer to their chests.

The fact that the U.S./the West has (a) now had to resort to the use of violence to support its world revolution objectives and (b) has learned that, even via the use of violence, we cannot achieve the "win;" this, I suggest, tells us two important things:

1. That the appeal of our soft power (universal [Western] values, universal [Western] aspirations, etc.); this was, and indeed still is, greatly over-rated. (In fact, these such alien and profane concepts [as seen through the eyes of the local populations]; these appear to be as likely, or indeed more likely, to repel, rather than attract, the populations as a whole.) And

2. That our hard power forces, approaches, assets, etc. -- now being tasked to pick up the "soft power" slack -- these have not, as yet, been organized, ordered and oriented as per (a) the "world revolution" objective/job/project which has thus been set before them and as per (b) the challenges and challengers that they will, therein, face.

Thus, the Bottom Line Question: Given the commonality of a "world revolution" project (their's then; our's now), what (if anything) can we learn from Mao, Che, etc. -- this, re: the use of soft and/or hard power -- that will help us get our "world revolution" project done (on time and on budget)?

This is an excellent essay. I hope the author would consider at some point including the three tactical components of how Mao fought a guerrilla war and how it was applied in Vietnam, "enemy attacks we retreat", etc.,.
I am left with the question considering how brutal guerrilla's treat their enemies the dynamics of dehumanization. I am sensitive to this point because going into Memorial Day my humanity has been questioned simply because I am a veteran of the US Army. A Soldier for Life. So when the Taliban leadership claims it can hide in the people who is a person in their eyes? From what I know they have a select process for defining what a human being is. Whereas counter revolutionaries are considered anti-people in the communist cultures. Who does the Taliban believe is less than human?
I would argue that we need to examine more fully the claim “stateless nations” have the ability to defeat nation-states" and what it means.
A protest on a California campus advocating Fatah turned ugly, protesters chased a young Jewish woman who was forced to hide and call 9-11. To what degree her life was in danger I can not say but that was here in the USA this weekend, who are "the people" and who doesn't get to be part of the herd?