Review: Mao Tse-Tung, Selected Military Writings. Foreign Languages Press (1963).
This volume of Mao Tse-Tung's writings demonstrates
that he deserves to stand in the first rank of twentieth-century military
thinkers. Unlike the plethora of
nuclear strategists produced by the West during the Cold War, Mao describes a
method of warfare that has been shown to actually work. The writings range from 1928 to 1949,
covering the entire scope of Communist power in China, from scattered enclaves of
harried guerillas to the triumphant "countrywide advance" of the Red
Army in 1949. The remarkable fact is
the consistency of Mao's vision of warfare during this entire period.
All the credit for the successful Communist
revolutionary war in China obviously cannot be placed at Mao's feet. From the beginning, he was apparently the
eloquent spokesman for a faction that already advocated the basic elements of
war that Mao developed in his writings over the years. The famous slogan "The enemy advances,
we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy
retreats, we pursue" does not seem to have been invented by Mao, but it
summarizes one of the most central aspects of his concept of "protracted
war:" its cyclical, drawn-out character.
Before Japan's invasion, when the Communists were battling various
Chinese warlords, Mao was already strongly criticizing views of "constant
advance" or "don't give up an inch of territory" as unrealistic
and disastrous. Instead, he argued that
the war could only be won slowly, after a long series of enemy offensives and
Mao demonstrates a clear understanding of the
difference between strategy and tactics.
In the first phase of his vision of the course of the revolutionary war,
while the Communists are militarily weak, they will be on the strategic
defensive operating on interior lines, a classic formulation of the position of
an inferior military force. This is when
they must conduct a protracted war, avoiding positional warfare and decisive
battles with superior enemy forces, and trading territory for time. But Mao advocates the exact opposite for
tactics: the Communists must conduct campaigns of "quick decision
offensive warfare on exterior lines" (233) to use local numerical
superiority to annihilate isolated enemy forces.
The reason for the success of Mao's strategy was that
it was based on a very incisive analysis of the relative strengths and
weaknesses of the Communists and their enemies. He repeatedly stresses the importance of knowledge of the
situation, whether at the tactical or strategic level. "Know the enemy and know yourself"
is one of his favorite quotes from Sun Tzu. While his writings inevitably contain a certain level of party
rhetoric, he does not allow this to obscure the reality of the situation. Just the opposite, in fact: it is his
Marxist viewpoint that allows him to develop his vision of protracted war. Mao embraces Clausewitz's dictum of war as
an extension of politics (although he gets it through Lenin), but he gives it a
special character in the context of a revolutionary war. "Arousing the masses" is no
rhetorical cliché in Mao's strategy, but is one of its core elements. Probably only a strategy based on such an
ideology could have enforced the restrictions that this necessarily placed on
military operations. As has been
demonstrated many times since--e.g. in the failed efforts of American advisors
to reform Chiang Kai-Sheck's armies, and by American forces themselves in
Vietnam--if "winning hearts and minds" is not truly central to an
army's strategy, it will inevitably end up being ignored.
While Mao's strategy is specifically tailored to
China's situation, it is easy to see how it could be (and was) adapted to
defeat the United States in Vietnam.
The importance of a regular army working in conjunction with guerillas;
the need for base areas for the insurgents to retire to; international support
for the insurgents; avoiding the enemy's attempts to bring the war to a quick
decision; the erosion of the enemy's will to win by mounting casualties and
cost in a protracted war: all these were features of Mao's strategy to defeat
Japan, but they should be just as familiar to Americans from the Vietnam
War. The example of China's
decades-long revolutionary war, and Mao's willingness to accept high casualties
and temporary territorial losses as part of a long-term strategy of ultimate
victory, might have been instructive to those who crafted American strategy in