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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


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 retreats.

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 Vietnam.

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