Aikido and Asymmetrical Warfare by Ross Robertson
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Agents of death, like those of life, evolve. Expressions of violence
and the industry of destruction follow the same principles of
evolution that govern ordinary biology. Generally (and this is a vast
oversimplification), things that work, persist, things that don't,
disappear or change. A few decades ago, the popular aggression posture
among certain primates was to threaten the entire planet with
radioactive death. While that has by no means disappeared, it does
seem somewhat to have fallen out of vogue. In what is surely the
height of irony, such posturing was done for the sake of keeping the
peace. This strategy was termed MAD, or Mutually Assured
Destruction. The idea being, of course, that a nuclear arsenal could
never be deployed, because doing so meant the destruction of not just
the enemy, but also of the initiator, and quite probably all other
fauna and flora as well. In other words, firing off a nuke at someone
who annoys or scares you came to be seen as an act of suicide.
Now, suicide in warfare is nothing new. History is festooned with
berserkers and kamikaze combatants, and other varieties of suicide
missions that have been more or less tactically useful. But never
before have several dominant tribes agreed to threaten total and
comprehensive self destruction as a means of taking out the
adversary. Mass suicide, or at least the threat of it, crossed the
line between tactics and strategy, and thereby became
It is interesting to note that nuclear weapons were first used against
one particular tribe that was espousing kamikaze warfare. But against
such an overwhelming force, the kamikaze went extinct. For a while.
Arguably, MAD worked in its own weird way. An uneasy peace was
maintained, although the One World War continues to be waged in fits
and starts, often covertly and unofficially. But no more nukes have
been used between tribes. MAD worked to the extent that it did,
because the two primary adversaries held each other in check. The
balance of the situation was upheld by the very symmetry of the
threat. Then, one of the main tribal collectives unexpectedly died of
a heart attack. Symmetry was broken.
Strangely though, on a different scale, the habit of suicide persists.
Smaller or less endowed primate bands had no access to the instruments
of MAD. In some cases, they were actively and deliberately kept away
from the elite club (I suppose there's a terrible pun there...). For
the most part, they could only sit and watch and see which way the
superpowers would move. These other primate bands were not without
resources or ingenuity, however. Some of them knew that an opportunity
would eventually present itself. Lessons were evaluated, carefully
learned, and adapted. What works, stays. And in this regard, the
message seems clear: suicide works. But adaptation is also at work,
for the smaller primate bands have found their advantage.
In this context, asymmetry refers to the ability of a small, loosely
organized, technologically inferior group to successfully engage a
force that is vastly superior in numbers, coherence, and firepower.
In this model, attributes that are normally considered weaknesses are
turned into advantages. Independent, semi-autonomous cells imply that
there is no singular body to attack, no head to decapitate. The cells
are led by ideology primarily, although they may work in concert and
take directives from a central leader figure. This provides the
advantage of coordinated action among groups, but the resiliency to
carry on should the leader be removed.
The relatively small size of not just the cells, but of the entire
movement, may have advantages of invisibility, mobility, and
sustainability. Large scale forces can be tracked by satellite and
other means. Smaller groups can often circulate undetected. Smaller
groups are easier to train or indoctrinate, and easier to supply.
Doubtless, many cells or individuals equip themselves.
Lack of access to cutting edge military hardware and vast arsenals
requires that a group foster a genius for innovation and a keen
awareness of opportunities to act on an objective.
These aspects of asymmetrical battle have a number of common
manifestations. Attacking targets of opportunity means going after
soft targets. "Soft" generally suggests civilians or any other poorly
defended group or facility. Sometimes the attack is a symbolic one,
staged in such a way to have maximum impact on the public psyche, such
as destroying an icon important to the targeted culture. Other attacks
are simply meant to create terror and disruption of civil order. These
attacks maximize cruelty, instill fear, dread, hopelessness, and
paralysis in the face of the unpredictability of the situation.
While I'm certainly no military expert or authority on terrorism, I'm
fascinated with much of its methodology. The reason for this, is that
it reminds me very much of aikido. Modern aikido may well be a
parallel adaptation to the environmental pressure of
MAD. Interestingly, this mutation arose from the culture that
engendered the kamikaze pilot, and suffered singular defeat by nuclear
Aikido is also asymmetrical in many of its expressions. Aikido seeks
to use advantages that traditionally may be thought of as weaknesses.
Size does not really matter in aikido, as all sizes and body types
have qualities that can be used advantageously. Timing is more
important than speed -- I frequently advise my students to go slower
than the attacker, but to get there first. Strength is redefined as
wise and efficient use of power, rather than the cultivation of brute
In aikido, we also examine seriously (however cautiously) means of
dealing with a better-armed adversary. Unarmed defenses against armed
attackers require a great deal of training to even begin to achieve
realistic expectations of survival, but nevertheless these defenses
have their rightful place in our curriculum.
We are also taught tactics for managing situations where we are
seriously outnumbered. Opponents may be used as shields or turned
against one another, or simply directed in ways that make coordinated
attack very difficult.
From this short list of examples, we see that a defining
characteristic of aikido, like terrorism, is asymmetrical engagement.
Comparing aikido to terrorism may seem shocking at first, but
accepting that there are similarities has a number of
advantages. First, understanding aikido may give us insights into the
techniques employed by terrorists. In any encounter, it is necessary
to know the mind of the enemy. Terrorists face overwhelming odds, and
therefore are very likely to employ tactics that have a great deal in
common with aikido, jujutsu, or other martial forms. Students of these
budo are therefore in a unique position to recognize terrorist
activities as something familiar, but applied on a different scale, in
a different arena, and for horribly different objectives.
Next, we understand that we must learn from an enemy. With each
encounter, we may gain insight into how the opponent thinks, moves,
and plans. We must then seek to stop reacting, and find ways to lead
the engagement as it progresses.
At more sophisticated levels, it is imperative that we learn what the
motivating forces are. Why are we targets? Does the enemy have any
legitimate needs or grievances? We cannot move whole countries or
cities physically off the line of attack, but we can change our
national or cultural posture if necessary. While there is good reason
to refuse to negotiate with terrorists, we must not overlook
opportunities to render humanitarian aid to civilian populations who
badly need it. Institutional terrorism must have sponsorship of some
sort to exist, and it needs some degree of popular support to thrive.
Finding authentic ways of befriending the populace that incubates
terrorism could have a profound effect on the ability to lead their
ki. In aikido, we know that leading the mind makes it much easier to
lead the body.
Befriending a hostile population does not mean we condone or reward
their tendency toward violence. It simply means we must learn to see
the world through their eyes, if only to better understand our
relationship to them. We must learn to identify the root causes of
violence, which can be poverty, inequity, fear of real and perceived
threats, or opportunism, to name only a few.
Leaders of the world must recognize the threat of terrorism for what
it is. We are no longer fighting armies. We are fighting a virus. The
virus is one of perception and ideology. We must somehow boost our
collective immune system without generating allergic overreactions.
We must research each strain of the virus and understand how it
originates, how it is transmitted, and how it operates. I also urge
that we view the "enemy combatants" not as viruses themselves, but as
hosts who have been infected.
This viral metaphor epitomizes the very nature of asymmetry. The
challenge before us in dealing with terrorism is to throw asymmetry
upside down. We must learn to use the power of the small, the few,
and the unobtrusive. We must get inside our enemy and direct from
within. We must remember that the target always leads the attack, and
therefore can always be in control. Inoculation means a willingness to
let a foreign culture within, but in a measured way.
In the local dojo, we can re-evaluate some of our basic
assumptions. We know that causing harm to another is at times
unavoidable, but we see that it is likely to have repercussions. In
the case of the terrorism of martyrdom, we create more of whatever we
exterminate. We are learning that we can't fight back, and neither can
we do nothing. In the dojo, many of our techniques only work if the
assumption is that the attacker is motivated by self interest. The
culture that fosters the suicide attacker is not likely to yield to
pain compliance or be expected to take the fall that will preserve
their safety. The blending or "making a right fit" that characterizes
aikido means that we must be willing to change.
It is easy for each of the primate tribes to claim that God is on
their side, but far more difficult to prove. It may be a somewhat more
measurable goal to get on the side of evolution, or to somehow get the
forces of evolution on our side. But then, we still have to decide if
we are on the side that furthers life, or the kind that leads to
Either way, in the end, whatever proves to be the most adaptive,
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA
Original text © April 2004 R.A. Robertson
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