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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > April, 2004 - Aikido and Asymmetrical Warfare
by Ross Robertson

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 institutionalized.

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 means.

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 force.

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 extinction.

Either way, in the end, whatever proves to be the most adaptive, survives.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA

Original text © April 2004 R.A. Robertson

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