Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Power of Weakness

In combat, sometimes it is better to be David than Goliath.

In the wide, wonderful world of war, things are changing. In one conflict after another, the physically weaker party is winning. As of this writing, Ukraine is kicking the backside of much stronger Russia. In Afghanistan, the U.S. and its NATO allies withdrew, defeated by an enemy that had no air force, no artillery, no tanks, and nothing to offer their fighters except eternal salvation. The Houthis, a tribe, have a Saudi-led alliance, equipped with all the latest gear, on the ropes and looking for a way out. What gives? 

The answer is: the power of weakness. The power of weakness is a concept developed by the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld (truth in advertising: we are personal friends). He explains it by analogy. Imagine that, in a public place with lots of people around, an adult is walking with a child. The child is behaving very badly. Think of your least-favorite nephew who’s just chugged an energy drink. The adult can probably get away with giving him one good whack. But if he tries to administer a prolonged beating, bystanders become concerned, then horrified. They intervene to stop the violence. Someone calls the police, and the adult is arrested. He has committed a crime. The brat chugs three more Red Bulls and tries playing parkour in Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. 

We see just this in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Russian plan was to take Kiev and other cities in a Blitzkrieg-type campaign that would be over quickly with little real fighting—the adult giving the kid one slap. When that failed, Russia fell back on its old standby, massive firepower, dumped indiscriminately on Ukrainian cities. That was van Creveld’s prolonged beating, and it rallied most of the world to Ukraine’s defense. 

To understand the power of weakness more fully than we can by analogy, we need to delve into some military theory. America’s greatest military theorist, Col. John Boyd USAF, argued that war is fought on three levels: the physical, the mental, and the moral. Contrary to what one might think, the physical level is the weakest, the moral level the strongest. The power of weakness manifests itself at the moral level. So it is easy for a physically powerful country such as the U.S. or Russia to defeat itself by the very disproportion between what it does on the battlefield compared to what a weak opponent can do. In the 2,500 or so years that the story of David and Goliath has been told, how many people have rooted for Goliath? 

There is a simple tool by which state armed forces, including police, can try to avoid falling victim to the power of weakness and defeat on the moral level. I came up with it while spending a week with the Royal Marines in Plymouth, England. I call it The Grid:

The Grid combines Boyd’s three levels of war with the three levels recognized by most militaries since the late 19th century. Tactics is the art of winning engagements and battles, strategy is the art of winning wars, and the operational level is a link between the other two, used to determine where and when to fight battles (or avoid them) and how to use victories (and sometimes tactical defeats) to achieve the strategic goal. In turn, the physical level of war is killing people and blowing things up, the mental level is presenting the enemy with new threats faster than he can deal with old ones, and the moral level is being seen as the good guys, not the bad guys. 

Using The Grid requires understanding that a higher level trumps a lower. That means the lowest box on the right, Strategic/Moral, is the most powerful and the uppermost left box, Tactical/Physical, is the weakest. In Vietnam and Afghanistan, the U.S. was focused on the weakest box, while our enemies focused on the strongest. So we won all the battles but lost the wars. 

While The Grid was developed for practitioners (one Massachusetts police department told me they now use it for almost all operations), it is equally useful to people who are just trying to understand why wars end up going in directions that do not reflect what we usually think of as military strength.

The North Vietnamese/Viet Cong Tet offensive in 1968 offers a good example. It was a Tactical/Physical disaster for the NVA/VC, but it dealt us a heavy blow at the Operational/Mental level to find our enemy could pull off such a thing, and it defeated us decisively at the Strategic/Moral level by collapsing the support for the war on the American homefront. The Russian invasion of Ukraine ignored the Strategic/Moral level, failed at the Operational/Mental Level and has left the Russians focused on the Tactical/Physical level while Ukraine holds the all-important moral high ground. It will be interesting to see what carbonized chestnuts Stavka can pull out of the fire it started.

Meanwhile, you might want to clip The Grid so it’s handy if your city’s militarized police department ignores it the next time you’ve got trouble or the neocons push America into another disastrous war. I’d love to be able to retire it from service, but I just don’t think we’re there yet. 

William S. Lind is the author, with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, of the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Lind’s most recent book is Retroculture: Taking America Back.