What does Chess have to do with Western Military Tactic?

I remember watching a documentary on the Vietnam War.

Western Military Tactic

It really blew my mind because when I was growing up in the United States, Americans really had a tough time getting over the Vietnam War. They really did.

Can you imagine going into a place armed with billions upon billions of dollars, equipped with the latest cutting edge military technology, and still end up losing? It’s almost too much to take. It really blows the mind. I mean, how can this happen?

Well, of course, as any budding student of history would tell you, there are the usual suspects. People would point to the fact that the Vietnam War became unpopular in the United States and just lacked political backing. A lot of people would also point to the drastic change in the foreign policy direction of the Democratic party. Others would highlight, with quite a bit of support, the overreach of people like President Lyndon B. Johnson and President Nixon.

But I think it goes beyond that. I think it really goes to military tactics. Even if all those things were in play in a way that favored the Americans, they could have still lost. Why? Well, the US military was playing chess while the Vietnamese communists, including both the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong, were playing Go.

Do you know what Go is? It’s a Chinese game of containment. In chess, your job is to knock out the pieces of your enemy. So it’s all about brute military force. If you are able to direct resources in such a way that you kill the piece, that’s how you win.

Eventually, you get to the king where he cannot move and it ends in a checkmate because you have him covered. You have him surrounded. How? You knocked out all his support pieces and he’s left undefended. Not so with Go.

With Go, the point is to contain your enemy by moving the pieces in such a way that the enemy cannot move any further, and you end up covering a lot more of the board than he does. Totally different philosophy, right?

And this explains why the North Vietnamese, under the leadership of Vo Nguyen Giap, really blew away the Americans. Because you have to remember, the Yankees were dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs on Vietnam and they were still beaten.

So it was not an issue of knocking out the pieces. It was not an issue of raw military might and combat engagement. Because if you were to look at every single battle in Vietnam, the American military won every single one.

I know that sounds like a shock, given the realities of the Tet Offensive, but when you look at Tet itself, every single engagement between the Americans and any kind of Vietnamese unit, whether they are Vietcong guerillas or North Vietnamese regulars, ended up with an American victory. But the Americans still lost because knocking out the pieces was not the point. The point was to move fluidly through the countryside to always contain as much space as possible. Amazing.

So do yourself a big favor. If you are in any way, shape or form engaged in military tactics, it’s a good idea to look at your analogies. Chess will fit certain types of battle scenarios. It would make for a great analogy in those situations. But sometimes, it’s much better to go with Chinese Go.