Rhizome Warfare

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(note: Jeff Vail uses 'hierarchal' instead of hierarchical)

Jeff Vail:

"All human organization demands some mode of violent expression, even if that mode consists of pacifism and capitulation in the face of another’s violence. War is generally a wasteful and nonproductive economic activity, even though it may certainly enrich some of the participants. In the case of hierarchy vs. rhizome, however, the economically inefficient activity of equipping rhizome to repel hierarchy is less inefficient than permitting their annexation and conversion to hierarchal means of economic activity. Likewise, while violence in se is a greater moral wrong than pacifism in se, it is cumulatively worse to permit the trespasses of hierarchy when they can otherwise be avoided.

Furthermore, rhizome war may represent an end to war. The history of warfare is a history of hierarchy. Rhizome polities, as they have existed in a lesser approximation of fully rhizome form, have never been able to repel the advance of hierarchy. As a result, warfare has been an activity entered into exclusively by hierarchy, against either rhizome or against another hierarchy. It has been a constant evolutionary struggle, with alternating innovations in tactics or politics, offense or defense leading to a perpetual war among human polities instigated by the innovator. Rhizome cannot “make war” in the classical sense, because it has no capacity for offensive warfare—the kind of military operations that I will outline here are structurally limited to defensive and reactionary operations (even if they may use offensive tactics to defensive ends). This is because rhizome is structurally incapable of exerting control beyond itself—the pattern of rhizome can spread, but it is fundamentally incapable of controlling another entity. For this reason, rhizome has no motivation to instigate war—it can only respond to aggression by hierarchy. Therefore, if one accepts that it is possible to develop the theory of rhizome military operations to the extent that it cannot be defeated by hierarchy, then rhizome war equals an end to war, as hierarchy will not instigate a war that it does not think it can win." (http://www.jeffvail.net/2005/09/defending-pala-rhizome-as-mode-of.html)


Jeff Vail:

"Let me then get right to the point: how a rhizome military could be organized. I’ll start by laying out a proposed set of principles for rhizome war: Independence, Interaction, Open Source, Time & Place. Contrast these to the classic principles of hierarchal war (as taught by US military academies) and notice how they define hierarchy in general: Objective, Offensive, Mass, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Security, Surprise, and Simplicity.

The four principles of rhizome warfare:


the downtrodden and oppressed of history have tended to fight hierarchy by organizing themselves into a semi-hierarchal structure, often abandoning their semi-rhizome roots in the process. The problem with this process is that IF they defeat their hierarchal opponent, the victorious downtrodden masses suddenly find that the traction of the hierarchal institutions introduced along the way to victory have too much inertia, and the new society eventually becomes just another oppressive hierarchy. For this reason, the first principle of rhizome warfare is independence. An extant rhizome structure must not abandon its rhizome nature. Rather, it must embrace rhizome. If rhizome forms a platoon, battalion or division in its own defense, it has already lost. A rhizome military functions just like a rhizome economy—as the emergent action of independent nodes, independent warriors. Napoleon’s use of the independent military corps revolutionized European warfare. Rhizome warfare extends this principle further, atomizing Napoleon’s corps to create self-sustaining, self-directing, combined arms “corps” of single individuals, or of small, voluntary groupings derived from rhizome nodes.


like classical rhizome, the emergent action of a rhizome military is a function of the strength of the interactions between component nodes. The primary preoccupation of the hierarchal military is not actually violence, but rather information processing—intelligence, strategizing, communicating orders, etc. It is here that the rhizome military holds its greatest advantage, as rhizome can process information more efficiently than hierarchy. This does not need to be directed as with hierarchy—the rhizome military functions by emergent action. Just as the seemingly random and disorganized interactions between billions of neurons in our brains process information to a greater impact than the fastest hierarchal supercomputer, the strength of action of a rhizome military is dependent on the seemingly random and disorganized interaction of its component nodes. These interactions must follow the classical rhizome pattern: both strong and weak, near and far, brief and in-depth.

Open Source:

The single factor that compounds the information processing problems more than any other is secrecy. Hierarchal, offensive operation depends on exclusive knowledge or innovative tactics and methods. Imagine if Eisenhower had told Hitler, “in three months from today, I will land my forces in Normandy, NOT Pas de Calais.” That wouldn’t have worked too well. The need to safeguard these secrets created an enormous burden on the Allied forces. Rhizome does not face such a burden. All communications, capabilities, intentions and activities within a rhizome military must be entirely in open; open source, freely available and unauthenticated. The fact that a hierarchal opponent will be able to freely access this information is irrelevant, for the sheer magnitude of information emanating independently, differently and continuously from every rhizome node will completely overwhelm the ability of rhizome to process this information. Unlike hierarchal communications, there will be no one piece that is more important than another, and the total lack of graduated security of communications will provide no indication as to any relative importance of information. This will negate then entire intelligence capability of hierarchy, while at the same time ensuring the smooth operation of rhizome’s information processing engine.

Time & Space:

Because of the constitutional nature of hierarchy, time and space work in favor of rhizome, and must be exploited as a tool of rhizome warfare. Due to the constitutional nature of hierarchal opponents, they are severely restrained by the need to meet certain criteria in time and place. Traditional warfare is defined by the application of decisive force at the right time and place—the key there being the need for decisive action that meets a demanding set of criteria. Hierarchy has a structural need to continuously grow in order to survive, and therefore must seek out and win decisive battles in order to prevail in warfare. These decisive battles must be both near enough in time to meet their constitutional need for continuous expansion and intensification, and must happen at concentrated points in space to facilitate the application of hierarchy’s strength of centralization. The very nature of rhizome is effective in defeating hierarchy; it is not concentrated in the near term, or in centralized to specific points in space. Rather, rhizome is a non-historical process, one that does not require the arrow of time that hierarchy depends on in the form of centralization and intensification. Rhizome’s natural state is that of stasis. Similarly, rhizome exists in a distributed, non-centralized structure, and therefore is naturally prevented from succumbing to the hierarchal military’s need for a pitched and decisive battle. Rhizome can defeat hierarchy simply by maintaining its stasis and avoiding pitched battles. It must embrace the classical rhizome approach to time and space." (http://www.jeffvail.net/2005/09/defending-pala-rhizome-as-mode-of.html)