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Asymmetric Threats

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, March 28, 2020

“Asymmetric threats” is a military term. It is defined as “an unequal balance or when thinking about threats, an unfair advantage to the perpetrator. Phillips, A (2012) provided an excellent overview of what an asymmetric threat is. He described attacks of this nature to be undetectable, and once occurred, impossible to determine its origin. Rubin (2007) further elaborates on this concept by defining the term asymmetry as that which focuses on placing one strength against an adversary’s weaknesses, even when the overall forces may favor the adversary”.

That's why asymmetric threats can be so terrifying. That's why a virus might be more intimidating than an army, and why often a smaller, more ragtag group that knows the area well can be the victor over a much larger, better equipped and better advanced one.

In writing, asymmetric threats are a fascinating plot device that can also be a double edged sword. For an asymmetric threat is formidable and seems invincible, for at least the first half of the story. It will trounce through every defense and every strategy the protagonists might have against it, it will have a body count (figurative or literal) and it will be unstoppable, with the only solution to flee from it and give it even more territory (figurative or literal).

But it can also be boring, if not written right. Usually, something that is an asymmetric threat (a contagion, aliens attacking earth or HYDRA) has very simple, straightforward and blunt motivations, world domination being one of the most usual ones. If there even IS a motivation- a good few of the classic asymmetric threats are just forces of nature or life, like a supervolcano, or just a volcano.

The charm in a storyline with an asymmetric threat as the antagonist is how the protagonists will manage to overcome and vanquish it. I'm not just saying ‘beat it’ or ‘win over it’ because the sheer impression or emotional impact of it has to be tantamount to vanquishing the foe. The attempts that are thwarted have to look plausibly able to defeat the asymmetric threat, only to fail- but in the process teach the protagonists some more about how to win.

There's also writing the asymmetric threat in the role of the protagonist! That of course involves your standard David vs. Goliath story, and it's up to you to put your personal spin on it. In this version, it's the asymmetric threat that wins, because we don't know it's that until it does!

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bravo1102 at 3:49PM, March 28, 2020

There were even the unlikely scenario of the SAS (Special Air Service) having to go behind German lines to rescue SOE and OSS operators from the Grench Resistance. The Resistance weren't told about some double dealing so the special forces would have to go in to stop the resistance from killing undercover operatives. There's nothing symmetric about that aspect of warfare.

bravo1102 at 3:45PM, March 28, 2020

I do have a few asymmetric scripts including a few resistance stories. The Russian partisans have an interesting mythology versus reality as do the French. Like when the "liberating" forces find themselves stuck between two opposing groups of the resistance as happened in Italy, Yugoslavia and especially Greece. The unfortunate British liberating forces who suddenly found themselves in the middle of a civil war.

bravo1102 at 3:34PM, March 28, 2020

Resistance versus the occupying enemy? In warfare an asymmetric threat is most commonly encountered in a counter insurgency. It was coined to describe what was previously known as partisan or guerilla warfare. The brave little band of francs-tireurs against the occupying army in whatever milieu you want from the American Revolution to the Peninsula War all the way up to Vietnam or even Red Dawn. To me Red Dawn was very interesting as it basically told the story of the Viet Cong against the USA in a way that an American audience could digest. And the director didn't even realize it.

usedbooks at 4:45AM, March 28, 2020

That's pretty much my story backbone. I didn't even notice I was doing this, but turns out the antagonists win a lot. Maybe always. They always achieve their objectives. They are mildly annoyed by the protagonists.

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