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Strategy 2: Do Not Fight The Last War (The 33 Strategies of War)

The Guerrilla-War-of-the-Mind Strategy

Tradition, tired formulas, and attachments to the past will trap you. You must wage war against your past victories and defeats and react to the present moment. This may require you to take risks and do things differently, but whatever is lost in terms of comfort and security will be gained in terms of surprise. Your enemies will be unable to predict you.

The Last War

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) quickly rose to power. He was a captain in the French revolutionary army and eventually became emperor twenty years later, after many promotions. In 1805, he defeated Austria and Russia in the Battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon was a genius to many. But many were not impressed, they believed he was aggressive and rash. They thought that if he faced the Prussians, he would be exposed as a fake.

Fredrich Ludwig held this opinion, he was prince of Hohenlohe. Much of his success as a general was due to organization, discipline, and the use of superior strategies that were developed my competent military minds. He studied the ways of Frederick the Great, along with other Prussian generals, and war to them was predictable. All they needed to do was apply timeless principles, and they would emerge victorious. To them, Napoleon was a hothead who possessed none of the skills or knowledge required to be great. They believed that they would dispel with the Napoleonic myth, and restore Europe to its former state.

In 1806, Hohenlohe and his generals finally got what they wanted, the King of Prussia declared war on Napoleon. The generals were tasked with finding a way to beat the French. This was great news for Hohenlohe who had been waiting for this climactic moment in his career. The generals quarrelled about the ideal strategy until the king had to step in and find a compromise.

The generals figured out that Napoleon’s spies gave him access to the plans, but since they had a head start, they were confident that they would not be stopped.  

A few days before the king was going to declare war, the generals received bad news. Napoleon’s army, contrary to their expectations, managed to position themselves deeply within Prussia. The French marched with packs on their backs, while the Prussians used slow-moving wagons. The French carried their own supplies and were faster and more mobile.

Before the generals could react, Napoleon moved towards Berlin. The generals were confounded, and couldn’t decide where to attack. Amidst the panic, the King ordered a retreat. The Prussian troops would move north and attack Napoleon’s flank as they moved towards Berlin. Hohenlohe led the rear guard which protected the retreat.  

Both armies collided in the town of Jena on October 14. Hohenlohe kept tight control of his troops and while both sides had the same number of soldiers, the French managed to capture the village of Vierzehnheiligen. Hohenlohe tried to retake the village and positioned his troops in perfect parade order to do so, staying in line with German military tradition. But they were in the open and Napoleon’s men were on house roofs, and behind garden walls. The Prussians were in a bad position, and despite further changes in formation, they could not withstand the French assault.

Eventually, the Prussians retreated and gave up the village.

The Prussian disintegrated soon followed, losing their fortresses in succession. Nothing remained of the great Prussian army.

The reality was that the Prussians were stuck in the past, holding on to old ways of fighting. They were slow and predictable. And even though they had ample time to study Napoleon’s strategies, they ignored him, and presumed that he was not a threat to them.  

It is possible that you are making the same mistake the Prussians did. You may not be seeing reality for what it is, instead holding on to old patterns of behavior and beliefs. But what worked in the past does not work anymore, and mere repetition is no replacement for creativity. You may do this without realizing it, because it is difficult to be objective about ourselves. But suddenly, a figure like Napoleon comes out of nowhere, has no respect for tradition, and disrupts your old paradigms.

Don’t take past successes for granted or convince yourself that they will always continue. Your past is your biggest obstacle. Each battle is different and requires you to adapt.  

I never read any treatises on strategy…. When we fight, we do not take any books with us.

MAO TSE-TUNG

Read The 33 Strategies of War

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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