Notes politics

Strategy 20: Maneuver Them into Weakness (The 33 Strategies of War)

Fighting endless battles is costly, it is much wiser to master the art of maneuver. Bait your enemies into positions that seem alluring but at really traps and blind alleys. Give them dilemmas – if you give them problems, they might solve them, but if you give them a dilemma, they will get stuck.

So to win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all.

Sun-tzu (fourth century B.C.)

There are two distinct styles of war in history. The first is the war of attrition – victory comes through superior technology, numbers, or damage inflicted. It is the unsophisticated version of war. The second is the maneuver philosophy, codified in Art of War by Sun Tzu, who knew that the costs of war went beyond its body counts. It damaged political goodwill, resources, and morale. Over time, these costs would overwhelm even the most powerful nation. On the other hand, an enemy who is cornered into a position of weakness even before the battle has begun will surrender with less of a fight.

Attrition warfare has been glorified and is considered more manly, maneuver warfare is dynamic and less costly.

Four Main Principles of Maneuver Warfare

Craft a plan with branches: Analyze a situation in detail to figure out the best position to occupy.

Give yourself room to maneuver: Be mobile, do not commit to anything that will limit your options.

Give your enemy dilemmas, not problems: Problems can be solved, dilemmas give the enemy a choice between only bad options.

Create maximum disorder: Your enemy wants to read you, act predictably, and they will. Protect yourself with chaos, meaningless information. Use disorder to your advantage.

Aptitude for maneuver is the supreme skill in a general; it is the most useful and rarest of gifts by which genius is estimated.


Napoleon’s victory at Marengo was not based on luck, but on careful planning. He believed that you could create your own luck with superior strategy.

When he learned that Massena had been forced back to Genoa, he saw that the fight for the city would lock Melas into a static position, giving Napoleon time to move his men into place. When Moreau sent him a smaller division, Napoleon sent it through the Alps by a narrower, more obscure route, throwing more sand in the eyes of the Austrians trying to figure out how many men he had available. When Massena unexpectedly surrendered, Napoleon realized that it would be easier now to bait Melas into attacking his divisions, particularly if he moved them closer. At Marengo itself he knew all along that his first reinforcements would arrive sometime after three in the afternoon. The more disorderly the Austrian pursuit of the French, the more devastating the counterattack would be.

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

Napoleon had a novel way of planning which allowed him to maneuver freely. He kept his options open, by studying details carefully.

In life, nothing happens the way you expect it to. People will constantly surprise you. The rational way to confront an unpredictable world is to analyze situations in depth and try to imagine what might go wrong. Do not get lost in analysis but use information to bolster the strength of your plan.

Now the army’s disposition of force (hsing) is like water. Water’s configuration (hsing) avoids heights and races downward…. Water configures (hsing) its flow in accord with the terrain; the army controls its victory in accord with the enemy. Thus the army does not maintain any constant strategic configuration of power (shih), water has no constant shape (hsing). One who is able to change and transform in accord with the enemy and wrest victory is termed spiritual.


Lawrence of Arabia

The World War I fight between Britain and Turkey demonstrates the difference between attrition warfare and a war of maneuver. The British fought by the rules of attrition warfare, they directed the Arabs to capture key points along the railway line. This favored the Turks, who had few men to patrol the entire line, but after they saw the Arabs attacking at any one place, they took advantage of their superior firepower to defend it or take it back.

Lawrence did not have a military background, but his common sense saw the stupidity instantly. There were thousands of square miles around the railway that were not occupied by the Turks, and the Arabs were masters of mobile warfare on camelback. The Arabs created threats from everywhere and froze the Turks in their forts.  

The Turks needed the Aqba base to spread the revolt north to Damascus. Lawrence knew this and deliberately spread the lie that he was aiming for an ambush, this forced the Turks to send reinforcements on a wild goose chase in the north. They could not imagine an attack from the Arabs on the landward side, and that was where they attacked from. Only two men died from Lawrence’s side. This event was the turning point in Britain’s eventual defeat of the Turks.

Read The 33 Strategies of War

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

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