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Strategy 26: Deny them Targets (The 33 Strategies of War)

When Napoleon tried to invade Russia, he was sure it was going to be an easy victory. In the past, his predictions had been accurate. But this time, things did not go so well.

The Russian Czar, Alexander, had come to know Napoleon before the invasion, he knew that the French general was very aggressive, and that he loved a fight, even if the odds were stacked against him. Alexander’s strategy was to frustrate Napoleon by giving him nothing to feed on, he disengaged completely, forcing Napoleon’s men to chase ghosts.

To make things worse for Napoleon, Russia’s difficult climate would destroy all of his organized plans.

Alexander’s strategy worked perfectly, he managed not only to frustrate Napoleon, but his men too, who were at this point as psychologically rattled as their leader. Thousands of French soldiers died of disease, many others simply lost the will to fight.

Human beings hate voids. We would do anything to stave off emptiness. When you give people nothing to hit, nothing to aim at, you defeat them psychologically. Even in social interactions, this dynamic plays out the same way. The person that controls the relationship is the elusive one. The bigger the enemy, the more effective this strategy.

Most wars are wars of contact, both forces striving to keep in touch…. The Arab war should be a war of detachment: to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing themselves till the moment of attack…. From this theory came to be developed ultimately an unconscious habit of never engaging the enemy at all. This chimed with the numerical plea of never giving the enemy’s soldier a target.

T. E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926)

Creating voids is a guerrilla strategy, and guerrilla warfare is thousands of years old. All the guerrilla armies throughout history have operated according to the same general rules: be mobile, attack with small but frequent raids, and play on time.

In this way, over thousands of years and through trial and error, the art of guerrilla warfare developed and was refined into its present-day form. Conventional military training and thought revolve around concentrating for battle, maneuvering within limited areas, and straining for the quick kill. Guerrilla warfare’s reversal of this natural order of war makes it impossible for a conventional army to counter–hence its power. In the shadow land of reverse warfare, where none of the normal rules apply, the conventional army flounders. Done right, guerrilla warfare is virtually unbeatable.

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

Another weapon in guerrilla war is the media. Any fight between a powerful aggressor that is technologically sophisticated and a relatively weak, primitive nation will be framed by the media as a fight between Goliath and David. As the war drags on, the bully will be heavily scrutinized.

But the caveat is that there are rules. If the guerrilla army does not follow them, it risks defeat. For example, a war that lasts too long is also bad for the guerrilla army – they will eventually run out of resources. In this case, it is necessary to go on the offensive.

When the North Vietnamese sensed that the war with the U.S had no end in sight, they concentrated their forces and launched an all-out attack.

Read The 33 Strategies of War

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

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