All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.
To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 500 BC
It is essential to know the character of the enemy and of their principal officers—whether they be rash or cautious, enterprising or timid, whether they fight from careful calculation or from chance.
Good officers decline general engagements where the danger is common, and prefer the employment of stratagem and finesse to destroy the enemy as much as possible in detail and intimidate them without exposing our own forces.
It is much better to overcome the enemy by famine, surprise or terror than by general actions, for in the latter instance fortune has often a greater share than valor.
—Flavius Vegetius Renatus, The Military Institutions of the Romans, 390 AD
The best fortress that exists is to avoid being hated by the people. If you have fortresses and yet the people hate you, they will not save you.... I commend those who erect fortresses and those who do not; and I censure anyone who, putting his trust in fortresses, does not mind if he is hated by the people.
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1513
The greatest secret of war and the masterpiece of a skillful general is to starve his enemy.
A general in all his projects should not think so much about what he wishes to do as about what his enemy will do; he should never underestimate this enemy, but he should put himself in his place to appreciate difficulties and hindrances the enemy could interpose; he will be deranged at the slightest event if he has not foreseen everything and if he has not invented the means with which to surmount the obstacles.
While never despising his enemy in the bottom of his heart, the general should never speak of him except with scorn.
—Frederick II, the Great, The Instruction of Frederick the Great for His Generals, 1747
A well-established maxim of war is not to do anything which your enemy wishes—and for the single reason that he does so wish.... The conduct of a general in a conquered country is encompassed with difficulties. If he is severe, he exasperates and increases the number of his enemies; if he is mild, he inspires hopes which, since they cannot be realized, cause the abuses and vexations unavoidably incident to war only to stand out in bolder relief. A conqueror should know how to employ by turns severity, justice and leniency in suppressing or preventing disturbances.
—Napoleon Bonaparte, The Maxims , 1827
The effect of an army, of one organization on another, is at the same time material and moral. The material effect of an organization is in its power to destroy, the moral effect in the fear that it inspires. In battle, two moral forces, even more than two material forces, are in conflict. The stronger conquers. The victor has often lost by fire more than the vanquished. Moral effect does not come entirely from destructive power, real and effective as it may be. It comes, above all, from its presumed, threatening power.
—Ardant du Picq, Battle Studies, 1868
Generally we are not nearly as well acquainted with the position and measures of the enemy as we assume in our plan of operations. The minute we begin carrying out our decision, a thousand doubts arise about the dangers which might develop if we have been seriously mistaken in our plan. A feeling of uneasiness, which often takes hold of a person about to perform something great, will take possession of us, and from this uneasiness to indecision, and from there to half-measures are small, scarcely discernible steps.
—Carl von Clausewitz, Principles of War, 1812
I acknowledge that my prejudices are in favor of the good old times when the French and English guards courteously invited each other to open fire as at Fontenoy [1795, War of Austrian Succession], preferring them to the frightful epoch when priests, women, and children throughout Spain plotted the murder of individual soldiers.
—Antoine Henri Jomini, Summary of the Art of War, 1838
Never, at any time during [World War I], was a death-blow struck–a blow which leaves a deep gaping wound and the feeling of imminent death. Instead both sides struck innumerable blows and inflicted many wounds; but the wounds were light ones and always had time to heal. Such wounds, while leaving the body weaker and weaker, still left the patient with the hope of living and recovering strength enough to deal to an equally weakened enemy that last pinprick capable of drawing the last drop of blood…. There is no doubt now that half of the destruction wrought by the war would have been enough if it had been accomplished in three months instead of four years. A quarter of it would have been sufficient if it had been wrought in eight days.
We need only envision what would go on among the civilian population of congested cities once the enemy announced that we would bomb such centers relentlessly, making no distinction between military and non-military objectives…. The very magnitude of possible aerial offensives cries for an answer to the question, ‘How can we defend ourselves against them?’ To this I have always answered, ‘By attacking.’…. The fundamental concept governing aerial warfare is to be resigned to the damage the enemy may inflict upon us, while utilizing every means at our disposal to inflict even heavier damage upon him…. Mercifully, the decision will be quick in this kind of war, since the decisive blows will be aimed at civilians, that element of the countries at war least able to sustain them. These future wars may yet prove to be more humane than wars in the past in spite of all, because they may in the long run shed less blood. But there is no doubt that nations who find themselves unprepared to sustain them will be lost.
—Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, 1921
The [First] World War proved that striking power does not consist in firepower alone, however furious and long-drawn-out it might be. It is no good converting firm ground to a lunar landscape by an unaimed area bombardment; you must bring fire to bear on the enemy by closing to close range, identifying the targets that pose the greatest hindrance to the attack, and annihilating them by direct fire. In the time of Frederick the Great it was still possible to come at the enemy with cold steel in the form of the infantry bayonet and the cavalry sword, relying on the muscle power of men and horses. Those days have long passed…. After the experiences of the last war we are not boasting when we proclaim that, out of all the weapons of ground warfare, the tank has this striking power in the highest degree. For better or worse soldiers will have to come to terms with the tank.
The issue is of winning the battles of the future, and of winning them so completely, so speedily, and so comprehensively that they will bring the war to a rapid conclusion.
—Heinz Guderian, Achtung Panzer!, 1937
The [soldier] enters upon the battlefield and moves across ground within range of the enemy’s small arms weapons. The enemy fires. The transition of that moment is wholly abnormal. He had expected to see action. He sees nothing. There is nothing to be seen. The fire comes out of nowhere. He knows that it is fire because the sounds are unmistakable. But that is all that he knows for certain….The men scatter as the fire breaks around. When they go to ground, most of them are lost to sight of each other. They are shocked by the mystery of their situation. Here is surprise of a kind which no one had taught them to guard against. The design of the enemy has little to do with it; it is the nature of battle which catches them unaware. Where are the targets? How does one engage an enemy who does not seem to be present?
—S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire, 1947
Guerrilla warfare is nothing but a tactical appendage of a far vaster political contest and... no matter how expertly it is fought by competent and dedicated professionals, it cannot possibly make up for the absence of a political rationale. A dead Special Forces sergeant is not spontaneously replaced by his own social environment. A dead revolutionary usually is.
—Bernard Fall, Street Without Joy, 1961
There is an important psychological trick to be played before a breakthrough can occur—one which has to be pulled off in both armies, the attacking and defending: that of getting their soldiers to stand. For unless soldiers have stood, squared up to each other, exchanged blow for blow and felt the heavier tell, a breakthrough will have no more lasting effect than any other stroke of trickery. Easy victories, between equals, almost never stick. The defeated lick their wounds, nurse their grievances and wait for the odds to even out again…. It is for this reason that it is possible to say that the tank, though it has transformed the pace and appearance of modern campaigning, has not changed the nature of battle. The focus of fighting may be shifted twenty miles in a single day by an armored thrust, but wherever it comes to rest there must take place exactly the same sort of struggle between man and man which battlefields have seen since armies came into being.
Battle is essentially a moral conflict. It requires a mutual and sustained act of will by two contending parties and, if it is to result in a decision, the moral collapse of one of them…. What battles have in common is human: the behavior of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honor and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them. The study of battle is therefore always a study of fear and usually of courage; always of leadership, usually of obedience; always of compulsion, sometimes of insubordination; always of anxiety, sometimes of elation or catharsis; always of uncertainty and doubt, misinformation and misapprehension, usually also of faith and sometimes of vision; always of violence, sometimes also of cruelty, self-sacrifice, compassion; above all, it is always a study of solidarity and usually also of disintegration—for it is towards the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed.
—John Keegan, The Face of Battle, 1976
Compiled by Jay Worthington.
Cabinet is a non-profit organization supported by the Lambent Foundation, the Orphiflamme Foundation, the New York Council on the Arts, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Katchadourian Family Foundation, Goldman Sachs Gives, the Danielson Foundation, and many generous individuals. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation by visiting here