This post covers direct and indirect strategies applied in warfare, such as attrition, annihilation, dislocation, and maneuver warfare.

To fight head-on or to circle around and hit them in back? That is the question when it comes to operational art. Wars of the past often involved massive armies squaring off against one another, marching together as human walls while raining fire on the enemy alongside cannon. However, with technological advances, war now is a hunt; predators seeking prey. So, when did we get from the “meat-grinder” war to the “cat-and-mouse” war we’re fighting against guerrillas today?

Going the furthest back into Ancient China, we start off with Sun Tzu, the legendary master of strategy. Living in a small state under constant threat from the hegemon, Sun Tzu’s art of war was one that glorified the indirect approach. In fact, Sun Tzu advocated for winning wars without even fighting at all. As a smaller fish in a sea of big fish, Sun Tzu would try to stop wars before they even happen. He valued intelligence (“know thine enemy”), diplomacy (manipulating alliances in your favour), and of course, sneaky maneuvers on the battlefield. It can be said that the earliest strategy was to not even fight at all!

Moving forward into Enlightenment Europe, where Sun Tzu would shake his head seeing the European armies marching straight into war. The teachings of Clausewitz and Jomini were prevalent at that time. Both advocated for a decisive battle, striking at the centre of gravity of the enemy to win a quick victory. At that time, the reigning belief was that of annihilation: that the enemy’s armies must be utterly destroyed on the field in one fell swoop. That would prove to be the way of war up to the Industrial Age, where the advent of lethal machine guns would bring a new paradigm to warfare.

The Industrial Age was the age of battles of attrition. When we hear the word “attrition”, images of bloody trenches scattered with corpses of soldiers full of holes from machine gun rounds come to mind. Battles of attrition were costly, not only in terms of machinery but also human cost. Thousands of soldiers were sent in front of machine gun nests, marching in linear formations resembling Napoleon’s armies. That is a battle of attrition, where both sides would wage protracted wars to “bleed” their enemies dry. World War 1 was a notorious example of this. Warfare in WW1 resembled a mechanical process. Armies would march forward, clearing trench after trench, defence after defence, gradually until they reached their objective. The tank at that time was not even considered an independent unit of the army, rather, was only used as infantry support, as seen in the Battle of Somme [HTML].

canadian-soldiers-going-over-trench.jpg
Troops in trenches on the German front (History)

Seeing that direct approaches cost more than they should, armies then tried to come up with strategies of maneuver. The premise was simple: avoid direct fire and strike them from where the enemy wouldn’t expect. However, with only infantry moving on foot and artillery being pulled by horses, maneuver warfare would prove to be difficult. Furthermore, when executed poorly, maneuvers can fail drastically, incurring more costs and loss than expected. One example of a botched maneuver strategy was the Schlieffen plan [HTML]. The Schlieffen plan would have succeeded, but at that time, the technology just wasn’t there to allow German troops to move into position fast enough.

It was JFC Fuller who proposed a theory of mechanized warfare, in which the tank would replace the infantry as the center of the army. In Fuller’s vision, tanks would be used to execute speedy maneuvers that cut through enemy lines (or flank them) that would result in “strategic paralysis”. Furthermore, the presence of tanks on the battlefield would contribute to the demoralisation of the enemy. With such speed, the battle would be unfolding quickly, so commanders would have to ride into battle and issue orders from their forward operating bases, or ideally, from a main battle tank.

However, Reid [paywall] views that Fuller’s view of a mechanized battle to be a distorted one. We start with Fuller’s obsession with the tank as the ultimate weapon on the battlefield. Two tank armies would clash in one decisive battle. This mirrors Mahan to some extent. In addition, Fuller also envisioned tank battles in cities. This was wrong, since tank battles would mostly happen in open plains, such as the Battle of Kursk [HTML].

With the tank in the spotlight, infantry would have no role to play in the field at all. In fact, Fuller predicted that the infantry would be too demoralised in the face of tanks to even be useful. But such was not the case. Fuller’s underestimation of the industrial capacity of states to supply their infantry units with anti-tank weapons, such as the AT rifle and Panzerschreck, allowed infantry to hold their own against tanks.

However, to be fair, Fuller was right about the uses of the speed of the tank. In WW2, the Germans understood the value of the power and speed of the tank. The tanks would be used to cut in deep into enemy territory unseen, then when the time was right, they would execute maneuvers to easily win battles.

This idea would later be developed in Liddell Hart’s Strategy, which emphasizes the indirect approach. Liddell Hart advocated for dislocation and disorientation; to disposition the enemy and confuse them. There are four types of dislocation that one could seek:

  1. Positional; putting them in a disadvantageous position.
  2. Functional; disrupt key functions of the enemy.
  3. Temporal; strike them when they’re least expecting it.
  4. Moral; shattering their morale and will to fight back.

A good real example would be the Germans’ Blitzkrieg operations. The Blitzkrieg operations were what Luttwak [paywall] called “relational-manoeuvres”. It consisted of three elements: avoidance of the main strength of the enemy, emphasis on deception at every level, and “dominance of the intangibles”. Essentially, the Blitzkrieg was composed of 3 operational stages. The breakthrough, where the Germans would set up the field for tank columns to ride in. The penetration, where columns of tanks would intersect at enemy nodal points, cut off supply lines and lines of communication. At this time, there were many tanks marching in at once from all fronts, causing confusion. The exploitation, when hell breaks loose and the enemy is psychologically disoriented from the tactical disadvantage.

Which is better, direct or indirect?

Now that we’ve seen the two approaches to strategy, which one is better? Both strategies have their own merit, depending on the situation. Let’s review one by one.

A direct approach tends to be associated with head-on attrition. Attrition has, indeed, a bad reputation for being slow wars of slaughter on both sides, ending only until one party has exhausted their resources and is incapable of fighting anymore. Battles of attrition are also laughed at for being “unimaginative” and showing a lack of strategy. However, as Malkasian [paywall] writes, sometimes battles of attrition are required when commanders are faced with limited operational options due to policy considerations and where aims are limited. Malkasian uses the Korean War in 1950 and Vietnam War in 1965 as case studies where attrition was the preferred strategy. Both wars were set in the Cold War, in the backdrop of tense relations between the Americans and Soviets. Though MacArthur wanted to execute maneuvers to eliminate the North Koreans, he couldn’t, because maneuvers would be risky. “Risky”, in a sense that the perceived aggression might escalate tensions and incite an all-out war with the Soviets which the Americans did not want. Furthermore, the political objective of the Korean War was to stabilise the situation, not gain territory from the North Koreans. So, MacArthur chose attrition, to whittle down enemy forces little by little until they finally gave up. The war did not escalate and South Korea was safe.

Similarly, in Vietnam, Americans wanted to do maneuvers, but again, in the backdrop of the Cold War, they could not be seen as being too belligerent. Furthermore, Viet Cong guerrillas avoided clashes that were not on their terms. This was troublesome for US operations, since maneuvers depended on clashes against the enemy. Westmoreland then decided that attrition was the way to go, in the form of search-and-destroy operations to whittle down the Viet Cong.

Though maneuvers sound cool and fascinating, it takes an extremely capable commander and a team of strategists to successfully execute one. A maneuver is dependent on timing and momentum, two elements which, if disrupted, could spell a disastrous end to a maneuver and inflict more costs than the perceived benefit.

The bell rings…

In summary, the things that we learned today are:

  • There are two approaches to strategy, direct and indirect. A capable strategist ought not to favour one over the other, as they both have their uses.
  • An indirect approach may succeed, however, it requires a degree of finesse and capability to achieve that success. On the other hand, if a maneuver fails, it can fail horribly. Learn from the Germans.
  • A direct approach may seem stupid, but sometimes, it does get the job done, though at the expense of more casualties.

To understand these concepts easier, I would recommend playing Valkyria Chronicles, which is one of my favourite games related to war. However, I would say the game favours maneuvers and discourages attrition.

Featured picture credit: Valkyria Chronicles (c) SEGA


Le’ Notes is a collection of my lecture and reading notes, summarized, revised, and ready-to-go. Think of it as a bag of chips; it’s easy to eat, but don’t expect a lot of nutrition. Or, you can think of it as a starting point to learning more about other things that might interest you.

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