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The 33 strategies of war in-brief
Quick, easily skimmable summary of a thought-provoking book for Hot Takes subscribers
I’m a big fan of psychologist and author Robert Greene and have written a few posts over the years analyzing various parts of his seminal work ‘The 48 laws of Power.’ So it was a pleasant surprise for me to discover he has written several other books in a similar style and vein on love and war (talk about opposites). War strategy is especially compelling as businesses take cues from military strategic successes in areas such as how they react to changes in the marketplace from competition and how they position their external communications.
I’m not advocating war, rather in the realms of both power and war the best offense is a good defense. War is unfortunate, but instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, let’s learn from it, how we can prevent it and how to survive worse-case scenarios or at least mitigate damage. This subject is considered by some taboo to discuss, however that’s not a logical reason to dismiss studying it as it is a very real part of our culture (both in business and politically).
By having an understanding of the strategies others are using, we can be fully conscious of when power-plays and manipulative tactics are being used against us or others.
After a quick search, I was able to find an outline of Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War published under a creative commons license. So, since everyone is busy, I thought it’d be fun to share a brief summary of the 33 strategies in even shorter summation with you. This way you can get the main points of a 500+ page book over coffee and spur some thinking for your day. I still highly recommend purchasing the book to read in-full as Greene is such a wonderful writer and includes many fascinating stories throughout history to illustrate his points.
33 Strategies of War, summarized:
1: Declare war on your enemies: Polarity
You cannot fight effectively unless you can identify them. Learn to smoke them out, then inwardly declare war. Your enemies can fill you with purpose and direction.
2: Do not fight the last war: Guerilla-war-of-the-mind
Wage war on the past and ruthlessly force yourself to react to the present. Make everything fluid and mobile.
3: Amidst the turmoil of events, do not lose your presence of mind: Counterbalance
Keep your presence of mind whatever the circumstances. Make your mind tougher by exposing it to adversity. Learn to detach yourself from the chaos of the battlefield.
4: Create a sense of urgency and desperation: Death-ground
Place yourself where your back is against the wall and you have to fight like hell to get out alive.
5: Avoid the snares of groupthink: Command-and-control
Create a chain of command where people do not feel constrained by your influence yet follow your lead. Create a sense of participation, but do not fall into groupthink.
6: Segment your forces: Controlled-chaos
The critical elements in war are speed and adaptability–the ability to move and make decisions faster than the enemy. Break your forces into independent groups that can operate on their own. Give them the spirit of the campaign, a mission to accomplish, and room to run.
7: Transform your war into a crusade: Morale
Get them to think less about themselves and more about the group. Involve them in a cause, a crusade against a hated enemy. Make them see their survival is tied to the success of the army as a whole.
8: Pick your battles carefully: Perfect-economy
Consider the hidden costs of war: time, political goodwill, an embittered enemy bent on revenge. Sometimes it is better to undermine your enemies covertly.
9: Turn the tables: Counterattack
Let the other side move first. If aggressive, bait them into a rash attack that leaves them in a weak position.
10: Create a threatening presence: Deterrence
Build a reputation for being a little crazy. Fighting you is not worth it. Uncertainty can be better than an explicit threat. If your opponents aren’t sure what attacking you will cost, they will not want to find out.
11: Trade space for time: Nonengagement
Retreat is a sign of strength. Resisting the temptation to respond buys valuable time. Sometimes you accomplish most by doing nothing.
12: Lose battles, but win the war: Grand strategy
Grand strategy is the art of looking beyond the present battle and calculating ahead. Focus on your ultimate goal and plot to reach it.
13: Know your enemy: Intelligence
The target of your strategies is not the army you face, but the mind who runs it. Learn to read people.
14: Overwhelm resistance with speed and suddenness: Blitzkrieg
Speed is power. Striking first, before enemies have time to think or prepare will make them emotional, unbalanced, and prone to error.
15: Control the dynamic: Forcing
Instead of trying to dominate the other side’s every move, work to define the nature of the relationship itself. Control your opponent’s mind, pushing emotional buttons and compelling them to make mistakes.
16: Hit them where it hurts: Center-of-gravity
Find the source of your enemy’s power. Find out what he cherishes and protects and strike.
17: Defeat them in detail: Divide and conquer
Separate the parts and sow dissension and division. Turn a large problem into small, eminently defeatable parts.
18: Expose and attack your opponent’s soft flank: Turning
Frontal assaults stiffen resistance. Instead, distract your enemy’s attention to the front, then attack from the side when they expose their weakness.
19: Envelop the enemy: Annihilation
Create relentless pressure from all sides and close off their access to the outside world. When you sense weakening resolve, tighten the noose and crush their willpower.
20: Maneuver them into weakness: Ripening for the sickle
Before the battle begins, put your opponent in a position of such weakness that victory is easy and quick. Create dilemmas where all potential choices are bad.
21: Negotiate while advancing: Diplomatic war
Before and during negotiations, keep advancing, creating relentless pressure and compelling the other side to settle on your terms. The more you take, the more you can give back in meaningless concessions. Create a reputation for being tough and uncompromising so that people are giving ground even before they meet you.
22: Know how to end things: Exit strategy
You are judged by how well things conclude. Know when to stop. Avoid all conflicts and entanglements from which there are no realistic exits.
23: Weave a seamless blend of fact and fiction: Misperception
Make it hard for your enemies to know what is going on around them. Feed their expectations, manufacture a reality to match their desires, and they will fool themselves. Control people’s perceptions of reality and you control them.
24: Take the line of least expectation: Ordinary-Extraordinary
Upset expectations. First do something ordinary and conventional, then hit them with the extraordinary. Sometimes the ordinary is extraordinary because it is unexpected.
25: Occupy the moral high ground: Righteousness
The cause you are fighting for must seem more just than the enemy’s. Questioning their motives and making enemies appear evil can narrow their base of support and room to maneuver. When you come under moral attack from a clever enemy, don’t whine or get angry–fight fire with fire.
26: Deny them targets: The Void
The feeling of emptiness is intolerable for most people. Give enemies no target to attach. Be dangerous and elusive, and let them chase you into the void. Deliver irritating but damaging side attacks and pinpricks.
27: Seem to work for the interests of others while furthering your own: Alliance
Get others to compensate for your deficiencies, do your dirty work, fight your wars. Sow dissension in the alliances of others, weakening opponents by isolating them.
28: Give your rivals enough rope to hang themselves: One-upmanship
Instill doubts and insecurities in rivals, getting them to think too much and act defensive. Make them hang themselves through their own self-destructive tendencies, leaving you blameless and clean.
29: Take small bites: Fait Accompli
Take small bites to play on people’s short attention span. Before they notice, you may acquire an empire.
30: Penetrate their minds: Communication
Infiltrate your ideas behind enemy lines, sending messages through little details. Lure people into coming to the conclusions you desire and into thinking they’ve gotten there by themselves.
31: Destroy from within: The Inner Front
To take something you want, don’t fight those who have it, but join them. Then either slowly make it your own or wait for the right moment to stage a coup.
32: Dominate while seeming to submit: Passive-Aggression
Seem to go along, offering no resistance, but actually dominate the situation. Disguise your aggression so you can deny that it exists.
33: Sow uncertainty and panic through acts of terror: Chain Reaction
Terror can paralyze a people’s will to resist and destroy their ability to plan a strategic response. The goal is to cause maximum chaos and provoke a desperate overreaction. To counter terror, stay balanced and rational.
Be sure to read the book if you find the outline compelling, Greene goes into great detail illustrating the laws with tangible examples and historic evidence. His formula for these books works well, and they are easy reads because they are broken into clear sections. If you haven’t read the 48 Laws of Power, I do recommend starting with that.
My main takeaway from Greene’s books is that learning how others attempt to manipulate the world around us is vital to see the bigger picture, disarm those with the wrong intentions and work to make things better, not worse. Also from a personal perspective, some of these conflicts may be similar, so we must all embrace and understand the shadow self as so we control it, and it does not control us.