The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene

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My Rating: 3/10
Published or Updated On: 
November 18, 2022

Big Picture Thoughts

War is a big part of human history so I thought it'd be interesting to try this book. My advice would be to just stick with this summary & skip the book. While some of the supporting stories were interesting, Greene's application of these rules to everyday life is cringey. If I had a do-over, I think I'd just read Wikipedia on the topic.

The Main Ideas

  1. War strategy & tactics can be divided into 5 categories: self directed, organizational, offensive, defensive, and unconventional.
  2. History has proven each of these 33 strategies as sound.

Summary Notes

Self Directed Warfare

1. Declare war on your enemies.

You must identify your opponents in order to be able to fight them.

Supporting story: Xenophon mercenary band of Greeks in Persian land.

2. Do not fight the last war.

Tactics age. Forget the last war, drop preconcevied notions, re-examine beliefs and principles. Adapt to the times.

Supporting story: Friedrich Ludwig vs. Napolean, Miyamoto Musashi who developed a pattern then would change it (continual adaptation).

3. Do not lose your presence of mind

Detach yourself from the fog of war and chaos of battles. Preparation and grasping details allow you to see the big picture, understanding forest from trees is a key quality of great generals.

Supporting story: Lord Nelson in the battle at Copenhagen in 1801 disobeying orders.

4. The Death Ground Strategy

When there are no other options, people fight harder. If the choice is life or death, they have nothing to lose.

Supporting story: Cortes burning his ships so his men would fight the Aztecs instead of fleeing

Organizational (Team) Warfare

5. The importance of command-and-control

To accomplish shit and avoid groupthink, need a chain of command. You must set the vision. People must buy into the vision. Authority vs. receptiveness is a balance. Get your information from people in the trenches.

Supporting story: British failed attack on Constantinople. George Marshall creating proteges who he can trust to lead according to spec when he's absent.

6. The Controlled-Chaos Strategy (segmentation)

Decentralize your forces to gain mobility and speed. Break forces into independent groups that can operate on their own. Instill the spirit of the campaign (not necessarily the letter), a mission, and room to run.

Supporting story: 1805 Battle of Ulm where Napolean dividied his troops and provided specific instruction.

7. Turn your war into a crusade (morale)

A leader should create an atmosphere of fighting for something noble. Involve people in a cause. Build a group history, myth and people will try to live up to it. Get them to think less about themselves, more about the group.

Supporting story: Napolean's "Spirit of the Republic", visiting troops and wounded. Hannibal's competitive war games put on for his troops where people would fight to earn the honor of joining the army.

Defensive Warfare

8. Pick your battles

The costs of war can be high, not all battles are worth being fought. Fight economically, conserving your assets. Know your strengths and play to them. Pyrrhic victories are common.

"If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined." - Plutarch

Supporting story: Pyrrhic War

9. Counterattack

History shows that defenders usually win the war. Deceive your opponent into striking first, then you have the opportunity to analyze and counter, targeting weaknesses they reveal.

Supporting story: FDR's dog Fala, Napolean vs. Czar Alexander

10. Deterrence by intimidation

The best defense is one where you aren't attacked in the first place. Make your enemy believe you're too difficult to attack. Build a reputation, look strong, bluff wisely, create uncertainty.

Supporting story: peaceful alliances maintained by Louis XI of France by arranging spread of fabricated rumors about his threatening and irrational actions

11. Trade space for time (nonengagement)

Grant your opponent a small win so you can increase your leverage. Gain time to reflect & rebuild defenses. Retreat thins your opponent's forces & lengthens their supply lines. Could also frustrate your opponent, which can be used to your advantage.

"Space we can recover, time never." Napolean

Supporting story: Mao Tse-tung's retreats in the Chinese Civil War allowed them to gather forces, uniting with supporting peasants.

Offensive Warfare

12. Grand strategy (lose battles, but win the war)

Have a bigger plan than just the immediate battle. Think several moves ahead, use second-order thinking.

Supporting story: Alexander the Great capturing Persian ports, leaving them without a navy & taking the sea component out of future battles - it wasn't obvious until it was too late.

13. Know your enemy

Know your opponents moves. Understand their way of thinking. Less about their army, more about the mind of the man or woman running it.

Supporting story: 1838 British invasion of Afghanistan by Lord Auckland, failed to understand their culture, betrayed by supposed Afghan allies. Prince Metternich installing Marie Louise as Napolean's wife in order to spy.

14. Overwhelm with speed (Blitzkrieg)

Strike first with overwhelming speed and force, giving your enemy no time to prepare, recoil, or recover. Will make opponent afraid, unbalanced, prone to error, making it difficult for them to respond.

Supporting story: 1218 Genghis Khan attack on Khwarezm, Nazi invasion of Poland

15. Control the dynamic

Control the pace of war, and the landscape on which it is fought. Instead of trying to just control your opponent, control the context.

Supporting story: In WWII, Rommel used small units in North African deserts to strike at the British, moving them constantly, creating sandclouds which concealed their numbers and made them impossible to attack. He rode in the front to shorten comm chain.

16. Strike at the center of gravity

Your opponents have a source of power on which they depend. Find that which holds the whole structure together and strike: command center, supply lines, belief system, whatever.

Supporting story: Hannibal was ravaging Rome. Scipio attacked Carthage. Hannibal was called home from Italy to defend Carthage, removing the threat. Scipio defeated Hannibal by destroying Hannibal's supply lines.

17. Divide and conquer

Separate a larger enemy into smaller pieces to conquer them more easily. Sow dissent and division. Parts make up the whole. Determine how to defeat the parts.

Supporting story: Greece splitting the Persian army in 490 BC, Roman strategy

18. Turning strategy

Distract your enemy at the front, then attack their side (soft flank), turning into them to cut off retreat.

Supporting story: Napolean baiting Alvinczy into a charge, then sweeping the flank

19. Envelope the Enemy

Surround your enemy on all sides, cutting off any retreat. Being encircled has a powerful negative psychological effect on opponents.

Supporting story: Battle of Isandlwana, Zulu people surprise and surround British invaders and defeat them despite superior firepower.

20. Manuever them into weakness

Find ways to put opponents into positions of weakness such that victory is easy and quick.

21. Negotiate while advancing

Continue advancing during negotiations, compelling the other side to settle on your terms. The more you take the more you can give back in meaningless concession.

Supporting story: Philip II of Macedonia and Athens

22. Know how to end things

Know when to cut your losses

Unconventional Warfare

23. Deception

Misconception strategies that create a false perception. Weave fact and fiction to deceive your enemies, then strike when and where they aren't expecting.

Supporting story: WWII invasion of Normandy, doppleganger of General Montgomery sent far away, huge investment into misinformation, fake army encampments etc.

24. Ordinary-extraordinary strategy

Hannibal came out of the mountains with fucking elephants ****

27. Create alliances

Find others to advance your current interests, help someone else you need help from in order to create debt. Damage your enemy's alliances.

28. Enough rope to hang themselves

Attack internal rivals

31. Destroy from within

Infiltrate your enemies camp. Do not attack or show your intentions. Once there, slowly take over from within.

32. Dominate while seeming to submit

Use non-aggression to gain public favor while your enemy uses aggression

33. Create uncertainty/panic with terror

A form of psychological warfare, create uncertainty in minds of enemy

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