Military people love to talk strategy, whether they are looking at current operations or arm chairing military history. Many of our uniformed friends often look at objectives or goals and then try to determine what strategy to employ to achieve those objectives. In older terms, military strategy is seen as the basic arrangement of troops and the planning and organization of campaigns.
The man considered by most as the father of Western military strategy is Carl von Clausewitz whose book, On War has trained countless military leaders how to look at warfare. Eastern military strategy is often credited to Sun Tzu who wrote The Art of War, which focuses more on asymmetrical war.
We’ve taken a look at the multitude of strategies out there and have come up with USAMM’s top five list that answers the question, what is the most effective military strategy of all time?
Divide and Conquer
Tukulti-Ninurta, the king of Assyria during the Middle Assyrian Empire, conquered and divided Babylon. The Assyrians conquered and subjugated Syria, Palestine, Armenia and Mesopotamia, cleverly having one group turn on itself. Forces can be divided from within, or by showing tactical deployments that make an enemy respond to a ruse. U.S. Marines did something similar in the 1990s during Operation Desert Storm when more than 8,000 Marines were dispersed along an area. The trick fooled the Iraqis who expected the Marines to lead the attack. Saddam Hussein sent troops to fight the Marines which divided his forces. It is a simple approach to applying effort to any task. In the case of warfare, an army takes action to divide an opposing force, thereby weakening one of its elements and using superior numbers to destroy it. In short, it is better to take on half of an army than all of it. So does divide and conquer answer the question, what is the most effective military strategy of all time?
Like many military strategies, this strategy is not modern and it mobilizes a nation’s entire resources and society to fight a war. This includes civilians and national resources. The national interests are given priority over the individual and all effort is poured into supporting the uniformed members of society. Total war as we know it as a modern strategy was something that emerged during World War I and World War II when nations involved in the conflicts focused on their military industrial complexes to achieve war objectives. Total war, however, isn’t for the squeamish since it makes civilians combatants. Everyone from an enemy nation, or from the opposing side, is considered to be a part of the war machine and therefore, an enemy. Gen. Tecumseh Sherman used the strategy of total war when he did his infamous March to the Sea. Later, during World War II, the United States used the total war strategy and that is best exhibited by the dropping of the atomic bombs. What is the most effective military strategy of all time? If that question is asked of those during the World War II era, especially Americans, they will likely answer total war.
Shock and Awe
Many connect this phrase to recent U.S. military operations, specifically in Iraq where the term was used by U.S. leaders to describe military action against Iraq. However, military strategists state that a shock and awe strategy makes an adversary unwilling to fight because of overwhelming displays of military power. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan are good examples to illustrate shock and awe. The show of force displayed by the attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were so intense that it forced Japan’s unconditional surrender. Prior to the atomic attacks on Japan, shock and awe strategies were used by Germans in the Blitzkrieg, by the Roman Legions, and it is mentioned by Sun Tzu in the Art of War. For some, what is the most effective military strategy of all time is answered by shock and awe, a state of helplessness induced onto the enemy by overwhelming combat force and rapid action.
The United States fought some of its war for independence using guerilla warfare. Knowing they were outnumbered and outgunned, they relied on ambushes and other unconventional tactics to keep the British off balance, especially in South Carolina where Swamp Fox Francis Marion combatted Brit forces using the wilderness to his advantage. The word guerrilla is a Spanish word meaning ‘little war.’ That translates to mean militarily that in a conflict there are opposing sides where one side is stronger than the other. Sound familiar? In Vietnam there was no doubt who the stronger nation was, but given that the Viet Cong chose to fight a guerilla war, a conventional military like the U.S. military fell victim to guerilla tactics where quick strike raids, ambushes, sabotage and other irregular actions were the norm. The VC could never meet the American military on a battlefield for a conventional fight, so they used irregular forces and techniques in hopes of fighting a war of attrition. They normally would strike quickly in an ambush, then flee without having to engage in a prolonged battle. The VC also used a large system of tunnels that could move forces underground without the detection of U.S. forces. When they were on the surface, the Viet Cong were experts in jungle warfare, a battleground U.S. forces were unfamiliar with. Guerilla warfare also resurfaced in Iraq and Afghanistan, and military academics have for the past 20 years been asking themselves, what is the most effective military strategy of all time? The answer in these modern times at least seems apparent.
The flip side of the guerilla warfare coin is asymmetric warfare or asymmetric engagement which is a war where the resources of the two belligerents are vastly different. For example, the U.S. military is fighting an asymmetric war in Iraq and Afghanistan whereas the opposing forces in those countries are fighting a guerrilla war. This type of warfare is what some call irregular war or a counterinsurgency.