How Wars Are Won: The 13 Rules of War—From Ancient Greece to the War on Terror

How Wars Are Won: The 13 Rules of War—From Ancient Greece to the War on Terror Click here to purchase from Barnes & Noble. Click here to purchase from

Even as we head into twenty-first-century warfare, thirteen time-tested rules for waging war remain relevant. Both timely and timeless, How Wars Are Won illuminates the thirteen essential rules for success on the battlefield that have evolved from ancient times until the present day. Acclaimed military historian Bevin Alexander’s incisive and vivid analyses of famous battles throughout the ages show how the greatest commanders—from Alexander the Great to Douglas MacArthur—have applied these rules. For example:

The lessons of history revealed in these pages can be used to shape the strategies needed to win the conflicts of today.


All wars follow rules whose origins go back before the dawn of history. The rules of war relate to solving specific problems. They are not general rules for all situations.

Chapter 1: The Revolution in Warfare

Highly accurate weapons and the discovery that conventional armies can be defeated by guerrillas have transformed warfare.

Chapter 2: Striking at Enemy Weakness

Terrorism and guerrilla warfare exploit this rule, which is to nullify an enemy’s strength by exploiting his weakness. Chapter describes Mao Zedong’s success in China, Giap’s success in Vietnam, and examples from earlier history.

Chapter 3: Defend, Then Attack

Though most commanders have merely tried to avoid defeat against a stronger enemy, a leader with a better weapon or a superior tactical system can win great victories by stopping an enemy attack and then going over to the offensive. Examples from Stonewall Jackson and the English at Crécy, among others.

Chapter 4: Holding One Place, Striking Another

The convergent attack, exemplified by ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu’s direct zheng element and his indirect qi element, but applicable to all warfare at all times. Examples from Gustavus Adolphus on the Lech River in Bavaria 1632, Napoleon at Jena 1806, and defense of the Kum River line in Korea 1950.

Chapter 5: Feigned Retreat

Drawing an enemy away from strong defensive positions by enticing him to pursue, then falling on his disorganized elements one at a time. The greatest practitioners of the rule were the horse archers of the Eurasian steppes, including Genghis Khan’s Mongols.

Chapter 6: The Central Position

Placing one’s force between two enemy forces that collectively are stronger; defeating one before having to deal with the other. Examples from the greatest appliers of this rule, Napoleon and Stonewall Jackson, and from German commander Erwin Rommel at the Kasserine Pass, Tunisia 1943.

Chapter 7: Employing a Superior Weapon

Armies try for symmetry, or similar weapons on both sides, but asymmetry is common in war. When a commander is unable to recognize that his opponent has a better weapon or is unwilling to counter it, he can suffer devastating loss. Examples from Adrianople A.D. 378, Hastings 1066, the Thirty Years War 1618-48, and Erwin Rommel in Libya and Egypt 1941-42.

Chapter 8: Driving a Stake in the Enemy’s Heart

Pressing into an enemy’s vitals and destroying his means to resist. Examples from Alexander the Great against the Persian Empire 334 B.C., the American march on Mexico City 1847, Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas 1864-65, and the German defeat at Stalingrad 1942.

Chapter 9: Blocking an Enemy’s Retreat

Cutting off the means of an enemy’s withdrawal and supply can result in his outright destruction. Examples from the Teutoburger Wald A.D. 9, Saratoga 1777 and Yorktown 1781 in the American Revolution, and Chancellorsville 1863 in the Civil War.

Chapter 10: Landing an Overwhelming Blow

The dilemma is where to land the blow and what to do about the rest of the enemy’s force. This requires the commander to act without being thwarted or deflected by the enemy. Examples from Epaminondas at Leuctra 371 B.C., Frederick the Great at Rossbach and Leuthen 1757, and Nelson at Trafalgar 1805.

Chapter 11: Stroke at a Weak Spot

Penetrating a weak point either discovered or created in the enemy’s position. The opposite of the usual military effort to break into an enemy’s position by sheer power. Examples from Alexander the Great at the Granicus, Issus and Arbela 334-331 B.C., Napoleon’s “strategic battle,” and his actions at Austerlitz 1805.

Chapter 12: Caldron Battles

Enveloping the enemy from all sides, preventing his retreat, then destroying him in place. The rule goes back to the Stone Age, but is extraordinarily hard to pull off. Examples from Hannibal at Cannae 216 B.C., the German Schlieffen Plan 1914 and Tannenberg 1914, and the German attack on the Soviet Union 1941.

Chapter 13: Uproar East, Attack West

From Chinese strategist Sun Tzu’s admonition to “make an uproar in the east, but attack in the west.” That is, induce the enemy to believe a blow is coming at one place, but actually deliver it at another. Examples from Alexander the Great on the Hydaspes River in India 326 B.C., British general James Wolfe at Quebec 1759, and the German attack on France 1940.

Chapter 14: Maneuvers on the Rear

A massive descent with one’s entire army or a large part of it on the enemy’s rear, blocking his lines of communication or avenues of retreat. Most famous exponent was Napoleon with his manoeuvres sur les derrières, but practiced by Genghis Khan and others. Examples from Napoleon’s Marengo campaign 1800, American island-hopping in the Pacific 1943-44, and MacArthur’s Inchon invasion in Korea 1950.


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