Ockham’s Razor

How Great Generals Win:
The 13 Rules of War from Ancient Greece to the War on Terror

History 361, Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia

Also known as the law of parsimony, from William of Ockham (1285?–1349?), English philosopher who rejected universal concepts.

The simplest of two or more theories is preferable, and an explanation of unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is known.

Applicable in myriad circumstances. Especially useful in solving problems in warfare. The obvious answer to a situation is usually the best.

Example 1

A guerrilla uprising could have been predicted among the Sunnis in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was ousted in spring 2003 because the Vietnam War had confirmed the axiom that all weak countries invaded by a stronger country will always move to guerrilla warfare. This is because guerrilla warfare is the only means a weak country has to counter an invader’s power. It was also the only way the Sunnis could hope to regain the commanding place they had held for eighty years. U.S. intelligence services mentioned the possibility of a guerrilla uprising, but downplayed it to fit into the conviction of the Bush administration that Saddam’s ouster would be met by jubilation among the Iraqi people. The Bush administration, in summary, rejected the simplest or most obvious Iraqi response in favor of the response it desired, and therefore took inadequate measures to counter the insurgent uprising before it could become widespread.

Example 2

The experiences of the first year of the American Civil War demonstrated that the single-shot Minié-ball rifle, with a range four times that of the smoothbore musket of the Mexican War, was producing appalling casualties against any force that attacked an emplaced and waiting enemy. Moreover, since the rifle could be reloaded with any speed only when a soldier was standing, soldiers were obliged to advance on an enemy while marching upright. This situation demanded one of two solutions: 1) a revolutionary change in infantry tactics so soldiers could advance without becoming such easy targets, or 2) a method to capitalize on the fact that infantry assaults—as then being conducted—could result in devastating losses and perhaps defeat. Solution 1 would have required a radically new method of conducting infantry assaults. Such a step would have constituted a complete transformation in the conduct of battle, and was far too great an intellectual challenge for military thinkers at the time (in fact, the solution was not found until 1915 in World War I). Stonewall Jackson saw that solution 2 contained the simplest answer—Confederate commanders should avoid attacks by their forces and induce attacks by Union forces. Jackson proposed a defensive strategy to move Rebel forces to places where the Federal army was required to attack, with the assurance that the attacks would fail with dreadful losses, allowing the Confederates then to advance around the defeated Union troops and force their retreat or surrender. His commander, Robert E. Lee, however, refused three times to accept this simple answer, waited once till too late to exploit the victory (at Second Manassas), and allowed it only at Chancellorsville, where it produced a tremendous Union defeat but did not result in the army’s destruction because Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded while moving to block the Union army’s retreat.

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