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

Feigned Retreat

Excerpt from How Wars Are Won: The 13 Rules of War—From Ancient Greece to the War on Terror, by Bevin Alexander, pages 94-95

Pretending to be defeated, running away, and then ambushing the supposedly victorious pursuers has been a rule of war for as long as we have records of human conflict. A case among the Murngin Aborigines of Australia in the 1920s followed this scenario exactly---tribal members faked a rout by another Aboriginal band, and led the pursuers to the tribe’s main body concealed in some woods. Chief Red Cloud (1822-1909) of the Oglala Sioux carried out a similar deception which led to the death of eighty-two whites in the Fetterman Massacre in Montana in 1866.

Mao Zedong used the practice to protect the small Communist “Central Soviet” in the Wuyi mountains of southeastern China in the war against the Nationalists from 1928 to 1934. Mao’s forces were far inferior to the pursuing Nationalist troops. Retreating in seeming panic, the would entice a Nationalist unit to follow. Once the unit was isolated within Communist-held territory, the Reds surrounded it with overwhelming force and destroyed it. The Communists in the Vietnam War also used this technique on occasion, retreating before American search-and-destroy forces, then turning on a small unit that had become separated from supporting elements.

This is the rule of feigned retreat. The principle is to draw an enemy out of his defensive positions so that he can be defeated. The rule is extraordinarily difficult to pull off in battle, however, because most troops are demoralized when they are called upon to withdraw, and cannot be turned back into optimistic, aggressive soldiers simply on command of their officers.

Even so this maxim was used with tremendous effect even by warriors who could not read and write, and had no means of communicating over distances except by flags, smoke signals, and couriers. The concept arose among horse-archers of nomad tribes on the steppes of Eurasia about 2,700 years ago, and attained its zenith there. Feigned retreat and the tactics built around it caused the downfall of sundry states and empires, and threatened the collapse of Europe in the thirteenth century.

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