Rules of War

Continue reading the other excerpt sections of this site to see many more instances of the Rules of War in action.

To Avoid Strength, Strike Weakness

Excerpt from Sun Tzu at Gettysburg, by Bevin Alexander, page xiv

Sun Tzu’s axioms can be employed in any military context in any war.  His most profound principle is that “the way to avoid what is strong is to strike what is weak.”  He writes this same principle in a different way: as water seeks the easiest path to the sea, so armies should avoid obstacles and seek avenues of least resistance. Read more >>

Ignoring One's Own Strength

Excerpt from Sun Tzu at Gettysburg, by Bevin Alexander, pages 2 and 3

British leaders [in the American Revolution] largely disregarded their most powerful weapon, the Royal Navy.  They might have won the war with few casualties if they had occupied or blockaded all the major American ports and protected their conquests with the Royal Navy.  The Americans depended on exports, mostly agricultural or forest based, and on imports of manufactured goods.  Closing the ports might in time have led to a compromise.  Such a policy would have been consistent with a fundamental Sun Tzu axiom: that one should advance into the enemy’s vacuities, that is, into undefended or indefensible places.  Read more >>

Sun Tzu's Zheng and Qi

Excerpt from Sun Tzu at Gettysburg, by Bevin Alexander, page 127

Practically all successful commanders throughout history have applied [Sun Tzu’s] rule of zheng [orthodox forces] and qi [unorthodox forces].  Combining these two approaches causes the enemy to divide his own strength, allowing the decisive blow to be delivered against a fraction of the enemy’s power, not---as in the case of a direct attack---against the vast bulk of his power. Read more >>

Following a "Plan with Branches"

Excerpt from How Great Generals Win, by Bevin Alexander, pages 303-04

Although an eighteenth-century French officer, Pierre de Bourcet, coined this phrase, Subedei Bahudur used the principle in 1241 in the Mongol invasion of Europe. One column of Mongol horsemen rushed westward into Poland and Germany north of the Carpathian Mountains, drawing off all forces in this region. Read more >>

Occupying the Central Position

Excerpt from How Great Generals Win,by Bevin Alexander, pages 302-03

In the opening act of the Italian campaign in 1796, Napoleon drove his army between the Piedmontese and Austrian armies in the Apennines west of Genoa thereby permitting him to defeat one enemy force before having to deal with the other. (See page 104.) Later at Castiglione he got his army between two major Austrian attacking columns, driving back one, then defeating the other. (See page 110.) Read more >>

Making Convergent Tactical Blows

Excerpt from How Great Generals Win, by Bevin Alexander, pages 304-05

This is the essential formula for actual battle, achieved by dividing the attacking force into two or more segments and attacking the target simultaneously. One of the greatest examples of this formula was at Cannae in 216 B.C. Hannibal advanced his less dependable Gauls and Spanish soldiers in the center, while holding back his more reliable African infantry on each flank. Read more >>

Operating on the Line of Least Expectation and Least Resistance

Excerpt from How Great Generals Win, by Bevin Alexander, pages 300-01

Hannibal took his army through the formidable swamps of the Arnus River in Tuscany in 217 B.C. rather than face the Roman army directly. Not expecting such a move, the Romans left the route open, permitting Hannibal to emerge behind the Roman army with a clear road to Rome. Read more >>

Maneuvering on the Rear of the Enemy

Excerpt from How Great Generals Win, by Bevin Alexander, pages 301-02

By demonstrating with part of his army at Valenza on the Po River in northern Italy in 1796, Napoleon convinced the Austiran commander this was the sole French target, drawing Austrian defenders to that point. Napoleon then marched the majority of his forces downstream to Piacenza, thereby turning all possible enemy lines of defense, and forcing the Austrians to abandon all of northern Italy except the fortress of Mantua. Read more >>

The Military Mind in Action

This is a personal anecdote of Bevin Alexander, not an excerpt from one of his books

I realized fairly early that there is a military mind. The British call such a person “Colonel Blimp”, a rules-obsessed officer who goes by the book but has little judgment. I was a young cadet, sitting in a military science and tactics class at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. Our “tac officer” was an army lieutenant colonel whom I had already identified as a person of tremendous confidence and few brains. Read more >>

Why Mediocre Generals Rarely Win Big Victories

Excerpt from Lost Victories: The Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson, by Bevin Alexander, pages 265-66

Background: In late November 1862 the Union army under Ambrose E. Burnside moved to Fredericksburg, with the intention of crossing the Rappahannock river and driving the fifty-five miles to Richmond.

Lee quickly found out Burnside’s preparations [to cross] at Skinker’s Neck [twelve miles below Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock] and his probings at Port Royal [eighteen miles below Fredericksburg]. When Jackson arrived he sent his corps to cover both points, moves soon discovered by the Federals. Read more >>

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