Strange as it may seem, today's generation of kids probably know more about military strategy than many generals of a hundred years ago. Why? In a phrase: "Video games." From World of Warcraft to Halo, Modern War to Fallout 4, gamers these days get quite the education in military strategy well before they're old enough to attend West Point.
Maybe that's kind of a natural thing for a nation that proudly boasts the largest and most powerful military in human history. All things considered, it shouldn't be that weird. And yet somehow, we bet you'll be surprised by exactly how many of these classic military strategies you already know. You might not know the names of the strategies themselves, or the history behind them. But you'll probably find at least half of these strategies oddly familiar.
1. Double Envelopement (Pincer Movement)
Most famously used by military genius Hannibal Barca at the Battle of Cannae, the classic "Pincer Maneuver" has gone on to near mythical status in popular culture as a synonym for an inescapable trap. At Cannae, a gravely outnumbered Hannibal (by about 30,000 troops) arranged his line so it was bowed out in the front toward the Romans.
He intentionally made the middle of his line, closest to the enemy, very thin and weak - which is exactly backward of what you'd think. It certainly fooled the Romans. When they attacked Hannibal's line, the weak point in its center gave back, while the strong flanks held firm. Eventually, his line straightened out, and the Romans (sensing victory) pushed hard at the center. Hannibal allowed his line to flex backward into a deep "V" shape. The "pincer."
With the Roman forces now crammed into the bottom of his pincer "V," Hannibal had his flanks quickly turn inward toward the Romans. The Romans had walked right into a trap, and Hannibal's forces took them right in the unprotected flanks. He closed the top of the "V" with his quick-riding cavalry forces, completing the "double envelopment." The Roman force was now trapped and attacked from all sides. Hannibal's forces brutally cut down every single Roman soldier over the course of about four hours, killing around 50,000 to 70,000 of them while taking barely 6,000 casualties of their own.
This use of the double envelopment has since gone down as one of the greatest strategic victories in military history, securing Hannibal's legend.
Football fans are familiar with the classic feint: a "fake-out" maneuver that causes the opposition to think you're going one way, while you secretly plan to go another. In military terms, feints can become hugely elaborate campaigns of deception, and typically involve diversionary forces to misdirect the enemy. When planning the D-Day invasion at Normandy, Allies pulled off a massive feint by building a fake army of inflatable tanks and jeeps, and parking them at a fake launch point. The real invading force, meanwhile, was hidden under camouflage miles away.
Hitler, relying on misinformation fed to him by Allied double agents and radio traffic, believed the inflatable army was real. While Allies were killed in large numbers on Omaha Beach, those landing in other areas fared much better, largely because Hitler's troops were so woefully distracted. This brilliant campaign of deception made D-Day probably the largest and most successful feint maneuver in military history.
3. Choke Point
In terms of broad strategy, you already know history's most famous choke point maneuver: brave Leonidas, and his tiny band of Spartans at the narrow Thermopylae Pass. A mere 300 Spartans held back an army of as many as 200,000 Persians by acting as a stopper in one ridiculously narrow mountain pass.
In the modern day, a "choke point" could be something as small as a doorway for individual soldiers, a narrow strait for Naval forces, or the Suez Canal area on the Sinai Peninsula. All represent choke points on different scales.
Blitzkreig means "lightning war" in German, and it refers to a fast-moving, highly aggressive, generally unexpected attack using overwhelming forces. Hitler wasn't the first to use this form of attack (most famously in Poland), but he did favor it for very good reason. Germans who fought in the first World War saw first hand the pointless horror of trenches, slow advances, and battles of attrition.
That's why Hitler favored the blitz, and that's why it worked so well. Nobody expected the kind of fast-moving, decisive attack Hitler planned, led first by speedy Luftwaffe bombers. They expected slow-moving lines of entrenched soldiers and massive artillery pieces; Germany shocked everyone by using highly penetrative maneuvers, and capturing territory in hours instead of months. Eventually, though, the Allies adapted to Hitler's lightning strikes with radar, quick-responding defenses and lightning attacks of their own.
5. Air Superiority (Taking the High Ground)
One of the most basic tactical concepts in the world is taking the high ground. In infantry battles, it's a lot easier to attack going downhill than uphill. Think of Gandalf and the Rohirrim's charge down the mountain at the Battle of Helm's Deep; they took the high ground, and used the downward momentum of that charge to smash Sauron's orc army. And this battle also revealed another benefit of charging downhill. If you time it right, and plan your attack for morning or evening, you can attack with the sun at your back, blinding the enemy and giving your forces a massive combat advantage.
But landborne forces aren't the only known to "come out of the sun" for an attack. These days, "the "high ground" is as often as not the sky itself. Since WWII, it's become axiomatic that he who establishes air superiority wins. Mostly because the high ground also gives an advantage in range for bombarding the enemy with artillery or bombs. Which, in the case of aircraft, fall straight from overhead.
6. Raiding (Resource Denial)
Pretty standard strategy, and a staple of any comprehensive military campaign. Resource denial could mean sabotaging, destroying or (preferably) stealing enemy weapons and supplies. It could also mean destroying the means of production of vital materials, like power stations, reservoir dams, farms, crops. Raiders might also target vital facilities that are used to support a war effort, like the British Commandos' famous raid on Nazi U-Boats. A "raid" is any attack that specifically targets the supplies and ancillary resources, rather than enemy soldiers themselves.
Infiltration is often considered part and parcel to guerrilla warfare, since it involves sneaking a contingent of attacking forces within or behind an enemy's lines. Most U.S. special forces use infiltration to some degree, as did the Vietcong in Southeast Asia, British Commandos in Europe, and any number of other conflicts going all the way back to the Trojan Horse. But in a broader sense, "infiltration" isn't always sneaky. It can almost mean dropping 10,000 paratroopers into the middle of enemy held territory, as a means of attacking them from behind and within. The principle is the same, whether the infiltrators sneak in at night or drop from the sky playing "Ride of the Valkyries." Infiltration simply means getting your forces behind enemy lines without going around those lines. If you go around the lines and attack from behind, that's not "infiltration" - it's an envelopment.
8. Fabian Strategy
This strategy is the one that almost - almost - took down Hannibal Barca. After Rome's several devastating losses to Hannibal, its generals finally wised up to the fact that they could never beat the Carthaginian's military genius in direct battle. So, Rome's new military dictator Fabius Maximus decided that they simply wouldn't fight him. Instead of meeting Hannibal in direct battle the way Hannibal wanted, Fabius set about sending small parties out to constantly harass them, destroying supplies and burning crops anywhere Hannibal's army went. The genius of this plan was Fabius' realization that Hannibal, more than a thousand miles from Carthage, couldn't possibly re-supply his army. He was depending on quick, decisive Battles of Annihilation to take down Rome.
And Fabius almost succeeded. His strategy was working perfectly, and Hannibal's army was on the verge of giving up through starvation. But then, Roman pride got the better of them, and they fired Fabius for refusing to go out and fight Hannibal. Then they hired a new military leader who led 80,000 of Rome's finest right into the battle Hannibal wanted. That battle was at a place called Cannae. Rome quickly went back to the Fabian strategy afterward, and Hannibal was ultimately driven from Italy. "The Fabian Strategy" very familiar to the "scorched earth" philosophy of warfare.
9. Divide and Conquer
So well known it's become something of a trope, Divide and Conquer is just as effective as you think it is. But maybe not for the reasons you think, and it takes a few forms. The most basic form is physically dividing an enemy's forces - splitting an attacking force in two. That allows you to destroy one half at a time, effectively doubling the frontal area of attack, thinning the lines and forcing the enemy to maintain two separate command structures and supply chains.
The second form is splitting the enemy in two, and then either getting one of them out of the fight, or (best of all) turning them against each other. Apathy and demoralization work for the first, and capitalizing on differences between two dissimilar groups in an enemy's ranks works for the second. If you can use psi-ops and infiltrators to turn two sections of an army against each other, you've taken the entire opposing force out of the fight, as they're too busy fighting each other to fight you.
10. Guerrilla Warfare ("Unconventional Warfare")
Unconventional warfare can take many, many forms - essentially, it's anything but uniformed soldiers showing up in formation with guns and tanks. When most people thing of guerrilla warfare, we tend to imagine SEAL Teams, British Commandos, and the Vietcong. Those are all fine examples, and all of them (especially the VC) are known masters of infiltration, disruption, subversion, booby trapping, demolition, and generally sneaking about in the dark.
But, depending on who you ask, and how it's used in context to larger strategic goals, unconventional warfare can have a far darker side. Namely, terrorism. Not lone wolf types, but coordinated strikes against civilian populations in an enemy nation. Take your pick from 9/11, to 7/7, to 2015's ISIS attacks in Paris - all are examples of "unconventional warfare." Coordinated attacked waged by smaller forces against larger ones, with clear strategic goals in mind. We don't have to respect such dastardly deeds... but there's no denying that this strategy has as long a history in warfare as any other.
11. Bait and Bleed (aka "Camping")
It's a dirty word among first-person shooter gamers worldwide, spoken of with all the venom of a spitting snake. "Camping." But this classic strategy is hated for a reason: It works. Also known as "Wait and Bleed," this strategy is related to "divide and conquer," but typically involves encouraging (then waiting out) conflict between two parties that already want each other dead. The camper then comes in and cleans up the spoils. This strategy would work if one's opponent could be divided into two opposing groups. If you stoke the animosity between these two sides, the hope is that they begin to attack one another before you launch your attack.
12. Siege (Encirclement or Blockade)
Of various types of siege warfare, this is the one most people are most familiar with. An attacking force surrounds a city or fortification, cutting it off from the outside world and waiting for the population to starve, run out of water, or surrender. This time-tested strategy is unique because it can - in theory - lead to a completely bloodless victory by surrender. Because it's essentially a resource denial strategy, it's entirely possible for a besieging army to simply wait out the defenders and win without firing a shot.
13. Area Denial
Area denial is another one of those that is exactly what it sounds like. Controlling an enemy's movements by keeping them out of an area. In the 20th Century, landmines have been the go-to weapon for area denial, but these are just one somewhat recent innovation in a long line of area denial weapons. Others have included trenches, moats, caltrops, sharpened spikes, barbed wire, fire, and fire ants. A wonderful example of area denial can be found in the Falklands War, when Argentine forces made it exceedingly difficult for the British to land on their shores.
In every way that the double envelopment is a precisely-calculated dance of tactical maneuvers, the Penetration attack is just a sledgehammer. The concept is very straightforward: Drive a very powerful, hardened "spike" of soldiers through the middle of an enemy's line, and punch all the way out through the back of their formation. Once there, attack the enemy from behind. Simple, right? It combines envelopment, division, and flanking into one ridiculous maneuver. And it can work brilliantly if, say, you've got war chariots or elephants to punch straight through a formation, and enough soldiers to keep the gap open. It also works if you're running a blitzkrieg attack, and you can simply go over the enemy's lines and drop paratroopers behind it.
15. Shock and Awe
These days, we kind of tend to laugh off the "Shock and Awe" strategy - memories of tracers fired over Iraq and free fireworks displays don't die easy. It worked for Julius Caesar when he built a bridge to cross the Rhine, just to show his opponents he could do it, and it worked when the US dropped atomic bombs upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Signs of overwhelming force and technical superiority have a long, proud history in warfare.
16. Siege (Bombardment)
Siege by bombardment is just what it sounds like: hammering away at an enemy position with artillery, catapults, or air strikes and winning by attrition, destruction of resources, and simply breaking the enemy's will and ability to fight. Bombardment is often used in conjunction with encirclement siege, as it can drastically shorten the length of the siege.
17. Scorched Earth
This is probably the best known and most ostensibly desperate of the Fabian Tactics. Burning one's own crops and supplies to deny them to an occupying enemy is hardly a new policy. We famously used a variation of Scorched Earth in Vietnam, utilizing a combination of napalm and the notorious defoliant Agent Orange to deny the Vietcong a jungle in which to hide. Scorched Earth is the ultimate "If I can't have it, you can't either" policy. It's controversial, and painful for those doing the burning - but it has proven effective in keeping occupying forces from resupplying and re-equipping.
18. Battle of Annihilation
Historians claim that the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 is a good example of a battle of annihilation, since 51,000 casualties were experienced over just three days. This maneuver seeks to destroy the capacity of an opponent with a single, explosive engagement. The ultimate goal of this kind of decisive campaign is to win entire wars in one battle. The Japanese have long favored single, decisive battles over long campaigns of attrition: Pearl Harbor was another perfect example of a planned Battle of Annihilation.
Battles of attrition are pretty straightforward: Just wearing the enemy down through loss of soldiers and material until they're unable to fight. Chess is one example of an attrition-based game, where the goal is to remove the enemy's pieces until they're not able to defend the King. Checkers is an even better example, since the whole point of the game is to systematically eliminate pieces. The difference between attrition-based strategies and others is that attrition depends on the removal or destruction of enemy resources or personnel, and losses of one's own are expected and accounted for. That's what makes chess an attrition-based game; it's almost impossible to put the other player into checkmate without taking a couple of his pieces, or losing a few of your own.
In modern war, battles of attrition are an absolute last resort, because they're long, bloody, and expensive. That's a lesson we learned in the First World War.