The Art of War: The Indirect Approach

By Scott Parrino 16 Feb 2004 0

The Art of War: "The Indirect Approach"

"More and more clearly has the lesson emerged that a direct approach to one's mental object, or physical objective, along the 'line of expectation' for the opponent, tends to produce negative results." [1] The disadvantages of a direct approach, or a frontal attack, are clearly evident. Our opponent, anticipating our intention, is not only allowed to choose his battlefield, but prepare defenses and reinforce his position as well. "And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him." [2] World War I, as we all know, is a perfect example of the direct approach. The appalling losses suffered during that war drove the final nail into the belief that wars could be won without horrific loss of life by use of sheer mass alone.

This belief in the use of mass has been fostered by Carl von Clausewitz in his book On War. We owe Clausewitz a great debt for his staggeringly lucid conceptual observations on war and its role as a national political tool. However, the great man's work has all too many times been misinterpreted as a guide to the conduct of operations. During the First World War, huge offensives gained mere feet in territory, yet these operations were conducted in accordance with the Principles of War laid down by Clausewitz. "The greatest possible number of troops should be brought into action at the decisive point." [3] But while mass is indeed critical, what the generals failed to see was that it should be applied to "the decisive point," and not against heavily fortified and entrenched defenses. Perhaps, though their offensives brought great casualties and had failed to breech what the generals had determined to be the decisive point, they took comfort in Clausewitz when he opined "Whether the troops thus brought are sufficient or not, we have then done in this respect all that our means allowed." [4] To blame Clausewitz for the slaughter of millions is, of course, ridiculous. Fortunately, our knowledge of war and the art required in its successful application are not limited to a single philosopher.

"War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied." [5] So wrote the mysterious Sun Tzu in his book The Art of War. While controversy continues to this day regarding the identity of the author and the time in which it was written (reputedly 500 B.C.). What cannot be denied is that the Chinese were systematically studying and teaching the art of war as far back as 300-400 B.C. Regardless, it is in this book, written in the form of seemingly simple verses, that we find a clear vision on the conduct of war. "Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes at weakness." [6] And while this statement may sound logical for the movement of troops and perhaps even contrary to the principle of mass, it is neither. For Sun Tzu is not simply referring to the maneuvering of an army nor the concentration of many against few, but preparing us for an elaboration of his concept of the conduct of war, one which would come to be known as The Indirect Approach. Let us now look closely at that concept.

Sun Tzu's vision of the conduct of warfare concentrates on the roles, not the mere employment, of military forces in relation to successful strategy. "That the army is certain to sustain the enemy's attack without suffering defeat is due to operations of the extraordinary and the normal forces." [7] From this quote we see that Sun Tzu believes that combat forces have two fundamental roles. He explains these roles in a simple analogy: "The force which confronts the enemy is the normal; that which goes to his flanks the extraordinary." [8] It is here that we see our first definition of The Indirect Approach in its most basic form: the flank attack. He does not, however, explicitly state that these roles require separate forces (that is, an extraordinary force and a normal force), divided in time and space. One may easily be lured into such an explanation by taking only a cursory look at his writings, however. We shall return to that point later.

A student of Sun Tzu, and perhaps the most famous modern strategist, B.H. Liddell Hart, expanded on Sun Tzu's belief that successful warfare requires that combat forces perform two fundamental roles. He defines these roles as "dislocation" and "concentration." Dislocation is the unbalancing of the enemy (whether physically or psychologically) due to a move which distracts them from our actual intent such that they are unprepared to respond to the true nature of our attack. It can do so, for example, by causing a change in front or an attack against his supply line (like water which "hastens to the lowlands"). This is precisely the same role of the normal forces of Sun Tzu. Concentration is the placement of forces at a point and time which the enemy cannot resist. If the enemy has been truly distracted, the psychological dislocation which occurs prevents him from effectively responding to our concentration ("so an army avoids strength and attacks weakness"). This is the role of the extraordinary forces of Sun Tzu and "the decisive point" of Clausewitz. What is crucial to understand, is that without a successful dislocation of our enemy, our concentration is doomed to failure. "In war, as in wrestling, an attempt to throw the opponent without loosening his foothold and upsetting his balance results in self-exhaustion." [9] Understanding the relationship of our distraction and the resulting dislocation which it seeks is the first key in truly acquiring insight into the use of The Indirect Approach. In illustration, let us look at figure 1.

The Flank Attack.

Figure 1 represents the classic flank attack. Notice, the normal forces are somewhat weaker than their opponent's battle line, but not sufficiently weaker such that our opponent will quickly realize the attack as anything but direct. Indeed, it is paramount that the normal forces attack with vigour to reinforce our opponent's view that we have taken a direct line of approach with a frontal assault (our first key). For such a strategy to prevail "it would even be true to say that the larger the force that is effectively used for distraction of the enemy, the greater is the chance of the concentration succeeding in its aim." [10] In modern terms we would explain this attack as first engaging and pinning the enemy army to its' position with our main body (the distraction/normal forces role), while our reserve attacks its' flank (the concentration/extraordinary forces role), achieving superiority in numbers at the decisive point. It should be noted, however, that "superior weight at the intended decisive point does not suffice unless that point cannot be reinforced in time." [11] Herein lies the second key: the timing of the concentration such as to fully exploit the effects of the distraction and effectively dislocate our opponent. Using this key at the correct moment, knowing when to strike, is what makes war an art.

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