Book Excerpt: Principles of War and Strategy

Editor’s note: The following is from the chapter “Introduction to Strategy” of the book Deep Green Resistance: A Strategy to Save the  Planet. This book is now available for free online.

     by Aric McBay

I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery.

—Henry David Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown”

Anarchist Michael Albert, in his memoir Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life after Capitalism, writes, “In seeking social change, one of the biggest problems I have encountered is that activists have been insufficiently strategic.” While it’s true, he notes, that various progressive movements “did just sometimes enact bad strategy,” in his experience they “often had no strategy at all.”1

It would be an understatement to say that this inheritance is a huge problem for resistance groups. There are plenty of possible ways to explain it. Because we sometimes don’t articulate a clear strategy because we’re outnumbered and overrun with crises or immediate emergencies, so that we can never focus on long-term planning. Or because our groups are fractured, and devising a strategy requires a level of practical agreement that we can’t muster. Or it can be because we’re not fighting to win. Or because many of us don’t understand the difference between a strategy and a goal or a wish. Or because we don’t teach ourselves and others to think in strategic terms. Or because people are acting like dissidents instead of resisters. Or because our so-called strategy often boils down to asking someone else to do something for us. Or because we’re just not trying hard enough.

One major reason that resistance strategy is underdeveloped is because thinkers and planners who do articulate strategies are often attacked for doing so. People can always find something to disagree with. That’s especially true when any one strategy is expected to solve all problems or address all causes claimed by progressives. If a movement depends more on ideological purity than it does on accomplishments, it’s easy for internal sectarian arguments to take priority over getting things done. It’s easier to attack resistance strategists in a burst of horizontal hostility than it is to get things together and attack those in power.

The good news is that we can learn from a few resistance groups with successful and well-articulated strategies. The study of strategy itself has been extensive for centuries. The fundamentals of strategy are foundational for military officers, as they must be for resistance cadres and leaders.


The US Army’s field manual entitled Operations introduces nine “Principles of War.” The authors emphasize that these are “not a checklist” and do not apply the same way in every situation. Instead, they are characteristic of successful operations and, when used in the study of historical conflicts, are “powerful tools for analysis.” The nine “core concepts” are:

Objective. “Direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective.” A clear goal is a prerequisite to selecting a strategy. It is also something that many resistance groups lack. The second and third requirements—that the objective be both decisive and attainable—are worth underlining. A decisive objective is one that will have a clear impact on the larger strategy and struggle. There is no point in going after one of questionable or little value. And, obviously, the objective itself must be attainable, because otherwise efforts toward that operation objective are a waste of time, energy, and risk.

Offensive. “Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative.” To seize the initiative is to determine the course of battle, the place, and the nature of conflict. To give up or lose the initiative is to allow the enemy to determine those things. Too often resistance groups, especially those based on lobbying or demands, give up the initiative to those in power. Seizing the initiative positions the fight on our terms, forcing them to react to us. Operations that seize the initiative are typically offensive in nature.

Mass. “Concentrate the effects of combat power at the decisive place and time.” Where the field manual says “combat power,” we can say “force” more generally. When Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest summed up his military theory as “get there first with the most,” this is what he was talking about. We must engage those in power where we are strong and they are weak. We must strike when we have overwhelming force, and maneuver instead of engaging when we are outmatched. We have limited numbers and limited force, so we have to use that when and where it will be most effective.

Economy of Force. “Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts.” In order to achieve superiority of force in decisive operations, it’s usually necessary to divert people and resources from less urgent or decisive operations. Economy of force requires that all personnel are performing important tasks, regardless of whether they are engaged in decisive operations or not.

Maneuver. “Place the enemy in a disadvantageous position through the flexible application of combat power.” This hinges on mobility and flexibility, which are essential for asymmetric conflict. The fewer a group’s numbers, the more mobile and agile it must be. This may mean concentrating forces, it may mean dispersing them, it may mean moving them, or it may mean hiding them. This is necessary to keep the enemy off balance and make that group’s actions unpredictable.

Unity of Command. “For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander.” This is where some streams of anarchist culture come up against millennia of strategic advice. We’ve already discussed this under decision making and elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating. No strategy can be implemented by consensus under dangerous or emergency circumstances. Participatory decision making is not compatible with high-risk or urgent operations. That’s why the anarchist columns in the Spanish Civil War had officers even though they despised rulers. A group may arrive at a strategy by any decision-making method it desires, but when it comes to implementation, a hierarchy is required to undertake more serious action.

Security. “Never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage.” When fighting in a panopticon, this principle becomes even more important. Security is a cornerstone of strategy as well as of organization.

Surprise. “Strike the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which they are unprepared.” This is key to asymmetric conflict—and again, not especially compatible with a open or participatory decision-making structures. Resistance movements are almost always outnumbered, which means they have to use surprise and swiftness to strike and accomplish their objective before those in power can marshal an overpowering response.

Simplicity. “Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding.” The plan must be clear and direct so that everyone understands it. The simpler a plan is, the more reliably it can be implemented by multiple cooperating groups.

Many of these basic principles fall into conflict with the favored actions of dissidents. Protest marches, petitions, letter writing, and so on often lack a decisive or attainable objective, give the initiative to those in power, fail to concentrate force at a decisive juncture, put excessive resources into secondary efforts, limit maneuvering ability, lack unified command for the objective (such as there is), have mixed implementation of security, and typically offer no surprise. They are, however, simple plans, if that’s any consolation.

In fact, these strategic principles might as well come from a different dimension as far as most (liberal) protest actions are concerned. That’s because the military strategist has the same broad objective as the radical strategist: to use the decisive application of force to accomplish a task. Neither strategist is under the illusion that the opponent is going to correct a “mistake” if this enemy gets enough information or that success can occur by simple persuasion without the backing of political force. Furthermore, both are able to clearly identify their enemy. If you identify with those in power, you’ll never be able to fight back. An oppositional culture has an identity that is distinct from that of those in power; this is a defining element of cultures of resistance. Without a clear knowledge of who your adversary is, you either end up fighting everyone (in classic horizontal hostility) or no one, and, in either case, your struggle cannot succeed.

In the US Army’s field manual on guerrilla warfare, entitled Special Forces Operations, the authors go further than the general principles of war to kindly describe the specific properties of successful asymmetric conflict. “Combat operations of guerilla forces”—and, I would add, resistance and asymmetric forces in general—“take on certain characteristics that must be understood.”2 Six key characteristics must be in place for resistance operations:

Planning. “Careful and detailed.… [p]lans provide for the attack of selected targets and subsequent operations designed to exploit the advantage gained.… Additionally, alternate targets are designated to allow subordinate units a degree of flexibility in taking advantage of sudden changes in the tactical situation.” In other words, it is important to employ maneuvering and flexible application of combat power. It’s important to emphasize that planning is notabout coming up with a concrete or complex scheme. The point is to plan well enough that they have the flexibility to improvise. It might sound counterintuitive, but the goal is to create an adaptable plan that offers many possibilities for effective action that can be applied on the fly.

Intelligence. “The basis of planning is accurate and up-to-date intelligence. Prior to initiating combat operations, a detailed intelligence collection effort is made in the projected objective area. This effort supplements the regular flow of intelligence.” That’s strategic and operational intelligence. On a tactical level, “provisions are made for keeping the target or objective area under surveillance up to the time of attack.”

Decentralized Execution. “Guerrilla combat operations feature centralized planning and decentralized execution.” It is necessary to have a coherent plan, and in order for that plan to be a surprise, the details often have to be kept secret. A centralized plan allows separate cells to carry out their work independently but still accomplish something through coordination and building toward long-term objectives. Decentralized execution is needed to reach multiple targets for a group that lacks a command and control hierarchy.

Surprise. “Attacks are executed at unexpected times and places. Set patterns of action are avoided. Maximum advantage is gained by attacking enemy weaknesses.” When planning a militant action, resisters don’t announce when or where. The point is not to make a statement, but to make a decisive material impact on systems of power. This can again be enhanced by coordination between multiple cells. “Surprise may also be enhanced by the conduct of concurrent diversionary activities.”

Short Duration Action. “Usually, combat operations of guerrilla forces are marked by action of short duration against the target followed by a rapid withdrawal of the attacking force. Prolonged combat action from fixed positions is avoided.” Resistance groups don’t have the numbers or logistics for sustained or pitched battles. If they try to draw out an engagement in one place, those in power can mobilize overwhelming force against them. So underground resistance groups appear, accomplish their objectives swiftly, and then disappear again.

Multiple Attacks. “Another characteristic of guerrilla combat operations is the employment of multiple attacks over a wide area by small units tailored to the individual missions.” Again, coordination is required. “Such action tends to deceive the enemy as to the actual location of guerrilla bases, causes him to over-estimate guerrilla strength and forces him to disperse his rear area security and counter guerrilla efforts.” That is, when those in power don’t know where an attack will come, they must spend effort to defend every single potential target—whether that means guarding them, increasing insurance costs, or closing down vulnerable installations. And as forces become more dispersed in order to guard sprawling and vulnerable infrastructure, they become less concentrated and correspondingly make easier targets.

Other writers on resistance struggles have shared these understandings. Che Guevara outlined similar strategy and tactics in his book Guerilla Warfare (1961), which itself followed from Mao Tse-Tung’s 1937 book on the subject. Colin Gubbins, former head of the British Special Operations Executive, wrote two pamphlets on the subject for use in Occupied Europe (written not long after Mao’s book). These pamphlets—The Partisan Leader’s Handbook and The Art of Guerilla Warfare—were based in part on what the British learned from T. E. Lawrence, but also from their attempts to quash resistance warfare in Ireland, Palestine, and elsewhere. In The Partisan Leader’s HandbookGubbins touched on the elements of surprise (“the most important thing in everything you undertake”), mobility, secrecy, and careful planning. “The whole object of this type of warfare is to strike the enemy, and disappear completely leaving no trace; and then to strike somewhere else and vanish again. By these means the enemy will never know where the next blow is coming,” he wrote.

Gubbins also urged resisters to “never engage in any operation unless you think success is certain.” Small resistance units don’t have the numbers or morale to absorb unnecessary losses. Resistance groups should only engage the enemy at points and times where they can overwhelm. The first step to take before any action is to plan a safe line of retreat, and “break off the action as soon as it becomes too risky to continue.” A newly founded resistance group often lacks the experience and training to accurately gauge how risky a situation is, which is why Gubbins recommends erring on the side of caution. It is better to learn iteratively and build up from a number of small successes than to get caught attempting operations that are too large and apt to end in failure. The takeaway message: successful resistance movements choose their battles carefully.

Just as asymmetric strategies require specific characteristics for success, they also have definite limitations.3 Resistance forces typically have “limited capabilities for static defensive or holding operations.” They often want to hold territory, to stand and fight. But when they try, it usually gets them killed, unless they’ve spent years developing extensive social and military groundwork and have a large force and popular support. Another limitation is that, especially in the beginning, resistance forces lack “formal training, equipment, weapons, and supplies” that would allow them to undertake large-scale operations. This can be gradually remedied through ongoing recruitment and training, good logistics, and the security and caution required to limit losses through attrition; however, resistance forces are often dependent on local supporters and auxiliaries—and perhaps an outside sponsoring power—for their supplies and equipment. If they can’t find those supporters, they will probably lose.

Communications offer another set of limitations. Communications in underground groups are often difficult, limited, and slow. This also applies to organizational command; the more decentralized an organization is, the longer it takes to propagate decisions, orders, and other information. And because resistance groups have small numbers and finite resources, “the entire project is dependent upon precise, timely, and accurate intelligence.”

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