The 33 Strategies of War

The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene

When resources are limited and there are too many people wanting to acquire them, competition is inevitable.  These resources could be wealth, power, territory, or in a business context – market space. History has seen great leaders compete for such resources with others in the form of warfare. Beyond the clashing of weapons and patriotic bravery, there is a mental, rational and strategic side to war. “The 33 Strategies of War” by Robert Greene talks about the 33 different strategies used by historical characters in warfare.  These are a testimony to the way the human mind works and its vulnerability to manipulation.   One should read this book to understand the working of one’s own mind and that of others. This understanding can be then used to devise powerful strategies, used to gain power and control over the limited resources. The book talks about each of these strategies in a very interesting format. Each strategy is discussed in detail using historical references, keys to warfare, with an image, an authority and instances of reversal. Interesting side notes add spice to the content.

Robert Greene’s books are one of a kind because of the immense research he puts into his books. It is important for any leader who is in control of men and money to be able to understand the mindsets of all parties involved. One should be in a position to control the dynamics of not only one’s own mind, but also that of his allies and rivals. This book helps understand the rationale behind important military decisions taken throughout history, which is still relevant today. It serves as a reference for any political or business leader to take such strategic decisions.

The book is organised into five sections. These are :-

  1. Self directed warfare- fighting the enemies within one self.
  2. Organised war- leading a group of people, such as an army against a common enemy.
  3. Defensive War- Protecting your resources against enemy attack.
  4. Offensive War- Attacking neighbours in pursuit of resources.
  5. Unconventional Warfare- Playing dirty tricks and techniques to overpower the enemy with minimum bloodshed.

Reading a book like this equips one with the ancient knowledge of great military strategists such as Sun Tsu, Machiavelli, Hannibal and Napoleon Bonaparte among others. It also illustrates the power games played by influential politicians of recent times, like Roosevelt, Hitler, Lyndon Johnson and Mahatma Gandhi. The strategic rationale behind the actions of such leaders amazes the reader as he flips the pages.

In the section on self-directed warfare, Greene highlights the importance of treating every new task with a fresh energy. He says that it would be disastrous to have past victory or defeat affect your mindset while one strategies for the task at hand. It is necessary to create a sense of urgency and desperation. When the warrior’s back is against the wall, he has no path to retreat, he is in a death ground. The best of the warrior comes out when the need of the hour is to fight like hell to get out alive. In the chapters on Organisational Warfare, he asks the strategist to transform your war into a crusade  – making people believe that there is a bigger cause to the war is perceived. Let your warriors believe that the very survival of the individual is dependent on the success and well-being of the whole group led by you.

A good strategist should pick his battles carefully. He should understand the economics of war, both the short and long-term. The resources at his disposal are limited and should be used wisely. One should build up a reputation of being unpredictable. The opponent should feel that it is not worth fighting you. This kind of threatening presence helps in defending you against enemies. While facing a strong enemy, it is rational to retreat and trade space for time. One can come back and fight another day with the new strength and stability built over time. Greene says that retreat is a sign of strength and not weakness.

While planning an offence against the enemy, the intelligence available to the strategist is of vital importance. One must be able to read people and use the intelligence available to control the enemy’s thoughts and actions. This is the art of deception. Having knowledge about the enemy allows us to access their weak spot and hit them where it hurts. If we strike at the centre of gravity- the single thing which the enemy cherishes and protects, it would potentially lead to total collapse of the enemy. Knowing the way the enemy have organised their army, gives us the ability to expose, attack and destroy their soft flank. Once this is done, we can surround the enemy in a deadly noose, cutting off all paths of retreat. This will create relentless pressure, tearing apart their will power and seal their fate to defeat.

The moral code of battle that governs warfare loosens over time. It leads to dirty warfare- unconventional, deceptive and manipulative. This type of warfare is what we observe today, leading to death of civilians. In the last section of the book, Greene goes on to explain the strategies of unorthodox war. Deceiving your enemies and going against their expectations, using morality as a strategic weapon, using guerrilla warfare, passive aggression and inflicting terror and panic are some of the strategies discussed here.

A good strategist confuses the enemy with deception. He attains control over the enemy’s perception of reality, thereby controlling their actions. He upsets the expectations of the enemy by taking the line of least expectation, surprising and irritating them at every step. He occupies the moral high ground by making his cause seam higher than that of his enemies, often questioning their motives. One must lead the enemy into the vast emptiness by irritating them into isolation and non-engagement. The strategist infiltrates the minds of the enemy and controls its actions. The last strategy talks about the issue of terrorism and its role in warfare. Acts of terror are designed to provoke the enemy into desperate over-reaction, often causing emotional imbalances, messing with the rationality of decisions taken by the enemy.

The 33 strategies of war is a good book for business folks who compete for limited market space with limited resources. I would certainly use some of these strategies in my business as well. If you want to understand the thought process followed by great leaders to form strategies in times of offence and adversity, you must read this book. Like every other book of Robert Greene, this too is backed by solid research, evident as one flips the pages in amazement. It is not a book to read for recreation or entertainment, but one that educates by exploring the amazing capabilities of the human mind.

Happy Reading !

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Chiraag Kashyap

24th September 2017

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