Primer on Losing

August 8, 2013

Our colleague Mark Sanfranski at Zenpundit has a strategically cynical posting of major importance.

Given our limited performance over the last decade, Mark shares our concern here at WOTR with strategic competence and learning something out of the taxpayer’s $2T investment in state building in foreign lands.  He offers a counterintuitive approach, instead of thinking of trying to win, he argues we might learn more by studying how we would overtly seek defeat.

Here is a taste of Mark’s biting commentary and Principles for Losing.

1. War is the Continuation of Domestic Politics:  The point of politics is to acquire, hold and enjoy using power. The fact is that the nation can survive many lost wars far longer than your career will survive lost elections. Once you view the war solely through the prism of how any action might impact your fortune in domestic politics, you will have a marvelous clarity that the war is the best pretext upon which to expand your power at the expense of the opposition and the people.

2. Policy is the True Fog of War:

Having a clearly defined, coherently articulated policy based upon vital interests and empirical facts that sets a few realistic objectives in a way that makes possible shared understanding and broad political support is no way to go about losing wars.  Mark notes we should employ “a set of politically compelling slogans that remain ill-defined enough to serve as an umbrella under which many contradictory and competing agendas can cohabit”   These need not be realistic, in fact its better if they remain as “attractive fantasies for the public if your administration is unburdened with officials with genuine expertise in warfare, economics, foreign cultures, history and other inconvenient information…”  Search on such nostrums as “Make the world safe for Democracy,” ”Responsibility to Protect” and “War on Terror.”

3. Strategy is a Constraint to be Avoided:  While today’s schools teach that strategy aligns ends, ways, and means, its difficult because it requires an ability to make disciplined choices.  Better to think about “keeping “all options open” to react to transient and trivial political concerns on a moment’s notice.”  Worse, having a strategy also implies that the results might result in personal accountability for leaders.

5. Isolate the War and those Fighting it from the People: A war that can be ignored or forgotten by the folks at home is a war that is much easier to quietly lose.  Do not call the Nation forth to arms, do not wave the flag, and certainly “Neither raise their taxes nor conscript their sons.”

9. Protect that Which is Most Unimportant:  Organizations signal what they really value not by what they say, but what they spend time and money on. Make sure that as the war is steadily being lost that top brass and their civilian overseers frantically emphasize politicized trivialities and institutional martinet nonsense.  Remember, the military is not really there to win wars – it is a captive social engineering project for things the wackier members of Congress wish they could impose on their constituents were it not for those damned free elections.

10. Level the Playing Field: Paralyze Your Own Tactical Advantages.  “While a war is often lost by having a bad strategy or no strategy at all, the power of crapping away your tactical advantages to no purpose ought not be underestimated.  First and foremost, you wish to avoid bringing all of your combat power to bear on the enemy’s weakest point…”

Go ahead, enforce a set of ROE guidance more restrictive than required by the Laws of War.  Spread out your forces in penny packs on remote hills.  Isolate them and fail to come to their aid when the enemy unexpectedly masses!!!   Let your opponent have safe havens in continguous states.  Most importantly, send a platoon to do a company’s job.

Wryly, he notes “At a minimum, we will be no worse off with that policy than we are now and if we happen to fail, we will actually be moving closer to victory.”  So he proposes ten principles for “How to Lose a War.”  Master these, and you too can become a policy maker and master of the art of defeat.


F. G. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University.  These comments are his alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense. 


Photo Credit: Katie Wardrobe