Fabian Strategies, Then and Now


There’s a hardy perennial question among practitioners and scholars of strategy. Namely, how do weaker warring parties overcome the strong? Sometimes they do. Looking back through history, one researcher found that lesser combatants prevailed around 30 percent of the time during the 19th and 20th centuries — and that their prospects for vanquishing the strong improved as that age of mechanized warfare went along. Such figures seem intuitively reasonable.

Studying how lesser antagonists won bygone conflicts is no idle inquiry, then, but a question carrying real strategic import. The weak have to do more with less. They covet the keys to victory when squaring off against the strong. The strong want to withhold those keys, preserving the mismatch of forces and guaranteeing their own triumph. Being an effective general, then, depends on understanding how the weak win.

Quintus Fabius would nod knowingly at seeing the world turned upside down. Celebrated as Fabius Cunctatus (“the Delayer”), the Roman dictator lent his name to strategies whereby commanders deploy strategically defensive yet tactically offensive methods to forestall a decisive battle — all while marshaling manpower, implements of war, and other resources to right the military imbalance.

Skillfully prosecuted, a Fabian strategy proffers an opportunity to defeat a superior foe in a conventional trial of arms. And indeed, Fabius’s feats of arms earned him the nickname “Maximus” among Romans — signifying rock-star status. Historians of classical antiquity ranging from Polybius to Plutarch to Machiavelli considered him an icon of patient, guileful martial statecraft.

Polybius retells Fabius’s tale expertly. After trekking over the Alps, the Carthaginian warlord Hannibal’s army had rampaged throughout Italy, compiling a virtually unbroken record of battlefield victory. In particular, his triumph over the Roman legions at Cannae won enduring fame in Western military circles. Two millennia later General Dwight Eisenhower recalled in his memoir Crusade in Europe, “Every ground commander seeks the battle of annihilation,” maintained Eisenhower; “he tries to duplicate in modern war the classic example of Cannae.”

Granted emergency powers, Fabius assumed personal command of the legions and encamped near the Carthaginian host at Aecae. Upon learning that the Roman army was nearby, Hannibal resolved to “terrify the enemy by promptly attacking.” The Roman riposte? Nothing. No one responded to the Carthaginians’ approach. They trudged back to camp. Having acknowledged his army’s “manifest inferiority,” Fabius “made up his mind to incur no danger and not to risk a battle.”

He was ornery that way. Better to live to fight another day, and on more favorable terms. Why rush in and risk fresh disaster? Rome was fighting on home turf. Its armies were beneficiaries of an “inexhaustible supply of provisions and of men.” Fabius only needed time to tap that potential, transforming latent into kinetic military power.

Accordingly, in the ensuing months the dictator mastered the art of hovering near Carthaginian forces — jabbing on occasion while shunning frontal engagements. He waited and watched until ideal circumstances arose. Only then, when the risk was low and the likely gains high, would Fabius undertake major combat. Small-scale clashes bucked up morale in the meantime.

Talk about competing strategic paradigms. While Fabius was content to bide his time, his master of horse and second-in-command, Marcus, clamored for offensive combat. Brash and impatient, he was “eager to venture upon a decisive engagement” at whatever hazard. Indeed, Marcus was a blowhard who publicly defamed his chief “as conducting his command in a cowardly and unenterprising spirit.”

Senators put the two generals’ operational visions to the test when they unwisely divided the army, elevating Marcus to command one contingent while leaving the other to Fabius. Neither held supreme command. Dispersing scarce manpower enfeebles the strongest forces. Dispersing authority only compounds the problem.

Recognizing this, Hannibal resolved to exploit the one-upsmanship between the two commanders, not to mention the fragmentation of Roman forces. Striking at a part of an enemy force with the whole of one’s own constitutes sound tactics. The Carthaginians sprang an ambush on Marcus near Geronium, putting his army “in the greatest danger.” “At that moment,” observes Polybius, “Fabius, seeing what was taking place and being alarmed lest they should suffer a complete defeat, led out his forces with all speed and came to the relief of his imperiled comrades.”

Decisive action at last! The unexpected result: a Roman victory. Afterward, reports Plutarch, Hannibal joked, “Did not I tell you, that this cloud which always hovered upon the mountains would, at some time or other, come down with a storm upon us?” Gathering storm clouds that disgorge a sudden cloudburst: Hannibal devised the perfect metaphor for the Fabian way of war.

There’s a P.S. to the story of Fabius Maximus, though. He was the man for desperate times, as Niccolò Machiavelli points in his Discourses on Roman history. But he proved unable to keep up with changing times. Fabius forestalled a Carthaginian conquest, sniped at enemy forces, and amassed enough armed strength to wrest the offensive from Hannibal. Yet he was unable to bring himself take the offensive — harvesting the fruits from his own strategy.

Fabius, that is, was captive to his defensive proclivities. Rome had to replace him with the offensive-minded Scipio Africanus to carry the fight across the Mediterranean Sea to Carthage and win the war. Philosophers argue that mastering oneself is the hardest thing people do in life. That’s doubly true in times of strife, when stakes are high, time is short, options narrow, passions run hot, and uncertainty pervades all. Self-mastery proves trying.

The erstwhile dictator, then, was unable to tame the defensive instincts that formerly served Rome so well. Machiavelli touted the changeout of generals as evidence of strength. Republics like Rome could change horses when need be. So the parable of Fabius isn’t solely about defensive-cum-offensive warfare. It’s a cautionary tale about self-mastery. And it’s about the need for a governing regime to keep its command arrangements nimble should a general prove unable to keep pace with changing surroundings.

Fabian strategies are commonplace in the annals of human conflict. In June 1777, for instance, Alexander Hamilton voiced hopes that no one would attribute the Continental Army’s “Fabian conduct” to “cowardice or weakness.” In words reminiscent of the Delayer, Hamilton insisted that the “liberties of America” constituted “an infinite stake,” not to be wagered on “a single cast of the die.” Better to protract the war until the army matched up better with the British Redcoats.

For Hamilton, then, it was the American army’s “business … to avoid a General [sic] engagement and waste the enemy away by constantly goading their sides, in a desultory teasing way.” George Washington, his officers, and his soldiers did just enough on North American battlegrounds to attract powerful European allies. The lesser contender ultimately made itself the stronger, vindicating Hamilton’s Fabian diagnosis of the situation.

Furthermore, Washington displayed the self-mastery to oversee both the defensive and offensive phases despite his Clausewitzian preference to give the British Army “a fatal Stab” on some battleground. In that he improved on Fabius’s example. America needed no Scipio to close the deal at Yorktown.

Many modern-day strategies have a Fabian bent. Mao Zedong’s “active defense” strategy, to name one, is all about a defender that strings things out, wears down an enemy through small-scale tactical actions, and prevails through a conventional counteroffensive. Think about Mao’s sixteen-character formula governing Red Army operations: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” Quintessential Fabius.

Drawing on Royal Navy history, Sir Julian Corbett prescribes a saltwater strategy of the weak, also dubbed “active defense.” (Corbett formulated the bumper sticker before Mao.) “Fleets-in-being,” he opined, should try to deny stronger navies the use of important waters while gathering additional forces, enlisting seaborne allies, or encouraging enemies to disperse their fleets on the map while doing self-defeating things. Corbett was Fabius riding the waves.

Now, a Fabian strategy is no trump card. The weak may win, but the smart money goes on the strong judging from the historical record. Some questions for would-be Fabians. One, how great is the military imbalance between rivals? Roman armies were inferior to Carthaginian invaders, but not that inferior. That the gap between the parties was manageable allowed Fabius to marshal Italy’s resources — transforming potential into usable power, and thence into a battlefield equilibrium with Carthage that made offensive action thinkable. Combatants at a more lopsided disadvantage than Rome are apt to find the going tougher than Rome. They have more to overcome.

Two, whose side is time on? Great powers boast distinct material advantages at the outset of war. But if outmatched adversaries can stall for time, they can open up new strategic vistas. With an adequate breathing space, the weak can solicit help from powerful allies, undercut the stronger contender’s advantages, or prompt the foe to disperse strength or commit foolish acts.

And three, strategic leadership matters. Who’s in charge of the weaker belligerent’s forces, a Washington or a Fabius? Statesmen should count themselves fortunate if they have a commander skilled in delaying actions — doubly fortunate if they have a commander with the patience to prosecute defensive operations, make the transition to the offensive, and administer a death blow. If they don’t have a Washington, political leaders had better find a Scipio to execute the offensive phase.

Forget doctrinal or tactical manuals. Military practitioners could do worse than crack open those musty old classics before venturing into the field.


James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. The views voiced here are his alone.