The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters
Volume 40
Number 1
Parameters Spring 2010
Article 1
The Issue of Attrition The Issue of Attrition
J. Boone Bartholomees Jr.
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The Issue of Attrition
ttrition is a dirty word. Soldiers and politicians seek quick, decisive
victories; the World War I-style slugging match evoked by the term
attrition is the last thing a commander or statesman wants to replicate. In
the tactical and operational realms, this hesitancy is both understandable
and desirable. Strategically, it is problematic. People cite Sun Tzu’s apho-
rism “For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has
beneted” as if it were true.
The American Revolution conclusively dem-
onstrates that he was wrong. In fact, there is an entire and respected branch
of strategy, insurgency theory, based specically on attrition as the preferred
defeat mechanism, and at least one author claims special operations forces
produce strategic effect best through attrition.
The common explanation of
insurgency strategy is that it pursues attrition because resource limitations
prevent a more nuanced approach; the unstated assumption being if they
had sufcient resources, insurgents would ght conventionally. There is, of
course, a large grain of truth in that assessment; however, as a strategic ap-
proach, attrition has some distinct benets. In fact, attrition may be the most
effective form of strategy available in some types of war or for attaining cer-
tain political objectives.
Strategy has its own language, and language is important. Strategists
have to all mean the same thing when they use the words of their art. We might
start with winning. Strategists in the national security eld agree that win-
ning is a political condition of some permanence (not a temporary military,
economic, informational, etc. advantage). There is also a general consensus
among strategists that winning has physical, moral, and psychological as-
pects, and all are important. Clausewitz wrote, “Military activity is never
directed against material force alone; it is aimed simultaneously at the moral
forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated.”
So, any strategy
needs to address both the material and moral components of war to be suc-
cessful. When strategists talk about how to win wars, as opposed to other
potential strategic military missions such as deterrence or post-conict ac-
tivities, they often use the terms annihilation, attrition, and exhaustion. That
triptych comprises one useful way of thinking about how strategy works and
Dr. J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., is Professor of Military History in the Department
of National Security and Strategy at the US Army War College.
6 Parameters
serves as the theoretical construct for this article. Understanding these terms
and how they interact is important to strategy formulation.
Like many concepts, annihilation, attrition, and exhaustion manifest
themselves at all three levels of war, although their utility as theoretical tools
at the tactical level is limited. Because the terms can describe both objec-
tives and methods of conducting operations, they are common in operation-
al and strategic thinking. Their utility to theory at the different levels varies,
and there is no requirement for conformity between the levels. The strate-
gist might pursue an attritional strategy, but the planner at the operational
level need not design an attritional campaign. If he can achieve the results
the strategist seeks through a battle or campaign of annihilation, the planner
is free to do so. The rst blow may produce decisive operational effects, a
clear tactical or operational win. That is good, but if the strategist has cor-
rectly analyzed the overall environment, it is unlikely those effects will be
strategically decisive.
The idea that strategy may be conducted in differing forms goes back
at least to Clausewitz, but its most famous proponent was German military
historian and critic Hans Delbruck. He named and drew the distinction be-
tween what he called annihilation and exhaustion.
A strategy of annihi-
lation is based on the idea that a single event or a short series of directly
related events can produce victory. Annihilation produces victory by elimi-
nating the enemy’s capability to defend. Over time, the concept has devel-
oped physical and moral manifestations; that is, advocates have concocted
ways to use the basic concept of annihilation to achieve political results
in both the physical and moral spheres. In its initial and theoretically pure
form, one that emphasizes the physical component of strategy, the strategist
uses a single great battle or short campaign to produce strategic effect suf-
cient to cause the enemy’s capitulation. Typically, again in the purest theo-
retical form, the battle or campaign destroys the opponent’s armed forces,
leaving the enemy nation vulnerable to ravaging by the victorious forces.
The capital falls; forces occupy successive portions of the countryside with-
out opposition and do with them as they wish. Theoretically, the defeated
nation accepts the inevitable and surrenders to avoid further punishment;
however, that step is not necessary, since the victor has eliminated all pos-
sible means of resistance and can do as he desires.
The classic example of this form of an annihilation strategy is Napo-
leon’s campaigns from 1805 to 1807. In October 1805, the French emperor
crushed Austrian forces at Ulm and exploited the success by occupying Vi-
enna. Because the Russian army was in the eld, the Austrians still had hope
and did not surrender when their capital fell. In early December 1805, Na-
J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr.
Spring 2010 7
poleon defeated the combined Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz. Two days
later, completely in accord with annihilation theory, the Austrians agreed
to an unconditional surrender as shattered
Russian forces hurried back toward Russia.
Prussia viewed the French victory and sub-
sequent political reorganization of what had
been the Holy Roman Empire as so threaten-
ing that it began preparing for war, which did
in fact break out in the fall of 1806. Napoleon
destroyed the Prussian army at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstadt in Octo-
ber 1806 and ruthlessly exploited his success. The Prussian capital fell, the
king ed to Russia, the last remaining Prussian armed force surrendered,
and French forces occupied the entire nation. The king of Prussia held out
for several months and did not capitulate or sign a peace treaty until July
1807, following Napoleon’s defeat of the Russians at Eylau and Friedland.
The Ulm-Austerlitz campaign and the simultaneous battles at Jena-Auer-
stadt produced exactly the strategic military situation annihilation theory
demands of armed forces, and produced within days or months the political
victory predicted by the theory.
Some caveats are in order, however. Both the Austrians and Prus-
sians were able to continue the initial ght based on the presence of an unde-
feated ally, and in the Austrian case undefeated elements of its own military.
Thus, a campaign rather than a single great battle was required. Even then,
a deant Prussian king ignored reality and refused to surrender, his will
not being broken. Nevertheless, when the French army destroyed the allied
force, in each case Russian, both Austria and Prussia sought and accepted
peace treaties dictated by Napoleon. A second important caveat is that de-
spite being defeated militarily and accepting French terms, neither Prussia
nor Austria considered the political issues between them and the French re-
solved by the respective treaties. The vanquished powers rose again to par-
ticipate in the nal defeat and dismemberment of the French empire less
than a decade later.
Moral Annihilation
A more modern and perhaps more sophisticated manifestation of an-
nihilation theory focuses on the moral component of war. This article will
call it “shock and awe” as a convenient shorthand and will use the rubric to
describe a broad range of strategic activities, not simply the specic con-
cept from which the term was coined. The shock and awe strategy postulates
that a single attack on a carefully selected target or set of targets can be so
psychologically devastating that it completely demoralizes the enemy and
produces surrender, or it paralyzes the opponent to the point he is incapable
Strategy has its
own language, and
language is important.
The Issue of Attrition
8 Parameters
of effective defense. A single, well-aimed attack can be so damaging psy-
chologically that it produces decisive strategic effect regardless of its actual
physical damage. This prospect is the basis of strategic airpower theory, of
strategic concepts such as John Warden’s rings, and of operational (turned
strategic) concepts like B. H. Liddell Hart’s indirect approach. The manner
in which advocates postulate the strategic effect will manifest itself is dif-
ferent in each case. The overall intent is to produce moral forces powerful
enough to either lead to the immediate surrender of the enemy or cause mor-
al strategic paralysis so complete that even if a subsequent battle is neces-
sary, its outcome is essentially preordained. Shock and awe strategies aim to
psychologically disarm the enemy and make him incapable of continuing the
ght. The problem with this moral form of annihilation theory is that there is
no evidence it works strategically, as opposed to operationally, where it has
a well-established record developed over centuries.
Examples of the limitations of shock and awe-style strategies of
moral annihilation come from the two US wars with Iraq. Airpower theo-
rists since Giulio Douhet have touted the decisiveness of airpower, initial-
ly in terms of breaking the enemy population’s will and more recently in
terms of attacking the leadership’s will or paralyzing national command and
control systems. The air campaign that initiated Operation Desert Storm was
based on the latter concept. It achieved operational paralysis (Iraqi military
resistance in Kuwait was stunned to the point that resistance was ineffective,
not counting the tremendous physical losses), but failed to achieve a strate-
gic victory through moral annihilation. The follow-on ground campaign ex-
ploited the moral paralysis caused by the air campaign to achieve a classic
physical annihilation victory; Coalition forces destroyed the Iraqi army and
liberated Kuwait. Nothing suggests the Iraqis would have abandoned Ku-
wait solely based on the moral pressure of airpower. In fact, one might argue
that the command and control paralysis resulting from the air campaign ac-
tually dulled the senses of the government and higher-level military leaders
by severing their links to forward units so they did not realize how badly the
deployed force had been damaged. This circumstance actually made capitu-
lation less likely than might have been the case had airpower been focused
solely on the deployed force.
Operation Iraqi Freedom did not have a long air campaign preceding
the ground offensive as did Desert Storm. It opened with an air attack unfor-
tunately characterized as “shock and awe” that had signicant media hype
and from which much was expected.
The stated intent of shock and awe,
a term its inventors always capitalize, was “. . . to affect the will, percep-
tion, and understanding of the adversary through imposing sufcient Shock
and Awe to achieve the necessary political, strategic, and operational goals
of the conict or crisis that led to the use of force.”
Although the authors of
the theory were careful to qualify their claims, it was obvious and widely ac-
J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr.
Spring 2010 9
cepted that the intent was to achieve decisive political results by shock and
awe alone. This result did not occur during Operation Iraqi Freedom; the
massive shock and awe air campaign did not produce even the undeniable
operational paralysis of the Desert Storm campaign.
The issue is not the utility or decisiveness of airpower; someday air-
power will inevitably be independently decisive. The point is the unproven
reliability and predictability of the strategic decisiveness of shock and awe-
style, moral-focused annihilation strategies. Modern political actors, whether
state or nonstate, have the inherent resilience to overcome the psychological
impact of even the most massive, well-targeted, and professionally executed
psychological campaign, whether physical or informational. This resilience
is particularly true of the two main types of political actors the United States
might face in the future, authoritarian governments and ideological or faith-
based nonstate actors. If annihilation strategies have recognized drawbacks,
perhaps there is merit in attrition-based strategies after all.
Attrition and Exhaustion
Delbruck called his second method of executing strategy “exhaus-
tion.” Modern practitioners generally use the terms attrition and exhaustion
interchangeably. The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and As-
sociated Terms does not dene either. Regardless of usage, the terms are
closely associated. Technically, however, they refer to different aspects of
the same strategic concept; both refer to activities intended to reduce en-
emy capability over time. Clausewitz tells us, “. . . a review of actual cases
shows a whole category of wars in which the very idea of defeating the en-
emy [military] is unreal.”
He went on to observe that “[i]nability to carry on
the struggle can, in practice, be replaced by two other grounds for making
peace: the rst is the improbability of victory; the second is its unacceptable
Annihilation creates the inability to carry on. Attrition and exhaus-
tion produce either (or both) the improbability of victory or the unacceptable
cost. Attrition tends to be associated with the destruction of military forces
while exhaustion refers to the gradual degradation of a broader range of na-
tional capabilities (military forces, economic or industrial power, will, etc.).
As with cases of annihilation, both attrition and exhaustion have physical
and moral aspects. The distinction between attrition and exhaustion is im-
portant theoretically but often very difcult to determine and of little real
import to most practitioners, provided they understand that both approaches
are possible and how they work.
Physical Attrition
A combatant using a physical attrition strategy intends to win by de-
stroying the enemy’s military forces over time in a series of perhaps unre-
The Issue of Attrition
10 Parameters
lated battles and campaigns. Generally, there is an unstated assumption that
for a variety of reasons a single decisive battle is impossible or undesirable.
In a purely attrition campaign there is no expectation of strategic advan-
tage beyond inicting casualties. The measure of success is how much one
hurts the enemy; territory captured or other potential measures of effective-
ness are distinctly secondary considerations, almost by-products. Physical
attrition produces victory in one of two ways. The primary intent is for the
enemy to realize it cannot win and will continue to suffer casualties; it sur-
renders based on lack of hope. Alternatively, the enemy military is so se-
verely depleted over time that it eventually is incapable of defending itself
and is destroyed, leaving exactly the same strategic outcome as an annihi-
lation victory.
The German strategy for 1916 was a classic attrition strategy. It was
implemented during the Verdun campaign on the Western Front between Feb-
ruary and December 1916. The Chief of the German General Staff, Eric von
Falkenhayne’s, announced goal was to “bleed France white.” He attempted
to break the French army by inicting an unacceptable level of casualties.
The city of Verdun had great psychological import for the French, which in-
creased as the battle raged month after month; however, to Falkenhayne the
importance of the battleeld was only that the French would ght for it. In
the end, after inicting more than 500,000 casualties, the Germans failed to
win. Although they crippled the French army, it did not ee or surrender.
One of the major problems with physical attrition as a strategy or tac-
tic is the tendency of intelligent enemies, given an alternative, to refuse to
ght battles likely to have no benet and result in losses to their forces. A
second problem with physical attrition is that in war one expects to suffer
casualties as well as inict them. In the Verdun example, the German army
suffered some 434,000 casualties in an effort to inict about 550,000 on the
Thus, attrition logically favors the larger force unless the adversary
can achieve some peculiar advantage through asymmetry. Attrition is usu-
ally more advantageous strategically to the attacker as long as he can opt to
cease attacking when he begins to suffer unacceptable losses. Conversely,
tactically attrition usually favors the defender based on the natural advan-
tages of the defense.
Physical Exhaustion
Physical exhaustion works in a more complicated manner. There may
be (and usually is) an attrition campaign associated with an exhaustion strat-
egy, but the objective is different. In exhaustion, there is little or no faith in
the ability of attrition to produce victory. Instead, the plan is to broadly at-
trite the enemy nation. Exhaustion campaigns often involve actions directed
against the enemy homeland (for example, blockades) designed to limit eco-
J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr.
Spring 2010 11
nomic capabilities by denying resources; attacks on enemy industries (such
as bombing campaigns) intended to directly destroy economic capability; or
actions against enemy populations (bomb-
ing or perhaps information campaigns) in-
tended to erode will and popular support.
The Allied war against Japan from
1941-45 is a good example. There were
huge air, ground, and sea campaigns in the
central Pacic, southwest Pacic, and Chi-
nese theaters. While contemporary leaders would have shied away from
calling these efforts campaigns of attrition, that is exactly what they were in
the strategic context. Simultaneously, the US Navy waged the only success-
ful unrestricted submarine warfare campaign in history against the Japanese
naval and merchant eets. By wars end, US submarines were roaming at
will through Japan’s home waters and having difculty nding suitable tar-
gets because Japanese maritime assets had already been attrited. Deprived
of imports, the Japanese economy ground to a standstill. Another element
of the strategy was the strategic bombing of Japan aimed at the physical and
psychological destruction of the home islands. Once the naval campaigns
gave long-range bombers bases from which they could reach Japanese tar-
gets, the US Army Air Forces began to systematically devastate Japan, a
trend that only ended with the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and
the surrender of Japan. Overall, the elements of the campaign were symbiot-
ic. For example, surface and air successes at sea made submarine operations
easier, and submarine operations destroyed fuel and other resources that
might have prolonged Japanese resistance elsewhere. Similarly, the subma-
rine and strategic bombing campaigns reinforced one another, especially in
terms of their impact on the Japanese economy. The strategy employed at-
tacks on both the physical and moral aspects of the Japanese empire. In the
end, Japan surrendered because the emperor believed further resistance was
futile; his will broke. Had he not surrendered, the Allies had shaped the stra-
tegic situation so that they were prepared to invade mainland Japan and di-
rectly impose surrender. There was little Japan could do in either case, and
that is exactly how exhaustion is supposed to work.
Exhaustion strategies need not be so massive, complex, or synchro-
nized. As part of their grand strategy, the Germans executed a naval strategy
of physical exhaustion against Great Britain in World War II. Their unre-
stricted submarine warfare campaign in the Atlantic had the potential (in the
end, not fullled) to produce decisive strategic results. The U-boats avoided
warships and targeted merchant shipping in hopes of strangling Great Brit-
ain’s economy. The campaign had to be conducted over time (there was no
possibility of a strategic annihilation attack), and sinking any ship anywhere
was an effective strategy. Tonnage counted, not necessarily the nationality
The Issue of Attrition
Yes, attrition is a bad
word, but its reputation
is ill-deserved.
12 Parameters
of the vessel or its cargo, although fuel, munitions, and other war materials
were a welcome additional benet.
German resources committed to the U-boat campaign were minus-
cule when compared to the total war effort. Only 1,153 U-boats crewed by
about 39,000 sailors were commissioned during the war.
A small eet of
resupply vessels supported them. The battles occurred beyond German air
support range and involved no more than a handful of U-boats at any time.
While wolf packs (the German term for a tactical grouping of submarines)
occasionally had as many as 26 U-boats, they never operated close enough
together to concentrate more than a few submarines at a time on any single
For example, when wolf pack Vorwarts comprised of 12 U-boats
attacked the 32-ship convoy ON-127 between 9 and 14 September 1942,
every submarine engaged at some point in the battle, but only once did as
many as ve U-boats attack the convoy, in single-boat attacks spread over
several hours. The wolf pack managed to sink eight ships (51,619 tons) and
damage seven others.
Such effort added up over time, and the Allies need-
ed herculean efforts in countersubmarine technology, shipbuilding, general
economic production, and code breaking (not to mention the skill and brav-
ery of both civilian and military crews) to survive. Winston Churchill wrote,
“The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat
peril . . . . It did not take the form of aring battles and glittering achieve-
ments, it manifested itself through statistics, diagrams, and curves unknown
to the nation, incomprehensible to the public.”
That is what exhaustion
strategies are all about.
As with its cousin physical attrition, physical exhaustion logically
works best for the side that has extensive resources. In both cases, achiev-
ing the desired erosion of the enemy inevitably produces friendly losses.
A larger force can better sustain the punishment it receives while attriting
the foe. Because exhaustion generally works on several lines of operation,
it can require even more resources than a purely military-oriented attrition
campaign. But working on multiple lines of operation, or using multiple
campaigns, allows the strategist to shift his effort between the lines while
maintaining overall pressure on the opponent, receiving additional benet
for the resources expended. The strategic advantage of the attacker and tacti-
cal advantage of the defender in a physical exhaustion strategy are identical
to those in a physical attrition campaign, and primarily for the same reasons.
The main disadvantage of physical attrition and exhaustion (besides friend-
ly casualties) is the length of time required to see them to conclusion. Phys-
ical attrition is most necessary against fairly robust enemies that cannot be
defeated in one ght. Attriting a large and capable enemy simply takes time
and consumes resources. It also gives a resourceful enemy (as we assume
they all are) time to adjust his strategy and tactics. It becomes a race among
J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr.
Spring 2010 13
resilience, time, and asymmetric advantages. That aspect broaches another
interesting aspect of attrition as a strategy, how it works in the moral sphere.
Moral Attrition and Exhaustion
Moral attrition strategies mainly differ from other strategies in that
their aim is to erode will over time. Erosion of will can be achieved physi-
cally by the same processes as physical attrition, but in this case the strategic
intent is to convince the target audience that further resistance is fruitless and
will only result in more casualties. Moral attrition may target policy-makers,
elites, or populations. Ideally, the enemy surrenders before his entire force,
economy, or society has been destroyed. Moral attrition campaigns also can
be conducted using information operations as the major (even sole) compo-
nent of the strategy. Propaganda convinces the enemy that resistance is fu-
tile, and the future following surrender will be better than can be achieved
otherwise. An ideal case might produce a bloodless political conquest.
The classic example of moral attrition is the North Vietnamese vic-
tory over the United States in the Vietnam War. One can debate exactly what
the North Vietnamese intended or how well events followed their plan, but
the result is undeniable. Without losing a battle, with a large and very ca-
pable force still in the eld, and with absolute control of the air and sea, the
United States conceded the strategic point and withdrew its forces based en-
tirely on political opposition at home. Over time, the will of American soci-
ety broke as a result of the moral attrition of national will.
Physical attrition assumes a cost-benet reasoning as the basis for
strategic will. The enemy surrenders when he realizes he cannot win or the
cost becomes too great. Clausewitz reected that kind of thinking when he
wrote, “Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political ob-
ject, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”
Clausewitz was
not correct about everything, however. Decisions concerning war and peace
do not often work in the rational manner he implied or that physical attri-
tion assumes. Emotion often plays the decisive role. This is particularly true
when the will of the people is involved to a signicant degree. Clausewitz
remarked, “The less involved the population and the less serious the strains
within states and between them, the more political requirements in them-
selves will dominate and tend to be decisive.”
As he presented his trinity
of violence, chance, and subordination to policy, the Prussian said, “The rst
of these three aspects [primordial violence, hatred, and enmity] mainly con-
cerns the people.”
Clausewitz recognized that the population can become
strangely, even totally, committed to a war in a disruptive way. It is the peo-
ple who interject hatred and passion into what at the strategic level might
otherwise be a totally rational political activity. In fact, gaining, sustaining,
and regulating the passion of the people, not letting it become too great or
The Issue of Attrition
14 Parameters
drop too low, is one of the major functions of wartime political leadership.
Conversely, the people’s will breaks (they cease to support the war) not
based on rational calculations of prot and loss but on irrational, subjective,
often uninformed assessments of the strategic situation.
Attrition and Will
Debates about war and peace occur naturally when states are in-
volved in conict; a similar phenomenon occurs in nonstate groups. Author-
itarian governments and nonstate actors are arguably better at controlling
the outcomes of such debates than their democratic counterparts. Autocratic
states and networks still have elite and collective will; however, it is subject
to emotional swings that even the most ruthless and efcient autocrat cannot
completely control. This fact is important because attrition and exhaustion
strategies designed for moral impact invariably work against the will of the
people, the elites, and leadership. The assumption is that will is the key to
war. Clausewitz opined that, “Yet both of these things [destroying the armed
forces and occupying the country] may be done and the war . . . cannot be
considered to have ended so long as the enemy’s will has not been broken.”
But will is a complex concept. It is by denition political in consequence;
however, it sometimes works by serendipitous rules.
There is an element in every society that absolutely will not support
war for any reason. The adrenaline-like rush of patriotism at the outbreak of
a conict usually drowns them out. As wars drag on, however, opponents’
voices are heard more loudly, especially given the fact that war is moral-
ly difcult to justify. Arguments about national interests do not have much
traction in discussions where the primary critique is that resources are be-
ing wasted and people needlessly killed. Unless countered by skillful politi-
cians, the antiwar movement can eventually out shout what Richard Nixon
called in the context of Vietnam War protests “the silent majority.”
realization is important because the antiwar faction gains traction as wars
grind on. Attrition and exhaustion strategies, by their very nature and de-
sign, take time and result in casualties. They are therefore vulnerable to an
erosion of political will. This caveat is particularly true in modern America,
which according to common wisdom has become averse to casualties (en-
emy or friendly) and any kind of collateral damage.
Using Afghanistan as an example, when this article was written in
early 2010, the number of Americans (685) killed in battle in Afghanistan
since the beginning of US operations was slightly less than the number
(687) who died in 2006 from stumbling, slipping, or tripping and was equal
to four percent of those (16,883) who used a gun to commit suicide.
the pressure on the Obama Administration to withdraw from that conict
increases daily. Rhetoric about grand strategy, national interests, interna-
J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr.
Spring 2010 15
tional terrorism, or safe havens does not convince the antiwar faction, and
explicitly announcing that the United States is ghting an attrition battle and
does expect casualties risks a political disaster. This sensitivity to casualties
makes attrition strategies rather difcult but not impossible. In fact, some
political objectives seem to demand attrition strategies.
The Value of Attrition
When is attrition an effective, even a desirable, strategy? Several
strategic circumstances make strategic attrition attractive. Each relates to a
peculiar aspect of the strategy or the strategic environment.
Perhaps counterintuitively, attrition is the preferred strategy of un-
derdogs. Both terrorism and insurgency theories are based on attrition or
exhaustion strategies. If attrition logically favors the larger force because it
can better tolerate casualties, underdogs should not be attracted to it. That
is not the case, and the reason is actually very logical and in keeping with
theory. Even Clausewitz, who has been denigrated for years as the apostle
of the big, decisive battle, commented, “It is possible to increase the likeli-
hood of success without defeating the enemy’s forces.”
Remember that at-
trition strategically favors the attacker since he can regulate his own pain;
he can select when, where, and how hard he attacks and thus control to at
least some extent his losses. Next, the underdog can hope to change the bat-
tle to one of will, where he may suppose he has the advantage. Given the
right conditions, that choice allows an underdog to ght a superior enemy
with some hope of eventual success; he does not have to achieve all objec-
tives in a single event. Attrition may, in fact, be his only chance of winning.
How does an underdog hope to win? Certainly not by direct attacks
on a superior enemy military, or even by means of physical attrition. Maoist
insurgency theory postulates a gradual building of forces until the insurgent
can eventually beat the enemy, but by then the ght would be a conventional
conict, and the insurgent would no longer be the underdog.
gency expert Sir Robert Thompson thought the progression to conventional
war was a peculiarly Chinese phenomenon based on unique circumstances
such as the enormous size of the country.
One should note that Mao also
postulated the build-up of insurgent forces, not the erosion of the enemy. Re-
gardless, the underdog typically seeks moral attrition, not physical attrition.
He exploits the strategic advantage of regulating any negative impact on his
own force by attacking only at places and times of his choosing. He hopes to
win through psychological effects (exhausting the will of either the people
or the government) rather than any misguided hope of destroying the ene-
my’s comparatively larger military force or breaking the opposing will in a
single encounter. In fact, within this strategic equation the enemy’s military
is largely irrelevant except as (1) a force to be feared and avoided unless the
The Issue of Attrition
16 Parameters
situation presents a disproportionate advantage and (2) a convenient and le-
gitimate target for carefully planned, small-scale attacks.
Countering persistent terrorism
or insurgency almost always dictates
adopting an attrition strategy. Compe-
tent nonstate actors that compete against
governments are not especially vulnera-
ble to annihilation. If government forc-
es can locate and engage a nonstate actor such as a terrorist or insurgent
group, they can destroy it. Thus, the best insurgents (the ones who survive
the early stages of an active insurgency) are very good at concealing them-
selves and avoiding contact, unless it is on their own carefully chosen terms.
So, if annihilation is problematic against a competent insurgent, what choice
of strategy remains? Exhaustion or attrition. Again, killing all the insurgents
or terrorists is problematic (although not impossible; strategists should nev-
er give up on physical attrition since it is an inherent aspect of all types of
attrition and exhaustion strategies). The most likely path to success, though,
involves inicting such unrelenting pressure and pain on the insurgent or
terrorist that eventually, despite perhaps fanatical commitment to the cause
for which he ghts, it becomes obvious that victory is impossible, and he
stops ghting. Such pressure cannot be only military or primarily physical.
It also includes actions designed to erode economic capability and ideologi-
cal support from the local populace. If it helps to think of this as winning
hearts and minds, so be it; however, most governments do not have to win
the hearts and minds of the population, they simply have to ensure the in-
surgent does not. An insurgency will not exist long without signicant, ac-
tive popular support. Some individuals will never give up—they should be
killed or imprisoned for life—but the vast majority will not ght inde-
nitely for a losing cause regardless of how fervently they may believe in
that cause. The problem for the government will always be sustaining sup-
port (political will) during any long and painful attrition campaign; ideally
avoiding becoming physically or morally attrited and exhausted.
Moral attrition and exhaustion have another advantage that often goes
unrecognized or unconsidered. They are particularly well-suited for achieving
signicant political objectives. Breaking the enemy government and popula-
tion’s will through a long, painful attrition strategy offers a greater likelihood
of longer-lasting, more signicant results (political victories) than does a
quick victory. Annihilation happens too quickly and leaves large segments
of the enemy political structure and population intact and feeling undefeat-
ed. They suffer nothing and feel no pain; suddenly, someone announces they
are defeated. Edward Luttwak wrote an article titled “Give War a Chance”
in which he argued that the international community intervenes too quickly
to stop wars. Rather than stopping the ghting for immediate humanitarian
J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr.
Expect your investment
to be substantial and the
resistance to be intense.
Spring 2010 17
reasons, Luttwak argues it is best to allow wars to continue to logical con-
clusions that resolve political issues and yield greater humanitarian results.
Then, peacekeepers might be effective, and nation-building may succeed.
That concept was evident in the case of the Austrians and Prussians rising
to participate in the dismemberment of the Napoleonic empire. Although
beaten, they did not feel the political issue was settled. One can also argue
that the biggest impact of Turkey’s decision not to allow a northern attack
on Iraq from its territory during Operation Iraqi Freedom was that large seg-
ments of the Iraqi population, especially the important Sunni regions, did
not experience the war or even see a Coalition soldier until after the govern-
ment had been declared defeated. That background made the subsequent in-
surgency easier to accept for those Iraqis, although the insurgency obviously
is not rooted in the absence of a northern attack.
Another important strategic consideration is the simple political fact
that one can expect more intense and determined resistance when he aims
at very signicant political objectives than is likely if the objective is rela-
tively inconsequential. “Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is
controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the
sacrices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration.”
If you want
something on a grand scale, expect your investment to be substantial and
the resistance to be intense. Given the expectation of signicant resistance
both in terms of effort and duration, the prudent strategist will eschew the
siren call of quick victory through an annihilation strategy and select an at-
trition strategy focused on the enemy’s will. Subordinates may execute that
strategy operationally and tactically using annihilation campaigns and bat-
tles, but the hope of winning a long-lasting victory in one smashing blow is
generally illusory.
Yes, attrition is a bad word, but its reputation is ill-deserved. Readers
may not accept the distinction this article asserts between the utility of attri-
tion at the various levels of war. Admittedly, the blurry overlap of operations
and strategy often exacerbates the difculty of discerning attrition’s true im-
pact. People have a natural tendency to be impatient and seek the quick stra-
tegic solutions offered by annihilation strategies. Strategists and statesmen
often do not realize, ignore, or cannot accept the utility of an attrition or ex-
haustion strategy when the objective is signicant or the end-state is intend-
ed to be long-term. There is little recognition that the larger enemies at one
end of the spectrum of conict and the smaller, agile ones at the other are
usually most vulnerable to attrition strategies. Strategists seldom conceptu-
alize their work as attritional even when combating insurgents who them-
selves employ an attrition strategy. Not accepting that the situation demands
The Issue of Attrition
18 Parameters
an attritional strategy usually means the strategist will fail to take the pru-
dent steps to procure resources and reinforce will that can be the keys to suc-
cess. Even if he eventually succeeds, the risk is high that his movement or
military muddled through at a greater cost than should have been required.
Clausewitz warned that “[t]he rst, the supreme, the most far-reach-
ing act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to
establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither
mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its na-
That is good advice, since while the strategist should never give up
on attempts to shape the strategic environment, he should also accept that do-
ing so is often difcult and it is necessary to be prepared to ght the conict
he actually faces. If the situation demands immediate results and the strate-
gic environment is suitable, an annihilation strategy is essential; if not, then
another strategy may be desirable. The strategist has to be aware of the po-
tential benets and costs associated with each type of strategy considered. He
should never discard a strategic approach simply because it has a bad name.
1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. by Samuel B. Grifth (1963; reprint, New York: Oxford Univ. Press,
1973), 73.
2. James D. Kiras, Special Operations and Strategy from World War II to the War on Terrorism (New York:
Routledge, 2006).
3. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princ-
eton Univ. Press, 1976),
137, 90.
4. Gordon A. Craig, “Delbruck: The Military Historian,” in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy:
From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986), 341-42.
5. For historical details see David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: Scribner, 1966);
David G. Chandler, Jena 1806: Napoleon Destroys Prussia (New York: Praeger, 1993); Ian Castle, Austerlitz
1805: The Fate of Empires (Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, 2002); Gregory Fremont-Barnes and Todd Fisher,
The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, 2004); or any of hun-
dreds of available sources.
6. The theoretical basis of shock and awe was Harlan K. Ullman and James Wade, Jr., Shock and Awe:
Achieving Rapid Dominance (Washington: National Defense University, Institute for National Strategic Studies,
7. Ibid., 19.
8. Clausewitz, 91.
9. Ibid.
10. For more on the battle see Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 (New York: Penguin Books,
1993); William Martin, Verdun 1916: They Shall Not Pass” (New York: Praeger, 2004); or Michael Duffy, “The
Battle of Verdun, 1916,” 22 August 2009, http://www.
11. Duffy.
12. On World War II in the Pacic see D. Clayton James, “American and Japanese Strategies in the Pacic
War,” in Paret.
13. Although various censuses of U-boats and crews exist, the author has accepted the data shown as both
the most authoritative and close to the highest possible total. “All Boats of WWII,”
J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr.
Spring 2010 19
14. For a comprehensive summary of wolf pack composition and results see “List of Wolfpacks,” http://
15. “ON-127,”
16. Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifin, 1949), 598.
17. There are an increasing number of good books on the Vietnam War. Among them are Harry G. Summers,
Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1982); Guenter Lewy,
America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978); and Adam M. Garnkle, Telltale Hearts: The Origins
and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).
18. Clausewitz, 92.
19. Ibid., 81.
20. Ibid., 89.
21. Ibid., 90.
22. Richard M. Nixon, “Nixon’s Address to the Nation on the War in Vietnam,” 3 November 1969, http://
23. Department of Defense, “Casualty Update,” as of 26 January 2010,
casualty.pdf; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control,
“WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, 1999-2006,”
24. Clausewitz, 92.
25. On Maoist insurgency theory see Mao Tse-tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, trans. by Samuel B. Grifth II
(Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2000).
26. Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam (St. Peters-
burg, Fla.: Hailer Publishing, 2005), 43.
27. Edward N. Luttwak, “Give War a Chance,” Foreign Affairs, 78 (July/August 1999), 36-44.
28. Clausewitz, 92.
29. Ibid., 88.
The Issue of Attrition