The Mechanisms Of Defeat

The most straightforward way to defeat an enemy is to kill it to the last man, but that's the hardest and bloodiest way. Most battles are won in a more sophisticated way. This article presents the various mechanisms of defeat, with examples from World War 2 .

While the principles of war answer "how to fight well ?" (the very short answer is "concentrate your effort, be active, and keep it simple") , this essay is about how to use your effort to defeat the enemy. It has three parts :

  1. The parameters of defeat
  2. The four mechanisms of defeat
  3. Examples from World War 2

The parameters of defeat

Material defeat versus mental defeat

Decisive action versus Attrition

Defeat can be by decisive action (quick), or by attrition (slow). It usually depends on the ability of the winner compared to that of the loser.

Decisive action is meant to defeat the enemy in a relatively short period of maximum effort, which in itself contributes to defeating the enemy by rapid destruction, and by shocking some of its forces and neutralizing others. It's a good way to defeat a stronger enemy or to defeat the enemy with minimal losses, but sometimes it's simply not possible, depending on the situation.

Attrition is meant to defeat the enemy by gradually eroding its resources (and/or morale) at a rate higher than its rate of recovery, and of course at the same time by not being eroded even faster at your side. A war of attrition is a slow and often very bloody business, but if decisive action is not possible it's the only way left. The best (and bloodiest) example of attrition is World War 1 where millions of lives where lost and the only benefit was that the enemy was running out of soldiers a bit faster.

A blockade is a common way of attrition. It sometimes has the potential of being so successful in damaging the enemy that it might quickly become a decisive action that will suffocate the enemy's war potential and end the war.

Good examples of blockade are :

The submarine war in the atlantic and the Pacific, and the bomber attacks against Germany's oil supply in World War 2. Great Britain could have been defeated by the German submarines if only there were enough of them in the early stage of the war.

The American submarine warfare against Japanese shipping, which never adopted the convoy tactic, decimated Japan's supply of oil and other war material.

The allied bomber attacks at Germany's only source of oil in Ploesti, Romania, and of its artificial oil industry which produced very expensive but usable oil from coal. The series of attacks caused such a severe shortage of oil for Germany's aircraft, tanks, and vehicles, that it practically stopped the formidable German military machine. A jet fighter with no fuel is totally useless, and a tank with no fuel is almost as useless, even in defense.

Strong points versus weak points

Defeat can be achieved either by attacking and defeating the enemy's strong points (which might save the need to also attack the rest of its force) or weak points (which saves the need to attack its strong points).

Choosing the better of these two options depend on the situation, but the situation can be affected by first detecting or even creating a weak point, or by detecting a key strong point which is worthy of being attacked.

The best known example of victory by defeating the enemy's strongest unit is when the small and almost unarmed David killed the giant and heavily armed and armored Goliath. The psychological result of killing the enemy's strongest soldier ended the battle before it really started and saved a lot of blood. Attacking the enemy's weaker points of all types (material, geographical, technical, psychological, etc.) is common and obvious.

Detecting the enemy's weak points or detecting an enemy key strong point worthy of being attacked is one of the main goals of the various types of intelligence units, from plain combat observers to codebreakers and spies.

The enemy is often generally aware of its weaknesses, and if knows early enough which one will be attacked it can often reinforce it and neutralize the attack. That's why surprise and deception are often so important in attack and even in defense, and why secrecy is so important in not letting the enemy gather information about your side, your weaknesses, and your intentions.

Attacking multiple weak points at the same time can achieve a decisive result, but requires an initial advantage which can allow that. Attacking weak points one after the other might reveal additional weak points but is more likely to let the enemy prepare better for the next attack.

The effect of scale

Small units in the tactical level are often easier to destroy and harder to paralyze than the greater and more complex military systems in the operational and strategic scale.
In the national strategic level, many times war is eventually decided by psychological defeat of the enemy force or its leaders, but sometimes, like in the case of Germany and Japan in World War 2, the enemy and its leadership persists until its totally paralyzed and its forces almost totally destroyed.

The four mechanisms of defeat


The basic purpose in combat is to destroy the enemy's forces by killing its soldiers and destroying its war equipment. Total destruction is rare. The percentage of the force that should be destroyed to make the enemy force disfunctional is very different, depending on morale, discipline, education, training, and the situation. While some units remained functional as a fighting unit after losing 90% of their personnel, others, even of the same military in the same war, quickly surrendered. Destruction is the situation when enough damage was inflicted to an enemy to make it disfunctional, regardless of whether it surrenders, escapes, dies, or becomes inactive as a military unit in some other way. If a commander chooses to defeat the enemy by destruction, he should determine the optimal time and place and position for the collision with the enemy force, and then succeed in achieving those parameters as much as possible. Such a success can sometimes achieve such a destruction of the enemy that it might bring the war to an end with a great victory.


Paralyzing an enemy force means denying it of the ability of action. The enemy force can be paralyzed either by shock or by neutralization. An enemy force is shocked by denying its ability of coordinated action. An enemy force is neutralized by making it irrelevant, useless.
Quick examples : jamming radio communications or radars, or killing the commander, can shock an enemy force by disintegrating it into smaller uncoordinated elements. Bypassing a line of fortifications or attacking enemy fighter aircraft when they're on the ground neutralizes them, making them useless. Whether shocked or neutralized, a paralyzed enemy force is no longer effective, and can be either ignored or easily destroyed.

The easiest way to paralyze the enemy is by preemptive action, acting against the enemy before it's ready to act. This is true both in attack (preemptive strike) and in defense (either preventive strike or defensive measures). Preemptive action might fail if the side that acts first is not really more ready to act than the enemy. A neutralizing bypass of an enemy force can be either geographical bypass or by functional bypass, and its intention is either to avoid fighting the enemy where it's stronger or to fight it where you're stronger. One of the most effective ways of bypass is deception which makes the enemy think it was bypassed and lose the battle by responding to this deception. Shocking an enemy by disintegration can be achieved by geographical disintegration, splitting its units from each other, or by damaging its ability of effective command and control or even by taking or destroying a key unit, position, road, or other key element.

Loss of interest

Loss of interest occurs when the enemy believes that the cost of continued fighting, or even of going to war when it didn't start yet, is higher than the cost of the military or even political or economical alternative. The perception of cost varies from culture to culture and even varies with time in the same culture, so that what's intolerable at one time becomes tolerable at a later time. Psychological warfare can make the enemy think the cost is higher, or the benefits lower, than they really are, and push the enemy towards defeat by loss of interest. Offering the enemy a tempting alternative can also make it lose interest in a particular objective.

Loss of faith

A previous defeat, or a series of previous defeats erodes the soldiers' faith in their ability to win. Sometimes even what only seems like a defeat, even just initially, can cause a loss of faith. The loss of faith is often the element that determines the level of actual destruction required to make a unit disfunctional as if it was totally destroyed. That's why morale, and keeping it, is so important. In heavy fighting, loss of morale, the faith in the objective and the ability to achieve it, often determines which side will be the first to surrender or escape, making the other side the winner.

Part 2 of 2 : Examples from World War 2

Related essays:
When did Hitler lose the war ?
World War 2 submarines
German tanks in World War 2, Panzer
Principles of War
The Battle of Britain

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