The essential basics of all combat and war

A favourite expression used frequently by SAS instructors, paraphrasing General George Patton, is: “We must always give the enemy the opportunity to die for his country…..” and to limit exposure to danger to the enemy.

Take your risks early

In other words, don’t adopt a plan in which the most risky part occurs at the every end, when everyone is tired, committed and when alternative options are certain to be less likely. This maxim works in every walk of life and circumstance; and can also be seen as being daring and adventurous – despite actually being prudent. I’m sure readers can imagine how adoption of this maxim might play out advantageously in social situations…

Avoid battle

Generals seek to achieve the mission without fighting – if this is at all possible.

Today’s terrorists and assymetrical war fighters (more on this in due course) practice this advice all the time, to excellent effect in places like Afghanistan.

Flexible missions

Everyone within a general’s overall plan is given specific tasks, which they broadcast downwards as their unit mission.

As ‘no plan ever survives contact with the enemy’, everyone must be flexible enough to modify what they’ve been told to do, in such a way as to continue implementing the generals’ overall plan, in the light of everything that changes – including the enemy suddenly giving up and not requiring to be fought (the ideal outcome as far as soldiers at all levels are concerned).

Good commanders don’t tell soldiers what to do or how to do it, but what they are to achieve, which very often requires changes of plan when circumstances change. This is the basis of a supposedly ‘new’ concept called ‘effects-based warfare’, in which the perception of the enemy is moulded by offensive operations, as opposed to the more geographical taking and defending of ground of tactical significance. I say ‘supposedly’ because this is in fact what all the best generals have been doing down the centuries; otherwise why flog all through the Alps with elephants for goodness sake….? (A fatuous remark granted, but I hope I make my point.)


After the First World War, the German Army developed the concept of ‘Auftragstaktik’, by which individual soldiers are given more responsibility for the overall mission, encouraged to look for where the main effort of force should be applied, and be ready to respond to sudden enemy collapses. Each man must be aware of the plans and missions three levels higher than his own, and be prepared to take over up to that level until his superiors are in able to take over.

Thus, every soldier ought to be thinking not just about what he’s required to do, but also the missions given to his section commander, platoon commander and company commander as well. When he sees an opportunity to do something outside his personal remit, he must take the opportunity, because in the words of an Israeli general, ‘What is possible today may not be possible tomorrow.’ – General Saad El Shazly, The Crossing of the Suez, 1980

Major General JFC Fuller: All-embracing advice given in 1936

“The object of fighting is to kill without getting killed. Don’t disperse your force; you can’t punch with an open hand; clench your fist; keep your command together.

Fight when holding, advancing or retiring; always fight or be ready to fight.

Aim at surprise; see without being seen. If you meet a man in a dark room, you jump; you should always try to make your enemy jump, either by day or night. A jumping man can’t hit.

Never remain halted without a lookout. Sentries must be posted no matter what troops are supposed to be in front of you.

Guard your flanks and keep in touch with neighbouring units. Try to get at the enemy’s flanks.

Send information back to your immediate commander. Negative information is important as positive. State time and place of your message. You cannot expect assistance of your superiors unless you tell them exactly where you are and how you are situated.

Hold what you have got and what you gain. Never withdraw from a position until ordered to do so.


4 thoughts on “The essential basics of all combat and war”

  1. Hi,

    Your “Backpacker’s Handbook” is one of the best books on the subject and I think it is great.

    Whilst quoting you wrote: ” iehter by day or night. A jumping man can’t hit.”

    You’ve got a typo there… ( “either” of course)

    Also, You need to put in an opening quotation mark for:


    And by the way, I disagree with both of those statements.

    A jumping man can and will hit. If you startle any creature you will get a defensive reflex. The trick is to accurately guess what your opponent will do and use their energy, resources, and actions to your advantage. You might get lucky ; )

    As for “WHEN IN DOUBT, FIGHT IT OUT.” I believe in the “Measure twice, cut once.” theory. A Pyrrhic victory is no victory at all. My uncle died at Monte Cassino so I kind of dislike Fuller’s ready, fire, aim approach to Genralin’.

    As for “Auftragstaktik”. This bad idea has lead to “Rambo Disease”: A condition in which every soldier can become a “fifth column”, disconnect from communications and then choose their own mission. It’s a “tactic without a strategy”. For instance, look at what happened to Confederate cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart at Gettysburg… He was off Auftragstaktiking whilst R.E. Lee got his arse whooped. (This is probably why Eisenhower kept Patton on a short leash.)

    My advise: Read Samuel B. Griffith’s translation of Sun Tzu: The Art of War. It’s like the “Backpacker’s Handbook” but for war…


  2. Hi Charles,

    Many thanks for the comments. Typo corrected.

    The principles apply the same to war and actions on the street. Jumping men have one or both feet in the air, and so are off balance and unable to direct force at you in any kind of blow. Once for example, you go to kick somebody, you are vulnerable unless your kick connects. Boxers et al always strike with both feet on the ground.

    It’s the same with any sort of military formation – it’s got to be balanced in order to attack effectively. (I’m not talking about startling people. I’ve seen too many blues-on-blue to risk that.) But surprise is the most important requirement for a successful attack – or operation of any sort.

    As for your notion of hesitating over fighting (even when attacked and you cannot escape…) the alternative is to go down. The military equivalent of that is anti-ambush drills, which are exactly as I suggest for an encounter on the street – immediate aggressive reaction. The attackers may well depart, but in any case if folks do as you suggest, they’re certain to get beaten.

    Robert E Lee is quoted saying: “I was too weak to defend so I attacked.”

    I don’t understand your point about Auftragstaktic. It’s how soldiers are taught these days – and how the Second World War Wehrmacht was organised. There’s absolutely nothing in the doctrine along the rather odd lines you suggest.

    Grant believed in Auftragstaktic: “I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign…. but simply lay down the work it is desirable to have done and leave you free to execute it in your own,way.” – instructions to General Sherman, who also practiced it:
    “..the commander should be informed of the object to be accomplished, and left as free as possible to execute it in his own way…”

    And Sun Tzu recommends it too:
    Chapter 6, 29
    “Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards.”

    1. Hello again,

      I get your point about ‘Auftragstaktik’ and the successful mission by the U.S. Navy SEAL’s to kill Bin Laden proves your point. When the SEAL’s lost their helicopter they adapted to the situation and stayed on target…

      But, they did not break connection with the Command and Control and this is a key area where ‘Auftragstaktik’ can become a liability.

      In my previous thread I used the term “Fifth Column” when I meant to use the term “Flying Column” (or Detached Column). I can see where this caused confusion…

      This next quote from Napoleon explains the problem that I have with the influence of ‘Auftragstaktik’:

      Napoleon excerpt: “To direct operations with lines far removed from each other, and without communications, is to commit a fault which always gives birth to a second. The detached column has only its orders for the first day. Its operations on the following day depend upon what may have happened to the main body. thus this column either loses time upon emergency, in waiting for orders, or it will act without them, and at hazard.”

      Also, Sun Tzu said, “The host thus forming a single united body, is it impossible either for the brave to advance alone, or for the cowardly to retreat alone. This is the art of handling large masses of men.”

      ‘Auftragstaktik’ is a tactic.

      Tactics: Is the art of gaining an advantage by using intelligence to create and exploit “real time” and “on the spot” opportunities. exp: Offensive tactics are determined by two factors the target disposition and the defensive structure surrounding it. Some general tactics used are concentration, dispersal, evasion, assault, penetration, eliciting, compelling or intercepting.

      Strategy on the other hand is:

      Strategy: Long term operational planning that takes into consideration major variables such as command, communications, preparation, force, pressure, friction, stress, time, space, speed etc.

      Napoleon excerpt: “Genius is the ability to utilize all the means at hand for the accomplishments of the end sought.”

      If you are using the the term ‘Auftragstaktik’ for the goal of utilizing all the means at hand for the accomplishments of the end sought, then I agree with you.

      If, on the other hand, you are using the the term ‘Auftragstaktik’ to hype the idea of the successful ‘Flying Column’ then I’ll agree to disagree.

      As for turning to an ambush, I tend to think that Musashi is correct.

      Miyamoto Musashi excerpt: “If you consciously try to thwart opponents, you are already late.”

      What good is it to turn into an ambush when it is an IED or a claymore type mine going off? I do not propose a notion of hesitating over fighting. I propose active thinking, adapting and improvising before fighting.

      Sun Tzu said, “Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.”

      Thanks again, CTC

      1. Hi Charles,
        I didn’t mention ‘Flying Columns’…. Just as cavalry was always liable to overrun themselves and get counter attacked, command and control is always essential. So is initiative at all levels.
        All best.

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