March 21, 2022




Military Strategy & War Concepts and Chinese Stratagems for War

At a glance

Welcome to the 50 new friends of the Mental Models, Concepts, and Frameworks newsletter who have joined us since last week!

Highlights of this newsletter:

This week we went deep on Military Strategy & War concepts, including:

  • Carrot & Stick Approach
  • Potemkin Village
  • Fabian Strategy
  • Burn The Boats
  • and many more...

We also covered an ancient playbook for misdirection, deceit, and dominance in War, Politics, Business, and Life: The 36 Chinese Stratagems for War.

Without further ado, let's get into it!

Military Strategy & War Concepts

Arms Races

Originally used to describe a race between two or more countries to accumulate weapons for a potential armed conflict

Example: The Cold War, U.S. and Russia

Now used more broadly to describe any type of escalating competition: space race, talent race, medal races

Brute Force Solution

Most commonly applied in Cyber Warfare, they involve using trial-and-error to guess login info, encryption keys, or find a hidden web page

These attacks are done by ‘brute force’, meaning they use excessive forceful attempts to try and ‘force’ their way in

Punching Above Your Weight

Occurs any time a country tries to engage in a battle with a stronger force

Given the inherent disadvantage of being inferior, this is only done when guerrilla tactics can be deployed that allow the smaller country to tilt the game in their favour

Stop The Bleeding

In an emergency medical situation, you may use a tourniquet to stop actual bleeding

The metaphorical equivalent is situationally dependent, but it usually involves doing something fast and definitive, such as issuing a clear apology to prevent further damage

Zero-Tolerance Policy

Where even a minor infraction results in strict punishment or retaliation

"If you do this, we will do this."

Can be effective, but only works if enforced properly. If another party calls your bluff and you don't act, you lose credibility

Carrot & Stick Approach

A promise of a reward (the carrot) and at the same time a threat of punishment (the stick) to deter behavior

Must be strong enough so that the cost of the stick or missing the carrot is too high

Economic sanctions are hotly debated in terms of efficacy

Choke Point

A narrow geographical feature (e.g., Bridge) that a large number of soldiers are forced to pass through to reach their objective

This greatly reduces combat effectiveness by making it harder to bring superior numbers to bear , and empowers an inferior force

Potemkin Village

Something specifically built to convince people that a situation is better than it actually is

The military has employed this model widely, from dummy guns to dummy tanks and even dummy paratroopers

Modern dummies can mimic the heat signature of a real tank


A massive strategic attack on the political and military leadership structures of the opponent with the intention of eliminating or at least significantly reducing its ability to counterattack

Shock and Awe

A strategy of using overwhelming power to try and achieve rapid dominance over the enemy

Its aim is to paralyze the enemy's perception of the battlefield and destroy their will to fight


A behavior where autonomous, or semi-autonomous, units of action attack an enemy from several different directions and then regroup

Involves the use of a decentralized force against an opponent, in a manner that emphasizes mobility, unit autonomy and coordination

Turning Movement

Strategy that involves an attacking force seizing objectives behind the enemy's current positions

This causes the enemy force to move out of their current positions or divert major forces to meet the threat, separating them from their main defensive positions

Win Without Fighting

“Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” – Sun Tzu

What does this mean? It means achieving objectives with deception, surprise, alliances, and information dominance rather than physical war

Defense in Depth

A strategy in which the defending side spreads its units over a large area so that they gradually absorb the strength of an attacking enemy

Defence in depth relies on the tendency of an attack to lose momentum over time or as it covers a larger area


A semi-permanent or permanent defensive structure that gives physical protection to a military unit

Designed for the defense of territories in warfare, and is also used to establish rule in a region during peacetime

Fabian Strategy

A strategy that aims to avoid field battles and frontal attacks by wearing out the opponent instead, e.g. through disruptions in logistics or by affecting morale

Used by warring parties who have time on their side or when there is no other alternative.

Scorched Earth

A tactic used by defending armies that consists of destroying buildings, factories, fields, and the like during a retreat

The purpose is to prevent valuable assets from falling into the hands of the enemy and thus contributing to its resources


A strategy that emphasizes heavy defense

Involves hoarding resources and building up heavy defenses, while refusing to risk moving and/or exposing weak spots

Typically involves minimizing losses a là attrition and baiting opponents to attempt an attack118

Lead Domino

A row of dominoes is set up, you knock over the first one, the last one is a certainty to also go over very quickly. Hence, you can't let the first domino fall

Prominent in the 1950s to 1980s (Cold War) where the US used it to justify American Intervention globally

Red Team

Involves using an independent group to challenge a military to improve its effectiveness

Benefits include challenges to preconceived notions and clarifying the problem state that planners are attempting to mitigate

Sometimes called alternative analysis

Fog of War

War is the realm of uncertainty. It becomes confusing and distorted as soon as it begins, so you can't rely on the original plan

This strategy involves preserving optionality. Keeping options open until there is more situational clarity from better information


Using a threat to prevent (deter) an action by an adversary (E.g., threatening Nuclear action)

Can be appropriate when you want to try to prevent another person or organization from taking an action that would be harmful to you or society at large

Call Your Bluff

A counter-strategy to a zero-tolerance policy. Involves challenging the other party to act on their threat, claim, or policy, and actually prove it is true, calling them out

If the called out party doesn't follow through, they risk losing credibility

Burn The Boats

An action which forces you to continue with a particular course, and makes it impossible for you to return to an earlier situation

Leaving only one path forward can have the effect of enhancing motivation and focus, increasing the likelihood of success

The 36 Chinese Stratagems for War

The 36 Chinese Stratagems for War are a playbook for misdirection, deceit, and dominance. They can be applied in War, Politics, Business, and Life.

The Strategems have six categories:

  1. Stratagems When Commanding Superiority
  2. Stratagems for Confrontation
  3. Stratagems for Attack
  4. Stratagems for Confused Situations
  5. Stratagems for Gaining Ground
  6. Stratagems for Desperate Straits

Stratagems When Commanding Superiority (Winning Strategies)

1. Deceive The Heavens And Cross The Ocean

Mask one's real goals from those in authority who lack vision by not alerting them to one's movements or any part of one's plan.

Act in the open, but hide true intentions.

2. Besiege Wei To Rescue Zhao

When the enemy is too strong to be attacked directly, then attack something he holds dear. Attack their Achilles heel.

Somewhere there is a gap in the armour, a weakness that can be attacked instead.

3. Kill With A Borrowed Sword

Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one's own strength is not favourable).

Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy's own strength against him.

4. Wait At Leisure While The Enemy Labors

Have your troops well-prepared for battle while the enemy expends energy, ideally resulting in their exhausted troops running into your fresh soldiers on the terms of your choosing.

When this happens, attack with energy and purpose.

5. Loot A Burning House

When a country is beset by internal conflicts, when disease and famine ravage the population, when corruption and crime are rampant, then it will be unable to deal with an outside threat.

This is the time to attack. Hit them when they are down.

6. Make A Sound In The East, Then Strike In The West

Manipulate the enemy to focus their resources somewhere before attacking elsewhere that is poorly defended.

Fake to the right; attack to the left. Surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage.

Stratagems for Confrontation (Enemy Dealing Strategies)

7. Create Something From Nothing

Make somebody believe there was something substantial when there is in fact nothing, or vice versa.

Create an illusion of something's existence, while it does not exist, or vice versa.

8. Openly Repair The Walkway, But Sneak Through The Passage Of Chencang

Deceive the enemy with an obvious approach, while surprising him by taking a shortcut and sneaking up on him.

In business, pretend to care about an issue and later give it up to get what you really want.

9. Watch The Fires Burning From Across The River

Delay entering the field of battle until all the other players have become exhausted fighting amongst themselves. Then go in at full strength and pick up the pieces.

Classic example: The United States in the First World War.

10. Hide A Knife Behind A Smile

Charm and ingratiate yourself to your enemy. When you have gained his trust, move against him in secret.

Befriend them to get their guard down, then attack their weakest point.

11. Sacrifice A Plum Tree To Preserve The Peach Tree

Sacrifice short-term objectives in order to gain the long-term goal. This is the scapegoat strategy whereby someone else suffers the consequences so that the rest do not.

Trade up! Take a small loss for a large gain.

12. Take The Opportunity To Pilfer A Goat

While carrying out one's plans, be flexible enough to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, however small, and avail oneself of any profit, however slight.

Alertly exploit every small opportunity along the way.

Stratagems for Attack (Attack Strategies)

13. Stomp The Grass To Scare The Snake

Do something unaimed, but spectacular to provoke a response of the enemy, thereby giving away his plans or position.

Stir things up before beginning to negotiate for your true interests

14. Borrow A Corpse To Resurrect The Soul

Revive something from the past by giving it a new purpose or bring to life old ideas, customs, or traditions and reinterpret them to fit your purposes.

Revive a dead proposal by presenting it again or in a new way.

15. Lure The Tiger Off Its Mountain Lair

Never directly attack an opponent whose advantage is derived from their position. Instead, lure them away from their position to separate them from their source of strength.

Seek a neutral location. Negotiate here only.

16. In Order To Capture, One Must Let Loose

Cornered prey will often mount a final desperate attack. To prevent this, you let the enemy believe he still has a chance for freedom.

This may also give you more information about their capabilities and intentions.

17. Toss Out A Brick To Obtain The Jade

Bait someone by making him believe he gains something or just make him react to it ("toss out a brick") and obtain something valuable from him in return ("get a jade gem").

Trade something of minor value for something of major value.

18. Defeat The Enemy By Capturing Their Chief

If the enemy's army is strong but is allied to the commander only by money, superstition or threats, then take aim at the leader.

If the commander falls the rest of the army will disperse or come over to your side.

Stratagems for Confused Situations (Chaos Strategies)

19. Remove The Firewood From Under The Pot

Take out the leading argument or asset of your target, denying your enemy the resources needed to oppose you.

Eliminate the source of their strength.

20. Disturb The Water And Catch A Fish

Create confusion and use this confusion to further your own goals. In chaos, it is easier to seize power.

Do something surprising or unexpected to unnerve them, and then take advantage of that situation.

21. Slough Off The Cicada's Golden Shell

Create an illusion to fit your goals and distract others. Mask yourself. Either leave one's distinctive traits behind, thus becoming inconspicuous, or masquerade as something or someone else.

When you are in trouble, secretly escape.

22. Shut The Door To Catch The Thief

To capture or to deliver the final blow to your enemy, you must plan prudently. Do not rush into action.

Completely destroy them by leaving no way for escape. Cut off any escape routes or routes through which outside help can reach them.

23. Befriend A Distant State while attacking a Neighbor

When you are the strongest in one field, your greatest threat is from the second strongest in your field, not the strongest from another field.

Distant neighbors make good allies, however temporary.

24. Obtain Safe Passage To Conquer The State Of Guo

Borrow the resources of an ally or temporarily join forces with them to attack a common enemy.

Once the enemy is defeated, use those resources to turn on the ally that lent you them in the first place.

Stratagems for Gaining Ground (Proximate Strategies)

25. Replace The Beams With Rotten Timbers

Sabotage, incapacitate, or change the rules that an enemy is used to following to remove their key support and destroy them.

26. Point At The Mulberry Tree While Cursing The Locust Tree

Use indirect means of getting your way or of showing what you mean or want. Criticize indirectly from a safe position.

Do not name names so you cannot be accused. Use intermediaries, third parties and others.

27. Feign Madness But Keep Your Balance

Hide behind the mask of a fool, a drunk, or a madman to create confusion about your intentions and motivations.

Lure your opponent into underestimating your ability until, overconfident, he drops his guard. Then you may attack.

28. Lure Them Onto The Roof, Then Take Away The Ladder

With baits and deceptions, lure your enemy into a trap (e.g., treacherous terrain), then cut off their escape (e.g., lines of communication).

29. Deck The Tree With False Blossoms

Through the use of trickery, make something of no value appear valuable.

Reframe deceitfully. Expand the pie with objects of little value.

30. Make The Host And The Guest Exchange Roles

Pretend to be a guest to be accepted, make them dependent on you, then develop from the inside and become dominant.

Turn your defensive and passive position into an offensive and active one.

Stratagems for Desperate Straits (Defeat Strategies)

31. The Beauty Trap

Also known as the Honey Trap. Distract the enemy with beauty.

Provide alluring distractions so the enemy neglects their duties and allows their vigilance to wane.

32. The Empty Fort Strategy

When the enemy is superior in numbers and you expect to be overrun at any moment, then drop all signs of military preparedness.

Act calm and at ease when your enemy expects you to be tense. Put on a bold front, fake strength.

33. Let The Enemy's Own Spy Sow Discord In The Enemy Camp

Undermine your enemy's intelligence-gathering abilities by using his own spies against him or planting your own agents among his.

Provide inaccurate information to mislead them, especially through informal channels.

34. Injure Yourself To Gain The Enemy's trust

The enemy is lulled into relaxing since they no longer consider you to be an immediate threat, or you can make them believe it was caused by a mutual enemy.

Appear to take some hits. Feign weakness while arming yourself.

35. Chain Stratagems

Use several stratagems applied simultaneously, or one after another as in a chain of stratagems.

Keep different plans operating in an overall scheme; however, in this manner if any one strategy fails, then the chain breaks and the whole scheme fails.

36. If All Else Fails, Retreat

Run away to fight another day. As long as you are not defeated, you still have a chance.

This is the most famous of the stratagems, immortalized in the form of a Chinese idiom: "Of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, fleeing is best”

That’s it, thanks for reading!

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