Attrition 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 aphorism "For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited" as if it were true. (1) The American Revolution conclusively demonstrates that he was wrong. In fact, there is an entire and respected branch of strategy, insurgency theory, based specifically on attrition as the preferred defeat mechanism, and at least one author claims special operations forces produce strategic effect best through attrition. (2) 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 sufficient resources, insurgents would fight conventionally. There is, of course, a large grain of truth in that assessment; however, as a strategic approach, attrition has some distinct benefits. In fact, attrition may be the most effective form of strategy available in some types of war or for attaining certain 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 field agree that winning 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 aspects, 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." (3) So, any strategy needs to address both the material and moral components of war to be successful. When strategists talk about how to win wars, as opposed to other potential strategic military missions such as deterrence or post-conflict activities, they often use the terms annihilation, attrition, and exhaustion. That triptych comprises one useful way of thinking about how strategy works and 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 objectives and methods of conducting operations, they are common in operational and strategic thinking. Their utility to theory at the different levels varies, and there is no requirement for conformity between the levels. The strategist 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 first blow may produce decisive...
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