Sun Tzu: Regular and Elite Forces

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Let’s talk us some Sun Tzu here. He went over regular vs. irregular forces and tactics, but let’s apply this to modern circumstances.

The Right Tool For The Right Job

Irregular forces… well, for our very modern purposes, let’s call them elite forces.

That is, forces with a selection of manpower, equipment, training, doctrine, and leadership that renders them superior to regular forces, especially by the old “pound for pound” measurement.

Pound for pound, the elite force can whip any regular force it meets. If numbers are equal, the elite force will win virtually all the time.

Therein lies the problem.

Pound for pound, a panther might be fiercer than the lion, but the lion will still win because its overall power is greater.

Pound for pound, the elite force might be fiercer than the regular forces, but the regular forces, being far more numerous, will surround the elite force, bombard it with artillery, whittle down its numbers from the inevitable damage, and finish it off and utterly destroy it. It’ll be messy, but it’ll get done.

Therefore, an elite force cannot defeat a much larger, minimally competent regular force. While capable of doing horrific damage on a narrow front, the vulnerability is great.

How, then, to use elite forces?

I have realized the truth of this circumstance.

You must use regular forces and elite forces simultaneously, but separately.

If put together, the elite soldiers will be resented by the regular soldiers, and the regular soldiers scorned by the elite soldiers, and ruinous tests of courage will take place between them. (Read: Fistfights, brawls)

Elite forces will be held back if they serve alongside regular forces as a unit, and their advantages will be diminished and drowned out.

Regular forces cannot keep up with the elite forces, therefore a unified command either brings the elite forces to heel (to their ruin), or pits elite forces against the enemy without coordination (to their ruin).

What to do, then?

Elite forces require regular forces to mask their movements and permit them to do maximum damage to the enemy.

That is, only a large regular force can act as a decoy for an elite force. A small regular force is too fragile to do this for long, but a sufficiently large and resilient force can securely draw the enemy’s attention and allow elite forces – which can operate outside of the regular order of battle, and which can operate even when cut off from the commander – to carry the fight to the enemy.

Regular forces are indispensable to elite forces, not because they are more capable, but because they are complimentary.

Just as it is foolish to attempt to win with conventional tactics alone, so it is foolish to attempt to win with irregular tactics lacking the distraction and masking caused by the actions of regular forces.

Only when the two work together, not in unison but complimentary to each other, can elite forces repeatedly attack sections of the enemy on favorable terms and rout them utterly. This causes chaos in the enemy’s order of battle.

I believe that this is what works. I can come up with various examples, and in the future, I plan to, but I felt it’s good to get this out now and just let people stare at it a little while.


The Five Dangerous Faults in a General

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Sun Tzu was doing lists long before bloggers, so why not follow his lead? With Gen. McChrystal’s sudden fall from grace, this is a good topic to address.

1. Recklessness

A general who is brave but not judicious – that is, makes bad calls – gets his troops and his army in a lot of trouble. Recklessness means taking stupid chances out of a need to prove one’s courage to others.

2. Cowardice

Obviously, cowardice itself is also a vice. In organized conflict, it is the power of organization which makes the soldiers into an army, an entity greater than the sum of its parts. An army has much more fighting power than a collection of individuals of equal number. Cowardice wastes this energy and coherence.

3. A Hair-Trigger Temper

A general with a hasty temper is easily provoked by insults. This can lead him to making reckless mistakes. This is a product of a lack of self-discipline.

4.  A Thin Skin

Someone who is so thin skinned that any insult to his honor is a vile provocation that must be answered in kind is little different from 3), which leads to 1). Having honor (that is, pride) is hardly a defect, but insecurity leading to knee-jerk reactions is a dangerous fault indeed.

5. Losing Sight of the Big Picture

It’s great to care for the rank and file. It’s the sign of a decent human being. However, caring too much and valuing the men over the mission generally brings ruin to both. A general obsessed with his men will make small-scale decisions intended to help them, leading to large-scale ruin.


A general must recognize that war is bigger than any one man (including him); no one is irreplaceable. A general must tolerate small injuries to his pride and even to the lives of his men to make the decisions that lead to mission success and fewer net casualties. Obsession with any small issue leads to hasty and reckless decisions that sacrifice the mission and (usually) the troops as well. However well-intended thinking small might be, a general who isn’t thinking big is leading his army into deep trouble.