This is part of my 5 Minute Concepts series, which is designed to help you understand fundamental concepts about subjects like learning, memory and competition in the shortest time possible. Each episode is available in video format on my YouTube channel and audio via my podcast. If you prefer to read, the transcript is below.
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Attrition warfare is a set of strategies that revolve around beating an opponent by wearing them down in some way. While most people talk about it in terms of its military applications — namely the common practice of bombing a country into submission over extended periods of time — it’s worth thinking about in a broader context.
Let’s not focus on the “warfare” part. It isn’t just about trying to drop literal tons of explosive ordinance, it’s also about how competitors behave within arenas where so-called “honor” can play a perceptual role.
To understand what I mean, consider what attrition warfare looks like in another violent, competitive domain: mixed martial arts. It’s not uncommon for fighters to stand and exchange punches for long stretches of time, seeing who will break or lose consciousness first.
Rather than try to play the mental game of faints and deception to create critical openings, the two fighters decide to turn the fight into a test of toughness.
Doing this turns a fight that might have been one-sided — with one opponent exploiting the weaknesses of the other to score a quick victory — into the fighting equivalent of a coin-toss. Advantages are ignored and the victor is determined more by luck than skill.
To use chess as another example, it’d be like playing a strategy that revolves around constantly exchanging pieces with your opponent until you’re only down to two kings. This stands in stark contrast to strategies that focus on quick, brutal victories.
This is a popular route to take in many competitive games because crowds love to see a spectacle, and in most cultures (especially American culture), deception of any kind is viewed as the mark of the coward. Attrition warfare is considered more “honorable” than any sort of trickery, and this pervasive thought pattern influences the psychology of competitors.
The hard truth is that attrition warfare represents an impoverished, misguided set of ideas. Whenever you’re dealing with intense competition — especially if it’s life-or-death, like real war — you should always be looking for the fastest, most efficient path to victory. More often than not, this requires some type of deception.
Honor can’t be your first priority in those situations. Think of all the soldiers who died in World War 1 because their commanders ordered them to storm over a trench wall into machine gun fire. For the aristocrats who ran the armies of that conflict, such decisions were considered the “gentlemanly” way to fight a war.
It took some serious courage for those soldiers to follow those orders, but that’s no consolation for the loved ones they left behind. They would have been better off if their commanders had been willing to entertain more indirect strategies, ones where the bloodshed could have been reduced and strategic objectives realistically achieved.
To use the example of the fighters from before, even the winner ends up suffering a great deal in the end. They might end the night with a shiny belt around their waist and a bonus for putting on an exciting fight, but they might also have life-altering injuries as well.
The loser fares even worse, as they have to tolerate all the consequences of their attrition-focused approach without any of the upsides that come with victory.
From all of this we can generate a fundamental principle: the use of attrition warfare should always be considered a failure — even if you win. Falling back on attrition strategies means you made a mistake — in many cases, a big, avoidable mistake.
A fighter who gets forced into a slugfest or a military that sees a full-frontal charge as the only acceptable option both represent entities who make a series of wrong turns. It might come from a lack of planning, or it might stem from an emotional weakness that drags them into honor contests. Whatever it is that created the situation, it needs to be fixed.
Never forget that winning is what matters in a competitive context. If you’re getting dragged into a battle of attrition, it’s time to press pause, step back, and figure out how you can find a better path forward.