The Issue of Attrition
ARMY WAR COLL CARLISLE BARRACKS PA
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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 Tzus 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.
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