The Strategy of the Void

April 26, 2019

Napoleon Bonaparte was a brilliant planner and strategist, and he felt poised to use his talent to take over Russia—and, thus, have control of the largest empire in history. Invading Russia, however, is difficult. The climate is harsh, and the Russians had used a scorched-earth policy in the past—that is, instead of fighting the invaders, they made sure that there was nothing to invade by the time the enemy arrived. This made it difficult for a large army to survive for long enough to fight the Russians when they did engage.

Napoleon assembled an army of unprecedented size. 450,000 men to fight with, and another 150,000 troops specifically to support the massive fighting force. As usual, he prepared his army for battle like no other. Napoleon predicted a victory in three weeks. (Historically, when Napoleon made such predictions, they came true.)

The Russians adopted their scorched-earth policy, giving up entire towns and cities to their invaders. In the meantime, though, Napoleon’s army dwindled and deteriorated. Napoleon expected the Russians to engage him at Smolensk, a holy city, which they were sure to defend—an assumption that, if incorrect, would prove problematic. When the Russians decided not to fight and retreated again, that took a toll on Napoleon’s army. Despite the new territory, they were weaker than ever and very far away from home.

Long story short, Napoleon soon marched his army back from Russia. He knew the armada he brought with him was now far too weak to engage the Russians in their own land. The Russians had led Napoleon into a void. It sucked him in with the promise of victory soon to be had, but in reality, it just weakened his forces to the point of defeat.

When fighting a war, you don’t always have to engage in a full-frontal battle that comes to a quick resolution. Even better, you can lead your enemy into their own where they can be quickly buried. Robert Greene describes The Strategy of the Void as his 26th strategy of war:

Silence, isolation, non-engagement with others—is for most people intolerable…that fear offers fertile ground for a powerful strategy: give your enemies no target to attack, be dangerous but elusive and invisible, then watch as they chase you into the void.”

(Something I learned from one of my absolute favorite books, The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene. Highly recommend it.)