Attrition Warfare: When Even Winners Lose

When warring opponents use similar approaches and possess similar weapons, trench warfare becomes inevitable. The winning side usually has a slight advantage in production capability or resources.

It's hard to see when you're in it, but most people and businesses are in some form of attrition warfare. The best way out is to use a different approach — through tactics, strategy, or weaponry.

“When you do as everyone else does, don't be surprised when you get what everyone else gets.”

— Peter Kaufman

The International Encyclopedia of the First World War defines attrition warfare as “the sustained process of wearing down an opponent so as to force their physical collapse through continuous losses in personnel, equipment and supplies or [wearing] them down to such an extent that their will to fight collapses.”

Attrition warfare is considered a somewhat dirty tactic, although necessary in some situations. Indeed, theorists are divided as to whether attrition is even a separate tactic, rather than a ubiquitous feature of all conflict.

Traditional military theorists such as Sun Tzu (“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting”) and Machiavelli (“Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception”) evangelized for clever tactics. These methods tend to result in far fewer casualties, waste fewer resources and are a display of superior intellect, rather than just strength.

Attrition warfare is usually a last resort only. And most of the time when you win, it's only temporary. By not scoring a decisive blow, the winners leave room for the losers to believe they can win the next time.

To understand attrition warfare, we can look at examples of how it works. Let’s examine two wars where attrition played a substantial role.

Attrition Warfare in World War I

One of the clearest examples of attrition warfare is World War I, so much so that many historians refer to it as “the War of Attrition.”

Military technology evolved at an unprecedented rate during the start of the 20th century, and the usual maneuvers and tactics were irrelevant. The large-scale recruitment of horses for cavalry officers, who were then pitted against shells and machine guns, provides a classic image of this sad discrepancy between what was understood and what was done. Raised on Tennyson’s images of heroic hand-to-hand combat, soldiers found themselves instead confined to trenches in a vicious fight to gain territory, inch by inch.

The goal for much of the war was for each side to amass artillery and troops faster than the other, in order to grind down defenses and sap resources. Both sides were reduced by pure attrition.

Trenches provided a somewhat effective means of protection, as long as soldiers remained within them. Perhaps the most poignant comment on this comes from Harry Patch, the longest surviving World War I soldier, who lived to 111: “If any man tells you he went over the top and he wasn't scared, he's a damn liar.”

Even when territory was gained, moving the heavy weapons was difficult and predictable. Germany slowly lost strength, leading to the eventual failure of their army. In the process, millions of people died and vast sums of money were spent on ammunition and other resources.

Strategists and commanders were somewhat out of their depth, as no one had any real experience with this type of warfare. Leaving the trenches meant the loss of the most valuable resource — people — and the usual techniques were irrelevant.

This situation led to a stationary war, wherein each side engaged in an incessant hurling of ammunition in the hope of eroding the other’s morale and supplies.

“The war will be ended by the exhaustion of nations rather than the victories of armies.”

— Winston Churchill

In a paper entitled The Theories of Attrition versus Manoeuvre and the Levels of War, Abel J. Esterhuyse writes:

Although campaigns were conducted in different parts of the world, the First World War was largely restricted to a relatively small geographical area in Western Europe. It was characterised by high personnel and equipment losses; an inability to bring the war to a decisive end; and bloody attritional fighting where, in a number of cases, the aim was to conquer terrain with no tactical and strategic value. This created an aversion to or negative view of an attritional war. It also contributed to a view that attrition required that terrain be occupied at all cost in order to ensure success.

We can also see the impact of attrition in the extensive efforts to boost the morale of those at home, far from the fighting — what was referred to as “the home front.”

War is rarely what we imagine. Attrition warfare was not what people had in mind when they sent off their sons, husbands, and friends, or mailed white feathers to the “cowards” who did not go. The stark difference between early propaganda posters and later photographs of the actual fighting illustrates this disconnect.

In a war of attrition, morale is one of the key resources. Initiatives such as the donation of kettles to make airplanes, the growing of cabbages in rose beds, and letters sent to those in the trenches did little to further the pursuit of peace but did much to keep people hopeful.

Historians and military theorists have asserted that the use of attrition was not altogether a strategic one. Much of World War I was characterized by indecision and poor communication, as commanders grappled with slow technology and the difficulty of seeing the bigger picture.

It's not uncommon in war to develop a chessboard-style mentality, wherein commanders are not averse to sacrificing human life for the sake of a strategic advantage.

One particular battle from World War I which stands out as a notable example of attrition warfare is the Battle of Verdun. Occurring in France over 303 days, it involved a standoff between the German and French forces.

The German army intended to capture hills in the area, thereby gaining an elevated point for strategic maneuvers. Early success boosted German morale before their progress slowed to a glacial crawl.

The French army was ordered not to withdraw under any circumstances and to sustain consistent counter-attacks. Regularly switching tactics, the German army continued trying to gain more useful territory.

By July, the battle of the Somme was in full force and the Germans subsequently had fewer resources — a bad position to be in during a war of attrition. Territory was gained and lost numerous times, with a single village switching hands 16 times between June and August.

As German resources were further reduced, commanders resorted to deceit (which is also not compatible with attrition). By the time the French army reclaimed the lost territory, the Battle of Verdun had morphed into one of the deadliest and most expensive battles ever. Estimates of the number of deaths range from 700,000 to nearly 1 million.

From the start, the Battle of Verdun was fought upon a foundation of attrition. Both sides were essentially trapped, with no option but to keep trying to force the other into submission. Both sides were using similar approaches with similar capabilities.

Much has been written about the tactics used, with some critics stating that the use of attrition was a necessity due to poor judgment, rather than being a considered choice. It also illustrates a problematic element of attrition warfare: Once a substantial number of lives have been lost, commanders are motivated to continue a battle for longer than is wise in an attempt to justify those losses — a deadly instance of the sunk costs fallacy.

In The Price of Glory, Alistair Horne quotes the diary of a French lieutenant who fought at Verdun: “Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!” He was killed a short time later as a result of a shell explosion. Horne also quotes a German soldier: “[The war would not be over] until the last German and the last French hobbled out of the trenches to exterminate each other with pocket knives.”

Attrition Warfare in the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War is another key example of attrition warfare. North Vietnam (aided by China, the Soviet Union, and other communist nations) fought South Vietnam (aided by the US, South Korea, Thailand, Australia and others). Spread over Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the war lasted almost 20 years.

Much like World War II, the Vietnam War left an indelible mark on the affected nations and people. It was characterized by extreme brutality and human suffering — a ubiquitous feature of attrition warfare.

In an attempt to either prevent or foster the growth of communism, dominant world powers faced each other in appalling conditions. Somewhere in the region of 1.4–3.4 million lives were lost in the fight to prevent an economic model from spreading. Ten percent of South Vietnam was destroyed with Agent Orange in a bid to cut off food supplies, leading to hundreds of thousands of birth defects.

In the early 1960s, the US began to send troops to Vietnam (then known as French Indochina). Borders and old alliances were forgotten as the fighting spread over the following two decades.

Guerrilla warfare clashed with attrition. Struggling to compete with an unpredictable guerrilla insurgency (which included raids, sabotage and ambushes), the US army turned to attrition and sought to kill as many Vietnamese people as possible. Rather than aiming to gain territory as in typical conflicts, the goal was to reach the highest feasible body count in order to batter Vietnam into submission.

In Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse paints a stark portrait of the use of attrition warfare in the Vietnam War:

In Vietnam, the statistically minded war managers focused, above all, on the notion of achieving a “crossover point”: the moment when American soldiers would be killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace… Producing a high body count was crucial for promotion in the officer corps. Many high-level officers established “production quotas” for their units, and systems of “debit” and “credit” to calculate exactly how efficiently subordinate units and middle-management personnel performed. Different formulas were used, but the commitment to war as a rational production process was common to all.

In many cases, attrition warfare can become a process of attempting to outright annihilate an opponent.

In Vietnam, uncertainty as to who the enemy was turned every non-American into a target.

The Americans never really grasped who the enemy was… they assumed that most villagers either were in league with the enemy or were guerrillas themselves once the sun went down… Farmers simply wanted nothing to do with the conflict or abstract notions like nationalism and communism… But bombs and napalm don’t discriminate. As gunships and howitzers ravaged the landscape… Vietnamese villages of every type … perished in vast numbers.”

Guerrilla warfare is the inverse of attrition: unstructured, fragmented and based on tactics, not force. It can take a large force engaging in attrition to defeat a small one engaged in guerrilla warfare.

Vietnamese revolutionary forces decisively outgunned by their adversaries, relied heavily on mines and other booby traps, as well as sniper fire and ambushes… Unable to deal with an enemy that overwhelmingly dictated the time, place, and duration of combat, US forces took to destroying whatever they could manage.

The Issues With Attrition Warfare

Among the many problems with attrition warfare are these:

  • High death tolls — This is the primary issue. Although all wars involve casualties, attrition warfare increases the number of combatants and civilians who are killed.
  • High costs — Attrition warfare requires a lot of resources. Adjusting for inflation, the Vietnam war cost $770 billion, plus $1 trillion for subsequent veterans benefits. Those figures do not even take into account the impact on industries and economies.
  • The potential for abuse — When maximum damage is the goal, there is more potential for war crimes to occur and for people to abuse their power.
  • Long durations — A war of attrition may be lengthy and slow moving. As Sun Tzu wrote, “there is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”
  • The potential for an unstable outcome — The outcome of attrition warfare is not always clear. A nation which is battered into submission may rebel in the future, and tensions are exacerbated. The unstable outcome of World War I is in part responsible for the outbreak of World War II.
  • Long-term impact on a nation — Attrition warfare can cause serious long-term problems for both sides. The deaths of large numbers of young, mostly male combatants can lead to a dramatic drop in birth rates for years to come. It is estimated that World War I led to 3.2 million fewer births than would have been expected in Germany alone. Fewer people to work during and after a war means a decrease in productivity and a change in the structure of economies. Money spent on fighting a war of attrition cannot be used for other areas, such as healthcare. Educational institutions often suffer, as young people are less able to attend. Large areas of land are destroyed, damaging farmland, homes, and infrastructure. It can take decades for a nation to recover from the impact of attrition warfare.

Attrition in Business — and Two Ways Out

The concept of attrition applies outside of war. Bureaucracies grind people out. Excessive competition among businesses might be good for consumers, but it's a grind for the companies involved.

There are two ways out that seem important.

The first option is that after you recognize that you're mired in attrition, you can, of course, opt out. Maybe if you put aside your ego, you'll decide that the time and resources required to compete are too much.

The second option might appeal more. History shows that the way out of trench warfare is the use of asymmetric weaponry. If you're using basically the same strategy with basically the same resources as your competitor, you're in a war of attrition. If, however, you choose a radically different strategy, with the same resources or fewer, you're likely not to be in a war of attrition. Of course, if you're right and your radically different strategy succeeds, you get the spoils. If you're wrong and your strategy fails, you get the humiliation of being wrong. And since the world rewards conventional failure and not unconventional failure, you've got a difficult choice to make.