War. What is it good for?

If you’re in a position where you need to resist some implacable enemy, whether it be a corporate hostile takeover of your firm or an aggressive outfit trying to apply pressure to force your neighbourhood to accept something unacceptable such as enforced gentrification or attempted gerrymandering, you will very quickly know what war is good for. And it is under such circumstances that it would be very wise to turn to Robert Greene’s third book, The 33 Strategies of War.

The 33 Strategies Of War

The third book in Robert Greene’s bibliography, following The 48 Laws of Power and The Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies Of War focuses on warfare. War is, under some circumstances, inevitable – and sadly, modern civilisation is not prepared for it. And it occurs even in the most peaceful environments. Robert Greene says:-

The world has become increasingly competitive and nasty. In politics, business, even the arts, we face opponents who will do almost anything to gain an edge. More troubling and complex, however, are the battles we face with those who are supposedly on our side. There are those who outwardly play the team game, who act very friendly and agreeable, but who sabotage us behind the scenes, use the group to promote their own agenda. Others, more difficult to spot, play subtle games of passive aggression, offering help that never comes, instilling guilt as a secret weapon. On the surface everything seems peaceful enough, but just below it, it is every man and woman for him-or herself, this dynamic infecting even families and relationships.

Divided into five parts, The 33 Strategies of War dissects the anatomy of war. In the same way as a skilled anatomist can take apart a body and identify the muscle tissues, organs, nerves, circulatory systems and bones, this book breaks up warfare into 33 distinct strategies, arranged into five parts. These five parts provide insights into the five major aspects of successful warfare.

The Nature Of War

It is not that we and our colleagues are ignoble creatures who fail to live up to ideals of peace and selflessness, but that we cannot help the way we are.
– Robert Greene

Others have written treatises on warfare, most notably Sun-Tzu, the Chinese author of the ancient book The Art of War. The 33 Strategies Of War acknowledges the noble aims of The Art Of War, notably Sun-Tzu’s highest ambition, that of winning a war without fighting. Sun-Tzu acknowledged that this could be accomplished by knowing one’s enemies and knowing oneself, and applying psychological pressure to one’s enemies to get the enemy to surrender without so much as striking a single blow.

The 33 Strategies Of War builds upon this ancient knowledge to provide a guide to survival and victory in this “eminently human arena, full of the best and the worst of our nature.” His book emphasises six fundamental ideals of war:-

Look at things as they are, not as your emotions color them. In strategy you must see your emotional responses to events as a kind of disease that must be remedied … The only remedy is to be aware that the pull of emotion is inevitable, to notice it when it is happening, and to compensate for it.
Judge people by their actions. The brilliance of warfare is that no amount of eloquence or talk can explain away a failure on the battlefield. A general has led his troops to defeat, lives have been wasted, and that is how history will judge him. You must strive to apply this ruthless standard in your daily life, judging people by the results of their actions, the deeds that can be seen and measured, the maneuvers they have used to gain power.
Depend on your own arms. True strategy is psychological–a matter of intelligence, not material force.
Worship Athena, not Ares. The Greeks despised Ares and worshipped Athena, who always fought with the utmost intelligence and subtlety. Your interest in war is not the violence, the brutality, the waste of lives and resources, but the rationality and pragmatism it forces on us and the ideal of winning without bloodshed. The Ares figures of the world are actually quite stupid and easily misled. Using the wisdom of Athena, your goal is to turn the violence and aggression of such types against them, making their brutality the cause of their downfall. Your goal is to blend philosophy and war, wisdom and battle, into an unbeatable blend.
Elevate yourself above the battlefield. To have the power that only strategy can bring, you must be able to elevate yourself above the battlefield, to focus on your long-term objectives, to craft an entire campaign, to get out of the reactive mode that so many battles in life lock you into. Keeping your overall goals in mind, it becomes much easier to decide when to fight and when to walk away. That makes the tactical decisions of daily life much simpler and more rational.
Spiritualize your warfare. The greatest battle of all is with your weaknesses, emotions, lack of resolution. Declare unceasing war on yourself. Instead of repressing doubts and fears, face them down, do battle with them. Forge the warrior’s spirit. Only constant practice will lead you there.


Each chapter of this book is about one specific strategy – examples of the strategy being applied, interpretations, an instructive Key to understanding each strategy, an Image and any circumstances where a reversal may apply.

These chapters are organised into five parts. The five parts of The 33 Strategies Of War are as follows:-

Part I
Self-Directed Warfare

Your mind is the starting point of all war and all strategy. A mind that is easily overwhelmed by emotion, that is rooted in the past instead of the present, that cannot see the world with clarity and urgency, will create strategies that will always miss the mark.
To become a true strategist, you must take three steps. First, become aware of the weakness and illness that can take hold of the mind, warping its strategic powers. Second, declare a kind of war on yourself to make yourself move forward. Third, wage ruthless and continual battle on the enemies within you by applying certain strategies.
– Robert Greene

1: Declare war on your enemies: Polarity

You cannot fight effectively unless you can identify your enemies. Learn to smoke them out, then inwardly declare war. Your enemies can fill you with purpose and direction.

2: Do not fight the last war: Guerilla-war-of-the-mind

Wage war on the past and ruthlessly force yourself to react to the present. Make everything fluid and mobile.

3: Amidst the turmoil of events, do not lose your presence of mind: Counterbalance

Keep your presence of mind whatever the circumstances. Make your mind tougher by exposing it to adversity. Learn to detach youself from the chaos of the battlefied.

4: Create a sense of urgency and desperation: Death-ground

Place yourself where your back is against the wall and you have to fight like hell to get out alive.

Part II
Organizational Warfare

It is the structure of the army–the chain of command and the relationship of the parts to the whole–that will give your strategies force.
– Robert Greene

5: Avoid the snares of groupthink: Command-and-control

Create a chain of command where people do not feel constrained by your influence yet follow your lead. Create a sense of participation, but do not fall into groupthink.

6: Segment your forces: Controlled-chaos

The critical elements in war are speed and adaptability–the ability to move and make decisions faster than the enemy. Break your forces into independent groups that can operate on their own. Give them the spirit of the campaign, a mission to accomplish, and room to run.

7: Transform your war into a crusade: Morale

Get them to think less about themselves and more about the group. Involve them in a cause, a crusade against a hated enemy. Make them see their survival is tied to the success of the army as a whole.

Part III
Defensive Warfare

8: Pick your battles carefully: Perfect-economy

Consider the hidden costs of war: time, political goodwill, an embittered enemy bent on revenge. Sometimes it is better to undermine your enemies covertly.

9: Turn the tables: Counterattack

Let the other side move first. If aggressive, bait them into a rash attack that leaves them in a weak position.

10: Create a threatening presence: Deterrence

Build a reputation for being a little crazy. Fighting you is not worth it. Uncertainty can be better than an explicit threat. If your opponents aren’t sure what attacking you will cost, they will not want to find out.

11: Trade space for time: Non-engagement

Retreat is a sign of strength. Resisting the temptation to respond buys valuable time. Sometimes you accomplish most by doing nothing.

Part IV
Offensive Warfare

12: Lose battles, but win the war: Grand strategy

Grand strategy is the art of looking beyond the present battle and calculating ahead. Focus on your ultimate goal and plot to reach it.

13: Know your enemy: Intelligence

The target of your strategies is not the army you face, but the mind who runs it. Learn to read people.

14: Overwhelm resistance with speed and suddenness: Blitzkrieg

Speed is power. Striking first, before enemies have time to think or prepare will make them emotional, unbalanced, and prone to error.

15: Control the dynamic: Forcing

Instead of trying to dominate the other side’s every move, work to define the nature of the relationship itself. Control your opponent’s mind, pushing emotional buttons and compelling them to make mistakes.

16: Hit them where it hurts: Center-of-gravity

Find the source of your enemy’s power. Find out what he cherishes and protects and strike.

17: Defeat them in detail: Divide and conquer

Separate the parts and sow dissension and division. Turn a large problem into small, eminently defeatable parts.

18: Expose and attack your opponent’s soft flank: Turning

Frontal assaults stiffen resistance. Instead, distract your enemy’s attention to the front, then attack from the side when they expose their weakness.

19: Envelop the enemy: Annihilation

Create relentless pressure from all sides and close off their access to the outside world. When you sense weakening resolve, tighten the noose and crush their willpower.

20: Maneuver them into weakness: Ripening for the sickle

Before the battle begins, put your opponent in a position of such weakness that victory is easy and quick. Create dilemmas where all potential choices are bad.

21: Negotiate while advancing: Diplomatic war

Before and during negotiations, keep advancing, creating relentless pressure and compelling the other side to settle on your terms. The more you take, the more you can give back in meaningless concessions. Create a reputation for being tough and uncompromising so that people are giving ground even before they meet you.

22: Know how to end things: Exit strategy

You are judged by how well things conclude. Know when to stop. Avoid all conflicts and entanglements from which there are no realistic exits.

Part V
Unconventional (Dirty) Warfare

23: Weave a seamless blend of fact and fiction: Misperception

Make it hard for your enemies to know what is going on around them. Feed their expectations, manufacture a reality to match their desires, and they will fool themselves. Control people’s perceptions of reality and you control them.

24: Take the line of least expectation: Ordinary-Extraordinary

Upset expectations. First do something ordinary and conventional, then hit them with the extraordinary. Sometimes the ordinary is extraordinary because it is unexpected.

25: Occupy the moral high ground: Righteousness

The cause you are fighting for must seem more just than the enemy’s. Questioning their motives and making enemies appear evil can narrow their base of support and room to maneuver. When you come under moral attack from a clever enemy, don’t whine or get angry–fight fire with fire.

26: Deny them targets: The Void

The feeling of emptiness is intolerable for most people. Give enemies no target to attach. Be dangerous and elusive, and let them chase you into the void. Deliver irritating but damaging side attacks and pinpricks.

27: Seem to work for the interests of others while furthering your own: Alliance

Get others to compensate for your deficiencies, do your dirty work, fight your wars. Sow dissension in the alliances of others, weakening opponents by isolating them.

28: Give your rivals enough rope to hang themselves: One-upmanship

Instill doubts and insecurities in rivals, getting them to think too much and act defensive. Make them hang themselves through their own self-destructive tendencies, leaving you blameless and clean.

29: Take small bites: Fait Accompli

Take small bites to play on people’s short attention span. Before they notice, you may acquire an empire.

30: Penetrate their minds: Communication

Infiltrate your ideas behind enemy lines, sending messages through little details. Lure people into coming to the conclusions you desire and into thinking they’ve gotten there by themselves.

31: Destroy from within: The Inner Front

To take something you want, don’t fight those who have it, but join them. Then either slowly make it your own or wait for the right moment to stage a coup.

32: Dominate while seeming to submit: Passive-Aggression

Seem to go along, offering no resistance, but actually dominate the situation. Disguise your aggression so you can deny that it exists.

33: Sow uncertainty and panic through acts of terror: Chain Reaction

Terror can paralyze a people’s will to resist and destroy their ability to plan a strategic response. The goal is to cause maximum chaos and provoke a desperate overreaction. To counter terror, stay balanced and rational.


This book does not argue the case for war. Like von Clausewits’ On War and Sub Tzu’s The Art of War, this book assumes that war is pretty much a given, and that sooner or later every human being alive must know how to fight a war because war is an inevitable part of life, whether it be on the small scale of a family dispute or on the grand scale of nations.

The 33 Strategies Of War turns Robert Greene’s sharp and insightful wit on this most distasteful, yet most necessary, aspect of the human condition. It helps provide sound strategies to enable the reader to lead in war, to direct its flow, to organise one’s own mindset, to organise and muster his forces, to fight defensively, to fight offensively, to fight dirty, and to ensure victory with, preferably, minimal cost to oneself, one’s loved ones and one’s livelihood.

This book will help keep you and yours alive, of sound mind and sound body, and help bring you through conflicts and out the other side. Highly recommended reading, for when subtlety and seduction go out the window.

Next Time: Making Sense Of … The 50th Law