Oftentimes conflicts between people and groups play out on a well-defined battlefield and in an expected manner. Both sides enter the conflict with a clear idea of what strategies they’ll be using and what strategies the other side will be using. They know what sort of skirmishes and main battles will be fought, and they’ve been preparing and practicing for those things for a long time.
Sometimes, however, one side knows in advance that they’re at a disadvantage. They have less manpower, less money, less experience, less skill, or in some other way they seem destined to lose. In such situations, their best bet is to simply not fight the expected battle, and instead fight on a different battlefield in a way that the enemy completely fails to expect. Those who use this approach, whether literally or metaphorically, can often achieve unexpected results.
One of the groups that understood this best, unfortunately, was the Nazis. At the start of WWII Germany was heavily outnumbered by the allies, even before the USA entered the war. Nonetheless Germany conquered Poland, France, Denmark, Norway, the low countries, Yugoslavia, and Greece and pushed the Russians all the way back to the outskirts of Moscow before the tide of war finally turned.
The reason was that at the start, the allies had a well-defined way of how wars were fought, based on the First World War. Infantry sat in trenches and occasionally they emerged and made a frontal charge at the enemy trench. Tanks and airplanes were used in small numbers to support infantry. If the World War II had been fought in this manner, Germany would have been easily defeated by the superior numbers of the allies.
So the Germans chose not to fight that battle at all, but instead to literally fight on a different battlefield. They dropped paratroops behind enemy lines. They sent heavy bombing raids against cities full of civilians. They massed thousands of tanks and pierced the allied lines. They refused to fight in the trenches at all, and the allies at first were totally unprepared for the Germans’ new type of warfare.
T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) also achieved enormous victories. He was a British officer sent to the Middle East in WWI to lead mainly Arab forces against the Ottoman Empire. Since the Ottomans outnumbered him, he knew he couldn’t possibly win pitched battles, which is what the Ottomans expected to fight. Instead Lawrence devised a new strategy based on guerilla attacks, fast troop movements, and diversions, which the Ottomans didn’t know how to respond to.
The same idea can work in other types of conflict. The great chess champion Bobby Fischer used a similar approach to win the world championship. Chess grandmasters spend huge amounts of time studying openings (i.e. sequences of moves with which to start the game). Throughout his life, Fischer almost always played the exact same openings, so his opponents knew which openings they should study when preparing to play against him. In his world title match against Boris Spassky, Fischer suddenly began deviating from his normal openings, rendering Spassky’s opening preparation useless.
Basketball coach Rick Pitino has had a long and varied career, and at least at the college level an amazingly successful one. Currently he coaches at Lousiville, which had a not-too-impressive basketball program before Pitino showed up. Since then, Pitino has taken them to the Final Four again and again. His secret is playing a style of basketball that other teams aren’t prepared for. Specifically he uses full-court pressure relentlessly, which most other teams use only occasionally and don’t prepare for.
In American politics, there’s a fairly well-defined playbook of how presidential campaigns are supposed to go. The candidates hire campaign managers and consultants and do focus groups and stake out carefully-worded positions designed for maximum appeal while not offending anyone. When they or anyone in their campaign makes a gaffe that offends some group or just looks wrong, the candidate makes a groveling apology and offers to suck up to the offended group.
Enter Donald Trump, deliberately ignoring every well-established rule and norm of American presidential politics. He deliberately makes racist and sexist statements. He tells outrageous lies every day. He won’t apologize for anything, especially not with the ridiculous, groveling apologies that are normal in politics. He doesn’t let consultants or focus groups tell him what to do. He keeps his opponents in the Republican Primary off-balance because they constantly have to be responding to things that they never expected to be responding to. It’s the political equivalent of dropping paratroops all over the place while refusing to meet the enemy where the battle was expected to take place.
ISIS seems to be another group that fights by violating the established rules of fighting. Starting from nothing a few years ago, they’ve gained worldwide fame, taken over a country-sized area, established outposts across the Middle East, and struck as far away as Paris. Their main tactic is that they don’t seem to have any predictable tactics. Taking videos of beheadings and other gruesome crimes against humanity, posting them on YouTube, and using them to recruit fighters from the first-world countries is a strategy that no one ever anticipated. We can only hope that, like the Nazis, their change-the-battlefield strategy will eventually hit a limit.