To Win Without Fighting

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"Hence, to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."
Sun Tzu, The Art of War

A situation where one side wins by putting the other side at such a massive disadvantage that the issue of fighting it out never comes up. Named for Sun Tzu's recommendations in The Art of War, it is often the mark of a Badass Pacifist or sometimes a Guile Hero, and particularly of The Messiah, and it often can happen on a small scale as well with one group putting the other at such a disadvantage that they give up without ever coming to blows.

Colonel Badass has the Evil Army surrounded. Its a no-go situation for the villains. The Ragtag Bunch of Misfits have completely disabled their supply lines. The Cavalry that were expected to have arrived have been distracted by La Résistance and have failed to arrive. They're low on ammunition, starving and exhausted. The Redshirt Army mounts the ridges on all sides of the Evil Army, just about ready to launch into a brutal melee in which many of the good guys soldiers will probably die, but after which the Evil Army will be utterly annihilated.

But the charge never comes... instead, a single soldier marches out of the allied ranks. The Hero gives the enemy a chance to surrender themselves, explaining that this is a Last Second Chance and that failure to relinquish their weapons will result in their painful and bloody slaughter. And it works.

General Ripper is ignored as men throw down their weapons and surrender in droves to the good guys. Drill Sergeant Nasty desperately tries to restore order but is defeated and maybe even murdered by the soldiers he has been oppressing the spirits of for so long. The Evil Overlord screams in frustration and indicates for his Five-Bad Band to defend him, only for the Token Good Teammate to be the first to break ranks, followed shortly by the rest of the group and finally, to the Big Bads horror, even his faithful dragon. The matter is completely resolved and the Evil Army disbanded without anyone getting killed.

Related is Talking the Monster to Death, where a character lacks overwhelming tactical superiority but instead wins by diplomacy. This is opposite to Violence Is the Only Option, where any attempt to resolve the situation peacefully either fails or turns out to be a trick by the villains.

This trope is a powerful tool; it leaves the impression of a powerful, impressive hero or sympathetic antagonist who has defeated his or her enemy so completely he could crush him with a signal... yet he doesn't, because he knows that it is not necessary. Sometimes the greatest sign of power is not having to use it. It is particularly powerful when combined with Character Development; a hero who was previously merciless and hot-headed, yet impotent, who grows into this wise, merciful, and yet powerful figure by stories end is someone who will leave a lasting impression on any audience.

Examples of To Win Without Fighting include:


Anime[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Irresponsible Captain Tylor in what can only be described as the greatest Crowning Moment of Awesome in the entire series.
  • Grenadier: It's the entire teaching that Tendou Rushuna abides to. Her tactics involve disarming enemies in such an awesome display of skill that the enemy would be so utterly discouraged to continue fighting they would simply surrender even with no lives lost. The tactic served her so well that during the entire run of the manga/anime, her kill count is essentially zero despite having skills rivalling that of Trigun's Vash.

Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • Despite having Improbable Aiming Skills and Bottomless Magazines at hand even Lucky Luke some times are able to win without fighting. Twice he simply tricked an opponent to show of their skills, using all their bullets in the process.
  • In both Marvel and DC universes, there have been cases where people have simply surrendered when one of the major powerhouse heroes has shown up. Examples include:
    • The North Vietnamese and Vietcong surrendering when Dr. Manhatten intervened in the Vietnam War.
    • An insurgent force against the US in a Middle Eastern country abruptly stopped fighting when Superman showed up (even though he was just there to evacuate Lois Lane, who was wounded while covering the combat).

Film[edit | hide]

  • In Fail Safe, a political scientist (Walter Matthau) recommends that the president (Henry Fonda) allow an accidental nuclear strike to proceed, since it will cause the Soviets to simply surrender as a matter of ruthless efficiency.
  • In The Last of the Mohicans—as well as in the actual incident that inspired it—the French commander offers the British fort a chance to surrender; they accept, knowing that they don't have a chance against the French mortars.
    • The Siege of Fort William Henry was a textbook example of 18th century siege warfare. If the attackers could get close enough to destroy the fort's walls, and if the defenders were unable to call for reinforcements in time, then the attackers would almost certainly win. Traditionally, once the attackers had successfully battered down the wall, they offered the defenders the chance to honorably surrender. Otherwise they would storm the breach and kill everybody inside.
  • In Star Wars the idea with the Death Star, a giant battle station able to blow off entire planets, is not so much to use it, but to use the fear of what it could do to hold rebellious systems in line. In the Star Wars Expanded Universe the Tarkin Doctrine is fully explained, referencing experiences with the Star Destroyers. While much smaller than the Death Star, they were still much bigger than any other warship before them, a fact which would by itself often keep people from fighting. Which, in Tarkin's words made it possible to "Rule through the fear of force rather than through force itself". In the end, the doctrine backfired when people, instead of becoming fearful, got angry over what the Death Star could do—and did. Textbook misreading of The Prince.
  • Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon describes his fighting style to an Arrogant Kung Fu Guy as "the art of fighting without fighting." Then proceeds to demonstrate it by tricking him into a tiny row-boat being dragged behind the ship.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • The Trope Namer is Sun Tzu's The Art of War, of course. See the page quote. A big part of Sun Tzu's military philosophy is that fighting is a matter of last resort, and that it is far better to win by simply making it impossible for the opposing side to win (and, of course, to ensure they know it).
  • Inverted in the Discworld book Night Watch. Vimes' realisation that he cannot win and his decision not to fight saves them all by persuading the mob to not destroy the station, and avoids the impression that the police are arming themselves against their own people.
    • Sun Tzu would approve as well: "If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler's bidding."
  • The Foundation series lives off this trope. The protagonists use historical forces to achieve victory, instead of direct combat.
    • One of the antagonists uses it to a lesser extent. The Mule uses his mental powers to convert his enemies to his side. He would latter use the Visi-sonor to create mass despair, causing his enemies to lose the will to fight before any battle occurs.
    • One of the first victories achieved by the Foundation involves a prince-regent sending a large fleet, including a cruiser recently repaired by the Foundation against Terminus (the Foundation planet) in order to crush them and use their technology to rule. The Mayor of Terminus merely uses the ever-present monks who control all atomic technology to stop the fleet and incite mass riots on the prince-regent's planet.
    • Korell declared war against Foundation... after they have imported for years everything from household appliances to heavy industrial machinery from Foundation and had no alternative source to import atomic batteries necessary to run all this. Foundation withdrew from the immediate vicinity and was going about its business, not paying them much attention. Korell have unconditionally surrendered after 3 years of this lack of war.

They'll send their sons out in unlimited numbers to die horribly on broken spaceships. They'll bear up under enemy bombardment, if it means they have to live on stale bread and foul water in caves half a mile deep. But it's very hard to bear up under little things when the
patriotic uplift of imminent danger is not present. It's going to be a stalemate. There will be no casualties, no bombardments, no battles.
There will just be a knife that won't cut, and a stove that won't cook, and a house that freezes in the winter.

Teg's reputation was an almost universal thing throughout human society of this age. At the Battle of Markon, it had been enough for the enemy to know that Teg was there opposite them in person. They sued for terms.

  • Subverted in The Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf marches up to the Black Gate and demands that Sauron surrender; he wants Sauron to think that he has the Ring, and only someone with the Ring would be powerful enough to be so brazen. (This point is lost in the movie; despite that Merry and Pippin say that "the enemy thinks we have the Ring," there's no mention of Sauron later thinking that Gandalf or Aragorn having it—only Aragorn having the sword of Elendil, which gives him no special power against Sauron's armies.
    • Played straight when Numenor marches on Mordor and the orcs flee and the sight of the Numenorian army, forcing Sauron to surrender.
  • Happens once in the Hand of Thrawn duology. The Big Bad Duumvirate are using a scheme to make it look as if Grand Admiral Thrawn, the greatest military genius the galaxy has ever known, is Back From the Dead, and the galaxy's not sure if this is a trick or not. One group sends a small force against him as a test. The Duumvirate manages to figure out who they are and start the opening move of one of Thrawn's responses against these people, a response which had the last time totally decimated their taskforce. Convinced, the small force flees.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga, Miles is faced with a situation where he has led his (relatively small) forces to charge headlong on the point where the action will be, if he's right. He considers, for a moment, what will happen if this wild move spooks the (unbelievably huge) opposing forces into believing their invasion plans are in jeopardy and, as a result, never carry them out. He concludes that, if that happens, he will have performed the perfect war of manoeuvre by his father's own definition...

Of course, I'll have political egg on my face and a lynch mob after me from three sides, but Dad will understand... I hope.

  • Raj Whitehall's life's ambition is to win a war without actually fighting a battle.
  • For 'Black Jack' Geary the best outcome would be to exit Syndic space without ever confronting the armed forces of same - his subordinates feel very differently.
  • In the James Blish story "Beep!", later expanded as The Quincunx of Time, the Service is mentioned as defeating a massive invasion force this way. Despite all the invaders' fanatical secrecy while preparing, the Service knew exactly when and where they'd attack, so the enemy fleet found itself too outnumbered and out-positioned to even try fighting. "...the Service always wins—that's been a statistical fact for centuries."

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • The end of Star Trek Deep Space Nine is part this...though the Dominion is ready to fight to the death, an act of compassion from Odo to the lead female Changeling is enough to end the war.
    • Not quite a good example, as this was simply the final surrender after a large space battle in-system. Analysis by the Federation said that the allied forces could have taken Cardassia while losing a third of their own forces. The Dominion simply decided to surrender instead of fighting to the last man.
  • A real (And truly epic) example from Star Trek would be the TNG episode "Chain of Command", in particular part 2. Captain Jellico has Riker navigate a shuttlecraft through the dense nebula where the Cardassians are hiding, preparing an attack. Riker sets up a massive network of mines along the hulls of the Cardassian ships. They're forced to comply with Jellico's demands and leave without fighting.
  • A season 1 episode of Babylon 5 has Sinclair do this with a bunch of dock workers, who are striking because they are being treated unfairly by the government. Sinclair wants to help, but the Earth government orders him to follow the "Rush Act," which forces him to end the illegal strike "by any means necessary," including violence. Sinclair follows orders, accompanies his army of security personnel down to the dock workers, and gives them the pay raise and safety updates they wanted; before the enactment of the Rush Act, he couldn't give them anything, because his hands were tied up by bureaucracy, but since he can now resolve the conflict "by any means necessary," he gives them the raises they deserve.
  • In the 1998 Merlin series, this is how King Arthur wins the war against Lord Lot, and subsequently gains him as an ally.

Mythology[edit | hide]

  • Legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi grew weary of needlessly killing the younger samurai who kept challenging him, so he simply stopped fighting. One tale goes that one day, he was riding in a boat across a lake with another man, who revealed himself to be a samurai and challenged Musashi while they were in the boat, where he couldn't escape. The older samurai pointed out that it would capsize if they fought in it. He pointed to an island in the middle of the lake, and said that they should battle there. When the younger samurai got out of the boat, Miyamoto Musashi shoved off, leaving him stranded. As he rowed away, he called out, "My style is fighting without fighting." A variation on this story occurs in Enter the Dragon.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Commander Shepard in the first Mass Effect game catches a group of storehouse workers who are armed during the storming of a crimebosses hideout, and both groups are caught in a Mexican Standoff. One resolution to this is for Shepard to simply convince the workers that this would be a good time to leave.
    • Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 have a lot of these with their dialogue and persuasion system.
  • Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic 2:

Direct action is not always the best way. It is a far greater victory to make another see through your eyes than to close theirs forever

Web Comics[edit | hide]

  • The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob—During the attack on Butane, Galatea calls Riboflavin out for not at least attempting this; they've got the Butanians at a seemingly hopeless disadvantage, and she favors simply scaring them into surrendering, to give them a bloodless victory. Riboflavin answers, "Bloodless victory? Where's the fun in that?!" She successfully leads a mutiny against him (well, a mutiny of the only other two people on the ship).

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • In Jackie Chan Adventures, one of the lessons Jackie would try to impart on Jade was "The greatest victory is the battle not fought."

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • During World War II the Japanese never intended to invade the mainland of the US, and were intending to invoke this trope after Pearl Harbor. They only intended to neutralize the US Pacific fleet to prevent American intervention while they secured a defensive perimeter of island colonies so they could continue their main goal of exploiting the resources of Southeast Asia. This backfired horribly (for them) as they were ones whose Pacific fleet ended up being neutralized. The American carriers being out of town at the time didn't help the Japanese cause.
    • A critical misjudgment of American resolve. When you're trying to apply "know your enemy, know yourself" miscalculating on part one is frequently fatal.
    • Their commanding Admiral saw it coming. Almost down to the month, Yamamoto predicted that in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Navy would have almost free rein, but within a year, American industrial capability would replace those losses and from that point on, the Japanese would be on the wrong side of a war of attrition. Japanese victory in the Pacific depended not on beating the Americans, but on convincing them that it would be too costly and time consuming to fight them at all. Not sinking the aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor was a critical setback, as it meant that the U.S. still had a core naval force to work with, rather than facing the prospect of rebuilding an entire fleet from scratch.
      • They had also hoped to reduce the American presence in the Pacific by feigning an invasion in Alaska. Unfortunately the U.S. had already cracked the Japanese secret codes and knew that the invasion of Alaska was a feint, allowing them to focus their entire strength on the Pacific.
      • Additionally, many of the ships sunk during the attack were later pulled from the bottom of the ocean and repaired. Only a few were deemed irrevocably lost.
  • Operation Desert Storm had many instances of this as most of the Iraqi army surrendered to the Allied forces—despite predictions that they'd fight to the death, and that "body bags would be coming back full of American casualties". As comedian Bill Hicks mused, Iraq's "elite Republican Guard" were discussed in hushed tones, but shortly became just "the Republican Guard", until one was left wondering if there were any Iraqi guards at all.
    • There was also at least one instance of an Iraqi unit so desperate to surrender and avoid getting destroyed in battle, that they tried to surrender to an Italian film crew. Other units surrendered to a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle).
      • The UAV wasn't an act of simply being desperate to surrender; in Gulf 1 the UAVs in use were Navy, used for shore bombardment spotting for the Iowa-class battleships. The Iraqis correctly deduced that the presence of the UAV meant they were shortly to suffer 16" bombardment. With no defense against the battleship guns, they took the smart way out.
  • In WWII some American forces from a series of art schools got some German units to surrender without resisting, by approaching them with a fake army (inflatable tanks, speakers playing tank noises and radio sounds, inflatable infantry and even inflatable artillery!
  • Epaminondos is famous for winning at Leuctra (by overweighting one wing to make the side opposed collapse before the Spartans could compensate, while pulling back, "refusing" the other to buy time). His greatest achievement though was to realize that Sparta's economy and military system was dependent on the labor of large numbers of Helots who had little reason to love Sparta and much reason not to. All he had to do was have an army-in-being for a long enough time in Spartan territory, large enough to survive, and the Helots would all run away at once knowing their masters were busy. No Helots, no Sparta. In retrospect it seems odd that someone didn't think of this earlier. Sparta could have recovered from losing Leuctra or any given battle. It could never recover from losing its Helots.
    • Actually, plenty of Greek (And Persian) strategists realized this—just about every plan for war with Sparta ended with "And then we'll free the Helots and make sure Sparta never rises again!" and formed the third leg of Athens' strategy in the First Peloponnesian War. The Spartans themselves knew it, since the basic alliance in the Peloponnesian League was, "Sparta swears to defend this city with its army, this city promises to defend the helot system." Not quite phrased that way, but true.
  • The Great Stand on Ugra. In 1476 Russian prince Ivan III started to deny the traditional tribute to the Mongols. The Horde, weakened by the internal strife and the war with the Crimea, managed to send the punitive expedition only in 1480, and while their army was numerous, they failed to adequately arm and supply it, hoping that it could be reinforced and supplied by their Lithuanian allies. They also hoped that Ivan's quarrels with his brothers would prevent him from mounting adequate defense. However, when the two armies come to a head at Ugra river, it became obvious that not only was Russian army much better equipped,[1] but Russians were now allied with Crimeans and Lithuanians were delayed by their own internal problems. After the initial Mongol attempt to cross the river was thwarted in a major battle,[2] two armies faced each other for a couple of months. Faced with the unwinnable tactical situation, witnessing the constant arrival of Russian reinforcements [3] and plagued by low supplies, epidemics and coming winter, Mongols finally gave up, decided to fold it and retreated back.
  • Essentially this is what police negotiators WANT to happen, as the authorities will always outnumber the suspects in a siege like situation. Many times however this fails, as the suspects are extremely desperate.
  • The Sonderbund War or Swiss Civil War of 1847 was won by the liberal (mainly Protestant) cantons under General Guillaume-Henri Dufour with less than 100 dead on both sides combined. This relatively bloodless victory allowed for a swift reconciliation and the foundation of Switzerland as a true constitutional and democratic nation state the following year. As an aside, General Dufour was later an important figure in the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and presided over the first Geneva Convention, establishing his credentials as a true Martial Pacifist.
  • Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud did this once to the Al-Rashids by going behind his lines and raiding. As the Rashid's army cared much more about the fate of their camels then about the Rashid's cause, they all left, allowing Ibn Saud to end the year with a successful campaign.
  • This trope was essentially the basis of tactical doctrine in eighteenth century wars, in which the best generals were considered those who could position their troops in such a way to force the enemy to surrender without losing any men. When the French Revolution came along and men started fighting to the death for political and national ideals, the generals of the old school found it hard to adapt.
  • The first rule of virtually any martial art or fighting discipline boils down to some variation on "the best way to win a fight is to not get into one in the first place".
    • There's an old Japanese legend illustrating the point, in which a Samurai who is tired of war founds a school of how to avoid fights in the first place. He is challenged to a duel while on a ferry by a younger Samurai demanding he test the superiority of his "no-sword" school, so he contrives to abandon the younger man on an island in the middle of the river, saying "See? No sword." as he poles the ferry away.
  1. Russians had a respectable field artillery and several companies of musketeers, while Mongols still relied on archers
  2. Russians held the higher shore and were able to bombard the crossing Mongols freely, also, the wet musket might be reloaded in a couple of minutes, while the wet bow had to be carefully dried a day at least
  3. Ivan III was a shrewd diplomat and not only reconciled with his brothers, but brought several other princes into alliance with him.