B.H. Liddell Hart (31 October 1895 – 29 January 1970) was a British soldier and a military historian. He is perhaps most famous for his 1954 book, Strategy, in which he argued that an indirect approach to a battle is superior to a direct approach.
It helps us to realize that there are two forms of practical experience, direct and indirect and that, of the two, indirect practical experience may be the more valuable because infinitely wider.
Now, most of us are never going to be in a position where we have to direct armies and win battles. However, by using a different perspective on Hart’s theory, we can perhaps apply the indirect approach to our life. We all have obstacles and problems in our lives which require different solutions. By broadening our possibilities through the inclusion of an indirect approach we also broaden the number of solutions available to us.
Direct experience is inherently too limited to form an adequate foundation either for theory or for application. At the best it produces an atmosphere that is of value in drying and hardening the structure of thought.
If our mind is set on one way of thinking, then that thought pattern gets engrained and hardened. This limits our possibilities which limits the probability of success.
To move along the line of natural expectation consolidates the opponent’s balance and thus increases his resisting power.
Hart cites the example of the Peloponnesian War where the different Greek states, primarily Sparta and Athens, fought for twenty-seven years. The majority of which was spent using a direct approach in battle. Often times this lead to a stalemate or just small swings in momentum. The two major shifts in the war occurred when the Athenian general Alcibiades decided to attack the Spartan economic stronghold in Sicily and when the Spartan general Lysander attacked Athens lines of communication. Lysander found success with his approach and was able to make Athens come to terms which favored the Spartans.
I can think of many instances where I used the same approach to an issue I was having and it didn’t result in any proper solution, just temporary relief before the problem came back again. Fortunately, it wasn’t twenty-seven years of stalemate.
This example reminds me of issues that can arise between parents and children where the parent wants the child to act in a certain manner but instead of communicating it properly, they end up simply ordering the child to do. This rarely works for the long term. Instead, if the parent shows the benefits of proper behavior perhaps by even behaving like that themselves the child can observe and begin to mimic them. Or perhaps rewarding the child each time he/she behaved in the correct manner. This can stick with the child for the long term. So, the indirect approach can get the result the parent wanted rather than the direct approach of compliance.
Effective results in war have rarely been attained unless the approach had had such indirectness as to ensure the opponent’s unreadiness to meet it. The indirectness has usually been physical, and always psychological.
An example of this unreadiness can be seen in Hannibal Barca‘s war tactics. Hannibal was a Carthaginian who had successfully invaded the Roman territory with his army. Although he was outnumbered and his supply chain severely depleted, he continued to have success against the Roman armies because of his indirect approach, this was most famously exemplified in the Battle of Lake Trasimene. Instead of waiting for the Romans to gather their strength and fight them on an open field, Hannibal decided to ambush the Roman army as they crossed a heavily forested area where the lake fell on one side and the woods on the other. Hannibal worked his army day and night in order to ensure that they would reach the woods in time to enact the largest ambush in military history. Hannibal succeeded in his aim as the Romans were caught off guard and Hannibal’s army fell upon them from three different sides and with the lake to barricade them in position, many of them were killed and those who decided to jump into the lake drowned from their heavy armor.
What we can take away from Hannibal’s indirect approach is to think of the future problems that can arise and tackle them before they grow into something powerful. Often times we wait around until an issue matures and gets overwhelming. Hannibal would advise us to plan for the future and act before the problem grows.
This is clearly evident in bad habits. Most of us know what is good for us, what the proper way to act is, what we shouldn’t do and yet, we end up indulging the bad habits, telling ourselves it’s okay, just one last time, one last drink and all of this only strengthens the habits we are trying to break. Instead of waiting for the habit to become overwhelming, we should take Hannibal’s approach and stomp it out in its infancy.
The goal is to grow as an individual and overcoming obstacles is the best way to do that. However, solutions from the previous obstacle may not apply to the next one. This is why being open-minded, approaching issues with different perspectives, tackling the problems with an indirect approach can be beneficial.
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