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Fabian Strategy: Wearing Down the Enemy

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Fabian Strategy: Wearing Down the Enemy

General George Washington by John Trumbull

Photograph Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Overview:

Fabian strategy is an approach to military operations where one side avoids large, pitched battles in favor of smaller, harassing actions in order to break the enemy's will to keep fighting and wear them down through attrition. Generally, this type of strategy is adopted by smaller, weaker powers when combating a larger foe. In order for it to be successful, time must be on the side of user and they must be able to avoid large-scale actions. Also, Fabian strategy requires a strong degree of will from both politicians and soldiers, as frequent retreats and a lack of major victories can prove demoralizing.

Background:

Fabian strategy draws its name from the Roman Dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus. Tasked with defeating the Carthaginian general Hannibal in 217 BC, following crushing defeats at the Battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimene, Fabius' troops shadowed and harassed the Carthaginian army while avoiding a major confrontation. Knowing that Hannibal was cut off from his supply lines, Fabius executed a scorched earth policy hoping to starve the invader into retreat. Moving along interior lines of communication, Fabius was able to prevent Hannibal from re-supplying, while inflicting several minor defeats.

By avoiding a major defeat himself, Fabius was able to prevent Rome's allies from defecting to Hannibal. While Fabius' strategy was slowly achieving the desired effect, it was not well received in Rome. After being criticized by other Roman commanders and politicians for his constant retreats and avoidance of combat, Fabius was removed by the Senate. His replacements sought to meet Hannibal in combat and were decisively defeated at the Battle of Cannae. This defeat led to the defection of several of Rome's allies. After Cannae, Rome returned to Fabius' approach and ultimately drove Hannibal back to Africa.

American Example:

A modern example of Fabian strategy is General George Washington's later campaigns during the American Revolution. Advocated by his subordinate, Gen. Nathaniel Greene, Washington was initially reluctant to adopt the approach, preferring to seek major victories over the British. In the wake of major defeats in 1776 and 1777, Washington changed his position and sought to wear down the British both militarily and politically. Though criticized by Congressional leaders, the strategy worked and ultimately led the British to lose the will to continue the war.

Other Notable Examples:

  • The Russian response to Napoleon's invasion in 1812.
  • The Russian response to Germany's invasion in 1941.
  • North Vietnam during most of the Vietnam War (1965-1973).
  • Iraqi insurgents approach to combating the American invasion of Iraq (2003-)
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