War in general. All warfare exists around this trope, as does the development of any new tactics and technology. Despite all the hubbub about honor and glory, the point is to win, and that is done by making it unfair to your side's advantage. Yes, there are rules, and there are standards of honor (or, more accurately, professionalism) that are followed, but even when these are adhered to, the overall point is to still make things unfair to your advantage. A fair fight just means you give more chances for your enemy to hurt or kill you and/or your comrades.
Colonel Jeff Cooper on the "Fair Fight": "If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck!"
This is exemplified by military technology. If the enemy has a gun, make a bigger gun. If you can't make a bigger gun, make it shoot faster. If there's too many soldiers on the field, send in a tank. Or better yet, smash them with artillery. If the enemy denies the battlefield through territory control, send in planes. If they use AA or their own planes to deny your planes the advantage, build stealth planes. If they've managed to defeat your stealth technology, hit them with a cruise missile. And on, and on. Military advancement is basically the study of forcing inequal battle.
Contrary to the popular image, the knightly warfare wasn't exactly chivalrous. The usual means of Medieval warfare was Indirect Warfare - instead of attacking the enemy army, the knights attacked the enemy's means of waging war. This is known as chevauchee and meant attacking the enemy's agriculture, his peasants - yes, they were prime targets, as they were crucial for producing food! - his supplies, his logistics, assassinating his leaders, and arranging ambushes whenever possible. Field battles were considered as an erratic and uncertain way of winning battles, and most field battles occurred when one of the armies had trapped the other and the other had no way of averting it. Therefore, two groups would basically rush at each other until one side was weakened enough to get unorganized and wounded. Then, the burning of supplies continued.
Most armies will start a large war doing the complete opposite of this trope, or continue for some time, often using very visual and quite atrocious tactics, before buckling up and getting creative. They'll start to focus on only that which works really well, and to hell with honour and such. Examples being the Prussians during The Napoleonic Wars (though the French started out as this trope, to great success), the Union during the American Civil War, and the British Commonwealth and French forces during World War One (after two or three years). Generally, though it might seem obvious, Armed Forces at the end of long wars are full of very "dishonourable" soldiers and officers who are very, very good at their jobs.
In general, American military doctrine has always (and consistently) been about "dishonorable" combat: when entering a battlefield, US forces specifically work to end the conflict as quickly as possible. The last "honorable" offensive the US undertook was Operation Overlord, the attack on Normandy in World War 2, and even then, only by virtue of being too big to properly conceal (and they did it anyway). Special operations, clandestine operations, sabotage, stealth missions, and subversive activities are how the US operates.
Steppe nomads in general. While agricultural nations have fought war, they have usually attempted to outmanuever the enemy and avoid wanton bloodshed. The nomads themselves saw war as battle of annihilation, and their tactics were similar to rounding up a herd of animals and culling it. Wanton brutality optional. The Mongols were so successful because their enemies were used to "honorable" warfare. The Mongols usually succeeded if they won the first battle; if not, they usually did not manage to get a strong foothold. Once their enemies got a clue to their strategy and tactics, they were usually countered successfully. The second Mongol attempt to conquer Hungary 1284 ended in total Mongol defeat. Likewise, the Mongols never gained foothold in Vietnam.
It helped that the Mongols were completely divided amongst themselves after Ögedei Khan's death. The second Hungarian invasion was severely weakened due to infighting.
One of the single most common (and devastating) steppe nomad tactics was a false retreat. Humans, like any other predators, have an instinctual urge to pursue weak, fleeing prey. Not only were steppe peoples masters of using this to draw out and destroy defensive formations as well as wear out pursuers and lead them into ambushes, but they were masters of shooting backwards while on horseback.
Another common tactic, learned from herding animals, was to give a surrounded enemy an "out" by weakening their formation deliberately. This usually resulted in panicking forces dropping their weapons and fleeing en masse for the "exit," at which point they could easily be harried down instead of fighting desperately their backs to the wall. Mongols were absolute masters of psychological warfare.
Values Dissonance and Rule of Symbolism can have a large effect on this. What is and is not considered "fair" or "honorable" in war can be a matter of culture and time. For example, during World War I, the German Empire vowed to execute any American POW found to have fought with a shotgun for war crimes because the shotgun was the weapon of the hunt (for game), and the Germans found it insulting. (American soldiers were using shotguns because they were very effective in clearing out trenches.) To try to substantiate the argument, the Germans claimed that wounds from shotgun shells were not instantly fatal and that victims would die a slow and extremely painful death. As for time, it used to be a war crime to drop bombs from the air (the Hague Convention of 1899).
Admittedly, the German objection to the use of combat shotguns was largely insincere in nature - while they argued that it was inhumane (due to a technicality about firing multiple shot) and undignified, they mostly wished to create legal hassles to slow the use of a weapon that was devastatingly effective. To put this into perspective, while Germany was arguing against the shotgun, they were launching shells filled with chlorine gas.
Pretty much every air force in the world that gets the chance would rather destroy the enemy air forces on the ground, before they get in the air, rather then let them get in the air and have a fighting chance. A preferred tactic is to hit the runway first, preventing the planes from escaping, and allowing you to destroy them at your leisure. The Israeli Air Force used this to ridiculously great effect during the Six-Day War.
Certain types of Combat Pragmatism are illegal by the laws of warfare, not the least of which is not wearing an identifiable uniform. You break the rules, you lose their protection, such as eligibility for Geneva Convention rights.
Feigning surrender and then opening fire is very likely to get you shot without trial if you get caught.
Combat engineers are the ultimate Combat Pragmatist troops. Not only are minefield among their specialties, but they also tend to be masters of the Booby Trap, which is not against the Geneva Conventions.
There's a saying: "If the engineer wants to get you by the balls, he will". There are - for a lack of a better word - downright evil ways to booby trap objects. One memorable story was about a booby trap that was set under a kitchen sink. The electrical circuit to detonate it was set inside the drain, with two metal plates separated by a sugar cube. The moment you turn on the water to wash your hands - boom.
Combat engineers take this trope Up to Eleven. They are trained in mine warfare, booby trapping and improvised munitions. The classical booby trap is to tilt a picture on the wall slightly, then rig an explosive charge with a mercury trigger behind it. When an enemy soldier - usually an officer - attempts to right the harmless-looking picture on the wall —- KABOOM!
Note, however, that adhering to certain rules in warfare can be a form of Combat Pragmatism as well. There is a good reason for NOT allowing troops to attack civilian targets at will, achieve objectives through deception, treachery and sheer terror, alter action plans unpredictably to increase personal safety at any cost, ignore command structure and loot their own army's supplies for additional resources. Arguably, in the course of the war, the troops must be kept controllable and sane. If methodical application of combat pragmatism turns one's own men into dangerous killing machines, and enemy's civilian population into desperate fighters for survival, the long-term perspectives are not very bright.
And sometimes adhering to the rules is pragmatic because once you throw out the rule book, the enemy will too. It might seem like a good idea to use a red cross to disguise military actions, but doing so potentially makes all your medical personnel targets.
This is guerrilla warfare. If the dedication is there, an irregular fighting force will do anything it takes to demoralize a militarily superior foe.
This is one reason why guerrilla warfare often turns brutal. Conventional rules of war are often thrown out in guerrilla wars in the name of pragmatism until everyone is acting with utter deceptiveness and brutality, with everyone losing out in the end. See above for pragmatism behind rules of war.
Even closer to the enemy (often with areas they think well secure) is sabotage. Particularly of note is Brigadier Philip Toosey, the real life senior officer of the British POW construction teams in Thailand. Far and away from Pierre Boulle's Lt. Colonel Nicholson (and in fact Toosey was pretty much Nicholson's opposite in every way), Toosey actively encouraged sabotage of all kinds to slow down construction of the bridges.
Snipers in general either are this trope or on the receiving end of this trope. Many snipers try to have a consistent pattern when killing the enemy, such as shooting the first in line, to make no one want to lead a patrol and to ruin enemy morale.
A well known tactic for snipers is to aim for a soldiers leg. This means that the sniper can also kill anyone who tries to help him, and that the rest of the platoon is forced to tend to the wounds and carry him, which can seriously hinder their mobility.
A common counter-sniping tactic is the artillery strike on their position. Usually it's from a mortar carried by infantry (who this way won't expose themselves to the sniper's fire), but when things get really ugly they'll use howitzers. Incidentally, snipers equipped with anti-materiel rifles will shoot the mortars and other heavy weapons first, both to save their own skins and to prevent them from massacring their own infantry.
Colonists in the revolutionary war took what they learned about warfare from the natives. For the most part, warfare as taught by the British were men lining up and marching, readying a hail of bullets for their foes. This, paired with their iconic red coats, made them easy pickings for the colonist rebels who hid in the trees and foliage in dirt-brown clothing.
Sun Tzu, general during the Warring States period in China, not only was a warfare pragmatist to put others to shame, but quite literally wrote the book on it. It's worth noting that the same book, The Art of War, is still used to teach tactics and strategy (fighting dirty on army scale) to this day.
George Washington was a warfare Pragmatist. Launching a major attack on Christmas morning, when the enemy was sure to be drunk/sleeping/both, is only his most infamous act of dishonorable warfare. Many historians have attributed the American victory to this.
One wonders how else you'd expect to beat a town-full of BadassMercenaries. They also had heard the Americans were coming, and didn't care. Bad idea.
Actually, the Hessian commander put his men on alert after getting warned. However, a few hours later they were attacked by about a dozen men who inflicted a few casualties and fled. The Hessian commander, Von Rahl, decided that this was the American attack. He told his men that "those wretched peasants" were beaten and told them to stand down and celebrate the holiday. And a few hours later...
The North Vietnamese also took advantage of a day that was a holiday when they launched the Tet Offensive on January 30th, 1968. That was Tet, the first day of the New Year, probably the most important holiday of the Vietnamese calendar. On top of that, they had previously announced that they would honor a two-day ceasefire to allow the celebration of the holiday. Given the scope of the attack, they never had any intention of honoring that ceasefire. Worse still, they didn't attack soldiers: they attacked camera crews, hoping that the footage sent back to America would lessen morale at home. It was at that point that the war really started to be perceived negatively by the public.
They also used many other effective tactics. Littering the woods with booby traps designed to wound soldiers so when the others came to rescue them the Vietnamese would shoot them. The tunnel system drew a platoon of Americans with a small force and then had reserves pop up out of the ground and destroy them. They also used prostitutes as spies.
Amusingly, the Tet Offensive failed utterly. Nearly half of the communist forces involved were killed in the offensive, and they failed to cause a general uprising in the south - indeed, it most likely weakened their positionnote The North Vietnamese Army was, after this point, effectively crippled and unable to fight for the rest of the war, with action being taken over by irregulars. The use of the offensive in propaganda was purely opportunistic, never part of the original plan.
The propaganda was, however, quite effective. For the first time, mainstream commentators in the US began to say that the US could not win the war, despite the fact that it was far closer to being won at this point than it had ever been.
Egypt's invasion of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Not only was it a religious holiday for Jews, it was also during Ramadan - the Muslim fasting month where war is supposed to be ceased. Some Arabs know it as the Ramadan War, by the way, while others call it the October War. In Egypt it's usually just called '73.
During Yom Kippur it is traditional to fast from sundown of the previous evening to the next sundown—so not only were they praying, they were also underfed.
It's generally agreed that this actually backfired on the Egyptians: Attacking on a day when everyone was easily reachable, when the roads were empty (Yom Kippur is the one day in the year when even secular Israelies avoid driving) meant that mobilisation of the reserves was very quick. Had the Egyptians attacked on, say, Passover, when everyone's either abroad on holiday or stuck in traffic jams, the result would've been more to their advantage...
However, it must be admitted that the means by which the Egyptians penetrated the much-vaunted Israeli Bar-Lev Line of defensive barricades fits this trope perfectly. The Line consisted of massive sand fortifications—essentially huge man-made dunes—along the Suez Canal that would be virtually impossible to traverse and against which even the heaviest of conventional artillery and explosives would be useless. The Egyptian solution? Water cannons. The Israelis were apparently really confused at why the Egyptians had ordered a bunch of German high-pressure water pumps...until they found out why, with Egyptian tanks coming at them moments later.
On the other hand, an Arab will tell you that the ultimate failure was really more because the North Africans didn't pull through with the amphibious assault that Gaddafi suggested. Well that, and Sadat had purged one of his two competent generals for political reasons, and the second had been killed while visiting the front lines during the War of Attrition.
On the third hand, it is probably better for the Arab nations that they lost, as Israel is the ultimate combat pragmatist, and had they lost the war they would have used nuclear weapons on the Arab nations.
On the fourth hand, it's pretty likely that Egypt never actually intended to win the war, they just wanted to use it to get Israel to the negotiating table to get the Sinai, which they had lost in the Six-Day War(and which Israel had only occupied to get Egypt to negotiate in the first place). In which case, Egypt got exactly what it wanted.
Speaking of Egypt vs. Israel, Israel's actions during the Six-Day War are all about this. Israel attacked first, even though they had not (yet) been attacked. A large-scale surprise air strike that was the opening of the Six-Day War, with Israel destroying about the entire Egyptian air force, which guaranteed Israeli air superiority for the rest of the war.
The reason for the crushing defeat of the French by the English during the Battle of Crécy.
Various battles of the Hundred Years War, particularly Agincourt, have earned this reputation for the English. The French expected a civilized battle with knights on horseback and everything, and the English just shot a lot of arrows at them. Whether that's the reality or not, the reputation still stands.
Actually at Agincourt, the French attacked on foot. The original battle plan was about dismounted knights attacking on foot at center, then when the battle was engaged, the mounted knights attacking at flanks, performing an envelopment operation, and a local knight, Isembard d'Agincourt, attacking at the English rear with his retinue as he knew the local pathways. Because of extremely bad leadership, rain which had turned the fields into mud and that Isembard d'Agincourt was more interested in looting the English baggage than fighting, it all ended up in Total Snafu.
"Knightly"? Definitely. Civilized? Not so much. Many times the French lost battles because their just so proud cavalry charged over their own infantry and crossbowmen making the fight actually easier for the English. But hey, turns out France had reserves. Many reserves. And from 1400 onward, also lots of gunpowder weapons.
This happened just twice - at Crecy 1346 and Agincourt 1415. The reason why the English prevailed was that they just had better discipline and better generals. The French eventually learned this, abolished the feudal army and set up a professional army consisting of competent professionals - knights, infantry and artillery.
Legendary Vietnam-era Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock demonstrated this when he was sent to one camp that was being constantly harassed by a good enemy sniper. After observing the terrain and seeing where the enemy's targets were when shot, he figured out where the sniper had to be shooting from. Instead of readying his weapon, Hathcock decides it to be more pragmatic to set up a rocket that's targeted at the sniping position and wait. The next time the sniper attacks, the rocket is fired, and it starts raining sniper chunks. In general, while Sniper Duels may seem cool and honorable in fiction, heavy artillery tends to be the more traditional recourse.
Also, Hathcock sometimes went out to snipe with an M2 heavy machine gun. Being very accurate and longer-ranged than pretty much any sniper rifle at the time it allowed him to snipe enemies at longer ranges, and if enemy infantry found where he was and tried to attack... Well, he'd just switch the fire selector and fire full-auto.
The US Navy is developing a railgun designed to fire projectiles at Mach 8 and sink a cruiser or aircraft carrier from 400 miles away. Said one of the officers on the project, "I don't ever want to see our boys in a fair fight".
Cruise missiles also have all kinds of obnoard systems that will cause the missile to crash if anything goes wrong with them (like, say, being hit with another missile or a blast of point defense gun fire), while a rail gun shot is essentially just an inert lump of metal that can only be dodged (good luck doing that with a ship), diverted (good luck intercepting an object traveling at mach 8 with enough force at sufficient range to make it miss), or absorbed.
Seems the battleship will be back!
How about the Gunboat? Think of this much firepower in something that can actually sail up the James River should the need arise.
American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, rather than fight it out on the battlefield, had the idea to devastate the South's economy by pillaging and burning everything from Atlanta to Savannah up to Richmond. It worked almost too well. It took years to rebuild the South's economy after the war (though a lot of that was due to people of the South burning infrastructure and supplies that the North would have been happy to have just pillaged). Arguably his actions brought the war to an end earlier, which was his justification.
In the process, he more or less invented the modern understanding of total war: if they're giving you everything they've got, then everything they've got is fair game. Since most of that stuff is behind their lines, this wasn't very useful in most wars in later years...until World War II, where you could fly over enemy lines if you had air superiority. Lo-and-behold, we now have strategic bombing. Though "strategic bombing" actually was not very effective.
This concept is Older Than Print. The warfare during the Age of Chivalry wasn't particularly chivalrous; rather than risking troops on field battles, knights far rather waged war by attrition - by fighting the enemy's ability to fight rather than his forces. That meant killing his peasants, burning his crops and devastating his countryside.
Further north in the same war, what gave the Union General Ulysses S. Grant the edge over his nigh-legendary Confederate counterpart Robert E. Lee (who'd outlasted a lot of Grant's predecessors) was the realization that victory in the war would come not from conquering and occupying territory, but from breaking the enemy's will to fight. Some of Grant's late victories in the war were so costly to his army that many could hardly think of them as victories at all; yet they were victories nonetheless because they ground down Lee's army and furthered the ultimate goal of forcing him to surrender, and that was all that mattered. One reason so many of Grant's predecessors didn't last was that they Gave Up Too Soon when Lee managed to beat back their offensives; some of Grant's contemporaries nicknamed him "The Bulldog" because he wouldn't let these setbacks dislodge him from his dogged pursuit of and engagement with the enemy.
Grant's strategy wasn't explicitly one of attrition by throwing his army at Lee's without regard to his own casualties (although he was often accused of it). By possessing an army roughly twice the size of Lee's, Grant was able to pin Lee down with half of his army then maneuver with the other half towards Richmond. Lee was then forced to retreat least Grant get between him and the capitol of the Confederacy. Each time the maneuvering part of Grant's army would continue until it engaged Lee in new defensive positions resulting in an inconclusive battle with high casualties. The strategy continued until Grant ran out of room to maneuver to the east and was forced into trench warfare around Petersburg, which was the rail hub that supplied food to Richmond. The stalemate was finally broken when Grant finally managed to cut all the rail links and flushed Lee's army out into the countryside where he could be chased down and defeated.
The Marine Corps Line Combat program is all about disabling, crippling, and killing your enemy as viciously and quickly as possible. Examples: crushing a throat, breaking the Achilles tendon, then driving your heel into their sternum, then finally crushing their face with your boot. However, it is a bit non-pragmatic in the lack of non-lethal takedowns, which helps if you want people alive to answer questions afterward. If you don't, though...
Richard Marcinko, U.S Navy SEAL. He wrote in his book Rogue Warrior how he was sitting in the Pentagon during Operation Eagle Claw, the 1980 failed attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran. Everything went wrong, including a bus full of Iranian civilians accidentally showing up at the landing zone. When the men at the landing zone asked what to do about the civilians, Marchinko said, "Kill them". He got some strange looks for that from his fellow soldiers. Needless to say, they weren't killed.
In fact, one of his Ten Commandments of Spec War is: "There Are No Rules - Win At All Costs".
Naval mines are the main weapon of the Finnish Navy. Likewise, Finnish warships are basically examples of Glass Cannon - armed as heavily as possible for their size and intended to retreat in the safety of the archipelago immediately once they have delivered their payload. Hiding behind an island is a far better idea than going and exchanging shots in the open.
This argument has long been used as the defense for the American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, given the choice between (a) killing high numbers of Japanese instantly and convincing the Japanese to surrender quickly or (b) killing even more of them (possibly all of them, as they had declared they would fight to the last) as well as the predicted one million US casualties over the two years that Operation Downfall was predicted to take.
This was also the reason behind the US fire bombing of Tokyo, which in turn brings up another interpretation of this argument. In March of 1945, the US conducted a bombing raid on Tokyo. By itself this was nothing special, as the US had been bombing Tokyo continuously throughout the war, however what was special was the weapon they were using; napalm, a brand new weapon at the time. Keep in mind that most of the buildings in Tokyo at this time were made of wood and tar paper. When napalm was dropped all over the city, it didn't just burn; it incinerated. Over 100,000 Japanese were killed in one night, more than were killed at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet this incident gets considerably less attention than the atomic bombings which brings up issues of morality; is it really more wrong to use one extremely powerful weapon to instantly kill large numbers of people than it is to use less powerful weapons to kill the same amount of, or even more, people over a period of time?
Likewise, the Japanese were certainly no strangers to these tactics during the war. This was the reasoning behind the Pearl Harbor attack, both the attack being by surprise and the way the Japanese didn't break off diplomatic relations with the US until minutes before the attack began. During the war, the Japanese used extremely aggressive tactics against Allied troops; booby traps, suicide bombings, kamikaze attacks, pretending to surrender, using civilians as shields, attaching bombs to civilians, and telling their civilians that the Allies would do horrible things to them if they were taken prisoners. It's no wonder that the Allied invasion of Japan was estimated to take another two years and one million Allied casualties.
At some point, however, their over dependence on those tactics ended up losing what pragmatism there was. Their refusal to retreat and desperate suicide attacks just ended up depleting their forces of experienced veterans faster.
The business about telling Japanese civilians that the US soldiers would do horrible things to them wasn't really meant as propaganda, either. The Japanese had not signed the Geneva Conventions (which governs things like the treatment of captured civilians as well as captured soldiers) and, for cultural reasons, had a great deal of difficulty accepting the idea that US troops would treat captured civilians (or soldiers, for that matter) any better than Japanese troops had. When US troops actually did do so, and commanders like General MacArthur gave explicit orders forbidding any degrading treatment of Japanese people and even ordering the destruction of Imperial symbols on captured equipment (to avoid disgracing the Emperor's insignia) is was a bit of a mind breaker for some. These actions constitute being a sort of Occupation Pragmatist on MacArthur's part.
The surprise attack on Perl Harbor, itself. The Japanese were very aware that their policies were eventually going to result in an armed conflict with the United States and British Commonwealth nations. The surprise attack was the best chance they had of crippling the US Pacific Fleet before it could be used against them. Japan's strategic victory was short-lived, however; the Pacific Fleet was quickly reassembled, and outrage over the attack galvanized the American public into one of the most effective war machines ever seen.
Russian militaries have used their country's harsh winter, immense size, and destroying of supplies left behind to aid in invasions; from Charles XII of Sweden during the Great Northern War, Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, and Adolf Hitler during World War II. Rather than fully engaging the enemy immediately, the Russians retreated back slowly, luring the enemy deeper and deeper into the country, causing the invaders to overextend their supply lines, the "Scorched Earth" policy of destroying supplies left behind to prevent the enemies from using them, and waiting for the winter (nicknamed "General Winter") to set in which would greatly slow down the enemy's advance, badly damage enemy morale, and cause huge amounts of cold weather injuries and deaths.
During World War II, Joseph Stalin issued Order 270, which made it a treasonable offense for a Soviet soldier to be taken prisoner, allowing officers to shoot soldiers even suspected of trying to desert, and made the soldiers' families susceptible to arrest. He also issued Order 227, which required the establishment of penal battalions comprised of soldiers with disciplinary infractions who were ordered to be shot if they retreated.
The Red Army also had a history of using of "blocking units" or "barrier troops" from its inception in 1918 — formations behind the front lines meant to act both as a reserve and to shoot at any retreating units from their own side. Stalin re-instituted the practice in 1941 with Order 1919.
The Finns are the only nation to ever successfully use these tactics against Russian troops. In the Winter War of 1939-40, the Finns pretty much fought the Red Army to a standstill after it invaded with a force vastly larger than the Finns could muster in defense. Pretty much every page on this site that mentions the Winter War has examples of the sheer Bad Ass nature of the Finns with Fearsome Forests.
The reason why the Ninja were so successful as spies and assassins was because of their complete disregard for the code of honor that almost all warriors in Japan were expected to follow, as well as the social code that civilians followed. Ninja had no issue with running from fights, catching their enemy off guard and using weapons disguised as farming or gardening implements. They also would disguise themselves as farmers, gardeners and even geisha and prostitutes. A samurai would literally die before being seen dressed as anything other than a proper nobleman.
There were also female ninja, called Kunoichi, who did very well in disguise, because who are you expecting to stick a knife in your back? Not the pretty lady in the lovely kimono, the geisha makeup and the tessen, a fan with metal struts...
Perhaps surprisingly, Tai Chi, that meditative martial art like exercise that old people and hippies do in the park? That's based on a Chinese martial art. Recall that big, flowing, windmill motion you make with your arms where you sink into a crouch as you sweep your hands across and out from you? What you're actually doing is grabbing dirt... and throwing it in your enemy's eyes.
The specialty of the Sardinian military and its Royal Italian successor was more fighting dirty than fighting fair. Some of the most notable examples, chronologically grouped:
The Kingdom of Sardinia had little money or plains for actual cavalry, so they trained the Bersaglieri, fast running light infantry trained to quickly form an infantry square, repeal cavalry charges and then charge the cavalry as it pulled back to regroup, possibly on the flank (they actually charged Russian cavalry busy attacking French infantry at the Battle of the Chernaya, routing the Russians, and then continued when they pulled back to regroup. The Russians ran).
It was mentioned above that dropping bombs from air being was originally a war crime. The Italians not only pionereed the art of bombing enemy troops while knowing that, but did this on the technologically-inferior Libyan bedouins.
During World War II, the Italian Alpini (mountain troops, named after the Alpes mountains where they were recruited) ski troops got a scary fame in Soviet Union due their habit of popping out of nowhere in the middle of the night, gunning or bombing down everyone and everything they saw and run away.
In September 1941 (eight months before Pearl Harbor) the Italians infiltrated the American embassy at Rome to steal the American diplomatic codes. When the US entered war and the British started passing their plans to the, the Axis started taking advantage of a very talkative American military aide at Alexandria to rule the Mediterranean and North Africa (the British caught on fairly soon, as it was the only possible explanation, but, due American refusal to believe it, it continued until June 1942, when one of the interception units was caught before being able to destroy the documents proving it, forcing the US to change all their codes and try that aide for imbecility).
A perfected model of Chariot (called maiale, Italian for pig) caused the Royal Navy the loss of two battleships, a tanker and a destroyer, the latter as collateral damage, in Alexandria harbour, in a single raid. A failed raid at that: not only the tanker was targeted because the tankers were out of harbour that night, but successful masking made the Italian high command believe the ships had not been sunk, and they didn't follow it up with a larger naval offensive.
Subversion: being honourable to the boot, Admiral Sir Charles Morgan actually represented the Italian government to award the Medaglia d'Oro al Valor Militare (literally Golden Medal to Military Valour) to the frogman Luigi Durand de la Penne for the above raid, more specifically the HMS Valiant, his own flagship.
Stealth Aircraft. Before the advent of Stealth, RADAR could easily see everything for hundreds of miles around, giving the defenders plenty of time to muster defenses and get their own fighters in the air. The only way around this was to use terrain and hide from the radar, but all it takes is someone with access to a phone to report your aircraft, and you're back at square one (with enemy fighters having an altitude advantage). You could also destroy the RADAR, but good luck doing that without the bad guys knowing you've done so, AND having to commit MORE forces to the attack. Stealth Aircraft shrink the viewing area where you can be seen effectively, creating a kind of 'picket fence' the aircraft can fly through even at high altitudes. By the your enemy knows your there, your bombs have already fallen, hit their targets, and you're on your way out. Add a dark colored paint job and a night attack to the mix, and you'll be a wraith to the enemy.
Stealth Aircraft can also be used in the Suppression of Enemy Air Defense role. Owing to the very reason they exist (hit targets without being seen on RADAR), they can hit the RADARs on a large scale, and allow the much cheaper non-stealth aircraft (like A-10s or B-52s) to enter the fray and hit targets as well. In order to do this, the US is turning to another piece of of pragmatism, the use of Drones. A Drone doesn't have a mother to cry over it if it goes down, and they're MUCH cheaper then anything else, making them perfect for use as bait to get the RADARs to lock them, and the SAMs to shoot them down, revealing their positions to the new F-35s to roll in and hit with reduced risk of return fire. All while F-22s fly top cover and wait for the enemy to send their fighters up after whatever just took out their wall of RADARs and AA Sites.
During the Gulf War, the first wave of the US air attack on Baghdad was a wave of F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters, which did a moderate amount of damage, but mostly it just got the Iraqi air defense system fully up and running. They found the second wave of the attack and swatted it down most efficiently. Unfortunately for the Iraqis, the US had intended this to happen and the second wave was composed entirely of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) of no threat whatsoever. They did cause the air defense RADAR to all remain on while the third wave came in...composed entirely of HARMs (High-speed Anti-RADAR Missiles). The air defense system took about a hundred of these, each designed to destroy a single RADAR installation.
And just in case you still thought that was fair, there are stealth drones. And they can be armed with weapons themselves, or, if you're feeling particularly malicious, laser-designator devices. Why bother sending expensive aircraft into a combat zone when they can drop their bombs from a hundred miles away, and have it guided in by a laser pinpoint coming from a drone flying so far overhead the enemy couldn't even engage it if they did know it was there, which they don't?
British just after the Fall of France in 1940. With France defeated and the BEF having been chased out of Dunkirk with great loss of heavy equipment, the majority of the German command were under the impression that the British would soon come to the peace table for negotiations. While they waited for the British to come to their senses, they scaled back production, cancelled designs that clearly would no longer be needed for the war that was about to end, and went on photo op tours of Paris. Instead the British chose not to negotiate and that rather then risk French warships being taken over by the Germans and then be used against them, decided it was easier to just attack and destroy the French navy in port. Which they did, much to the anger of the French who were allies only weeks before and to the horror of the Germans who suddenly discovered that Churchill was playing for keeps.
Even then, the British still fought in accordance with at least some kind of moral direction: If the Germans had actually managed to land on the British mainland, all bets would have been off. Ireland would have been invaded and turned into a giant refugee camp for British evacuees, its industrial bases repurposed for the war. Any German beachhead would be hit with mustard gas, as would German cities. Operation Vegetarian called for the dropping of millions of linseed cakes laced with anthrax onto German fields, which would be eaten by the livestock and spread the anthrax to the population (the island upon which this theory was tested, Gruinard, was not safe to visit until 1990). Expressly abandoning the Geneva Convention was considered.
Photonics Magazine, around 1996, was all a-twitter about laser dazzle weapons. At a conference, a young infantry captain was confronted with the dire consequence- these weapons could cause permanent eye damage! He replied, “Oh, I don’t want to blind anyone permanently- just long enough to run up and put a bayonet through his guts.”
USMC Gunfighting rule 11. Always cheat; always win. The only unfair fight is the one you lose.
England. 1455, 22nd of May. The First Battle of St. Albans started a mixture of political and combat pragmatism that would characterise thirty years of intermittent conflict; go in, kill their leaders, any way you can. At Barnet, the Earl of Warwick was killed by a common soldier while trying to retrieve his horse. At Wakefield, the Duke of York and his sons were specifically targetted and killed by the Lancastrians. The English had long favoured combat pragmatism ever since Edward III had demonstrated it's necessity at Dupplin Moor, up to the moment your opponent was defeated; after which the foe (provided he was noble) was spared and ransomed. After St. Albans? Kill him, kill his sons, eliminate his claim to the throne, and do it by any means necessary. This resulted in the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, and Tewkesbury, where Lancastrians were dragged out of a church seeking sanctuary and executed. By the end of thirty years of it? Henry Tudor won, essentially by being the last man standing.
Your basic self defense class is simply a few "dirty" techniques that will buy the attacker time to run away from the encounter.
Marc MacYoung: Man to man, mano y mano was bull. Numbers and weapons were always used to increase our odds whenever possible. Once you realized the other side could and would shoot back, you did everything in your power to make sure he never got the chance. You always stacked the deck in your favor. You hit first, you hit hard enough to make sure he didn't get up. You ran as often as you hit, and you hit from behind as often as you could. Anyone who didn't play that way didn't last too long. The blood, the bullets and the knives were real. Being or having been a street fighter is nothing to be proud of, much less brag about.
Marc MacYoung:The absolute last thing any attacker wants to do is to fight you with equal weapons.
The kusarigama was designed with this trope in mind. It takes a weapon that was already rather "dirty" (the kama, which is basically a modified farmer's sickle and was often disguised as such) and puts a chain on it. The chain is not designed to swing or fling the kama around like a flail (though one school teaches one how to do this), the chain is for whipping it at an opponent's sword and tying it up, before jumping in and hacking him to death with the attached kama (or the above-mentioned short sword technique).
Sport Fencing: If you ever notice that fencers wear only one glove, that is because there was a problem in duels with opponents grabbing the blade with their free hand and stabbing violently with their own sword. This led to the popular rapier-and-dagger combination in real life, and the requirement that the off-hand be ungloved in single-blade duels, a tradition that lasts to this day.
European fencers were well practiced in a wide variety of practical techniques, such as wrestling and grappling in the midst of a swordfight. Some techniques also involved grasping your sword by the blade and using the handle like a hammer. This strike is often called a "murder strike."
Masters of the time emphasize there's nothing dishonorable in running away from multiple opponents, advise on kicks to the balls, and begin lectures on grappling by "break his arm and proceed to grappling".
A tale from Amberger's Secret History of the Sword vividly demonstrates this trope: an older fencing master is challenged to a duel in a bar by a younger, faster, stronger man with more balls than brains. He agrees to a one-on-one duel in a back alley, just the two of them, mano a mano. When the younger man shows up, the old guy points to the alley entrance and complains that the young guy broke the rules by bringing friends: when the kid turns around to look, the fencing master takes his head off from behind. The fencing master then goes back to the tavern, picks up his beer, and tells the other bar patrons he taught the younger man a lesson he won't soon forget.
The handbook by fifteenth-century master Hans Talhoffer contains advice on how to (amongst other things) boot your opponent in the gut, snatch his sword off him, pull a dagger as a surprise weapon and how to stab or slice a man from behind.
Other standard techniques include hitting your foe with your sword's pommel (which was often weighted to improve the overall balance of the sword) without taking your hand off the hilt. It's rather difficult to fight effectively when your opponent has just hit you in the face with what felt like a small hammer. If you're in close, this can be a lot easier and more effective that trying to strike your foe with the blade of the weapon.
Krav maga is founded on the concept and designed to have your survival as the highest goal of a fight. Put simply, everything is allowed, including the Groin Attack, going for the eyes, the throat, clawing and especially biting.
In fact almost every technique taught in Krav Maga contains a Groin Attack. There is a mantra that if your attacker isn't down yet, apply as many groin shots as needed to get them down.
Capoeira. Depending on who you learn it from, Capoeira can encompass anything from the standard showy but slow acrobatics, sweeps and kicks to slapping opponents' ears to disorient them, headbutts to the groin, concealed weaponry, tackles, takedowns, and more. "Cheapshots" just before a match proper aren't unheard of from savvy Capoeiristas who see an opponent without his guard up at all times.
Some places teach it the hard way. When someone wants to enter the "roda", the one entering must offer his extended hand to the one already inside, with the insider giving it a tap. After the tap, even before the hands stop touching, the game is on, and is not that rare for one of them to hold the other's hand, pull it and deliver a punch to the face with the other hand. That's fair game, the one who fell for that should know that Capoeira is, first and foremost, about deception.
The origin of Savate. When the French government outlawed the human fist as a lethal weapon, French sailors invented a fighting style based on kicks and open-handed slaps instead. Then, when the authorities weren't looking, they still used punches.
Then Savate got mixed with the wrestling styles from the north, styles that included eye gouging and other tricks. Paris' criminal gangs known as the Apache practiced this style, and thanks to this, other bits of combat pragmatism (like the infamous Apache revolver) and their numerical superiority over the police, they dominated Paris until World War I.
How the French government got rid of them is possibly the ultimate example of combat pragmatism: they enrolled them in the army and sent them to fight the German Army. After the war, the Apache (or those who survived, at least) weren't in the mood to cause trouble anymore, or even teach someone their style of Savate (hence why modern Savate is more civilized).
That said, modern sport Savate is still a rather pragmatic style, to the point they codified a groin attack.
Miyamoto Musashi. Many of his famous fights included pragmatic tricks to give him an advatange.
His first kill was at the age of 13, when he signed up for a duel with a swordsman who came to the local village looking for duels. When his uncle found out, he arranged to formally apologize to the swordsman for wasting his time. As said uncle was apologizing, the young Musashi charged him with a bo (also called a quarterstaff or "a 6-foot-long stick"), knocked him to the ground, dazed him with a blow to the head, and then beat him to death. That is not how duels are typically supposed to go.
Musashi considered the musket a "must-know" weapon for a samurai and considered it "without equal" from a fortified position in his Book Of Five Rings. He dismissed it in hand-to-hand distance and for dueling because the muskets imported to Japan in his time were exactly that. Musashi evaluated an option in terms of its effectiveness and decided where and when it was his best chance for victory - exactly what this trope entails.
Much of the Book Of Five Rings emphasizes that it is foolish to believe you have a single technique that will bring you victory and instead promotes leveraging every possible advantage you can get.
A longtime boxing legend was that Mickey Walker, a champion at welterweight and middleweight, pulled this on Harry Greb, a middleweight champion many experts pick as one of history's greatest boxers. After losing to Greb in a championship bout, the two bumped into each other later in a bar. They drank together for awhile until Walker made some comments about Greb's dirty and unsportsmanlike conduct in the ring, which Greb countered by offering to fight for real outside. The original story goes that while the two were standing in the street Walker waited until Greb was tied up in taking off his jacket and vest, and then hit Greb with a monster shot while Greb was constrained. This version of events was repeated for a long time, until about 30 years later Walker, then a painter long since retired from the sport, admitted that it was a wild exaggeration of events, and the fight was stopped before it started when a bystander separated the two.
Bruce Lee. His personally-developed fighting-style, Jeet Kune Do, is based on the philosophy of doing 'whatever it takes' to win. In one apocryphal case, during a sparring-match, he was pinned by a judo practitioner who asked what he'd do if this was a real fight. He responded, "Bite you, of course." Basically, he acknowledges that, if you're fighting for real, you use everything at your disposal, including crotch kicks, eye-gouges, hair-pulling and biting. Of course, he was also perfectly capable of fighting 'by the rules' for martial-arts tournaments and movies, but that's another matter.
This video of a Vale Tudo fight between Gary Goodridge and Pedro Otavio. Seanbaby best described it with this quote: "Gary Goodridge was finding more uses for a human dick than I did during two years of puberty. And I grew up on a farm." Goodridge, incidentally, had complained before the match that two of his favorite techniques, biting and eyegouging, were banned.
The Baron of Jarnac, a mediocre fencer, found himself challenged to a duel by the prince's champion, a celebrated swordsman. He hired a Spanish fencing master to give him a strategy to survive the duel. The master taught him an unorthodox cut to the back of the knee and had him drill it to perfection in the days preceding the duel. On the day, Jarnac landed the cut, crippling his superior opponent almost immediately. To this day, a "Coup de Jarnac" is a tricky or underhanded action.
Humanity's advancement is a decent amount of testament to this trope, honestly. If there's no way you can kill a larger animal with your bare hands, use a sharp rock. When your opponents are using sharp rocks, tie a sharp rock to a stick to create a spear. When your opponents are using spears, throw the spear, making it a javelin. When your opponents are using javelins, attach feathers and shoot them out of a bow, making them arrows. And so on...
Humans are some of the best long-distance runners in the world. One hunting technique for early civilizations was to simply chase a large animal until it collapsed from exhaustion.
Owing largely to our superior body temperature control method: Sweating. There is just about nothing that can outrun a human in a hot climate, and this hunting method is still used by some African tribes.
Many, many times in nature. It's rare to see an "even" fight between two animals bent on killing each other. Often, a predator will use ambush tactics or superiority in numbers, with some smarter animals taking advantage of their environments. Prey animals meanwhile will often counter this with their own advantages in numbers, or develop self-defense mechanisms such as eating poisonous plants or animals and letting the poison build up in their bodies so that when they are eaten the predator becomes violently ill or even dies.
One popular tale that shows up occasionally in media is the hyena versus the lion. If the lion brings down a kill, the hyena will want it. But the lion is a master of combat and can easily kill the hyena, and the hyena knows this. So the hyena gets a few friends together, and they harass the lion: surrounding it and attacking it from behind when it tries to confront another hyena or eat its kill. Eventually, the lion realizes that it can't defend against the hyena assault, and leaves, while the hyenas get the kill. Or, if the lion is particularly old or frail, the hyenas get two.
In actual fact, spotted hyenas are very capable predators and can out-persist the lion on their own with enough skill (they've got a lot more stamina than your average lion and are no slouches in manoeuvrability, however weird their movements might look), let alone with company. Lions occasionally steal their kills, so it's all tit-for-tat. And, a juvenile male alone on his own is easy pickings.