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- In One Piece, in the Alabasta Arc (specifically in the Alabasta civil war), our heroes deemed that the situation has too far gone south to be resolved in peaceful ways. Luffy then deduces that there's only one other way to solve the conflict: Beat the guy behind them all, Crocodile. His crew were initially surprised about Luffy's plan but it works in the end.
- Really, this is often Luffy's strategy: Rushing in first to find the one behind the conflict (and/or the strongest of the enemy) and then beating them, often conflicting with the rest of the crew's plan.
- During the Marineford War, Kizaru determined that the best way to keep the casualties low was to take out Whitebeard early on. However, his attack is blocked by Marco.
- The standard Modus Operendi for just about every general in Kingdom.
- During his battle with the Holy Iron Chain Knights in Berserk, Guts heads straight for the leader, Farnese, instead of continuing to fight Azan, the badass among their ranks. Unfortunately for Guts, he is so messed up from his earlier clash and the entire battle with Rosine from the previous arc that Farnese, despite having no experience in battle at all (and with a little help from her subordinate Serpico), is able to subdue and capture him.
- This is the whole objective in Chess, via taking out the enemy king. Taking out the enemy pieces doesn't matter, although it makes life easier on you.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! has some monster cards that have the ability to attack the player directly. Most of them have the ATK that are less than 1000, but with the right combination, their attacks can be increased to more than 2000.
- Built into Magic: The Gathering, and killing the enemy causes all their creatures and spells to disappear. You can't attack other creatures at all, you can only attack the player (or, planeswalkers now). Numerous methods exist to aid creatures in getting their damage at the commander without being blocked by the enemy creatures. Even just for keywords there's flying, landwalk, intimidate, trample, shadow, unblockable and protection, and there are many other methods.
- On a creature-focused level, it's a standard way of dealing with so-called "tribal" decks - the "Lords" (creatures that give a boost to all friendly creatures of a given type, so-called because they used to have the type "Lord") provide stat boosts, cost breaks, special abilities or some combination of the above to their allies, and so eliminating them produces a meaningful reduction to the power of the enemy creatures. Master of Waves, which provides global buffs to friendly elementals, is the best example here, since the army of tokens he summons will die instantly the moment he does.
- In the Judge Dredd Apocalypse War story arc, the East Meg One war marshal puts it succinctly: "If you want to pluck a chicken, it's much easier if you decapitate it first."
- Used and extensively discussed in The Patriot. Col. Benjamin Martin intentionally targets British officers first in his irregular guerrilla campaigns to sow confusion among the British regulars. He discusses it with British General Cornwallis during a neutral meeting, with the latter calling it uncalled for. Martin questions what would be an "acceptable" level of hostile intent during warfare, and Cornwallis' states his concern is to maintain order and prevent atrocities committed by leaderless armies. Martin refuses to change his tactic as long as other British officers like Col. Tavington engage in pointless brutalities that violate the Laws and Customs of Warfare, and Cornwallis concedes the point.
- Star Wars: when the Jedi are not leading from the back, or a Frontline General, they engage in this type of mission. General Grievous also likes to do this against Jedi.
- Averted in Revenge of the Sith. The Separatist army keeps fighting after General Grievous is killed, and the rest of their leadership is taken out after the army has surrendered.
- This is what the machines tried to do in the Terminator films, using Time Travel. First they tried to take out John Connor's mother so he wouldn't even be born. Then they sent a better Terminator to take out a teenage John Connor.
- In Cleopatra Mark Anthony attempts this in the final sea battle against Octavian. He sails his ship right at Octavian's flagship because even if he loses the battle, killing Octavian will still win him the war. It fails because Octavian is not actually on his flagship and is instead on another ship away from the fighting.
- Discussed in Forrest Gump when Lt. Dan orders Forrest to never salute him due to the risk of Viet Cong snipers. This concern is real and led to officers no longer wearing rank on their helmets, see Real Life below.
- During the Battle for Graza in book five of Arcia Chronicles, Alexander's army is betrayed, so he gathers the remaining loyal cavalry and orders a Self-Destructive Charge against the the enemy commander Pierre Tartue's position. He doesn't make it all the way there (though his best friend saves him from a certain death), but he gets close enough for Pierre to literally need a new pair of pants afterwards.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, a lot of battle strategies among the warring claimants to the throne involve capturing or killing important commanders on the other side(s) as well as taking a side "out of the race" by killing their leader
- In 1632, the American sniper, using modern weapons, uses this strategy to great effect against the armies of the aforementioned time period (whose commanders like to wear flashy hats and such) since said commanders stay out of musket but NOT modern sniper rifle range.
- At the climax of Kushiel's Dart Isidore d'Aiglemort leads his army on a cavalry charge against the Skaldi, aiming to get to Waldemar Selig and kill him. They end up in a Mutual Kill.
- In Ender's Game, Mazer Rackham reveals this is how he defeated the Formic Navy, by deducing which ship had their queen. Once he destroyed it, the entire fleet became inert. Unfortunately, the Formics learn from this and try to bait Ender in his first battle into trying the same strategy, by putting their ships in a sphere formation with an expendable decoy as the "leader" in the center. Ender doesn't fall for it. Then at the climax of the book, Ender orders his fleet to charge straight in and fire their mass disintegrator weapons at the Formic homeworld, causing an Earth-Shattering Kaboom that kills all the queens there, taking out all the species under their control.
- The last part, though, is not meant to win the war. Ender thinks that it's a training simulation but is so tired by the near-constant simulations that all he wants is to quit, so he purposely does something so horrible (i.e. sacrifice the human fleet to destroy an entire planet of sentient beings) that he assumes he will be kicked out of the program. Instead, this is exactly what Mazer was hoping for.
- In the first Redwall novel, Constance the badger tries to end the siege of Redwall Abbey by sniping enemy commander Cluny the Scourge. It fails due to a rather accidental Decoy Leader situation. Later on, when Cluny falls in battle, the enemy army falls into disarray, and many of the invaders surrender immediately.
- Halo: The Fall of Reach: After 27 years of losing the war against the Covenant, the UNSC plans an operation to kidnap a Covenant Prophet in hopes of forcing a truce. The operation is interrupted by the Fall of Reach, but fortunately backstabbing politics within the Covenant end up killing off the Prophets for them in the actual Halo games.
- Discussed in Protector of the Small, with the differing battle philosophies of "kill the troops first because they're the ones doing the actual fighting" and "kill the officers because they're leading and thinking." Kel and Dom, themselves officers, favor this trope.
- The Eagle Has Landed, and the film based on it, feature a Nazi attempt to capture Winston Churchill. The trope isn't played totally straight as it's mostly to be a propaganda coup; Britain is far too deeply involved in the war for the loss of any one man to change things drastically.
- In The Lost Regiment, the Merki Horde uses this during fights with other hordes. A whole umen (10,000 mounted warriors) is dedicated to seeking out and killing the enemy Qar Qarth (chief of the horde), hoping to disrupt the morale. It's specifically mentioned that, during the Battle of Orki, both the Tugars and the Merki tied their slain Qar Qarths to their horses in order to keep the warriors from finding out the truth (also, the death of a Qar Qarth must be followed by a 30-day mourning period). During the retreat of the Republic from the Merki onslaught, Keane convinces a former Merki slave, who was actually sent to kill him, to kill the Merki Qar Qarth instead with a newly-developed sniper rifle. This gives the escapees an extra month to prepare, while the Merki mourn their fallen leader.
- Discussed but eventually subverted in Cryptonomicon.
[In a banzai charge] "You kill the one with the sword first.""Ah, because the one with the sword is the officer?""No, because he's a madman with a sword running at you and hollering."
- It's mentioned in The Stormlight Archive that a sensible army will almost always try to kill the Shardbearer first both because he's easily more dangerous than a thousand regular troops and because if you take a Shardbearer down, you can capture his Shards and turn them against the enemy. It helps that Shards obviously have to be in battle to be any use, so the Shardbearer will always be where you can send more troops at him.
- In the Last Battle of The Wheel of Time, Graendal almost single-handedly stymies the armies of the Light this way. Rather than kill the commanders, she infiltrates their dreams beforehand and affects them with subtle Compulsions to misuse their troops in small ways that would add up to disaster.
- Attila: Both Emperor Theodosius of the Eastern Empire and Flavius Aetius hatch together different schemes to assassinate Attila so they won't have to fight his army in the field. Theodosius' attempt fails miserably when Attila takes down his assassin's direct attempt on his life, but Aetius' more insidious plot by sending a Love-Interest Traitor after Attila ultimately ends in the death of the Hunnic King.
- Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition supplement Unearthed Arcana. In battle, cavaliers would automatically charge toward and attack enemy leaders in an attempt to gain glory by defeating them. The charge would be made at full speed, regardless of army cohesion, intervening friendly troops, or any other consideration.
- Warhammer 40,000:
- The Tyranids use synapse creatures as commanders, who relay the Hive Mind's orders to each individual 'nid in range. Taking out a synapse creature (which can best be summed up as "shoot the big ones") causes momentary confusion amid the 'nids, until another synapse creature gets in range.
- On the other hand, sometimes confusion is "Mill around a bit in front of their guns", sometimes confusion is "Go to ground until the loud noises stop", and sometimes confusion is "RIP! TEAR! KILL!".
- This is standard operating procedure when dealing with an Ork "Waaagh!" A Waaagh (combination mass migration, holy war, and pub crawl) only comes together when a Warboss is strong and charismatic enough, and killing him all but ensures that the inevitable squabble for leadership among his subordinates fractures the Waaagh. Of course, since a Warboss is a 12 foot tall mountain of muscle with stunning anger management issues, this is easier said than done. Da Orks themselves will also often try this on their enemies, as 1) any Warboss worth his salt would relish the chance to pit himself against his opposing counterpart, and 2) if he wins, it lets him pilfer his enemy's Nice Hat.
- Tau armies suffer severe morale penalties if their Ethereal leader is slain. A blurb in an Imperial Guard codex credits a Ratling sniper named Magogg with assuring one Imperial victory when he blew an Ethereal's head off. In the lore, however, this is a risky move; the army might suffer morale issues and effectively disintegrate, or they may get angry and decide to bring out the BIGGER guns, which turns them into an Advancing Wall of Doom, only with ranged firepower that makes your armor feel like cardboard.
- Horus Lupercal's favored strategic approach, both before and after the Heresy, was raiding enemy headquarters to kill their leaders. It informed his decisions to attack Terra directly and to lure the Emperor aboard his flagship.
- Notably failed when Guilliman killed Alpharius; the Alpha Legion held together and managed to drive off the Ultramarines. This may have been because of their decentralized command structure, or because "Alpharius" was really a mere Alpha Legionnaire in disguise or replaced or succeeded by his secret twin brother Omegon.
- The Tyranids use synapse creatures as commanders, who relay the Hive Mind's orders to each individual 'nid in range. Taking out a synapse creature (which can best be summed up as "shoot the big ones") causes momentary confusion amid the 'nids, until another synapse creature gets in range.
- In the Iron Kingdoms wargames (WARMACHINE and HORDES), killing the enemy warcaster or warlock is usually an Instant-Win Condition regardless of the scenario being played. The common term for this kind of victory is "Caster Kill."
- In one Paranoia module, The Computer anticipates this trope and arranges for a decoy. As usual, it Didn't Think This Through:
Green-clearance Team Leader: All right, men, let's go!Bystander: (eyeing "Blue"-clearance Executive Officer) Hey, why are you letting him order you around?"Blue"-clearance Executive Officer: Hey, yeah! *BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM* All right, men, let's go!
- Tyrant: Some cards have a skill called fear, which means it ignores the opposing assault and attacks the commander directly. Some of the top decks use this, and works because every battle pits 2 keystone armies against each other.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, Vulpes Inculta's backstory has him winning a victory for Caesar's Legion against a hostile tribe by charging through a hole in their defences and capturing their chieftain. Caesar is so impressed by Vulpes' cunning and tactical knowledge that he spares him from execution (the standard punishment for legion soldiers who disobey orders) and instead has him transferred to the Frumentarii, Caesar's network of spies.
- Zig-Zagged in the Fire Emblem series. Sometimes missions can be won instantly by killing the enemy commander as soon as possible, other times you have to kill every enemy soldier regardless.
- Further zig-zagged in that, even in missions where this will achieve victory, it's not always the ideal solution. Since most Fire Emblem games have a limited number of enemies to fight, and thus experience to earn, winning an early battle in ten turns by killing the enemy commander may cost you the war when you reach a later level and your units have not earned enough XP to gain a vital promotion.
- In Dawn of War II, this is represented by having the Tyranids start attacking each other.
- A valid tactic in Warlords Battlecry 3 is to go straight for the commander- since he's the initial builder unit and able to capture resource sites, taking him out will seriously hamper the enemy activities, possibly even crippling the AI side completely, if they have no alternative builders or heroes. Just watch out, some heroes fully enforce Authority Equals Asskicking and can kill the hell out of that initial fighting force if not properly built and managed.
- Killing the opponent's king unit in Regicide mode in Age of Empires II gives you instant victory, regardless of how many other units and resources the other player still has. Of course, losing your king will do the same to you. In several campaign scenarios the objective is killing one particular enemy commander or destroying one enemy building too.
- Ogre Battle: The series makes this a way to shorten the battles via creating a Decapitated Army. Useful for ending annoying scenarios but losing items you could get via annihilating units (but doing said thing deals with the Chaos Frame, or Karma Meter if you want to see it that way.)
- Final Fantasy Tactics: In the "Defeat [Insert Name Here]" missions, your designated assassination target is always a unique unit that is always at least implied to be the squad commander.
- A viable tactic in the Total War series. Killing the enemy general will shake the morale of the entire enemy force. Low morale units may rout and this can trigger a chain reaction of the entire force fleeing.
- The original Shogun: Total War even has a special unit of battlefield ninjas, who aren't strong in a stand-up fight, but are stealthy, allowing them to get behind the enemy lines and attack the general.
- It becomes a lot easier in Empire and Napoleon with the right use of artillery. However, killing a general while the enemy is too far away can result in the moral rebuilding by the time they enter the musket range.
- This is a viable tactic in the Uncharted Waters series: rushing for the enemy flagship and taking it out (with cannons or by boarding) is an instant-win condition, which helps preserve own forces and the cargo carried by other enemy ships (on the downside, you get less XP). In the second game, you can additionally challenge the enemy captain to a Combat by Champion by boarding his flagship with your own.
- This is a tactic in several battles in Final Fantasy VI, notably any battle involving switching between multiple parties to prevent an enemy advance and Cyan's defense of Doma Castle.
- Played straight in Supreme Commander The default victory condition in multiplayer is assassination, where to win one must kill the enemy Armored Command Unit. This is no small feat considering that the Commander usually has a full-out army and/or base protecting him, not to mention the fact that he's one of the most powerful units in the game. Some players might try to send a group of high-damage units on a suicide run to snipe the enemy commander, or if one player is too reckless with using his commander as a combat unit then they could find a surprise waiting for them.
- When the victory condition isn't assassination, this trope may become inverted as one player suicides his commander into the enemy army/base so the nuclear warhead within takes out as much stuff as possible.
- In Overlord II, the Empire phalanxes (phalanges?) are typically accompanied by a Centurion. Killing the centurion makes it much easier to defeat them; without killing him a group of fifty fully armed browns will lose nearly thirty of its members before breaking the phalanx and causing the soldiers to scatter.
- It's the only way to win in Planetary Annihilation; losing your Commander unit is the only defeat condition as in-game the Commander is telling all the other units of the army what to do.
- Downplayed in the Dynasty Warriors series and spinoffs. It's possible on some maps to rush the enemy commander and get an instant win, but often events block your path. However, individual soldiers are almost irrelevant; you finish the map much more quickly if you jump from general to general as fast as you can.
- In Wolfenstein: The New Order German commanders can call for reinforcements if they're alerted to your presence; taking them out unseen is the best tactic.
- The Allied campaign in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 culminates in the Allies doing this on a national scale — want to end the war without having the slog all the way to Moscow like last time? Use one of your new upgraded Chronospheres (set up in the right location) to transport an entire army directly to Moscow and capture the Kremlin before reinforcements arrives or the Soviet premier gets away.
- Downplayed in MechWarrior Living Legends. The aptly named "Master And Commander", an Atlas assault battlemech variant is designed for the Frontline General, and therefore a prime target, as the M&C carries advanced Target Spotter gear for friendly artillery and cruise missiles, a powerful Enemy-Detecting Radar, electronic countermeasures, long-range bombardment weaponry, and some of the heaviest armor in the game. Killing a M&C Atlas will significantly cripple an enemy's informational flow and blind their artillery support, but their other combatants will be very pissed and avenge their commander.
- Most Covenant Grunt squads are led by a lone Elite or Brute; killing said leader will usually cause the Grunts to temporarily panic and run away.
- Much of Halo 2's first half is spent hunting down one of the Covenant's Hierarchs, the Prophet of Regret. While his death doesn't have any direct effect on the Covenant military, it does start a chain of events which result in the Covenant falling into civil war.
- In No Need for Bushido, part of Yukizane's backstory involves ending a war by engaging the enemy commander in a one-on-one battle... in a game of chess.
- Erfworld has this in spades thanks to its TBS Mechanics Verse premise. Taking out the enemy ruler will end their entire side, unless there is an heir (and heirs are very costly to pop or designate). This tactic is attempted against Gobwin Knob in Book 1 and Jetstone in Book 2, though it fails for different reasons. It's successfully used against Haffaton in Book 0.
- Is also a valid tactic against lower ranking commanders (warlords and the Chief Warlord) since they give a bonus to all units lead by them, in the case of the Chief Warlord they also give an additional bonus to all units of the side and yet another to all units in the same hex.
- In the first battle for Earth in Exosquad, the Able Squad is able to turn the tide of battle in Terran favor by assaulting the enemy flagship, buying the Terran fleet time to escape the massacre more or less intact.
- In the season 1 finale of Ben 10: Alien Force, the heroes, failing to stop the Hightbreed invasion, end up using their portails to reach the Hightbreed Supreme himself. Played with in that they don't end up killing him, but rather finding a peaceful solution to end the conflict.
- In American Football, this is basically the whole idea behind the 'sack', with the commander being the quarterback.
- In modern times, concern about snipers using this very tactic has led to the phasing out of identifying marks for officers, with inconspicuous rank insignia, and salutes by soldiers of lower rank expressly discouraged. So, Bling of War is now no longer worn on frontlines, only in safe and peaceful places. Medics have had the same problem.
- King Richard III attempted this at the Battle of Bosworth Field. With the battle starting to tip against him, Richard spotted Henry Tudor and his party riding off towards the army of Lord Stanley, which at this point of the battle was hanging off to the side, neutral. Richard took the men around him and went after Henry. Henry's bodyguards fought Richard's men off, Stanley's army finally interceded on behalf of Henry Tudor, and Richard was cornered and killed. Tudor became King Henry VII.
- This was a frequent strategy of Alexander the Great. He would hold his personal forces and bodyguards in reserve until an opening appeared wherein he could go straight in and kill the enemy general. He used this quite effectively against the Persians, scaring Emperor Darius III into fleeing the field. (This was often necessitated by his substantial numerical inferiority. No matter how brilliant his tactics, he knew that sooner or later the much larger enemy forces would wear his men down, unless he could take out the enemies' commander.)
- In the last battle of "el Cid Campeador" / "el mio Cid" this was the fear of his wife as she prepped the corpse so the soldiers wouldn't lose morale by learning that their commander was down. This made him Trope Namer for the El Cid Ploy.
- Often times the Commander, being as such, had access to better armor (he may be the only one outside his honor guard to have any, depending on the historical moment), so they were the ones that were harder to kill off.
- Averted in the fall of Constantinople when The Last Emperor Of Rome tore the imperial insignia from his armour and charged forward (at the enemy who outnumbered them by more than 12:1 overall) with his men, making this trope impossible.
- In 1943 U.S. military intelligence intercepted a message stating that Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy, would be flying from point A to point B at a certain time. The Americans successfully intercepted the plane and shot it down, killing Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
- From the Wars of the Roses: The First Battle of St. Albans was a battle between armies of thousands, but ended as a decisive Yorkist victory when the Duke of York's men went straight for the Duke of Somerset and killed him. The total number of casualties was less than 100.
- During World War II, the allies initially wanted to assassinate Adolf Hitler to end the war. Then they realized that doing so would allow a better commander to take his place and only make things worse, since Hitler was a bad general and getting worse.
- Notably failed to work with Admiral Horatio Nelson during the battle of Trafalgar, as the English fleet went on to destroy the French even after his critical injuries.
- Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, 1212. The Christian forces were half the Muslims. Instead of engaging them directly, the Christians took a long detour through a mountain passage they had just discovered and went straight for the tent of the Almohad Caliph, which was guarded by chained Slave Mooks. The Caliph escaped, but his massive army was rooted out and the Almohad empire in Spain essentially destroyed.
- The textbook example is probably the Battle of Otumba (1520). The Spanish and Tlaxcaltec survivors of the Noche Triste were moving west to Tlaxcala when they were cornered by an Aztec army that, according to the lowest estimates, outnumbered them 10 to 1. They had lost their cannons in Tenochtitlan and had little gunpowder and only 20 horses left. However, the Tlaxcaltecs pointed Hernan Cortes to the Aztec commander carrying the standard and told him that if he captured it, the Aztecs would consider themselves defeated and retire, as that was how battles were decided in Mesoamerica. Cortés then led his 20 horsemen on a charge through the Aztec lines, killing the commander and capturing his standard and feathered helmet. The fact that this was the first cavalry charge ever on the American continent contributed to Cortés' victory: up to that point, the Spanish had used their horses as pack animals only and the Aztecs had no idea they could be used in war, so when the charge happened their shock was multiplied. The success allowed the Spanish and their allies to retire to Tlaxcala, where they rebuilt their forces before attacking Tenochtitlan again the next year. Right around the same time the Aztecs were being decimated by smallpox.
- The idea of a decapitation strike in nuclear warfare essentially involves the destruction of targets which are known to be the location of individuals with launch authority to their own nuclear warheads. The idea only really became feasible when delivery systems with very low warning times (such as submarine launched missiles) or observability (such as stealth bombers) became available. It didn't last long for two reasons: first a number of responses (such as devolving launch authority when senior leadership was unreachable) were implemented in response. Second, numerous potential problems were identified with an approach like the enemy managing to order a launch before they could be destroyed or a "headless chicken" scenarionote where a country just lashes out with nuclear weapons at every possible suspect in a chaotic fashion. Russia even created a special emergency control device to facilitate this "headless chicken" launch, known as the Perimetr (a.k.a. the Dead Hand).
- The French attempting this strategy is the reason why they lost the Battle of Agincourt. So many knights tried to capture Henry V (mainly because they were hoping for a literal king's ransom) that they got in each other's way, resulting in the entire cavalry charge being one big easy target for the English archers, after which the unhorsed knights got bogged down in the thick, sucking mud, many of whom then got trampled to death by the knights who hadn't been unhorsed yet.
- The Ottoman fleet was all but forced to try this at Lepanto: after suffering devastating losses at the (lots of) guns of the Venetian galleasses preceding the Holy League fleet, Turkish admiral Ali Pasha realized their only remaining chance to win was to charge at the League's flagship La Real and capture it. It backfired horribly: Ali Pasha led the charge, and not only he was too busy doing so to keep his fleet in formation, allowing the League's fleet to defeat the Ottomans piecemeal, but when his flagship boarded La Real he ended up being shot and killed after a hour of fight, resulting in his flagship's capture and the collapse of the Ottoman morale.
- During World War II, in the Pacific Theatre, Japanese officers were often picked off with ease by snipers. After all, they only had to look for the guy who had a conspicuous scabbard by his hip, as katana don't make for very good concealable weapons.
- This was how Texas won its independence from Mexico. After defeating a numerically-superior Mexican force at San Jacinto in a sneak-attack Curb-Stomp Battle, the Texans found and captured the Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna the next day, after having tried and failed to retreat. The Texan commanders forced Santa Anna to sign the Treaties of Velasco establishing the independence of the Republic of Texas — much to the chagrin of Mexico's infuriated leadership, who saw the treaties as having been signed under duress and would continue to lay claim to Texas (either in whole or in part) until the Mexican-American War.