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Straight for the Commander
Usually in warfare, the commander stays back and is protected by his army, making him a rather difficult target. That being said, the army you're up against might be overwhelmingly huge, exceptionally skilled in combat, or even Nigh Invulnerable. Thus, despite the difficulty, it might be better try to take out the commander, in hopes of not having to fight the army itself. Finding him usually isn't too hard—just look for the guy with the huge Chest of Medals, the most Bling of War or the most conspicuous uniform. note  The enemy may make things even easier for you by putting its commander in the front, possibly even with a bad formation protecting him.

Be warned, however, that the commander can be way scarier than his soldiers, especially if the enemy uses Klingon Promotion. He may be a Colonel Badass, a Four-Star Badass, or even an Eldritch Abomination!

Use of this strategy rests on the hope that the enemy is a Keystone Army and the commander its Achilles' Heel. When successful, it usually results in a Decapitated Army, and even if it doesn't, the confusion and delays while the enemy reestablishes the Chain of Command can result in exploitable opportunities. Sometimes, however, it results in an Evil Power Vacuum instead, which may actually make the situation worse.

This doesn't only apply to armies. Whenever a species with a Hive Mind is led by a Hive Queen or some similar central location for the mind, destroying it will often lead to the whole army either shutting down or being thrown into aimless, bestial chaos.

Also see Achilles' Heel. Subtrope of Flaw Exploitation. Is an Instant-Win Condition in some examples. Genre Savvy commanders will employ a Decoy Leader. Compare Shoot the Medic First, when the healer's first to get targeted, and Shoot the Mage First, when the powerful wizard gets hit first.


Examples:

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     Anime  

  • 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.

     Board Games  

  • 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.

     Card Games  

  • 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, and protection, and there are many other methods.

     Comic Books  

  • 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."

     Film  

  • 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 Forest 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.

     Literature  

  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

     Tabletop Games  

  • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.

     Video Games  

  • 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.
  • In Dawn of War II, this is represented by having the Tyranids start attacking each other.
    • The "Assassination" victory condition in Dawn of War: as soon as the enemy hero dies, they lose. Some AIs make an effort to keep their commanders alive, others... don't.
  • 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.)
    • Tactics Ogre: Makes this trope the only way you or the enemy operates (specially in the Chaos Route Rime Battle where the Commander and a guest are in the middle of the heat and the army has to play Catch up, a really bad moment if the player has made said unit a Squishy Wizard).
  • 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.
  • 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.

     Webcomics  

  • 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.

     Western Animation  

  • 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.

     Real Life 

  • 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 non-existent in real life. 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 Somserset 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.
    • On the other side, this is a big part of the idea of blitzkrieg.
  • 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 Cortés 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.

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