"The epitome of strategy isn't winning every battle, but winning without fighting."
A situation where one side wins by putting the other side at such a massive disadvantage that the issue of fighting it out never comes up. Named for Sun Tzu's recommendations in The Art of War
, it is often the mark of a Badass Pacifist
or sometimes a Guile Hero
, and particularly of the All-Loving Hero
, and it often can happen on a small scale as well with one group putting the other at such a disadvantage that they give up without ever coming to blows.
has the Evil Army
surrounded. Its a no-go situation for the villains. The Ragtag Bunch of Misfits
have completely disabled their supply lines. The Cavalry
that were expected to have arrived have been distracted by La Résistance
and have failed to arrive. They're low on ammunition, starving and exhausted. The Redshirt Army
mounts the ridges on all sides of the Evil Army
, just about ready to launch into a brutal melee in which many of the good guys soldiers will probably die, but after which the Evil Army
will be utterly annihilated
But the charge never comes... instead, a single soldier marches out of the allied ranks. The Hero
gives the enemy a chance to surrender themselves, explaining that this is a Last-Second Chance
and that failure to relinquish their weapons will result in their painful and bloody slaughter. And it works.
is ignored as men throw down their weapons and surrender in droves to the good guys. Drill Sergeant Nasty
desperately tries to restore order but is defeated and maybe even murdered by the soldiers he has been oppressing the spirits of for so long. The Evil Overlord
screams in frustration and indicates for his Five-Bad Band
to defend him, only for the Token Good Teammate
to be the first to break ranks, followed shortly by the rest of the group and finally, to the Big Bads
horror, even his faithful dragon.
The matter is completely resolved and the Evil Army
disbanded without anyone getting killed by the good guys.
Related is Talking the Monster to Death
, where a character lacks overwhelming tactical superiority but instead wins by diplomacy. Another possibility for non-violent victory is Victory Through Intimidation
, in which the character is weaker than the total
enemy force but can bring down
whichever one of them makes himself a target by starting a fight
. This is opposite to Violence is the Only Option
, where any attempt to resolve the situation peacefully either fails or turns out to be a trick by the villains.
This trope is a powerful tool; it leaves the impression of a powerful, impressive hero or sympathetic antagonist who has defeated his or her enemy so completely he could crush him with a signal... yet he doesn't, because he knows that it is not necessary. Sometimes the greatest sign of power is not having to use it. It is particularly powerful when combined with Character Development
; a hero who was previously merciless and hot-headed, yet impotent, who grows into this wise, merciful, and yet powerful
figure by stories end is someone who will leave a lasting impression on any audience.
- Irresponsible Captain Tylor. The fleets of Earth and the Raalgon Empire stand poised for a climatic and bloody battle, likely the first of many. Tylor orders the Earth fleet to advance slowly towards the enemy. The enemy commander orders his forces not to fire until Earth's does. In a tense game of chicken, both fleets pass each other without firing a shot. Maybe all-out war will start someday, but for now they remain at an uneasy peace. A key piece of evidence for Tylor being a Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass.
- Grenadier: It's the entire teaching that Tendou Rushuna abides to. Her tactics involve disarming enemies in such an awesome display of skill that the enemy would be so utterly discouraged to continue fighting they would simply surrender even with no lives lost. The tactic served her so well that during the entire run of the manga/anime, her kill count is essentially zero despite having skills rivalling that of Trigun's Vash. That being said, she relies on kind words, hugs, and warm smiles as much as she does physics-defying gunplay.
- Maoyuu Maou Yuusha's Hero and Demon Queen actively try to avoid battles and fighting whenever possible, as they are trying to end a war in such a way that all the factions win. They have limited success because of their opponents being Proud Warrior Races or ruthless We Have Reserves generals, but they still have their bloodless victories, as when Hero managed to free Gateway City without a single casualty.
- In fact, The Hero initially has quite a bit of Wangst over the fact that beating people up is all he's GOOD for, when his meeting with the Demon Queen has taught him that doing so never actually solves anything. Starting with the Gateway City events, however, he starts to realize that his tactical insight and raw power can be applied towards this trope - using intimidation and psychological warfare to shift the strategic situation without actually killing anyone.
- Despite having Improbable Aiming Skills and Bottomless Magazines at hand even Lucky Luke is sometimes able to win without fighting. Twice he simply tricked an opponent into showing off their skills, using all their bullets in the process.
- In both Marvel and DC universes, there have been cases where people have simply surrendered when one of the major powerhouse heroes has shown up. Examples include:
- The North Vietnamese and Vietcong surrendering when Dr. Manhatten intervened in the Vietnam War.
- An insurgent force against the US in a Middle Eastern country abruptly stopped fighting when Superman showed up (even though he was just there to evacuate Lois Lane, who was wounded while covering the combat).
- Discussed in Worldwar: War of Equals. Shiplord Straha suggest that rather than sending soldier to fight and die trying to conquer Earth, they just batter the planet with nukes until the Humans give in. The plan is shot down instantly due to a glassed planet not being a good place for the colonists.
- In Fail-Safe, a political scientist (Walter Matthau) recommends that the president (Henry Fonda) allow an accidental nuclear strike to proceed, since it will cause the Soviets to simply surrender as a matter of ruthless efficiency.
- In The Last of the Mohicans— as well as in the actual incident that inspired it— the French commander offers the British fort a chance to surrender; they accept, knowing that they don't have a chance against the French mortars.
- In Star Wars the idea with the Death Star, a giant battle station able to blow off entire planets, is not so much to use it, but to use the fear of what it could do to hold rebellious systems in line. In the Star Wars Expanded Universe the Tarkin Doctrine is fully explained, referencing experiences with the Star Destroyers. While much smaller than the Death Star, they were still much bigger than any other warship before them, a fact which would by itself often keep people from fighting. Which, in Tarkin's words made it possible to "Rule through the fear of force rather than through force itself". In the end, the doctrine backfired when people, instead of becoming fearful, got angry over what the Death Star could do—and did. Textbook misreading of The Prince.
- Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon describes his fighting style to an Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy as "the art of fighting without fighting." Then proceeds to demonstrate it by tricking him into a tiny row-boat being dragged behind the ship.
- In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen the baron, having come back from the dead, confronts the Right ordinary horito jackson. Horito's troops suddenly switch onto the barons side and let all the people out, revealing the war was long over.
- The Trope Namer is Sun Tzu's The Art of War, of course. See the page quote. A big part of Sun Tzu's military philosophy is that fighting is a matter of last resort, and that it is far better (i.e. cheaper, less destructive, and less bothersome) to win by simply making it impossible for the opposing side to win (and, of course, to ensure they know it).
- Inverted in the Discworld book Night Watch. Vimes' realisation that he cannot win and his decision not to fight saves them all by persuading the mob to not destroy the station, and avoids the impression that the police are arming themselves against their own people.
- Sun Tzu would approve as well: "If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler's bidding."
- The Foundation series lives off this trope. The protagonists use historical forces to achieve victory, instead of direct combat.
- One of the antagonists uses it to a lesser extent. The Mule uses his mental powers to convert his enemies to his side. He would latter use the Visi-sonor to create mass despair, causing his enemies to lose the will to fight before any battle occurs.
- One of the first victories achieved by the Foundation involves a prince-regent sending a large fleet, including a cruiser recently repaired by the Foundation against Terminus in order to crush them and use their technology to rule. The Mayor of Terminus merely uses the ever-present monks who control all atomic technology to stop the fleet and incite mass riots on the prince-regent's planet. It helps that the repaired cruiser stops dead at exactly the right moment to panic its superstitious crew because of some additions made by the Foundation repair crews..
- This comes up several times in the 1632 series:
- Frank Herbert's Heretics of Dune. In the Back Story, Miles Teg was a famous Bene Gesserit military commander.
Teg's reputation was an almost universal thing throughout human society of this age. At the Battle of Markon, it had been enough for the enemy to know that Teg was there opposite them in person. They sued for terms.
- Subverted in The Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf marches up to the Black Gate and demands that Sauron surrender; he wants Sauron to think that he has the Ring, and only someone with the Ring would be powerful enough to be so brazen. (This point is lost in the movie; despite that Merry and Pippin say that "the enemy thinks we have the Ring," there's no mention of Sauron later thinking that Gandalf or Aragorn having it— only Aragorn having the sword of Elendil, which gives him no special power against Sauron's armies.
- Played straight when Númenor marches on Mordor and the orcs flee and the sight of the Númenorian army, forcing Sauron to surrender.
- Happens once in the Hand of Thrawn duology. The Big Bad Triumvirate are using a scheme to make it look as if Grand Admiral Thrawn, the greatest military genius the galaxy has ever known, is Back from the Dead, and the galaxy's not sure if this is a trick or not. One group sends a small force against him as a test. The Triumvirate manages to figure out who they are and start the opening move of one of Thrawn's responses against these people, a response which had the last time totally decimated their taskforce. Convinced, the small force flees.
- No small part of luck was involved for the Triumvirate, as the group in question was concealing their identity by using unmarked ships of a type not normally associated with them. But the actual Thrawn imposter, seemingly the least important member of the Triumvirate since any actor with the right body build and some cosmetic surgery could look like Thrawn, had underworld connections in his previous job as a con-artist and was aware of the planetary government in question having recently bought ships of that type on the black market as an unauthorized expansion of their navy. Thus, with the attackers' identity revealed, the Triumvirate's tactician knew exactly what tactics Thrawn had used against them before.
- In the Vorkosigan Saga, Miles is faced with a situation where he has led his (relatively small) forces to charge headlong on the point where the action will be, if he's right. He considers, for a moment, what will happen if this wild move spooks the (unbelievably huge) opposing forces into believing their invasion plans are in jeopardy and, as a result, never carry them out. He concludes that, if that happens, he will have performed the perfect war of manoeuvre by his father's own definition...
Of course, I'll have political egg on my face and a lynch mob after me from three sides, but Dad will understand... I hope.
- Raj Whitehall's life's ambition is to win a war without actually fighting a battle.
- For 'Black Jack' Geary the best outcome would be to exit Syndic space without ever confronting the armed forces of same - his subordinates feel very differently.
- St. Anne's in C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, who rely on the eldila to stop the bad guys. While one skeptical ally wants to use human might to win, Ransom knows it wouldn't work.
- David Weber's Honor Harrington series deconstructs this trope, by presenting us with the Solarian League, who the Manticorans and Havenites spend 10 books tiptoeing on egg shells around to prevent bringing them into their war against each other. Eventually, tensions erupt between the Solarian League and the Star Empire of Manticore, where everyone realizes that centuries of winning without fighting has resulted in the Solarian League's military growing horrifically antiquated due to their complacency.
- Also Averted in several cases where the Solarians go ahead with their attacks despite the RMN demonstrating that they possesses utterly overwhelming superiority (Imperial ships can hit at several times the effective range of League ones, and the Solarian defenses are utterly useless against Imperial missiles.
- Played straight and then deconstructed in Vatta's War, with the star system of Nexus being considered immune from attack due to their stranglehold on interstellar faster-than-light communication. At least until someone else figures out how to build their own and improve on them.
- A season 1 episode of Babylon 5 has Sinclair do this with a bunch of dock workers, who are striking because they are being treated unfairly by the government. Sinclair wants to help, but the Earth government orders him to follow the "Rush Act," which forces him to end the illegal strike "by any means necessary," including violence. Sinclair follows orders, accompanies his army of security personnel down to the dock workers, and gives them the pay raise and safety updates they wanted; before the enactment of the Rush Act, he couldn't give them anything, because his hands were tied up by bureaucracy, but since he can now resolve the conflict "by any means necessary," he gives them the raises they deserve.
- In the 1998 Merlin series, this is how King Arthur wins the war against Lord Lot, and subsequently gains him as an ally.
- A real (and truly epic) example from Star Trek would be the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Chain of Command", in particular part 2. Captain Jellico has Riker navigate a shuttlecraft through the dense nebula where the Cardassians are hiding, preparing an attack. Riker sets up a massive network of mines along the hulls of the Cardassian ships. They're forced to comply with Jellico's demands and leave without fighting.
- Another example from the same show is The Defector. The Enterprise, having been given bad information by a well-meaning Defector from Decadence, walks into a Romulan trap. They are saved by a cloaked force of Klingon warships, who accompanied them due to Picard's suspicions. The Romulans, having hoped for an easy opening victory and now being presented with, at best, a Heroic Sacrifice, decide instead to retreat.
- Another episode had the Enterprise trying to keep two forces from annihilating each other. While trying to come up with a permanent solution, they successfully bluff their own military superiority by claiming they needed to release some energy buildup in their phaser banks. They assured each side that it was only a small fraction of the maximum output and proceeded to obliterate a large asteroid with a full power phaser blast.
- From the original series, there is of course, the Corbomite Maneuver, where Kirk is able to bluff his way out of a fight by convincing his potential enemy that to engage his ship would result in their immediate destruction in turn.
- The end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is part this...though the Dominion is ready to fight to the death, an act of compassion from Odo to the lead female Changeling is enough to end the war.
- This was simply the final surrender after a large space battle in-system. Analysis by the Federation said that the allied forces could have taken Cardassia while losing a third of their own forces. As stated above, the Dominion initially was resolved to fight to the last man...but decided to surrender instead, thanks to Odo's intervention. The point was that this saved the lives of billions of Cardassian civilians that would have been caught in the crossfire (having recently turned on their Dominion allies/oppressors)
- Legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi grew weary of needlessly killing the younger samurai who kept challenging him, so he simply stopped fighting. One tale goes that one day, he was riding in a boat across a lake with another man, who revealed himself to be a samurai and challenged Musashi while they were in the boat, where he couldn't escape. The older samurai pointed out that it would capsize if they fought in it. He pointed to an island in the middle of the lake, and said that they should battle there. When the younger samurai got out of the boat, Miyamoto Musashi shoved off, leaving him stranded. As he rowed away, he called out, "My style is fighting without fighting." A variation on this story occurs in Enter the Dragon.
- Wargames might be the last place you expect this trope to appear, but it is in fact part of the canon of BattleTech, and enacted by the Proud Warrior Race Guys known as the Clans no less, who believe firmly that honorable victory on the battlefield is the apex of achievement. It says something, then that Clan Wolf, perhaps the only Genre Savvy Clan of the invaders, manages to spare themselves the cost of men and materiel in invading the heavily defended planet of Gunzburg by meeting the with the defending commander and convincing him that while the defenders might be able to put up a fight, they would ultimately lose even a battle of attrition, and that his people would suffer. This realization touches the defending commander, who turns over the world peacefully for the sake of not bringing war to his people, and leading to the legend of a Clan warrior single-handedly capturing the planet.
- One major event in the Primordial War in Exalted was a Solar taking She Who Lives In Her Name, an Eldritch Abomination capable of astonishing displays of power, out of the fight for a century...by writing her a letter describing the death of another Primordial, causing her enough distress to make her withdraw for longer than a mortal lifespan in order to grieve. Solars also have access to a lot of social-fu mind-whammying that can convert potential enemies into firm allies or even virtual slaves.
- The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!— During the attack on Butane, Galatea calls Riboflavin out for not at least attempting this; they've got the Butanians at a seemingly hopeless disadvantage, and she favors simply scaring them into surrendering, to give them a bloodless victory. Riboflavin answers, "Bloodless victory? Where's the fun in that?!" She successfully leads a mutiny against him (well, a mutiny of the only other two people on the ship).
- It is mentioned in the Salvation War that sieges of demon castles often went along these lines, if the defense felt they were outmatched and would just surrender. The war itself was fairly bloodless...on the human side.
- In Worm, Villain Protagonist Skitter successfully pulls this off several times when fighting her Hero Antagonist opponents, such as when she was captured by Flechette but managed to get her to leave Skitter to look after her friend Parian to ensure that Parian was not walking into a trap.
- Another example occurs when Skitter is cornered in a high school cafeteria by Dragon and Defiant, her secret identity exposed, and uses her status as a Villain with Good Publicity to convince the high schoolers to side with her and nonviolently walk out of the building with her-the heroes refuse to attack innocent civilians just to get Skitter.
- In Jackie Chan Adventures, one of the lessons Jackie would try to impart on Jade was "The greatest victory is the battle not fought."
- Older Than Feudalism: Sun Tzu emphasizes bloodless victory over a victorious battle.
- Older Than Print: the Condottiere warfare in Medieval Italy was one of manoeuvre and indirect warfare. The object was to out-manouevre the enemy in hopeless position where he would lose certainly if he'd risk a battle. This has often been interpreted as cowardice, but in reality it was combat pragmatism as often the armies were made up by mercenary companies who wanted as few casualties as possible. When the condottieri faced themselves in an open battle, the battles tended to be extremely bloody.
- During World War II the Japanese never intended to invade the mainland of the US, and were intending to invoke this trope after Pearl Harbor. They only intended to neutralize the US Pacific fleet to prevent American intervention while they secured a defensive perimeter of island colonies so they could continue their main goal of exploiting the resources of Southeast Asia. This backfired horribly (for them) as they were ones whose Pacific fleet ended up being neutralized. The American carriers being out of town at the time didn't help the Japanese cause.
- A critical misjudgment of American resolve. When you're trying to apply "know your enemy, know yourself" miscalculating on part one is frequently fatal.
- Their commanding Admiral saw it coming. Almost down to the month, Yamamoto predicted that in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Navy would have almost free rein, but within a year, American industrial capability would replace those losses and from that point on, the Japanese would be on the wrong side of a war of attrition. Japanese victory in the Pacific depended not on beating the Americans, but on convincing them that it would be too costly and time consuming to fight them at all. Not sinking the aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor was a critical setback, as it meant that the U.S. still had a core naval force to work with, rather than facing the prospect of rebuilding an entire fleet from scratch.
- They had also hoped to reduce the American presence in the Pacific by feigning an invasion in Alaska. Unfortunately the U.S. had already cracked the Japanese secret codes and knew that the invasion of Alaska was a feint, allowing them to focus their entire strength on the Pacific.
- Additionally, many of the ships sunk during the attack were later pulled from the bottom of the ocean and repaired. Of the battleships, only the Arizona, which blew up and broke in half when struck by an armor-piercing bomb in her magazine, and the Oklahoma which was was salvaged, but sank while under tow to a repair facility.
- The crowning irony to this whole affair is that American propaganda Quote Mined Yamamoto's admonitions to make it sound like the Japanese were planning to invade the American mainland and "dictate peace terms in the White House," giving the people the resolve to stand behind their government as it strove to recover its position in the Pacific and take the fight back to the Japanese themselves. In short, Japan's strategy didn't just fail, it backfired in the worst way imaginable.
- Despite the horrific casualties produced by amphibious assaults, the island hopping strategy was largely this. It was much more efficient to bypass strongpoint islands and suppress them with naval air power than it was to attack them directly.
- Operation Desert Storm had many instances of this as most of the Iraqi army surrendered to the Allied forces—despite predictions that they'd fight to the death, and that "body bags would be coming back full of American casualties". As comedian Bill Hicks mused, Iraq's "elite Republican Guard" were discussed in hushed tones, but shortly became just "the Republican Guard", until one was left wondering if there were any Iraqi guards at all.
- There was also at least one instance of an Iraqi unit so desperate to surrender and avoid getting destroyed in battle, that they tried to surrender to an Italian film crew. Other units surrendered to a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle).
- The UAV wasn't an act of simply being desperate to surrender; in Gulf 1 the UAVs in use were Navy, used for shore bombardment spotting for the Iowa-class battleships. The Iraqis correctly deduced that the presence of the UAV meant it was soon going to rain 16" shells. With no defense against the battleship guns, they took the smart way out.
- In WWII a US forces of 1000 men from a series of art schools had entire German divisions (14 000 combat troops) to surrender to them in the very last month of the war (when the Germans were surrendering to non-Soviet forces at the drop of a hat)... by pretending to be two divisions (i.e. more than 30 000 men). They did this with the use of a handful of real trucks, armoured vehicles, tanks, and artillery pieces... and the use of a whole bunch of other stuff to fake the appearance of several thousand. Their primary use up to that point had just been helping the Germans misjudge the future direction of Allied attacks (there weren't even 500 000 Allied combat-troops on the western front, so a fake 30 000 men [who only needed enough food and spare parts for a thousand men!] was a big deal for them). Getting German troops to surrender to them wasn't their purpose, but it's an awesome story.
- Epaminondos is famous for winning at Leuctra (by overweighting one wing to make the side opposed collapse before the Spartans could compensate, while pulling back, "refusing" the other to buy time). His greatest achievement though was to realize that Sparta's economy and military system was dependent on the labor of large numbers of Helots who had little reason to love Sparta and much reason not to. All he had to do was have an army-in-being for a long enough time in Spartan territory, large enough to survive, and the Helots would all run away at once knowing their masters were busy. No Helots, no Sparta.
- The Great Stand on Ugra. In 1476 Russian prince Ivan III started to deny the traditional tribute to the Golden Horde. The Horde, weakened by the internal strife and the war with the Crimea, managed to send the punitive expedition only in 1480, and while their army was numerous, they failed to adequately arm and supply it, hoping that it could be reinforced and supplied by their Lithuanian allies. They also hoped that Ivan's quarrels with his brothers would prevent him from mounting adequate defense. However, when the two armies come to a head at Ugra river, it became obvious that not only was Russian army much better equippednote , but Russians were now allied with Crimeans and Lithuanians were delayed by their own internal problems. After the initial Mongol attempt to cross the river was thwarted in a major battlenote , two armies faced each other for a couple of months. Faced with the unwinnable tactical situation, witnessing the constant arrival of Russian reinforcementsnote and plagued by low supplies, epidemics and coming winter, Mongols finally gave up, decided to fold it and retreated back.
- Essentially this is what police negotiators WANT to happen, as the authorities will always outnumber the suspects in a siege like situation. Many times however this fails, as the suspects are extremely desperate.
- The Sonderbund War or Swiss Civil War of 1847 was won by the liberal (mainly Protestant) cantons under General Guillaume-Henri Dufour with less than 100 dead on both sides combined. This relatively bloodless victory allowed for a swift reconciliation and the foundation of Switzerland as a true constitutional and democratic nation state the following year. As an aside, General Dufour was later an important figure in the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and presided over the first Geneva Convention, establishing his credentials as a true Martial Pacifist.
- Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud did this once to the Al-Rashids by going behind his lines and raiding. As the Rashid's army cared much more about the fate of their camels then about the Rashid's cause, they all left, allowing Ibn Saud to end the year with a successful campaign.
- This trope was essentially the basis of tactical doctrine in eighteenth century wars, in which the best generals were considered those who could position their troops in such a way to force the enemy to surrender without losing any men. When the French Revolution came along and men started fighting to the death for political and national ideals, the generals of the old school found it hard to adapt.
- The first rule of virtually any martial art or fighting discipline boils down to some variation on "the best way to win a fight is to not get into one in the first place".