10 years ago, I read the following quote

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-- Robert A. Heinlein

I've since learned several of these skills, but I've not yet learned how to plan an invasion. In doing an overview of some well-known invasions (Schlieffen Plan, Operation Barbarossa, Operation Overlord, Operation Iraqi Liberation, etc), it struck me that all of them were planned by large teams of people who brought specialized skills (meteorology, logistics, signals, espionage, etc) to bear. This makes sense and follows what I've learned about leadership, but goes against the core spirit of the quote. If I wanted to take the quote seriously, I'd need to learn to manage all these aspects individually rather than relying on the skills people have gained through a career of study and specialization.

Are there any historical examples of an invasion where the planning was performed entirely by one person who merely had a high level of general competence?

I'm particularly interested in examples of invasions

  • Where territory was successfully captured and held for at least a year.

  • Which occurred post-1916.

  • Which had to oppose the active resistance of a small or medium-size power.

  • 2
    Given that most invasions post-1916 will be combining air, land and, possibly, sea forces I think it's unlikely for a single person to plan it by themselves. Since each service possesses it's own command and control structure, the leadership of which is unlikely to give over operational control to an outsider. – Steve Bird Aug 29 '19 at 11:40
  • 3
    The House of Saud's conquest of Riyadh perhaps? Quite possibly a few Naval/Marine invasions. I think ultimately the question is unanswerable. I can plan an invasion, but I won't be able to conduct an invasion without the participation of others, who are going to want to participate in the planning. Eaton's invasion of Tripoli was quite small, but required the participation of Naval assets who "participated" in the planning. Mexican revolution – MCW Aug 29 '19 at 12:00
  • 5
    I think the key to answering the question is to determine exactly what level of detail is required to count as having made the plan of an invasion. Presumably, it's greater than "send in our armed forces to capture the territory". – Steve Bird Aug 29 '19 at 12:46
  • 3
    It's plan an invasion. Not do it all by yourself. And the invasion of the sandbox suffices, if carefully planned. – Janka Aug 29 '19 at 13:18
  • 2
    This is misinterpreting the quote. As @Janka said: "Plan an invasion": says nothing about 'successful', or even making it real,nor 'alone', at all. Our resident armchair generals on HSE do it all the time. Alone, without specialised knowledge, and wholly unreal. Further, the quote says you "should be able to", meaning: be capable of adopting a Prussian militaristic mindset which here just expresses "be able to plan something very complex, involving power over directing other people to do even as evil as you phantasise"! There never can be anything like that, as not even Alexander did it. – LаngLаngС Aug 29 '19 at 15:18

Filibusters "normally act without official authority from their own government". The paramount example, William Walker, invaded Baja California in 1853 and then Central America in 1855, in each case leading from San Francisco military expeditions of only a few dozen men. Though prosecuted for waging war in a private capacity, he was quickly acquitted. In his greatest success, invited to Central America by Francisco Castellón, he managed to capture the presidency of Nicaragua and held it for more than a year. Walker apparently did not rely on professional soldiers and scholars to plan and execute his invasions.

Walker's Theater of Operations in Nicaragua


Your criteria is an entirely unreasonable scale for judging success. The appropriate scale would be in the approximate range of Company to Battalion scale: one to five hundred men against a similarly sized foe. In this sense the Saudi take over of Riyadh* and the U.S. Marine attack on Tripoli* in the First Barbary War are valid examples.

The key skills required include:

  • Defining the goal(s) which will accomplish the objective.

  • Build a schedule for troop movements to the goal(s) above, including a tactical reserve.

  • Plan the logistical requirements of the invasion - an "army marches on its stomach" and "a hungry army is worse than no army at all".

  • Instill confidence in the sub-commanders that the plan is practicable

  • Run the plan to completion, leveraging the tactical reserve to deal with any unexpected responses by, or forces of, the enemy.

Once one has the skills to independently plan an invasion at this level, one is competent to participate in the planning of larger maneuvres. That is why Captain - the rank commanding a company and seconding command of a battalion - is the level at which formal staff training is usually begun in the military.

Recall that Heinlein lived long after the development of Kriegsspiel by the Prussian General Staff, but before that of large scale strategic-level video games such as the Total War series. I am confident he would have regarded the ability to win such games on the Very-Hard/Very-Hard (both Battle and Campaign level) setting as meeting most, perhaps all, criteria of "planning an invasion".

Other recent historical examples would include Sam Houston's victory over Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto - the defeat of an invasion by regular troops with a semi-trained militia.

Update - from my comment below:

The biggest fool in the army is s Second Lieutenant who won't ask for, and take, the advice of his lead Sergeant. The criteria of "no assistance whatever" is absurd on a scale greater than 5-10 men. The goal is to be capable of leading the team, and thus taking responsibility for:

  • all the toughest decisions; and

  • mediating the inevitable disagreements.

  • It is impossible to not agree on "unreasonable". But apart from the scale of these 'raids' as examples, where is it even said the Saud and especially Tripoli were all alone in planning? The angle of Kriegsspiel or even Risk seems much more promising to interpret Heinlein? – LаngLаngС Aug 29 '19 at 16:31
  • 3
    @LangLangC: The biggest fool in the army is s Second Lieutenant who won't ask for, and take, the advice of his lead Sergeant. The criteria of "no assistance whatever" is absurd on a scale greater than 5-10 men. The goal is to be capable of leading the team, and thus taking responsibility for all the toughest decisions, plus mediating the inevitable disagreements. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 29 '19 at 16:41
  • See my question above - I think we're underestimating OP's request for specialized knowledge. Lt planning with a Sgt fits the OP question; LT asking the intel officer for advice violates the requirement. I think that a USA 2LT asking a USN Ensign for advice is OK unless the USN Ensign is an intel officer (hint - you can't tell by the uniform). Which makes the question.... confusing. – MCW Aug 29 '19 at 16:57
  • 1
    Please edit this into the A. Especially since the conditions for this Planspiel also include post-1916. Not a single thing anyone would call 'army' would work the way demanded. Cult of genius and absolute autocrat combined still do not make the cut… – LаngLаngС Aug 29 '19 at 17:00
  • 1
    BTW, both of the examples we cite are pre-1916 and therefore out of scope. – MCW Aug 29 '19 at 17:45

There is a saying "Amateurs strategy. Professionals talk logistics.". Logistics, even with the help of computers, is not something that an individual is going to be doing at scale, for lots of troops, not while also doing the strategy. And not involving anyone else in the planning would seriously undermine the beneficial opportunity to distribute initiative to lower ranks.

So, at any significant scale, I believe this little bit of Heinlein "wisdom" reflects more about his idiosyncrasies than about any real experience of what he was talking about. He's a very famous SF writer, and I've read a lot of SF, but frankly I consider him an acquired taste and see no particular reason to take any of his opinions as gospel. Just as with any other writer.

A talented individual hitting on an invasion/attack idea on their own and then single-handedly driving the planning and implementation? I think MacArthur at Inchon would fit. But he still relied on many others and by no means even comes close to Heinlein's claim.

Please note: this answer is about how unrealistic Heinlein's claim was and not about MacArthur's skill at either the tactical, strategic or indeed political level in contexts other than specifically Inchon. Anyone's free to nominate another military engagement at scale driven mostly by 1 general, and I believe it will come out the same: no dice, Jose - lots of people were and had to be involved.

  • This of course needs a bit of evidence, or reason, why McArthur would fit? (And I doubt he would, given your own thoughts even.) – LаngLаngС Aug 29 '19 at 17:14
  • 2
    MacArthur at Inchon - you must be kidding! MacArthur was twice embarrassed to the point of revealing incompetence at independent command - at Bataan and post-Inchon at the Yalu River. MacArthur's comment on Eisenhower - "Best clerk I ever met." - perfectly summed up his total disdain for logistics. MacArhur had it lucky during his island-hopping command - Nimitz was responsible for logistcs – Pieter Geerkens Aug 29 '19 at 17:15
  • Well, I read a book about the Korean war recently and Inchon was something that was very much blue sky thinking and opposed by almost every involved. The Navy didn't like it, the Marines didn't like it. But it was MacArthur's baby, he had the prestige to push it through and it succeeded brilliantly because it was unexpected and it cut off Korea's Western land links in 2. As opposed to say Guderian planning Ardennes which was something that had been considered before. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Aug 29 '19 at 17:17
  • 1
    As you said: "Amateurs strateg[ize]. Professionals talk logistics." Inchon was a brilliant strategy, and MacArthur could certainly be brilliant. but he was completely incompetent in independent command because of his disdain for logistics. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 29 '19 at 17:20
  • 1
    MacArthur was responsible for the defense of the Philippines, and formulated a strategy of fortifying the Bataan peninsula - yet made no preparations whatever for stockpiling supplies there. It's like he expected them to drop from heaven like manna - as the USN in fact provided him with during the island hopping campaign. MacArthur is the epitome of the "brilliant amateur strategist". – Pieter Geerkens Aug 29 '19 at 17:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.