I am posting this question in the hope that 'history' is close enough on-topic to find answer to this question:

What is the intent behind the statement

"Risk taking must focus on winning rather than defeat, even if preventing defeat appears safer."

as it can be found in the US Army "Commander and Staff Officer Guide (ATTP 5-0.1, 1-4)" and "The Operations Process" (ADRP 5-0, 2-83 1)?

I have no military background and I am reading the US Army "Commander and Staff Officer Guide (ATTP 5-0.1)" as I am interested to understand information flow and decision making in different organisations. The fact that this statement appears in both ATTP and ADRP which have their audience at different levels of the hierarchy, makes it seem important. It seems like something everybody needs to understand and follow.

My question aims very much at the intent behind this statement and whether it relates to military decision making only, or if on another abstraction a similar principle could be applied in a commercial setting as well.

So why is it useful to focus on winning rather than on survival? Surely the army does not benefit from a high casualty rate? Does anybody know of examples in history where this guidance was beneficial, or its absence led to failure?

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    Hmmm...one would imagine stuff doesn't go in there without a lot of discussion. I wonder if any of said discussion might be written down somewhere available.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 10, 2020 at 17:26
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    winning and defeat aren't about casualty rate, they're about mission objectives. That is comparing apples to oranges. The quote is a restatement of fundamental principles of risk management - in earlier grittier ages the idea might have been "You can't win by playing defense."
    – MCW
    Jul 10, 2020 at 17:26
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    @MarkC.Wallace - Its true that there's probably a Sun Tsu quote or three saying roughly the same thing as wll. However, I was listening to Dan Carlin's Supernova in the East yesterday, and he seemed to be making a point that the US and Japan both had an unusually aggressive military outlook, which would make delving into that interesting I'd think. I might be misreading, I suppose.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 10, 2020 at 17:31
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    There's an old royal navy adage that is relevant: "Losing one's ship in peacetime is incompetence. Being unable to sensibly risk it in wartime is cowardice." And the Royal Navy has hung more than one Captain over the centuries for the second failing. Another one (from WW2, I forget which battle): "It takes the Navy three years to replace a ship; but three centuries to rebuild the tradition of never backing down from a fair fight." Jul 10, 2020 at 17:33
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    The evening before Trafalgar, nelson instructed all his captains: "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy." In a single sentence it condones all manner of innovative actions his captains might see opportunity to take, while still directing them as to an appropriate default (and approved) action to take instead. Jul 10, 2020 at 17:42

2 Answers 2


So why is it useful to focus on winning rather than on survival?

This apparent dichotomy only exists in a single introductory statement. The documents only mention "winning" once and instead focus on completing the mission. They advocate for prudent risk taking and go into extensive detail about risk management.

"Winning" is a loaded term. If you're ordered with withdraw and do so successfully, did you win?

My question aims very much at the intend behind this statement and whether it relates to military decision making only, or if on another abstraction a similar principle could be applied in a commercial setting as well.

Yes, empowered subordinates are powerful, and commercial endeavors ignore risk management at their peril.

Surely the army does not benefit from a high casualty rate?

An army may benefit from a high causality rate in the short-term if it ends the war quicker. For example, had the Schlieffen Plan in World War 1 succeeded, no matter how many casualties Germany may have taken doing it, it would have been better than four years of surviving trench warfare.

This was one of the principles of the US military in World War 2: accept casualties now to end the war sooner. This was in contrast with the more obtuse strategy advocated by the British military which did not have the same manpower and resources to draw on, nor an ocean separating them from the Axis. The US advocated for an invasion of Northern Europe at the earliest possible time and most direct route to Berlin. British prudence won out and invaded North Africa and Italy instead, probably for the best -- the Allies needed experience.

But once the big show was on the US was determined to drive for Berlin. D-Day was projected to take very high casualties. They turned out to be very low except for Omaha Beach. If the US withdrew from Omaha it would leave the rest of the landings divided and vulnerable jeopardizing the whole invasion. They determined the mission could be salvaged, accepted the risk and casualties were worth it, and succeeded.

The Battle of Midway is another example of accepting considerable risk. The US risked their entire carrier fleet against a superior opponent, even with the element of surprise it was a very close run battle. But even had every US carrier been sunk it would have been worth it if they also sunk the cream of the Japanese navy. US could build carriers and train pilots faster than Japan could. This awful calculus of war would make such a result a strategic US victory.

Maneuver warfare operates on this principle: rapid operations to keep the enemy off balance and disrupt their decision making. This involves risk. If you avoid risk, you sit in your trenches, turtle up, but this alone will not bring victory; you will eventually be bypassed or overrun. The audacious dash to the sea of overstretched Panzer divisions in the Battle of France is one example. The unprecedented huge left hook across trackless desert by the Allied armies in the first Gulf War while Saddam's armies sat behind their defenses is another. In both cases, conventional strategy predicted huge causalities and protracted conflicts. In both cases, victory was swift and casualties light for the victor, and the vanquished.

Prudent Risk

However, risk does not mean to throw lives away. The full quote from ATTP 5-0.1 1-4 says...

[Commanders] take prudent risks, exercise initiative, and act decisively, even when the outcome is uncertain. All missions contain risk. Risk taking must focus on winning rather than preventing defeat, even if preventing defeat appears safer.

It goes on to define risk and risk management.

1-78. Risk — the exposure of someone or something valued to danger, harm, or loss — is inherent in all operations. Because risk is part of all military operations, it cannot be avoided. Identifying, mitigating, and accepting risk is a function of command and a key consideration during planning and execution...

1-79. Risk management is the process to identify, assess, and control risks and make decisions that balance risk cost with mission benefits (JP 3-0). Commanders and staffs use risk management throughout the operations process to identify and mitigate risks associated with hazards (to include ethical risk and moral hazards) that have the potential to cause friendly and civilian casualties, damage or destroy equipment, or otherwise impact mission effectiveness...

The goal isn't to survive, it's to complete the mission. But surviving usually helps, which is why we have risk management.

Commanders are expected to take prudent risks to succeed in their mission. They are also expected to continuously assess and manage their risks against the benefits of the mission. Risk assessment and management runs throughout the operational guide.

This is in contrast to being risk-adverse where a commander is unwilling to take risks or casualties to complete their mission, the mission is more likely to fail.

Empowered Subordinates

There's the old joke about how a lieutenant digs a trench, "sergeant, get that trench dug!" The lieutenant doesn't dig the trench, they delegate it. They also don't tell the sergeant how to dig the trench, the sergeant probably knows better anyway. The lieutenant trusts the sergeant to get it done, and the sergeant trusts the lieutenant not to second guess their on-the-spot decisions.

ADP 5.0 The Operations Process puts it this way.

1-7. All U.S. military operations share a common fundamental purpose — to achieve or contribute to national objectives. Objective — to direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable goal — is a principle of war.

The US military views war as a means to an end. That might seem obvious, but it's very easy to forget the purpose of a war. The US military has a mission, and their job is to fulfill that mission even if it means taking some risks.

1-14. Because uncertainty is pervasive during operations, success is often determined by a leader’s ability to outthink an opponent and to execute tasks more quickly than an opponent can react. The side that anticipates better, thinks more clearly, decides and acts more quickly, and is comfortable operating with uncertainty stands the greatest chance to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative over an opponent. Leaders make decisions, develop plans, and direct actions with the information they have at the time. Commanders seek to counter the uncertainty of operations by empowering subordinates to quickly adapt to changing circumstances within their intent. Mission command decentralizes decision-making authority and grants subordinates significant freedom of action.

This is modern maneuver warfare: act faster than the enemy can react. Rather than rigid centralized control, US military doctrine empowers subordinates to complete their assigned mission as they see fit. This makes the US military incredibly flexible and resilient. This requires trust and empowerment between commanders and subordinates. One part of this is to empower the subordinate to take risks to Git-R-Done.

The principles of mission command are—

  • Competence.
  • Shared understanding.
  • Mutual trust.
  • Mission orders.
  • Commander’s intent.
  • Disciplined initiative.
  • Risk acceptance.

For the best chance of success, a subordinate must be confident in their commanders, themselves, and their mission. They must be confident they can take prudent risks to succeed in their mission without fear of punishment. The commander must be confident in the subordinate's abilities to do their job, and that includes assessing risk.

If the opposite were true, if the subordinate were ordered that survival is more important than success, they would be constantly holding back and the mission would not get done. If the subordinate were unable to assess risk, they may take too many risks jeopardizing the mission, or they may take too few risks also jeopardizing the mission.

As outlined in 1-14, the US way of waging war requires speed, flexibility, and decisiveness. A subordinate unempowered to take risks will be slow, rigid, and hesitant.

Fabian Strategy

Note that this is not in contrast to Fabian Strategy. Winning does not mean defeating the enemy in battle. As defined by the US military, winning means fulfilling the mission.

Fabian's mission was to protect Rome and defeat a superior army. Previous commanders had taken imprudent risks trying to attack Hannibal head on. Fabian determined the only path to winning was a war of attrition and harassment. This required keeping his army intact.

This was not without its risks for Fabian and his army. Fabian ordered crops, supplies, and towns to be burned risking angering the populace and allies. He made a calculated risk that the Romans would be safe in their fortified towns and hold out against Hannibal's rampaging army. His obtuse strategy angered politicians and risked his command which was his ultimate undoing.

The result was the Battle of Cannae, an imprudent risk by imprudent commanders. Hannibal was ultimately defeated by Fabian Strategy.

Similarly, General Washington knew his poorly trained and supplied Continental Army could not stand up to the British Army. His path to victory was not survival, but to defend the new republic until conditions improved and opportunities presented themselves. This goal required survival. Yet he took risks and did not shrink from battle, but always kept his army intact to fulfill his mission.

Fleet in Being

Another apparent contradiction comes from the similar concept of a fleet in being. Even if it never leaves port, the existence of a battle fleet is a constant threat. The enemy is required to deploy forces against it tying them down from other tasks. While a battle risks losing the fleet and freeing up the enemy's resources.

This reached its culmination in World War 1. The British and Germans had spent decades and much national treasure building up mighty fleets, the superior British Grand Fleet and the upstart German High Seas Fleet. This was one of the major causes of tension leading up to the war. It was expected soon after war was declared that the two fleets would clash, but it took two years of cautious probing before the battle happened. Even this was indecisive with both commanders acting timidly.

Were the German fleet defeated, the full might of the Royal Navy would be unleashed to bombard the German coastline and even break the stalemate with an amphibious invasion behind the German trenches. With a German fleet-in-being the Royal Navy, Britain's finest asset, was tied down, always having to act cautiously for fear of being defeated piecemeal. Even after Jutland the German fleet remained a credible threat until the end of the war.

The Royal Navy did not seek battle because Britain was so reliant on control of the sea. As Churchill put it, the Navy "could have lost the war in an afternoon." A defeated Royal Navy would be a disaster. It meant Germany could attack British shipping and strangle Britain.

Both commanders had a mission to fulfill: try to defeat the enemy piecemeal, which required taking risks, but above all keep their fleet-in-being. Victory in the war required a surviving navy, particularly for the Royal Navy, and the risks of battle were often deemed imprudent.


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    Very nice. Perhaps regarding Midway note "... such result in a strategic victory even if not a tactical one." as the distinction is important. And Washington's Fabian Strategy also allowed his troops to gain experience in low-risk encounters before fighting high risk ones. Jul 11, 2020 at 7:47
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    One thing to note about the US Army, going back to the Civil War it has always been fighting a numerically inferior population base. So it can absorb losses better than the enemy, and thus can in fact benefit from a high casualty rate, as long as the enemy shares it.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 11, 2020 at 15:41
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    @P.R. On the contrary, "winning" appears to have been deliberately avoided, it is mentioned once in an introductory statement, and I believe there is significance in that. The guides make it clear the point is to complete the assigned mission, not to "win", and you're expected to read the whole guide. "Winning" is a loaded term. If your mission is to withdraw with minimal casualties and you do so, you succeeded at your mission, but did you "win" the withdrawal?
    – Schwern
    Jul 11, 2020 at 19:03
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    @T.E.D. Mission command does not apply to the Civil War. While the US has the advantage of a large population and industrial base, as well as oceans to protect them, not against the Soviets nor China. The modern US military is expeditionary, designed to fight across oceans. It fights at a local numerical disadvantage. Its material and men are high quality, expensive to replace. Casualties are politically unacceptable. They cannot absorb casualties like their modern opponents can. Thus the emphasis in the documents on flexibility and risk management and increasingly low casualties.
    – Schwern
    Jul 11, 2020 at 20:19
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    @FreeMan: "You don't win by dying for your country. You win by making the other poor d** sod die for his country.*" George S. Patton (more or less) Jul 11, 2020 at 23:10

Because a soldier's responsibility is to win; and his duty is to seek out ways to do so. Any and all plans that do not seek to fulfill that duty and responsibility are, by definition and a priori, failed plans.

There certainly are circumstances where a Fabian strategy is an applicable, even suitable, strategy for achieving victory. Washington's campaigns in the Revolutionary War are an example. But in such circumstances survival is the means to the end, not the end itself. The eye must always be on victory, and its definition; and the mind always on the means of achieving that definition of victory.

So any commander whose focus is on mere survival – in any circumstance not absolutely conceived with achieving decisive victory through that means alone – has failed utterly as a commander; has in fact suffered a fatal loss of morale, which cannot be tolerated at any level of command; and must be replaced at the fastest possible speed.

So West Point teaches this to its officer candidates. It teaches that any risk that strives to achieve the defined victory condition must be put on the balance against its hopes of success, and by that means measured, and compared to other options available. To ever consider that a risk is too great, without having a better plan, is failure; for to give up, and not attempt the goal, is cowardice and disgrace. The goal has been set by those elected leaders who set policy, and the soldier's responsibility is to attempt all consistent means to achieve it.

Note finally that it is never the soldier's responsibility, no matter his rank, to define victory; but only to achieve it or die trying. That was why Truman replaced MacArthur – for the insubordination of attempting usurpation of the authority to define victory.


U.S. Constitution

  • The authority by which the elected executive officer of the U.S., the president, sets policy for the United States military:

    Article II
    Section 1:
    The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.

    Section 2:
    The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, ...
    He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, …

  • The authority of Congress in regards the making of war and the governance of the conduct of the military:

    Article I
    Section 8
    To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;

    To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;

    To provide and maintain a navy;

    To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;

    To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;

    To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

    Section 10

    No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque and reprisal; …

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    For one thing, an endless quest for mere survival will fail in the end. Only victory can remove the danger, and the danger will sooner or later prevail.
    – Mary
    Jul 10, 2020 at 21:26
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    @Mary: That is not a given. A Fabian strategy can be quite effective, in appropriate circumstances such as by Washington and by the NVA. But it must always be the means to the end, not the end itself. Jul 10, 2020 at 21:32
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    Consider this: a large battalion has a small number of adversaries surrounded, but they are hunkered down in a strategically excellent defensive position. If the battalion storms them, they will 100% achieve victory, at the cost of many-to-one casualty rates. If the battalion simply cuts them off from their supply chains and waits, there is a 99% chance of victory with almost no casualties, and a 1% chance the enemy escapes in what could be called a draw. What is the battalion's response? Is the "proper" definition of victory necessarily tautological?
    – Feryll
    Jul 11, 2020 at 4:23
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    @Feryll: Define "victory". That always must come from outside the military hierarchy,from the political leadership. It is the military's responsibility to achieve victory, not to define it. Jul 11, 2020 at 5:28
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    @PieterGeerkens I figured that in face of this antinomy, one might fall back to the definition of "victory is what your (political or military) superior orders." Unfortunately when "victory" = "carrying out orders" and "carrying out orders" > "swathes of human lives," that's how you get war crimes, among other moral atrocities.
    – Feryll
    Jul 11, 2020 at 5:40

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