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TV Tropes Monday: Decapitated Army


Tweet of the Day: The Power of Partnership


Cut the Head of the Snake, and the Body will Follow.

This is today’s trope in a nutshell. It is as true in fiction as in real life that if you take out the leadership of an army, it will inevitably collapse. And by true I mean, not as true as one might think or at least not for the reasons one expects. The reasons why it works are myriad:

  1. The fighting units are militia instead of a professional army: a hastily assembled militia of untrained civilians lacks the discipline and/or experience of professional force. They follow their leaders precisely because they have (or should have) the skills and experience to win the battle. However a professional force motivated by cause that supersedes the individual (nationalism, political ideology or religious zealotry) will continue to fight, even if it is in a diminished capacity.
  2. Overly centralized military structure: On the other side of the scale you have heavily centralized military structure which are top heavy. Soldiers are expected to follow the directives of their superiors without question and often those superiors achieve their positions due to political maneuvering or loyalty to the regime rather than military prowess. Removal of the leadership tends to paralyze the soldiers.
  3. Charismatic/Terrorizing Leadership: The force is held together by loyalty to the leader(s). The leaders ability to inspire their subordinates into action propels them forward. Kill the leader and the reason for the army to exists evaporates. If the leader uses fear instead, their is a good chance that their subordinates not only will quit, but may even turn against their former (surviving) masters.

However, even in instances where the trope plays true, it is hardly the end of the fighting. Modern western militaries are structure around the concept of, “Mission Package,” were higher ups give guidance and logistical support to lower units but it up to the leaders of these units to plan and carry out the specifics of their missions with the resources available. They units are expected to carry out their immediate missions objectives and seize the initiative based on the information before them. Not only that, leaders always have replacements at hand ready to step in and take command. Still, pressure of the leadership of a modern army can wear down moral, restrict cooperation between units (both vertical, the chain of command as well as horizontal, other fighting units), cripple lines of communication/moral (duplication of effort, ineffective logistical support, etc.) So attacking the leadership of a modern force, depending on the timing, extend and intensity, will degrade the capabilities of the force over time but it will hardly be a instant win condition.

Ancient armies who lost their leaders in battle tended to quit the field but this did not always guarantee an end to the fighting. Surviving soldiers would break up into marauding bands of bandits/partisans. Ronin, masterless samurai, where hated by many because they turned to banditry after the death of their daimiyo. During the Second World War, defeated allied soldiers became the nucleus for partisans/resistance bands inside Nazi occupied territory.

Make sure you understand how ta give organization works before you apply this trope. It may turn out that killing one leader may put a more popular and effective leader in charge. War is noting if not the ultimate Social Darwinian experiment.


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