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  • Writer's pictureT. Kearny Vertner, III

The Power of Reactivity

We hear all the time about the need to be proactive, but let's analyze how being reactive wins conflicts.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

Many in both the military and in private industry will crow on about the importance of being proactive. They'll spend millions of dollars in rushing a program forward to be the first without regard to the value or how their opponents may respond. Through my experience and study of history, I argue that we should often lean towards being reactive. The famous Battle of Waterloo is a perfect illustration of the value of being reactive and affords us an excellent opportunity to evaluate ways in which we can productively improve our reactions.

By all accounts, Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the effective military leaders in history, spreading the French Empire across most of Europe in just over a decade. His incredible string of victories (and the French Empire itself) finally came to a screeching halt in June of 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon's 73,000 troops clashed with an assembled coalition of armies from the United Kingdom, Prussia, the Netherlands, Hanover, Nassau, and Brunswick whose total strength was approximately 118,000 men and led by Sir Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington (popularly referred to as Duke Wellington or just Wellington). Wellington's second-in-command was the Henry William Paget, the Earl of Uxbridge.

One of my favorite quotes surrounding these events is an exchange between Wellington and Uxbridge on the night before the battle:

Wellington: "Who will attack first tomorrow? I or Bonaparte?"

Uxbridge: "Bonaparte."

Wellington: "Well, Bonaparte has not given me any idea of his projects, and as my plans will depend on his, how can you expect to tell me what mine are?"

Wellington's tactical prowess was phenomenal, and it was said that he was up hours before the rest of his army, composing and sending out detailed orders with the explicit understanding that the officers he commanded had the authority to react as necessary. This is an outstanding early demonstration of mission command. Wellington's operational and strategic plans were far less transparent. Some have suggested that he cloaked them as a matter of operational security. Indeed, Wellington was harsh on officers that revealed anything that might tip his hand towards his enemies. Others have suggested that he might not have had an exceptional mind for strategy for all of his tactical skills. I prefer to see it as a lesson in how reactivity can be a powerful tool when used deliberately.


"All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near."

- Sun Tzu, the Art of War

Was Wellington a brilliant strategist who held his secrets tightly, or was he a mere charlatan who struck a lucky decisive blow against Napoleon? The answer is: it doesn't matter. For all practical purposes, acting like a fool who performs brilliantly is just as beneficial as actually being one. Either one is a matter of proper deception, and the end state is the same.

While Wellington had an overwhelming force, his army's multinational nature meant that effective unity of command was going to be more challenging. Additionally, Wellington's amassed his army to confront the French on relatively short notice, leaving little opportunity for well-rehearsed maneuvers. In a perfect world, Wellington would have had the chance to draw up extensive strategies, layering responses to countless scenarios, and training his men to execute all of them flawlessly. That perfect world would have also made him less reliant on mission command and more exploitable by well-placed spies. As luck would have it, Napoleon's preparation may have gotten the best of him.

"Never did I see such a pounding match. Both were what the boxers call gluttons. Napoleon did not maneuver at all. He just moved forward in the old style, in columns, and was beaten off in the old style."

- Wellington

Wellington was shocked by how simple the battle went. He discovered that Napoleon relied on a heavy measure of psychology, pressing hard in a fairly direct fashion to cause his enemy to panic and break. Once Wellington was able to observe Napoleon's approach, he could quickly employ an effective counter. One has to wonder if Wellington would have felt the need to be such a student of his opponent after the first shot if he had the luxury of extensive proactive plans and rehearsals.

It is sometimes said that if you must decide to face a professional or an amateur, a professional is preferred. Professionals adhere to standards and doctrine, yielding a measure of predictability. Amateurs introduce tremendous chaos. One example is in the game of poker. Poker is a game that fundamentally relies on a player's ability to read and react to their opponent. For many years, high-stakes public tournaments tended to have the same professionals show up, yielding certain expected strategies. With the rising popularity of online poker, some online tournaments would offer up seats in the world's biggest tournaments for the winners. On the plus side, this ushered in a new wave of players and public interest. On the downside, it introduced absolute chaos to the poker tables, with players who weren't used to having to hide their tells or read and react to others; they were typically hidden by a computer screen, after all. As a result, numerous top-tier players loudly complained after getting knocked out early in tournaments by amateurs who introduced substantial unpredictability by playing hands a professional would have folded and folded on hands that should have played. That said, it was still the professionals that came out in the end.

A lesson we can take away from both Wellington and the poker players who did end up winning those tournaments: we must strive to be professionals (that seem like amateurs) who can flex to battle amateurs (even if they are also deceptive professionals). If that sounds familiar to those in the U.S. military, it describes most approaches to asymmetrical and unconventional warfare and military deception (including information warfare and psychological operations).

Who Acts First?

"When the enemy attacks, remain undisturbed but feign weakness. As the enemy reaches you, suddenly move away, indicating that you intend to jump aside, then dash in attacking strongly as soon as you see the enemy relax."

- Miyamoto Musashi, the Book of Five Rings

In a Japanese sword fighting duel, it is sometimes said that there are two battles: one of the mind before the first strike, and one of the body once they are in motion. Of the two, the contest of wills is far more critical. Often, the one that strikes first will lose. Miyamoto Musashi, one of Japan's greatest sword fighters, famously wrote on the importance of forestalling the enemy using one of three techniques: 

  1. Seizing the initiative, attacking relentlessly, and shocking the enemy.

  2. Feign weakness and deceive the enemy into attacking. Surprise them with a lethal response.

  3. Wait for the enemy to attack and respond with a superior maneuver that mirrors their level of intensity.

Napoleon's strategy can be seen in the first technique, while Wellington's can be seen in the second. One can observe that most of Musashi's strategy is built on superior awareness and appropriate reaction. When you strike first, you choose from a nigh-infinite number of options, and you run the risk of being too simple and easily countered or too complicated and easily confused. When you react to that first strike, you gain two key advantages. First, your range of options narrows considerably, giving you a greater ability to select the one that will offer the biggest advantage. Second, you gain crucial insight into the capabilities, tactics, and strategy of your opponent. Had Wellington marched to Waterloo with a clear plan, he may have struck first and failed to observe Napoleon's strategy until it was too late. 

OODA Loops

Coming back to the work of U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd (Ret), we can again see the value of the OODA Loop in action. Short for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, the OODA Loop provides a simple model to continuously analyze a conflict and rapidly react to changing conditions. One of the most important new developments in military strategic thought of the 20th century, the OODA Loop shifts us from analyzing the battlespace as a series of static numbers and locations (as Clausewitz would have us) to a dynamic environment. One of our primary goals in training or developing new tools is always to enhance our ability to cycle through each of those steps while degrading our enemies' abilities.

While offensive (the ability to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative) is enshrined in U.S. military doctrine as one of the nine principles of war, it belies its Clausewitzian roots in assessing the enemy. Offensive has its place in specific small-scale tactics, but in strategy, its a largely a farce. Given the complexity of the strategy employed, the effectiveness of modern intelligence collection, and the professionalization fo both us and many enemies, seizing the initiative isn't realistic. Additionally, the enemy gets a vote, and it's often said that no good plan survives the first contact. Boyd's OODA Loop gives us a reason to eschew the principle of offensive by enabling us to more readily react adapt to our enemies just as Wellington did to Napoleon.


The Battle of Waterloo is a fascinating study in conflict. It shows us essential lessons in the value of operational security, military deception, mission command, and the potency of the OODA Loop. For me, the most important lesson is the importance of embracing reactivity. Modern writings on both warfare and business set each of us on the Sisyphean task of creating endless plans for all possible contingencies with the hope that we may always be the one to move first. This is unrealistic, and it can be dangerous, discouraging us from actively observing and responding to foes who may be acting unconventionally as amateurs

I'll leave you with one final quote on the importance of reactivity:

"You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend."

- Bruce Lee


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