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What Is a War of Attrition?

M. Kayo
M. Kayo

In a war of attrition, both sides have the same approximate strength, and each attempts to force the other to surrender by wearing the other down. The prevailing side simply outlasts the other, forcing continuous losses of people, equipment, weapons, or food. The military strategist Sun Tzu, who lived from 722-481 BC, was a Chinese general and is believed to have authored the quintessential book on military strategy, The Art of War. He saw attrition warfare as something to be avoided, believing that this type of warfare departed from the usual principles of war in which maneuvering, surprise, and concentrated forces accomplish decisive victories.

A military operation named the War of Attrition was fought from March of 1969 until August of 1970 as part of a larger, limited war between Egypt and Israel. In June of 1967, during the Six-Day War, Israel had pushed Egypt out of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Both Israel and Egypt fought until March of 1969 when the Egyptian president proclaimed the War of Attrition to be launched against Israeli forces. Fully prepared for large scale, long-term military operations, the Egyptians were determined to wear down the Israeli forces through continuous, repeated shelling, aerial attacks, and commando raids. After many casualties and no change in the actual borders between these warring countries, an eventual cease-fire was reached.

Soldiers stuck in trenches during World War I were part of a war of attrition.
Soldiers stuck in trenches during World War I were part of a war of attrition.

Probably the best known example of a war of attrition occurred in the trenches along the Western Front during World War I, when the French and German military forces found themselves stuck in defensive positions facing one another along a single front that stretched for hundreds of miles across Europe. Neither army could move against the other except to go head-to-head against one another repeatedly in hopes of gradually weakening the opposing army. During the U.S. Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant continued to push and battle against the Confederate Army confident that the Union Army's superior manpower and supplies would eventually wear the enemy down. Napoleon used similar tactics of attrition in his invasion of Russia in 1812. Each of these historical cases would be considered a war of attrition.

The U.S. Civil War is an example of a war of a attrition.
The U.S. Civil War is an example of a war of a attrition.

Some people believe the war on terror against the United States and the West, waged by radical extremists in the Middle East is a war of attrition. These extremists continually attack U.S. interests, sometimes on U.S. soil, sometimes abroad at a military installation, base, or embassy. The goal is to wear the U.S. down so that it eventually gives in to their demands.

Discussion Comments


Thanks for the info! I really needed it. It's very easy to understand and has great detail.


@burcidi-- The power balance in war of attrition isn't planned. It ends up being war of attrition when one army is not powerful enough to beat the other army in a short span of time.


@fify-- I'm no expert either but I don't agree with you. War of attrition is extremely costly, both financially and in terms of lives. Basically, two sides will fight one another until the one is no longer capable of fighting. This means that by the time the war is over, both sides will have depleted their resources that would have been otherwise used for other social needs.

War doesn't just take lives, but it also weakens the economy and redirects the resources needed by society for war. The other issue is that war of attrition makes war last much longer than it would otherwise. So two countries could end up fighting for years and years without one side losing.

That's why Israel and Egypt had to finally give up and come to an agreement. Because they both realized that war was not getting them closer to their goal and was costing them a lot. But this doesn't change the fact that they lost money and lives for years for no reason.


I personally think that the war of attrition is the best way to wage war. I don't know much about different war methods and tactics. But when I hear about warfare where too much force is used by one side or when war takes place through remote control of machinery, it doesn't seem fair. That doesn't fit my idea of just war.

At least with war of attrition, both sides are equals and fight head-to-head so they know where they stand and what their odds are. I think that's how war should be.

If anyone has a better grasp of different warfare methods and can make comparisons between war of attrition and other tactics though, I would love to learn more.

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    • Soldiers stuck in trenches during World War I were part of a war of attrition.
      By: lebanmax
      Soldiers stuck in trenches during World War I were part of a war of attrition.
    • The U.S. Civil War is an example of a war of a attrition.
      By: Kurt Holter
      The U.S. Civil War is an example of a war of a attrition.