"If it's stupid and it works, it isn't stupid," is how the old saying goes. Though it isn't said much anymore, the meaning behind it still rings true – and has for generations. A tactic that seems so stupid can be useful to the right mind. It can goad an enemy into losing focus and abandoning caution. These tactics can be used to influence an enemy's thoughts and actions. It can even change the future for millions.
So don't be so quick to judge.
Napoleon at Austerlitz
In the beginning of the 19th Century, Napoleon was making his presence known across Europe. The end of the old order was at hand as "The Little Corporal" from Corsica took control of the French and dominated the armies and rulers of Europe. But the social order wasn't the only thing he upended. Napoleon upended the entire doctrine warfare, how battles were fought, forever. Nothing is more obvious than his win at Austerlitz, where a seemingly rookie mistake was the key to victory.
As Napoleon fielded the French to take on a superior Russian-Austrian force outside of Vienna, things looked bleak, and the French were widely expected to lose and be forced to flee Austria. With every passing day, Napoleon's enemies became stronger. To goad them into a fight in the place of his choosing, he occupied the heights overlooking the town of Austerlitz, basic military strategy since the days of Sun-Tzu. As the combined enemy army approached, they saw the French abandon those heights. The battle was on, and Napoleon used the heights as a psych-out. Once the French took the heights in combat, the battle was over for the Russian-Austrian allies, and Napoleon was Master of Europe.
When the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, it was a jubilant day for the Jewish people – and no one else in the region. The Jews of the new nation of Israel were immediately surrounded on all sides by Arab enemies with superior numbers, technology, money, and basically anything else you might need to win a protracted war for independence. What the Israelis had going for them was a ton of World War II veterans and a lot of cunning brainpower. So even when they had to make bombing runs in single-engine prop planes, they managed to win the day even if they didn't have bombs.
As an advancing Arab army approached Tel Aviv, the Jewish forces in the area were at a loss on how to repel them. They had no bombs to support the Israeli troops in the region, and even if they did, they had no bombers to fly them. They needed an equalizer. Someone with combat experience in WWII remembered that seltzer bottles tend to whistle like bombs when dropped from a height. When full of seltzer, they also explode with a loud bang. So that's what the nascent IAF used. The Arabs didn't really have seltzer or those old-timey bottles used to spray it, so they really thought they were being bombed – and disbursed.
The army led by a zombie
Some people are just so necessary for success you can't afford to let them go. Unfortunately for Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar and the people of Valencia, one such person was missing when Muslim armies from Morocco were marching their way. They must have gotten wind that Rodrigo was no longer with the army of Valencia, which was true. Rodrigo was no longer among those defenders because Rodrigo was also no longer among the living. Since the Christian knight had never lost a battle, his reputation alone was enough to keep invaders at bay.
Luckily for Rodrigo – whom you might know better as El Cid – he had a pretty cunning wife, Jimena. Jimena ordered El Cid's dead, decomposing body be fully armored and dressed, then lashed to his horse. Jimena then told the army to make a valiant last cavalry charge to break the siege, with El Cid at the head. When the Muslims saw the Spaniards coming at them with El Cid at the head of the attack, they immediately broke ranks and tried to flee but were cut down by the Spanish defenders.
Strong men marry strong women. Remember that.
Island-hopping to fight another day
In 1942, things looked really bad for the allied naval forces in the Pacific. The December 1941 attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor came at the same time of a half dozen other surprise Japanese attacks throughout the region. Attempts to hit the Japanese back at the Java Sea and the Sunda Straits were met with abject failure. After the Japanese Empire captured the Dutch East Indies, the Navy was limping pretty bad. Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma, and more had all fallen to the mighty Japanese initiative. As all allied ships were ordered to retreat to Australia, one was somehow left behind.
That was the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen, a Dutch minesweeper which was separated after the attacks on the East Indies. Armed with one three-inch gun and two 20mm cannons, the minesweeper was no match for any of the Japanese warships floating around the islands. In order to stay undetected, the Dutch covered the ship in foliage and painted the hull the color of rocks. They moored the ship near islands by day and moved only by night – and it worked. She not only made it to Australia, she survived the war.
(Laughs in Mongol)
Mongols think differently
For much of the Western World in the Middle Ages, a retreat was not a good thing. If a cavalry force appears routed, it might lead to the infantry breaking ranks and running. Even the most orderly of retreats was considered as an option only at the last possible moments. That was not how the Mongols under Genghis Khan thought of a retreat. A retreat was a tactic to be used like any other tactic.
There are many examples of the use of a feigned retreat in this history of the Mongol conquests. The reason for this is because it worked. It worked really really well. Troops from China to Poland would be locked in a life-or-death struggle against the Mongol hordes when suddenly the Mongols would turn tail and run, their spirit to fight seemingly broken. As a chorus of cheers went up from the exhausted defenders, they would inevitably give chase to the invaders – only to watch as the retreating Mongols turn again, in full force, and on ground that supports them.
The defenders would then be slaughtered to a man.