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Ruse of War: 6 Sneaky But Brilliant Strategies

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

War can be tricky—especially when done correctly. It's called Ruse of War, the act of clever tactic or deception on the battlefield. Think Trojan Horse, but less ridiculous. (“After a 10-year siege, the Greeks have given up and disappeared and look—they felt so bad they totally left us a present!”)

Here are six commanders who were dealt bad hands, but bluffed and ended up flush. Some of the more ancient accounts are, of course, tough to verify. But even if time has padded these stories into legends, it doesn’t make the tactical strategies any less astounding.

1. Persians Without Noses, a Threat Still Poses.

Around 500 years BC, Darius the Great was sweeping through Asia and Africa, conquering everything. He was spread thin, so revolts popped up everywhere. Darius and his armies were able to stamp them all down, except one: Babylon. Babylon was so well barricaded that Darius, though he sat outside with his armies for a year and a half, couldn’t get in. Enter Persian noble Zopyrus, and his brilliant, disgusting plan to take Babylon.

One morning the Babylonians rose to see the high ranking Persian at their gates, soaked in his own blood, whipped, with his ears and nose hacked off. He screamed that Darius had done this to him for failing to capture their city, and that now his rage was so great he wished to defect and help Babylon defeat the brutal Darius.

And … they totally bought it. Zopyrus had cut off his own nose and ears and arranged his own whipping, all with Darius’ knowledge. Zopyrus Rhinotmetus (no-nose) quickly rose in the ranks of the Babylonian army, and just as quickly weakened the city's defenses. Darius soon recaptured the city, and reportedly festooned Zopyrus with great titles and wealth.

2. The Most Awesome Tea-Partier Ever

In the 3rd century, China was a mess. There were three different kingdoms—the Shu, Wei, and Wu—fighting to gain control over all of China. Chu-ko Liang was a valuable, high ranking official of the Shu people. One of his many responsibilities was to protect the city of Hsi from the oncoming Wei invasion. But he didn’t have enough soldiers to match the Wei onslaught, nor was Hsi fortified enough to wait out a siege. So, Liang got clever.

He opened all the gates of his city. He sent his best soldiers high into the mountains, out of sight. He ordered the people of his town to carry on as normal. Then, as the scouts for the Wei army approached, he climbed to the ramparts of the wall, burned some incense, had tea and played his lute. The Wei knew Liang was no idiot, in fact he had a reputation for being quite slippery. They suspected a trap, and went around the city, leaving it unharmed. As they skirted the town, they walked into the ambush Liang had previously set in the mountains, and were defeated.

3. Cowards at Cowpens

Militia men of the American Revolution weren’t trained soldiers. They were farmers and family men called to take up arms against the British. They were renowned for, well … not knowing what they were doing and running away a lot. At the Battle of Cowpens, Colonel Dan Morgan used this inglorious reputation to kick some Redcoat pantaloons.

Morgan’s regiments weren’t made up only of hapless militia men. He also had trained soldiers and riflemen. Taking position on and around a small hill at the border of South and North Carolina, Morgan put a line of trained shooters in front of a ragtag line of militia men. The British began a front assault, and were driven back by the sharpshooters, who then got up and ran behind the hill. The British charged again, this time against the scraggly militia men. The militia men appeared extremely weak when they each only fired two rounds, turned and ran. Bolstered by the retreat of the ill-trained American cowards, the British charged. Their line lost its cohesion on the hill, and they ran straight into the waiting fire of all the rest of Morgan’s men, including the ones that had gone around the back of the British. The British premature belief that they were winning led to them being completely enveloped by enemy fire, with over 900 Redcoats killed or captured.

4. “A SWORD FOR THE LORD!”

To defend their homeland, Gideon the Israelite raised a volunteer army of 32,000 to battle the Midianites (interlopers who were trying to move into Israelite turf) according to the Biblical account. But he only needed 10,000. Actually, the most powerful part of his ruse required significantly less. Gideon had 300 of his soldiers surround the Midianite’s valley encampment on three sides, every side but the east (that’s where he put the other 9700, waiting in ambush). He equipped them with hundreds of horns (the kind individual armies sounded before charging), torches, and incendiary pots. Then late at night, all at once, he had the 300 blow the war trumpets, light the torches, hurl the pots into the encampment and scream, “'A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” The Midianites had no idea how many violent religious zealots were descending on them, but if the horns were any indication, it was all of them. They panicked and ran to the only side of the valley without torches and terror, the east. There they were promptly slaughtered by soldiers, who were waiting with their swords for the Lord and Gideon. 

5. Bore Them to Death

Philip II of Macedon had conquered enough ground by 338 BC to establish the state of Macedonia. Many parts of the newly conquered kingdom didn’t like being conquered, particularly Athens and Thebes, which raised 50,000 rebels to fight off Philip’s 32,000 trained soldiers at the Battle of Chaeronea. Philip was outnumbered, but his men were professionals, and the rebels were angry countrymen spoiling for a fight.

The first thing Philip did was nothing. He took an interminable time to set up his lines for the battle as the rebels waited for him to make the first move. Meanwhile they stood, their bloodlust cooling as their skin baked in the sun. Then the battle began. The rebels had staked out a highly desirable position that Philip needed to remove them from. So he sent his men into battle, and then had them retreat almost immediately, as if unable to bear the rebel attack. The rebels chased them back to their “line,” not noticing that line was slowly moving, and so were they. Soon they were drawn completely away from the high ground they’d occupied. Philip kept doing this until the rebels were exhausted, bereft of spirit, and in open air. His trained soldiers then quickly stopped playing with their food and killed half the rebel army.

6. “P’ang Chuan Dies Under This Tree.”

Meanwhile in 4th century BC China,  the Han dynasty was under attack. The King of Ch’i sent an army westward to help the Han army resist the Wei. It wasn’t considered that much of a help. The Ch’i had a reputation for being total whiny pantywaists and for desertion, weakness, and all around lameness. When the commander of the Wei army, P’ang Chuang, heard they were coming, he went home for a vacation.

This unit of Ch’i was a little different, though. Marching with them as an advisor was Sun Pin, a descendant of Sun-Tzu. You might have heard of Sun-Tzu—he wrote a little book called The Art of War, the oldest, and arguably the most brilliant, military treatise in the world. Like Dan Morgan, Sun Pin knew that a bad reputation can be a good thing. The Wei believed the Ch’i army was full of weaklings who got sick or died or deserted. So Sun Pin gratified that belief. Each night the army marched, they lit fewer and fewer campfires. When the Wei saw that the Ch’i had lost half their pathetic army, they smugly settled on a quick direct attack, using only light infantry.

The legend goes, when the Ch’i set up their ambush, the spring for their trap was a message written on a tree: “P’ang Chuan Dies Under This Tree.” P’ang Chuan was called to the tree in the dark, and lit a torch to read it. This triggered a hailstorm of arrows from the Ch’i, an onslaught that the Wei were not prepared to handle. P’ang Chuan slit his own throat under the tree in his defeat. 

This article was sourced mainly from Duncan & Nofi's Book, Victory and Deceit.

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A Brief History of Black Friday
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iStock

The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year. But where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points tomorrow, when you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m.

HOW DID BLACK FRIDAY BECOME SUCH A BIG SHOPPING DAY?

It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail free-for-all, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially commenced.

In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.

SO RETAILERS WERE ALWAYS HOPING FOR AN EARLY THANKSGIVING?

You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

BRILLIANT! HOW DID THAT WORK OUT?

Not so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.

By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.

WHY CALL IT BLACK FRIDAY?

If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.

According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.

SO WHERE DID THE WHOLE "GET IN THE BLACK" STORY ORIGINATE?

Apparently store owners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.

DO RETAILERS REALLY NEED BLACK FRIDAY TO TURN AN ANNUAL PROFIT?

Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.

IS BLACK FRIDAY REALLY THE BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR?

It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while reaching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas—when procrastinators finally get shopping—that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.

Snopes's data shows the 10-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.

DO PEOPLE REALLY GET INJURED ON BLACK FRIDAY?

Sadly, yes. One of the most tragic Black Friday incidents happened in 2008, when 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of hundreds of people from the approximately 2000 people waiting outside knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.

In 2010 in Buffalo, New York, several shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz—who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground—told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.

In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fistfights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores.

In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1000. The New York Times reported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”

HOW CAN THIS KIND OF THING BE AVOIDED?

In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a special checklist for retailers expecting large crowds.

So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, if charging shoppers come running, stay out of the way.

Haley Sweetland Edwards contributed to this story, portions of which originally appeared in 2009.

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Pop Culture
A Speedy History of the Hess Truck
Hess Corporation
Hess Corporation

Unless you know someone crazy about air fresheners or caffeine pills, holiday gifts purchased at gas stations don’t usually provoke much excitement. But if you were one of the millions who grew up in the northeast, the annual release of the Hess toy truck at Hess gas stations—usually green, always labeled with a Hess logo, always boxed with batteries—was and is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The idea for an affordable, quality children’s toy sold at service stations at thousands of Hess locations in 16 states was courtesy of Leon Hess, the college dropout-turned-fuel magnate who began selling oil door-to-door in 1933 and graduated to gas stops by 1960. Hess decided he would trump the cheap merchandise given away by gas stations—mugs, glassware—by commissioning a durable, feature-heavy toy truck modeled after the first oil tanker he ever bought for his company. Unlike most toys of the era, it would have headlights that really worked and a tank that kids could either fill up or drain with water.

Most importantly, Hess insisted it come with batteries—he knew the frustration suffered by kids who tore into a holiday present, only to discover they’d have to wait until it had a power source before it could be operated.

The Hess Tanker Truck went on sale in 1964 for $1.29 and sold out almost instantly. Hess released the toy again in 1965, and then introduced the Voyager Tanker Ship in 1966. For the next 50 years, hardly a year went by without Hess issuing a new vehicle that stood up to heavy play and offered quality and features comparable to the “real” toys on store shelves. Incredibly, fathers would wait in line for hours for an opportunity to buy one for their child.

The toy truck became so important to the Hess brand and developed such a strong following that when the company was bought out in 2014 and locations converted to the Speedway umbrella, new owners Marathon Petroleum promised they would keep making the Hess trucks. They’re now sold online, with the newest—the Dump Truck and Loader, complete with working hydraulics and STEM lesson plans—retailing for $33.99. Bigger, better toy trucks may be out there, but a half-century of tradition is hard to replicate.

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