Red Teaming Quotes

We've assembled here the enduring wisdom of savants, sages, scholars, and red teamers for the benefit of you, the current-day red teamer. Of course, all good red teamers know that perception isn't reality, so we might occasionally include a bogus quote, just to keep you on your toes.


Russell Ackoff: “A smart system can use knowledge of how it can be beat to redesign itself to reduce or eliminate that kind of beating.” From a discussion on “countermeasures teams” in Ackoff’s supremely entertaining book Ackoff’s Fables.

Daniel J. Boorstin: "The unintended and unimagined consequences of man's enterprises have been and will always be more potent, more widespread, and more influential than those he intended." From Boorstin's Cleopatra's Nose: Essays on the Unexpected.

G. K. Chesterton: "For these disguises did not disguise, but reveal." From The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, a curious and quirky novel with a touch of Christian allegory. The quote illuminates the occasional opportunity available in counterdeception to learn from the adversary's deception efforts. If you want to understand hypergames, this novel is a very good place to start.

Winston Churchill: "The firmly inculcated doctrine that an admiral’s opinion was more likely to be right than a captain’s, and a captain’s than a commander’s, did not hold good when questions entirely novel in character, requiring keen and bold minds unhampered by long routine, were under debate." From The U-boat Crisis, where Churchill discusses the debate over whether to institute convoying.

Charles Darwin: "To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact." ... especially when the error was widely accepted as a truth or fact.

Dietrich Dörner: We are infatuated with the hypotheses we propose because we assume they give us power over things. We therefore avoid exposing them to the harsh light of real experience, and we prefer to gather only information that supports our hypotheses. In extreme cases, we may devise elaborate and dogmatic defenses to protect hypotheses that in no way reflect reality. From The Logic of Failure (1996), this quote suggests a prime reason why red teaming is important.

David Easley and Jon Kleinberg: “ … when you make up rules to govern people’s behavior, you have to assume that they’ll adapt their behavior in light of the rules.” From their book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World (2010), p. 229. This seemingly harmless quote underpins much of the behavior that makes red teaming such a challenge.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." Uncertainty has a way of shifting our perspectives and priorities.

ffolkes: “Well therefore, I must put myself in his position and devise a means of doing so. And having done that, I simply work out how to overpower myself.” The mercenary ffolkes (Roger Moore) in the 1979 movie Ffolkes is faced with the challenge of red teaming an attack on an offshore oil platform. He observes that "Only a man of superior intellect is likely to think of the satisfactory way of hijacking a platform or a rig," and follows with the quote above.

Robert Gates: "The best way to achieve complete strategic surprise is to take an action that is either stupid or completely contrary to your self interest." According to Richard Haass in his book War of Necessity, War of Choice, then-Deputy National Security Advisor Bob Gates kept this saying on his desk. It's an intriguing concept, one that we would change to "The best way to achieve complete strategic surprise is to take an action that is [perceived as] either stupid or completely contrary to your self interest." As we've stated again and again, perception, misperception, and deception are at the core of superior red teaming practice.

Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble: " ... we never promised comfort. You can choose comfort, or you can choose to win." From the authors' outstanding book on innovation, The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge. Red teamers will find that many of the book's lessons on practical innovation apply directly to red teaming.

Samuel B. Griffith II: "Man is more complex than any of his machines." From Griffith's introduction to Mao's On Guerilla Warfare.

Michael Handel: "... the reciprocal nature of all action in war means that attempts to grasp its complexities through a static, unilaterally based concept will never succeed.... a realistic approach must consider how one's adversary interprets the war as well. Thus, perceiving the nature of a war is a reciprocal and dialectic process in which it is important to consider how one side's perspective and actions affect the other side's actions and reactions.” This is the heart of the superior red teamer's point of view.

M. John Harrison: "Heroism is useless against a strategist." From Harrison's set of future-Earth tales, Viriconium (be sure to get the omnibus version containing The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, and several short stories).

John le Carré: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” From le Carré’s book The Honourable Schoolboy. This relatively well-known quote is immediately preceded in the book by the equally interesting setup: “To read Sam’s moves, Smiley knew that he must stay alert to these and countless other options.”

V. I. Lenin: "The soundest strategy in war is to postpone operations until the moral disintegration of the enemy renders the delivery of the mortal blow both possible and easy." Quoted favorably by B. H. Liddell Hart in Strategy.

B. H. Liddell Hart: "Try to put yourself in the enemy’s shoes, and think what course it is least probable he will foresee or forestall." From his exposition on the indirect strategy. See, in particular, his recommendation to "Choose the line (or course) of least expectation," from Strategy, page 348.

H. L. Mencken: "Firmness in decision is often merely a form of stupidity. It indicates an inability to think the same thing out twice." No red teaming quote page would be complete without some provoking, impertinent, politically incorrect bit of wisdom from Mencken.

Inspector Morse: "It’s what we’re supposed to think, Lewis; that’s why we don’t think it." The fictional inspector advises his assistant, Lewis, to eschew the evident explanation and think of it instead as a possible deception. From the episode “The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn.”

David Mure: "No purely deceptive plan ever 'won' a battle or a war.... You can, perhaps, persuade your opponent that since you are going to hit him in the eye, he should guard that organ, whilst in fact, your intention is to hit him in the stomach. You still have to hit him and, after you have done so, guard yourself against his agonised and furious reaction. The first is for the deceiver, in war; the second is for the commander." From Mure's classic 1980 volume Master of Deception.

Miyamoto Musashi: "The way to win any battle according to military science is to know the rhythms of the specific opponents, and use rhythms that your opponents do not expect, producing formless rhythms from rhythms of wisdom." From The Book of Five Rings, Cleary translation, p. 15. Note the similarity to the Chinese concepts of ch'i, cheng, and formless hsing.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz: “I want you to be the Admiral Nagumo of my staff. I want your every thought, every instinct as you believe Admiral Nagumo might have them. You are to see the war, their operations, their aims, from the Japanese viewpoint and keep me advised what you are thinking about, what you are doing, and what purpose, what strategy, motivates your operations. If you can do this, you will give me the kind of information needed to win this war.” This is Nimitz to his staff intelligence officer, Ed Layton, as recorded by Layton in And I Was There.

J. Robert Oppenheimer: "We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. We know that in secrecy error undetected will flourish and subvert." While we understand that secrecy is often necessary, we also believe that honest red teaming is an ideal way to counter the problem Oppenheimer frames so well here.

William G. Pagonis: “The key is to be open to different experiences and perspectives. If you can't tolerate different kinds of people, you're not likely to learn from different kinds of perspectives." From his excellent 1992 memoir, Moving Mountains: Lessons in Leadership and Logistics from the Gulf War.

Alexei Panshin: "Far more serious than jumping to conclusions is its antecedent—jumping to premises." From the amusing little 1969 sci-fi book Masque World.

Polybius: "It is to be ignorant and blind in the science of commanding armies to think that a general has anything more important to do than to apply himself to learn the inclinations and character of his adversary." From Histories, Book 3. Contrast this with Barton Whaley's description of Montgomery's desired level of insight: "From 1941 through 1944, a photograph of his archenemy, Rommel, hung on the wall above his desk. Typical of Monty, this was pure show, mere symbolism, at most a bravado act of exorcism. It was a gesture without psychological insight, for he never took any interest in the personalities of his opponents, leaving that to his deception and intelligence staffs." See Whaley's Practice to Deceive, p. 204.)

George Bernard Shaw: “Even a stupid general can win battles when the enemy’s general is a little stupider.” It’s all relative and reciprocal. From Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell.

Robert Sheckley: "In order to ask a question you must already know most of the answer." From his short story "Ask a Foolish Question," this quote underscores the fact that meaningful questions require a frame of reference. In red teaming, if your frame of reference is off, so is your question.

Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This is why we red team.

Robert Anton Wilson: "My own opinion is that belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence. The more one assumes, the less there is left to think about, and a person sure of everything would never have any need to think about anything and might be considered clinically dead under current medical standards, where the absence of brain activity is taken to mean that life has ended." Set aside his oft-eccentric tangents, and RAW has some very interesting things to say about perception and misperceptiontopics relevant to all red teamers. ("Keep the lasagna flying!")

Major General Clive Wynn-Candy: "War starts at midnight!" General Candy is the main character in Powell and Pressburger's classic British film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Candy expects the exercise in which he is participating to begin at the appointed time; his opponent thinks otherwise. This is a must-see film.