Kilkenny Cats Strategy

This tactic is best described as: “forcing or manipulating two of your opponents to fight each other thus weakening them to the point where neither remains a threat to you.”

The tactic is believed to be named after the limerick of the Kilkenny Cats. Although there are several versions of this poem, the one listed below best describes the tactic.

“There once were two cats of Kilkenny’
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
Till excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails
Instead of two cats
There weren’t any! “

The story is said to originate from the time when German “conscripted” mercenaries, Hessians, were stationed in Kilkenny, Ireland, during the 1798 Rebellion. Kept awake at night by the yowling of the stray cats, an enterprising sergeant devised a gambling game for his bored soldiers that involved tying two cats together by their tales and hanging them over a roof strut. The soldiers would then bet on which cat killed the other first. Inevitably both cats would die from their wounds. Amused by the game the soldiers quickly rounded up the strays and the sergeant slept better at night.

As a tactic, this aproach clearly predates this period but the name and limerick describes it well. At its most simple, the tatic involves provoking your enemies to fight each other. There are some obvious and not-so-obvious benefits to this approach.

There are some key components of this tactic but first a word of warning:

Your opponents that you manipulate into fighting each other should be reasonably well matched. Where one is significantly stronger than the other then the stronger will quickly defeat the weaker and leave you with an undistracted and confident enemy.

The Kilkenny Cats tactic may appear, in some ways, very similar to the divide-and-rule approach but is essentially different. Divide-and-rule is about separating mutual allies so they are more vulnerable to your attack – Kilkenny Cats is about persuading enemies to destroy each other.

This tactic is seen as often in civilian life as it is in the military. It is a useful observation of human nature that those that seek power are almost always distrustful of those around them – be they friend or foe.

While used often, it is extremely prevalent in schools. An actual example, witnessed by one of the team unfolded, as follows:

The year was 1979. A school in question was dominated by two gangs – one Lebanese and one Portuguese. A third but much smaller group, largely made up of Italians, was getting abused by both of the larger gangs that had established an uneasy truce between themselves.

A bright young man, after being beaten up for the second time, decided to act. Armed with nothing more than a can of spray paint, a penknife and a felt tipped marker, he began a programme of graffiti. From insulting scrawls and carvings on school desks to wild threats sprayed on walls he moved around the school like a ghost.

Each message was designed to antagonize one of the larger gangs. If it insulted the Portuguese then it appeared to be from the Lebanese – and vice versa. Tensions rose fast. Finally, when the time seemed right a small group of “tough guys” roughed up the cousin of the Portuguese gang leader. All the evidence pointed to the Lebanese.

Testosterone fueled machismo kicked in and within a couple of weeks both larger gangs were head-to-head in open conflict. The smaller gang was forgotten.

There is a 60 year old example of this tactic that is (or may be) still playing itself out to this very day.

The stage where it began was WWII. On June 6th 1944, D-Day, the Allies launched their attack on Europe and the Battle of Normandy began. Within weeks it became clear to the German High-Command that their coastal defenses had been broken. They were now fighting a losing war on at least three fronts. The Russians had survived the Battle of Stalingrad and destroyed the German sixth Army. Soviet troops were pushing west. Allied forces had, for sometime, been forcing their way through Italy towards Austria and now combined American and British forces were pushing through France towards the Rhine.

Hitler may have been too insane to recognise defeat but others could see that the end of the Third Reich was now in sight. It was about this time that the concept of the “Alpine Redoubt” was born. The idea was to create a hidden force of men and resources in the Alps on the Austrian-German border that would continue the fight (guerilla style) after Germany had been occupied.

Whether this plan was ever acted on or whether it was just a distraction tactic used by the Germans remains a debated subject to this day. However, there is no doubt that it was taken seriously by the Allies who diverted troops to neutralize this threat. The real question is: “Why would the Germans have believed it worthwhile?” The answer lies in the tactic of the Kilkenny Cats. Strategists within the German High-Command knew of the growing tensions between the Americans and the Russians. Heinrich Himler, for one, seems to have believed that once Germany was conquered the Americans and Russians would attack each other and provide Germany the opportunity to resurrect itself once the two super-powers had exhausted themselves. It didn’t happen but it was close. In the 1970 film “Patton”, George C. Scott who plays the title role begs to be allowed to push on and attack the Russians. He is denied. History is set and the Cold War begins.

An interesting observation, made easy with hindsight, is that today Germany is once again united and a formidable force in European politics. While for the past sixty years two great super-powers have been battling it out in theatres of war around the world from Angola to Vietnam. So exhausted was the USSR with its attempt to spread communism that it collapsed in 1990. Now that should make you think.

From in-house and national politics to schoolyard brawls, the tactic of the Kilkenny Cats is one of the most common yet least recognised tactics in use.

The defense against it is simple. Don’t be goaded into confrontation and conflict. Always ask the question – “If I fight who really benefits?”