More than twenty-five centuries ago a fellow known as Sun Tzu (an honorific rather than a name – it means something like “Master Sun”) wrote a long treatise on military strategy and tactics that has come to be called The Art of War.
The Art of War is only one of the Seven Military Classics assembled during the Sung Dynasty and still required reading across Asia, but it is far and away the most important and most influential of the Chinese martial classics.
As far as we know, Sun was himself a successful general serving King Helü of Wu during the Spring and Autumn period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou Dynasty, considering both its Western and Eastern periods, lasted 790 years, by far the longest of the Chinese dynasties.
Sun’s treatise first became hugely popular among the competing parties in the Warring States period (403 – 221 BC). That period followed the Spring and Autumn period and was characterized by constant warfare among seven powerful Chinese states vying for control of Eastern China. One of the combatants, the Ch’in, eventually prevailed, unifying its empire and ending the Warring States period
But the philosophy espoused in The Art of War survived far longer than the Zhou Dynasty. Even in the modern era The Art of War has been studied and its theories employed with great success by Asian military leaders. Consider Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet during World War II; China’s Mao Zedong; and General Võ Nguyên Giáp, the commander of the Vietnam People’s Army who, among other things, directed the capture of Saigon following the American departure from the country.
While it’s difficult to summarize Sun’s military philosophy briefly, what stands out are these ideas: being humble about one’s military capabilities; knowing your strengths and weaknesses and, even more, knowing your enemy’s strengths and weaknesses; using an enemy’s strength against him; striking not at your enemy’s strength but at his weakness; appearing weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak; avoiding direct confrontation unless victory is assured; hiding your strength and biding your time.
The Art of War has had less profound influence over Western military ideas. In the West in general, and in the United States in particular, the main idea has been to apply maximum force against the enemy until he has been crushed or has surrendered.
The approach of the West was employed, mainly successfully albeit at huge cost, from the Middle Ages through the European wars of the nineteenth century (and the American Civil War), right up through World War I and World War II.
Since then, though, the application of maximum force has fared less well. Consider Korea, where US forces were simply not powerful enough to overwhelm the essentially unlimited supply of Chinese soldiers. Short of resorting to nuclear war (as advocated at the time by Korean Theater Commander General Douglas MacArthur), the US was forced to settle for a stalemate – one that has continued for sixty-seven years.
Or consider Vietnam, where vast American military power was unleashed against the Viet Cong guerillas and North Vietnamese regulars for two decades. The US won every battle and, in fact, nearly every skirmish, but lost the war.
In the Middle East the US has struggled mightily in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq I the US easily crushed the forces of Saddam Hussein, but then abandoned the field, allowing Saddam to continue his mischief, leading to Iraq II.
In Iraq II Saddam was captured, tried and executed, but no one had any idea how to manage the war’s aftermath. That led to additional violence and American deaths, an almost endless morass, and an Iraqi quasi-democracy powerfully influenced by Iran and whose future is at best uncertain.
Finally, years of American fighting in Afghanistan – and Soviet fighting before that – has led essentially nowhere, with the Taliban as strong today as it ever was.
Indeed, Philip H. Gordon has recently pointed out in Foreign Affairs that every single instance of attempted regime change by the US in the Middle East since 1950 has failed: in Afghanistan (twice), Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
Partly as a result of these unhappy experiences there has been a renewed interest in The Art of War by the American military. For example, all US Army units are required to maintain libraries in their headquarters for the continuing education of Army officers, and the Army specifically mentions The Art of War as an example of the kinds of books that should be included in each library.
The US Marine Corps, perhaps because it is the smallest of the four branches and the one least able to apply massive force against an enemy, seems to have embraced The Art of War even more warmly – the book is listed on the Corps’ required Professional Reading Program for Marine Corps officers.
The Art of War, or at least its key principles, has also been applied to business management (e.g., The Art of War for Managers, The Art of War for Small Business, Sun Tzu and the Art of Business); self-help (e.g. Sun Tzu’s Art of War for Women); fiction writing (e.g., The Art of War for Writers); soccer (e.g., Sun Tzu Soccer); video games (Age of Empires II); litigation strategy, and more.
Of course, there’s a fundamental problem with Sun Tzu’s treatise: it’s about war, which nobody wants, instead of being about peace, which is what everybody wants. You might suppose that over the course of twenty-five centuries someone would have thought to write a treatise on “the art of peace,” but no, it never happened.
Until now. See next week’s post.
Next up: The Art of Peace, Part 2
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