Sun Tzu the Art of War Research Paper

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Sun Tzu -- Art of War

In his famous book The Art of War, Sun-zi (Sun Tzu) was evidently influenced by Confucian ideals, such as his statements about the avoiding prolonged war if possible and the most successful generals being those who could win without fighting at all. He was from the Southern, semi-barbaric state of Wu, and his book was probably written in the Warring States period or perhaps during the Han Dynasty. He never referred to barbarians at all or any ethic differences, and always stated that the greatest generals had to know themselves and the enemy. Nor did he ever demonize his opponents or call for their total destruction, but rather recommended humane treatment for prisoners of war and civilian populations. Sun Tzu relied on clever tactics, strategy and espionage rather than brute force to win victories and from beginning to end his book cast a rather negative light on war rather than glorifying it. Near the conclusion, he once again reminded his readers that "raising a host of a hundred thousand men and marching them great distances entails heavy loss on the people and a drain on the resources of the state."[footnoteRef:1] In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, he would have argued strongly against lengthy wars that reduced the resources of the state. Sun Tzu favored quick, decisive wars against weaker and poorly prepared opponents, preferably paid for by plundering the enemy's resources. He disliked siege warfare, wars of attrition or warfare based on hatred revenge and ideology, and he would also have criticized the U.S. leaders for initially supporting Iraq, the Taliban and the Islamic fundamentalists in the 1980s. For Sun Tzu, this would have been a sign that the American leaders had not thoroughly pondered and considered all their options before acting, and did not understand either their enemies or themselves. If forced to fight a war against guerillas and insurgents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, however, Sun Tzu would not have followed orthodox and conventional textbook methods in doing so. [1: Sun Tzu. The Art of War (Pax Librorum Publishing House, 2009), p. 53.]

Sun Tzu was writing during a period of feudalism in China, which each state trying to unify all the others and become dominant in the region. He was most familiar with the type of conventional warfare involving standing armies and set-piece battles in open country and had little to say about guerrilla or unconventional warfare, although he was well-aware of the Northern 'barbarians' that engaged in this type of conflict. Some of the barbarians mentioned in the ancient Chinese sources would also be familiar to Westerners since they obviously refer to the nomadic horsemen from Central Asia like the Turks, Huns and Mongols. Indeed, the Hun-chu mentioned in the Records of the Grand Historian of China very likely were the selfsame Huns who attacked the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD. The Chinese records had a variety of different names for them such as Northern Barbarians, Mountain Barbarians, Hun-chu and Hsiung-nu (Xiangnu), the latter having been "a source of constant worry and harm to China." When they used the term "barbarian" they meant it in the Greek and Roman sense of nomads without permanent towns, settled agriculture or writing, all of which the Chinese developed very early on in their history. They also thought of the barbarians as extremely hostile and aggressive, always making incursions against the more 'civilized' areas, with all boys learning to ride and use the bow and arrow from a very early age.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Records of the Grand Historian of China. Translated from the Shih Chi of Sso-Man Chien by Burton Watson, Volume II: The Age of Emperor Wu, 140 to Circa 100 BC (Columbia University Press), p. 155.]

This is certainly reminiscent of the type of guerilla and insurgent warfare the United States has faced in placed like Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the enemy is not a conventional standing army but men, women and children with strong ideological motivations such as nationalism or religion. Sun Tzu was pragmatic rather than ideological and did not care for this type of warfare, arguing that anger, hatred and passions should not influence military decisions. His views were very different from the Realpolitik of Machiavelli as well as the Islamic fundamentalism of Osama bin Laden.[footnoteRef:3] Sun Tzu always favored the use of deception in warfare, such as putting on a show of weakness to conceal strength, or feigning inactivity to conceal activity, and vice versa. Rather than fighting, the better strategy was to outmaneuver the enemy, seizing and defending the best positions before they did. He opposed long, drawn out wars of attrition and maintained that the best policy was to "preserve one's own economic, military, and political assets." [footnoteRef:4] [3: Adam Lowther. Americans and Asymmetric Conflict: Lebanon, Somalia and Afghanistan. (Praeger Security International, 2007), p. 26.] [4: Lowther, p. 26.]

For Sun Tzu, the most successful military leader was the one who achieved victory without ever fighting at all, but attacked the enemy's plans and alliances. His third-best option was to engage the enemy armies in battle, preferable those in a weaken position who were badly prepared and could be taken by surprise, and his least favorite option was long, drawn out, siege warfare. He always wished to win quickly and decisively and therefore reduce the human and economic costs of warfare.[footnoteRef:5] In this sense, his truest modern disciples are Erwin Rommel and George S. Patton rather than Mao Zedong, Vo Nguyen Giap and other advocates of protracted guerilla warfare. If forced to fight a guerilla war like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sun Tzu would not have used methods of direct attack or attrition but just the opposite, which runs counter to conventional, textbook ideas. He would have advised the U.S. military leaders to act in a very deceptive and evasive way, and to "speak and act submissively" to conceal their true intentions. Indeed, they should put on a show of weakness and confusion that will enhance the arrogance of their enemies and their certainly of victory. Sun Tzu would not have attacked them openly, but rather lulled them into a sense of false security, and then would have taken them by surprise, using ambush techniques when they least expected it.[footnoteRef:6] [5: Lowther, p. 24.] [6: Lowther, p. 28.]

Another maxim of Sun Tzu was always to avoid entangling positions and to attack an enemy when he is at his weakest. Never waste resources attacking strong, well-prepared enemies in their strongest defensive positions, which will only lead to defeat. He would have approved of the "Shock and Awe" phase of the Iraq War and the rapid defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan two years earlier, but definitely not of the protracted wars that followed. In this sense, both Iraq and Afghanistan are entangling positions now, but they cannot simply be abandoned or "we would never have any credibility in those countries again."[footnoteRef:7] Iraq also occupies a central strategic position in the Middle East, and with bases there the U.S. can deter Syria and Iran, even though it may not be able to fight wars against those countries. To be sure, it would be in no condition to fight both at the same time. Up to now, the U.S. has been successful against the enemy, even at great cost, and the opposing forces have "fallen apart, been disorganized, or had to retreat."[footnoteRef:8] On the other hand, the U.S. is facing an enemy skilled at using mass communications, especially to issue threats, and American military leaders have to be at least as skilled as their opponents in using the media. In the War on Terror, the U.S. was caught weak and unprepared by a patient and skilled enemy, and was particularly caught by surprise on September 11, 2001. Prior to that time, its efforts against terrorism were "half-hearted and disorganized" yet this was no longer the case in Iraq and Afghanistan.[footnoteRef:9] In fact, in recent months, the wave of revolutions in the Middle East may be an indication that the region is moving in a more pro-Western direction. [7: Larry Gagliardi. Strategy against Terror: Ancient Wisdom for Today's War. (Clearbridge Publishing, 1999, 2004), p. 127.] [8: Gagliardi, p. 129.] [9: Gagliardi, p. 131.]

Sometimes of course, the barbarians did not exactly invade but were invited in by various contending factions or warlords, and this is what happened when the U.S. supported the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In that case, the U.S. judged that the Soviet Union and its proxies were the greatest danger and that the Islamic radicals were useful allies, just as it judged that Saddam Hussein was a useful ally against the Islamic theocracy of Iran at the same time. Sun Tzu and other ancient Chinese writers would have argued that the U.S. made critical errors from the start, in that they did not have sufficient information about either their allies or their enemies and had failed to thoroughly…[continue]

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