Sun Tzu, The Art of WarEdit
(Taken from previous SAASS Classes)Context: The origins of the text are shrouded in the complexities and uncertainties of fifth-third century B.C. Chinese history. Scholarly viewpoints vary concerning the existence of Sun Tzu and his text. From the context of the "Spring and Autumn" (722-481 B.C.) and "Warring States" (403-221 B.C.) periods of Chinese history, it is certain the conduct of war was an important issue for rulers. Those who could offer effective strategic advice were valuable to the kingdom.
Thesis: “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.”
Arguments: - Perspective on Waging War: Broad, with a variety of non-military means (e.g., diplomatic, economic, psychological). - The Role of Force: Force should be used sparingly and as a last resort. “No country has ever profited from protracted warfare.” - The Ideal Victory: The greatest achievement is to win without fighting, to convince the enemy’s forces to yield or switch sides rather than be annihilated. - Preferred Method of Winning: Deception, psychological war, intelligence, spies and other non-violent methods. “Thus it is said that one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.”
- Centers of Gravity in Order of Priority: To attack the enemy’s strategy or plans before the outbreak of war or use of force; disrupt his alliances before the outbreak of war; attack the enemy’s army; attack the enemy’s cities as a last resort.
Implications for Strategy:
- An idealized paradigm encouraging the strategist to achieve the least costly victory. This approach ignores the inevitable presence of violence in war. The theory remains relevant as a general strategy, particularly in a time when it is better to exhaust the DI&E before engaging in armed conflict.
- War requires intellectual exercise, but intelligence can become a panacea. Making rational decisions by knowing the enemy’s strengths and weakness as well as one’s own could possibly lead to winning without bloodshed or the use of force.
- Sun Tzu underestimates friction and overvalues plans, but emphasizes that once war breaks out it should be brought to an end as quickly as possible.
- Sun Tzu barely acknowledges morality, ethics, or ideals. Perhaps he considered them but chose to set as the highest goal state survival by all means necessary, moral or immoral.
- Importance of civil/mil involvement; politics continually change; ruler & general must interact
- Deception is still important and HUMINT is key
- His idea of Shi deals with creation and preservation of potential energy over the long term
- Eastern / Western dichotomy - Eastern: Try to be unfathomable; perfect knowledge is possible; demonstration is important. Western: make intent clear; perfect knowledge is impossible; secrecy is important.
Sun Tzu, Sun Wu, Sunzi, Sun Wu Tzu – all the same dude, who may not have actually been one dude, but several over several years. Written sometime between 550-350 (Griffith has it later), which means that this was being written in China about the same time that Thucydides was writing. Interesting how both went through a similar shift from ritualized warfare to an entirely new level of year round violence at about the same time. Come to think of it, that’s what happened in the time of Jomini and Clausewitz , too - not to say that warfare was as ritualized, but there was definitely a shift from limited towards unlimited aims that was similar, creating a sense of urgency for something that helped people to understand warfare for some very practical reasons.
Different translations yield different interpretations of Sun Tzu in English – Griffith is pretty much the Gold Standard English translation in military circles (like Howard and Paret are for Clausewitz), but other interpretations can yield other insights - or cause confusion and debate. For example, here are the names of Chapter 3 from six different translations: Offensive Strategy (our translation), Planning a Siege, Planning Offensives, Attack by Strategems, The Sheathed Sword, Planning an Offense, and Offensive Strategy. You get the gist…Does it matter? Not usually, but if one is going to state definitively that Sun Tzu said anything, better dig deeper than one translation.
Perhaps one of the most relevant aspects of Sun Tzu to future SAASS grads is the emphasis he puts on the commander – not only how commanders should motivate their troops (except for the “kill the favorite concubine” example – that wouldn’t fly today on a number of levels), and how the commander must maintain their own psychological balance while attempting to disrupt his opponents. As SAASS grads, we’re expected to take our knowledge and help the boss keep it all straight, be a sounding board, a devil’s advocate, and if the boss is really devious, use us as the “symbolic concubine” to light a fire under the staff (ask me about this one in person – great story about my old strat div chief). It’s our job to feed the commander good info so they can stay oriented, or to train our staffs to help us if we’re in charge. Really important with the "commander centric" C2 structure that we inherited from the French...
My opinion – Sun Tzu works pretty well at the macro “whole of government” national strategy (grand strategy), especially when you get into economy of force, deterrence, indirect approach, deception, and opsec. Even though tactical surprise seems to get tougher and tougher with each camera phone that hits the streets, I think opportunities for strategic surprise and deception still abound (and may be increasing the more connected we all get – anybody see the news story this weekend about the hackers who were able to use “trusted websites” to get into just about anywhere they wanted?). Biggest weakness - if you share Sun Tzu’s optimism in our own ability to someday achieve “information dominance” , you’re going to be bitterly disappointed when your high tech tools still can’t tell you which cave/ safehouse/ video production studio your enemy is hiding in. And even if you get the intel right, you still can’t make the enemy fight the fight you want him to fight most of the time…
Interesting how his comment in Chapter 3 that 1/3 of your troops will be killed swarming a defended city and still not succeed matches up with the US Army’s current doctrinal force ratios for the attack (rule of thumb to have a 3:1 advantage for generic attack, with higher ratios against defended positions).
Huge tie in to revolutionary warfare – many believe Sun Tzu was the first to formulate the strategic principles for it by advocating attacking weakness, avoiding strength, and being patient (see Makers of Modern Strategy, p 823). Sun Tzu and Clausewitz both influenced Mao, who is credited for writing the basic text on revolutionary war theory (Makers of Modern Strategy 842)
Great tie in here to Boyd’s concepts of strategic paralysis – no accident, of course.
Previous comments missed Sun Tzu's focus on the combined effects of the Cheng and Ch'i. He comments that it is the Ch'i (indirect) effect that wins the wars. Sun Tzu instructs that the general should attempt to win wars through indirect means (diplomacy, spies, maneuver, etc) and only engage by direct means (army on army) as a last resort. The indirect both prepares the battle field for the direct attack and distupts the enemy's flanks and rear to the point that the enemy is unble to respond effectively to any attack. Sun Tzu specifically talks to the use of crossbows, horse, and cannon as the primary Ch'i supporting the infantry (Cheng). But also places a lot of value in the Fifth Column and the effects of spies and desenters internal to the enemy's forces.