‘The Art of War’: As relevant now as when it was written

Sun Tzu’s classic work is a fascinating mixture of the poetic and the pragmatic

US army soldiers from the 10th Mountain and the 101st Airborne units disembark from a Chinook helicopter March 11th, 2002 as they return to Bagram airbase from the fighting in eastern Afghanistan. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

US army soldiers from the 10th Mountain and the 101st Airborne units disembark from a Chinook helicopter March 11th, 2002 as they return to Bagram airbase from the fighting in eastern Afghanistan. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 
The Art of War by Sun Tzu translated, edited and introduced by Peter Harris
The Art of War by Sun Tzu translated, edited and introduced by Peter Harris

The Art of War has rightly become one of the world’s most influential books on military strategy. Written well over two thousand years ago in China, but not translated into English until the beginning of the twentieth century, it is now studied in military academies around the globe. Indeed, its relevance has been reconfirmed in the twenty-first century.

For Sun Tzu, and for any strategist, of course, the best strategy is the one that delivers victory without fighting. “Troops that bring the enemy to heel without fighting at all - that is ideal,” he advised. Those who soldiered during the Cold War - or any war, for that matter - can certainly attest to the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s observation; however, those who remained in uniform beyond 9/11 would caution that, unfortunately, it is not always possible to prevail against one’s enemies without resort to arms.

Indisputably as true today as in Sun Tzu’s time is the necessity for understanding the enemy - his plans, dispositions, strengths, and weaknesses. “Know your enemy and know yourself, and fight a hundred battles without danger,” Sun Tzu observed. “Know yourself but not your enemy, and win one battle but lose another.”

Prolonged wars are, needless to say, costly and drain soldiers of their staying power

As we reminded ourselves repeatedly while developing plans for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East and Central Asia, the enemy does, indeed, “get a vote,” and we always needed to appreciate how he might react to our operations. Preparing for a variety of enemy responses, not just the most likely, has to be a central part of any planning process.

Also of great importance to Sun Tzu was understanding the terrain, with all its variations and prospective uses, better than the enemy does. This is a tall order, especially when fighting on foreign soil and perhaps even on the enemy’s own turf. We certainly revalidated this reality in Iraq and Afghanistan, which featured substantial urban areas as well as broad deserts, heavily vegetated river valleys, and rugged hills and mountains. And while we frequently observed that the human terrain was the decisive terrain, the physical terrain and manmade objects often dictated how we and our partners on the ground were able to engage, secure, and serve the people - tasks that were of central importance in the irregular warfare of the post- 9/11 era.

Another key observation of Sun Tzu was the significance of continually adjusting tactics and avoiding predictability. As he noted, “you do not win in battle the same way twice.” Repeating the same play over and over again can, in fact, result in the kind of setback experienced in the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident in Somalia in 1993, and we sought to be keenly sensitive to that in the post- 9/11 wars.

Sun Tzu’s observation also highlights the importance of constant learning on the battlefield. As we noted in the counterinsurgency field manual published in late 2006, the side that learns the fastest often prevails. Recognizing that, when I was privileged to command the efforts in Iraq and in Afghanistan, we had monthly sessions to discuss and evaluate emerging lessons that needed to be learned organisationally by making refinements to our campaign plan, policies, and procedures.

Concealment and deception

And at these monthly gatherings, each division commander offered two lessons or initiatives he thought would be of relevance to the other commanders present. Fostering a culture of learning in a military unit is hugely important.

Sun Tzu also highlighted the importance of concealment and deception, a vital part of his thinking. “The most refined form to give your troops is being without form or invisible. If they are invisible, a well-concealed spy cannot spy on them, and a wise man cannot make plans against them.”

Even in the battles in which we were engaged in the post-9/11 campaigns, hiding intentions until the last possible minute often enabled at least tactical surprise, and that awareness very much informed the way our operations were conducted during the Surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sun Tzu clearly appreciated the value of wars speedily under-taken and quickly concluded. Prolonged wars are, needless to say, costly and drain soldiers of their staying power.

All those who have been engaged in the wars of the past sixteen years have had to confront irregular warfare - and, to varying degrees, to conduct it as well

“I have heard of war being waged with foolish haste,” he noted, “but have never seen a war skilfully prolonged. No state has ever gained from protracted war. Given the nature of war, speed is essential.”

Those are, again, very wise words, though the experiences of Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan show how hard it is to “operationalise” them in the contemporary struggle against extremism that appears to be generational in nature, not a fight to be won by taking a particular hill and planting the flag. Perhaps an update of those observations would include a caution to ensure that if a war is to be prolonged, the strategy for it has to be “sustainable” in terms of the expenditure of “blood and treasure”.

And it is heartening to see approaches evolve in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan in which our forces (modest in size compared to the numbers deployed during the Surge years) are training, equipping, advising, assisting, and enabling host nation forces, but in which the host nation forces are doing the fighting on the front lines. That makes lengthy endeavours much more sustainable than when we have very large deployments and are also on the front lines.

Sun Tzu’s emphasis on the importance of the wartime commander is also critical. “A general is the buttress of the state,” he observed. “The general who understands war is master of the people’s fate, and oversees the safe keeping of the state.” Timeless too is Sun Tzu’s appreciation that commanding officers and their forces must see eye to eye. “If your upper and lower ranks want the same things, you will win.”

Leaders of the wars of the past sixteen years certainly can underscore the importance of leaders at all levels understanding the intent of the overall commander and being able to translate big ideas at the top level into tactical actions by what we often termed “strategic lieutenants and sergeants”, so identified because tactical actions at their levels could often have strategic con-sequences. It was to facilitate such understanding at all levels, in fact, that I published, and distributed to the entire chain of command, counterinsurgency guidance for both Iraq and Afghanistan when I led the coalitions there, a practice that has typically been continued.

Strange tactics

Sun Tzu had unusual insight into the potential of combining action by regular and irregular troops and also the conduct of regular and irregular warfare - what he described as unorthodox or strange tactics. He was ahead of his time in this, and his think-ing is still very valid in today’s wars. “In doing battle . . . you achieve victory by irregular means. So if you are good at irregular warfare you will be as inexhaustible as the sky and the earth.”

All those who have been engaged in the wars of the past sixteen years have had to confront irregular warfare - and, to varying degrees, to conduct it as well. In particular, our forces have blended and integrated various types of special operations forces with general purpose forces in ways seldom seen before. At one point during the Surge in Afghanistan, for example, I directed attachment of two general purpose infantry battalions to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force to “thicken” that element with an infantry squad per special forces team, thereby enabling the task force to cover twice as many local police locations as would have been possible without the augmentation.

Sun Tzu’s classic work is a fascinating mixture of the poetic and the pragmatic

And, as mentioned above, in recent years, we have been fighting “through others” - advising and enabling host nation forces doing the frontline fighting, rather than engaging in that fighting ourselves.

Even Sun Tzu’s chapter headings - Calculations, Starting a Battle, Planning an Attack, Form, Circumstance, The Empty and the Solid, Armies Contending, Nine Variations, The Army on the Move, Forms of Terrain, Nine Terrains, Attack with Fire, and Using Spies - address essential issues that are as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago.

In fact, each chapter brings to mind numerous lessons learned - or relearned - since 9/11. And many of the ideas of enduring relevance are reflected in the US Army and Marine Corps Field Manual on Counterinsurgency, the drafting of which I oversaw in 2006.

Any examination of the great field commanders over time, individuals such as Alexander the Great, Belisarius, Napoleon, Wellington, Grant, Sherman, Patton, and Ridgway, among many others, reveals that victory and success invariably have been achieved by adherence to the principles discussed in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. It is thus very timely to have this new edition published now, in the midst of what likely will be a generational struggle against extremism.

“Rushing like the wind; slow-stirring like the forest; consuming like fire; immobile like a mountain. They are as hard to know as shadows. They move like rolling thunder . . .’’ This is not the way troop movements are described in military manuals; rather, these are Sun Tzu’s vivid words, and they reflect Sun Tzu’s powerful command of language and imagery.

Sun Tzu’s classic work is, in short, a fascinating mixture of the poetic and the pragmatic, and every bit as relevant now as when it was written.

Gen David Petraeus served over 37 years in the US army and was then director of the CIA. The above is the foreword to a new edition of The Art of War by Sun Tzu, published by Everyman’s Library this month.

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