Learning from Sun Tzu

By McCready, Douglas M. | Military Review, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Learning from Sun Tzu


McCready, Douglas M., Military Review


Sun Tzu's The Art of War is, of course, a classic. At least six English translations can be found in most large bookstores on bookshelves next to another much cited but little read military favorite, Carl von Clausewitz's On War (Knopf, New York, 1993).(1) Translator Roger Ames describes The Art of War as "the world's foremost classic on military strategy."(2)

During the Vietnam war, it was popular for Army officers to be seen carrying copies of the works of Sun Tzu and Man Tse-tung. It is unlikely that many who carried the books read them, and few who read them understood them.

Sun Tzu was a Chinese military leader and philosopher Little is certain regarding his life, including when he lived. The biography in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Historical Records (Oxford University Press, New York, 1994), dating from the early 1st century B.C., describes Sun Tzu as a contemporary of Confucius (551 -479 B.C.) born in what is now Shandung Province. Translator Samuel B. Griffith suggest that Sun Tzu probably lived during the Warring States period 453-221 B.C.) because the military details of The Art of War fit that time better than they do the earlier Spring and Autumn period.(3)

The Warring States period began with eight major states whose shifting alliances and slow consolidation resulted in the first unification of China under the short lived Qin Empire. Sun Tzu, apparently a military leader for one of the warring states, determined to record his strategic and tactical record for later generations. His work has continued to influence Chinese military writing.

Mao Tse-tung applied Sun Tun's ideas to his own military writings of the Chinese civil war of the 1930s and 1940s. North Vietnamese commanders Ha Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap also drew on Sun Tzu's wisdom, using his ideas first against the French, then against the United States.

This modern history leads many to consider The Art of War to be a text for the underdog. In light of the current discussion about asymmetrical warfare, this is an important consideration but Sun Tzu's ideas are also available to stronger states. In either case, political and military leaders of stronger states (such as the United States) should become familiar with Sun Tzu because if they will not be using his ideas, they must be ready to protect themselves against others who will.

Griffith, a World War II veteran, devotes an appendix to detailing how the Japanese applied Sun Tzu's axioms. He says Japan produced more than 100 editions of The Art of War and applied Sun Tzu's wisdom to virtually every aspect of Japanese life, including business. Twenty-first century Americans are less likely to be surprised by business appropriating military strategy than was Griffith in 1963.

Sun Tzu and Clausewitz exemplify two contrasting concepts of war. For Clausewitz, war is the continuation of politics by other means. For Sun Tzu, war is one among many political tools national leaders can use to accomplish their ends. While this distinction appears minimal, it translates into the difference between U.S. and North Vietnamese strategy in the Vietnam war. It also explains why the United States lost that war.

In his analysts of the Vietnam war, Harry Summers recounts a conversation between a U. S. Army colonel and his North Vietnamese counterpart in Hanoi after the war The American said North Vietnam had never defeated the United States on the battlefield The North Vietnamese conceded the point but added that it was irrelevant--the war was not about battlefield victories.(4)

Using Clausewitz, Summers details the flaws he believes led to the American defeat in Vietnam; he never mentions Sun Tzu. Many of his points are correct but in the end they are irrelevant to the U.S. effort in Vietnam because neither Summers nor the strategic decisionmakers who planned the Vietnam war fully understood the nature of the war they were fighting.

North Vietnam and Western Philosophy

The warm reception Summers' book received at the Army's highest level shows that the U. …

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