Modern armies study wars of Sun Tsu, wisdom from mists of time

Lately I have been immersed in a book called Sun Tsu on the “Art of War,” an ancient Chinese military manual which has become a classic in the 21stcentury.  It is more than two millennia old and has been the source of inspiration for generations of Chinese generals, but contains

Sun Tsu tough teacher

strategies and tactics applicable to the world of space exploration and atomic energy. But the question arises: just how well have the book’s rules panned out since Sun Tsu wrote them down?

For instance, Sun Tsu cautions a general against wasting his men and material in besieging cities and fortified points.  “Go around them,” he advised.  The Chinese strategist pointed out that an army could capture six or more cities in the time it took to overrun one stronghold.

The German Wehrmacht made this Sun Tsu precept a guide in developing their blitzkrieg warfare at the start of World War II. At the heart of Nazi strategy was avoidance of strongly held points in favor of weaker areas and keeping the attack going until the enemy surrendered. It paid off handsomely, winning them all of Europe plus land all the way to the Volga River in Russia. There  they tossed the Chinese sage’s rule overboard, and laid a monumentally expensive siege to the city of Stalingrad, a move opposed by practically every German general.

The Nazis wielded a powerful mechanized force which could move swiftly over open terrain, yet they tied their tanks down in street fighting amid the rubble of Stalingrad.  In the process they forfeited one of the bloodiest battles of attrition fought during the war.  Casualties were heavy on both sides, but especially on the German; they lost their Sixth Army, and the armies of two allies—Italian and Romanian.

Sun Tsu also advised against running a war from the ruler’s palace instead of the general’s tent, which applied strikingly on the German side during Stalingrad.  Here both strategy and tactics were dictated by the ruler, German dictator Adolf Hitler.  He wanted to capture the city for no better reason than it was named for his arch enemy, Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.  Chasing this personal political goal he rejected all military advice and common sense while ignoring the massing of Russian power on both his flanks.  The result was loss of a quarter of German strength on the eastern front, and ultimately the loss of the entire war.

Greek artist's concept of Croesus

Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill succumbed to the urge of issuing imperial edicts to his fighting forces in the field.  In the North African campaign of WWII Britain’s generals had the Italian army on the run, with a good chance of chasing them all the way to Tripoli and ultimate victory.  At this crucial moment Churchill halted his army and deployed part of it to the Far East.  While the weakened British cooled their heels in Libya, Germany sent the Italians help in the form of General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Corps.  Together they ran the British right back into Egypt and condemned them to a long and a bloody campaign before they could retake North Africa.

We had another example of Sun Tsu’s wisdom during America’s war in Vietnam against communist insurgents.  Here the conflict was micromanaged from the White House in Washington.  The result was a disgraceful evacuation of American forces from the country and the fall of Vietnam to communism.

Contrast the Vietnam fiasco with the brilliantly swift triumph the United States and its Allies achieved in Iraq during the first Gulf War.  Management of that war was left almost entirely to the generals and they responded with an overwhelming victory with unbelievably small losses. President George H.W.  Bush only intruded on the military when he declared the war over, and even that was a serious mistake. Saddam Hussein’s regime was left essentially undestroyed and thirsting for revenge.

History is loaded with the names of rulers who thought they were also great generals.  Among them was Croesus (595 B.C.) king of Lydia who decided to attack the Persian Empire of King Cyrus. His main strategic planning consisted of asking the Delphic oracle if he would succeed in this enterprise.  The oracle replied that if he attacked Persia he would destroy a great empire. But the Lydian king neglected to ask the oracle which great empire would be destroyed, his or Cyrus’.

Relying on the answer he got, Croesus attacked and was defeated by one of the simplest stratagems in the book: after the first battle it was customary in that region to disband one’s army for the winter.  Croesus sent his soldiers home, but Cyrus did not; the Persian then attacked and captured both Croesus and all his wealth.

Lee: downhill after Gettysburg

Military leaders who ignored the directives of Sun Tsu have often lived to regret it.  One of the most important pieces of advice offered by the Chinese sage concerned terrain of a battlefield.  Sun Tsu, said, “When the enemy occupies high ground, do not confront him. If he attacks downhill, do not oppose him.”

Confederate general Robert E. Lee apparently either forgot or never learned this admonition when he fought the battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War.  Attacking uphill all the way he got his army cut to pieces which essentially cost the South the war.  British General Gage learned a painful lesson from the battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War.  His 2,400 roops charged up a hill three times to evict 1,500 Patriot soldiers dug in at the top.  Although the British technically won the battle, their losses were so disastrous they decided never to repeat the experience.

However I’m going to call this one a draw between Sun Tsu and generals who like to fight their wars the hard way. Near Chattanooga, Tennessee, also during the Civil War, troops of Union Gen. Joseph Hooker charged up Lookout Mountain and routed Confederate forces there.  And don’t forget those triumphant Marines who stormed Mount Suribachi during the Iwo Jima campaign of World War II in the Pacific. A special uphill charge was staged in 178O during the Revolutionary War by Patriot militia who stormed King’s Mountain in South Carolina to destroy a force of British and Tory militia guarding the flank of General Cornwallis’ army.

Sun Tsu also declared “the art of war is deception.” This inspiration of China’s greatest military sage has been proved so many times throughout history that no one doubts it any longer.  If the enemy thinks you to be nearby, convince him you are far away; and if you are far away make him believe you are breathing down his neck.  Sun Tsu urged the use of any trick or artifice to frighten, confuse, or mislead one’s enemy up to and including sowing dissension between the generals and the rulers of one’s foes.

Some of the most prominent pioneers in deception were of course the ancient Greeks with their famous wooden horse which allowed them to sneak into Troy and destroy it.  But the Mongols of Genghis Khan were no laggards when it came to deceptive warfare of the 13thcentury A.D.  A favorite Mongol trick was to besiege a city, to apparently lose heart, then to disappear over the skyline.  When inhabitants came out to rejoice the Mongols swooped back to gut the place.

Kings Mountain battle was uphill all the way to victory

In a much earlier era one can observe a choice military deception being employed in the Bible’s Book of Joshua when ancient Israelites faced the possibility of mounting a siege.  At the battle for the city of Ai, Joshua hid most of his army in ambush behind the city.  He then massed the pathetic remainder of his troops in a demonstration before the city gates.  The king of Ai, unable to resist an easy victory, rushed out with his soldiers and pursued this apparent band of pushovers.  Joshua’s hidden force overran the city then hit Ai’s army in the rear, while the fleeing Israelites turned around and smote them in the front.

Sun Tsu said that in order to win battles a general must know both himself and the enemy, and one of his favorite tools to know the enemy was his spies.  And one of his favorite spies was the “converted spy” or the double agent in modern parlance, a fellow who worked for both sides.  When he spotted an enemy spy in his camp, Sun Tsu would ply the prospect with food, drink, and presents in an attempt to turn him into a double agent.  It usually worked.  The technique contrasted sharply with that of the British government during World War II.  When the British arrested a spy in their midst they gave him the choice of either converting to their side or hanging.  It worked even better.

Espionage was highly sophisticated more than 2,000 years ago.  There were no computers, cameras, or satellites, but the science of people and how to use them was as advanced as today.  Sun Tsu’s targets for his spies reads almost like prospective lists of the CIA or the KGB.  Sources of information from among his enemies included:

“Worthy men who have been degraded from office, criminals who have undergone punishment, also favorite concubines who are greedy for gold, men who are aggrieved at being in subordinate positions, or who have been passed over in the distribution of posts, others who are anxious that their side should be defeated in order that they may have a chance of displaying their ability and talents, fickle turncoats who always want to have a foot in each boat.” These people, he continued, “should be secretly approached and bound to one’s interests by means of rich presents.  In this way you will be able to find out the state of affairs in the enemy’s country.”

As to type of soldier that Sun Tsu wanted fighting for him, the sage was very specific: “the skillful employer of men will employ the wise man, the brave man, the covetous man, and the stupid man.  For the wise man delights in establishing his merit, the brave man likes to show his courage in action, the covetous man is quick at seizing advantages, and the stupid man has no fear of death.”

Although cynical in the matter of personnel, SunTsu was far-seeing when it came to to the ultimate object of war.  The perfect victorious battle, he concluded, was one waged with such tactical skill and guile that little or no blood is spilled.  And perhaps that is the best we can hope for.


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