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It’s Sun Tzu’s Time in the Barrel

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It’s Sun Tzu’s Time in the Barrel

John F. Sullivan

Insurgents seeking to spark a revolution in the rather staid field of military strategic theory often unwittingly follow the logic of the used car. Purchase a new vehicle from the dealership and its value plummets the moment you drive it off the lot and continues to depreciate every additional year of use. But park it in your garage, wait for several decades, and a strange alchemy sometimes occurs. A Ford Mustang Boss 429 bought in 1969 for $32,000 (adjusted for inflation), fetches over half a million dollars today. As the influence of the recently old starts to wane, the stock of the ancient precipitously rises.

Thus it is with the latest assault on Clausewitz’s preeminence within the curriculum of the nation’s war colleges. On the website Task & Purpose, Major Jamie Schwandt recently posted an article with a title primed for maximum indignation: “Why we should stop teaching Clausewitz.” Schwandt’s argument is that since Clausewitz’s ideas were forged in an era temporally removed from our own, the knowledge we glean from his text is outdated and ineffective. Who, then, should students of strategy depend on to shape their strategic thinking? Sun Tzu, of course.

But what the self-proclaimed “Mad Major” is projecting as a novel and fresh idea is actually an old and increasingly threadbare argument. The “Clausewitz is dead, long live Sun Tzu” shtick is quickly reaching its own centennial, having first been championed by the British military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart in the 1920s and most famously articulated by him in the foreword to the 1963 Samuel Griffith translation of The Art of War (the version still favored by most U.S. war colleges).

After laying blame for the destructiveness of the first world war squarely at Clausewitz’s feet, Liddell Hart makes the unsubstantiated claim that The Art of War would have produced a far different (and presumably, better) outcome. “The clarity of Sun Tzu’s thought could have corrected the obscurity of Clausewitz’s,” Liddell Hart decrees, adding that the ancient text has “never been surpassed in comprehensiveness and depth of understanding. . . . Sun Tzu has clearer vision, more profound insight, and eternal freshness.”

Schwandt’s attempt at literary regicide of Clausewitz in order to pave the way for Sun Tzu’s coronation is simply the latest chapter in this same tale, reworked nearly every few years since Liddell Hart’s opening salvo. Schwandt sells his argument as edgy, out-of-the-box thinking, but he has simply taken a Ford Pinto out of storage and tried to convince us yet again of its magnificence. The conclusion is foregone: the defenders of Clausewitz will once more muster and man the barricades, triage the Prussian’s bloodied reputation, and then retreat to the academy, waiting for the cycle to begin anew.

But before the next round starts, perhaps there is a more productive way to reenergize this flagging debate. What if instead of rehashing the same tired bromides against Clausewitz, we turn that harsh spotlight on Sun Tzu’s work for a change? Perhaps under this intense scrutiny, we might reach the conclusion that The Art of War may have been brilliant for its time, but not necessarily for all time. What if the text is not really a strategic antipode to On War? What if we have been fundamentally misreading the book? In the end, we might just discover that the champions of Sun Tzu are armed not with a sharp sword, but an ornamental rapier.

In a recent book, The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, the theory that Sun Tzu’s The Art of War remains critical to mastering contemporary warfare is propagated through the use of a tantalizing anecdote: “During the civil war between Communists and the Kuomintang regime [Mao Zedong] sent aides into enemy territory to find a copy of it.” The ancient text, ostensibly, was of such vital importance that Mao was willing to risk men’s lives to obtain it, while Chiang Kai-shek vowed to protect it all costs. The author of the book, a professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, provides no supporting reference to this claim—probably because none exists. 

The notion that Sun Tzu’s slim treatise is considered both potent and slightly dangerous—providing the master key to unlocking victory in war through the ages—is a compelling myth that refuses to die. Mao most likely never ordered a clandestine operation to pilfer the text, nor did Chiang Kai-shek give any thought to shielding its contents from prying eyes. Both men certainly read it long before the start of their civil war, both most likely had ready access to it during the conflict, and neither man won or lost based on adherence or divergence from its teachings.

The professor’s questionable anecdote is shockingly far from uncommon. When it comes to the topic of Sun Tzu, otherwise meticulous scholars throw caution and skepticism to the wind. Misattribution, reliance on unverified commentators, and highly dubious pronouncements plague countless contemporary writings on the Chinese general and his work. Sun Tzu analysis becomes more about what people feel in their gut, and quickly devolves into insight that no credible footnote can support. These issues are so widespread that it can no longer be viewed as a simple case of dereliction in editing. There exists a systemic issue with how strategists and academics analyze The Art of War, and we need to recalibrate our approach to the book.

The immediate concern is that many of those tasked with teaching Sun Tzu have not carefully read the entire text themselves. With the average English language translation clocking in at slightly under 10,000 words (the rough equivalent of a long-form article in the New Yorker) there is no good excuse for this deficiency. In 2012, military historian Colonel Gian Gentile wrote an op-ed entitled, “American Strategy in Afghanistan Flunks Sun Tzu.” Gentile issues this failing grade to U.S. strategists for not properly adhering to the logic of a single Sun Tzu quote: “strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” The problem is that this quote is not actually found in any version of Sun Tzu, nor is it located in any other ancient Chinese text. Gentile is applying a relatively modern concept (the analytic distinction between strategy and tactics in policy development), filtering it through a fake ancient quote, and then using this as a basis to criticize contemporary military policy. While this does not necessarily invalidate his critique of U.S. strategic choices, the methodology used perpetuates a false belief that these ancient texts provide ready solutions to complex modern problems. They don’t.

Gentile is hardly alone in making this blunder. Prominent strategists from Lawrence Freedman to Sean McFate manage to misattribute this exact same quote to Sun Tzu. Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell, in their book recommending the most critical strategic texts to students, inexplicably promote three false Sun Tzu quotes in their very brief section on The Art of War: “Opportunities multiply as they are seized”; “Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?”; and “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The last quote comes from The Godfather Part II, not ancient China. Apparently, Sun Tzu references only need to meet the standard of “truthiness.” If it sounds like something a Chinese sage might have once uttered, that is close enough to attribute to Sun Tzu. We can do better.

Yet the larger obstacle to our comprehension of The Art of War lies in our desire to treat it as an ahistorical manual for conflict resolution, not a work ultimately bound by the historical and cultural milieu in which it was first created. Imagine for a moment grappling with Clausewitz’s On War lacking any prior knowledge about the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, or the impact of Napoleon’s military campaigns on both Europe in general and the Prussian army in particular. It is a nearly impossible task, given that the French general’s specter emanates from almost every page of the book. While one might still be able to follow Clausewitz’s carefully constructed logic, a deeper appreciation for how he arrived at many of his conclusions would ultimately elude us.

Many of us, though, blithely approach The Art of War at a comparable disadvantage in terms of understanding the historical factors which shaped Sun Tzu’s view of warfare. As two scholars of writings from the Warring States era in China helpfully remind us, “the ancient texts were not talking to us, they were arguing with each other.” Until we first attempt to map the contours of these arguments, we should approach the text with at least a modicum of ambiguity. This is not to say that Sun Tzu is not worthy of our continued time and attention, but simply that we should dial back our exaggerated view of its modern relevance. Schwandt and McFate are certainly correct that we should avoid approaching Clausewitz with silent reverence, yet merely replacing one hagiography for another is a particularly myopic corrective measure.

Regardless, we are long overdue for a more robust debate over the merits and deficiencies of The Art of War, one in which we are unafraid to shatter all of our old assumptions, even if we later determine that they should be pieced back together again. Where to start? With acknowledgements to Steven Crowder, a possible way to jump-start the debate would be to set-up a table outside the front gate of Ft. McNair, pour a glass of Kavalan Solist, and then hang the following placard:



Categories: theory of war

About the Author(s)

John F. Sullivan is a former U.S. Army China Foreign Area Officer who served assignments in Taipei, Beijing, and Washington DC. He is currently a JD candidate at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law. A forthcoming article, “The Uncertain Trumpet of Sun Tzu,” due to be published in Parameters, will expand upon some of these arguments.


Again I must ask: 

Did either Clausewitz or Sun Tzu live in times similar to our own?

To wit:  In times in which governments sought to "modernize" their states, societies and civilizations; this, against the will of their populations?

This such "modernizing" effort being undertaken by "progressive" governments -- throughout the world today -- so as to better provide for, and/or so as to better benefit from, such things as globalism, globalization and the global economy? 

In this regard, consider the following three items:

First, from Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux," an understanding of how, today, (a) governments -- attempting "revolutionary change" for the sake of "modernization" -- are being seen by their populations as  "insurgents;" whereas, (b) the populations -- seeking to prevent these such unwanted "changes" from taking place -- see themselves as the "counterinsurgents" in this context:  


Thus, Galula asserts that ‘whereas in conventional war, either side can initiate the conflict, only one – the insurgent – can initiate a revolutionary war, for counter-insurgency is only an effect of insurgency’. Classical theorists therefore emphasise the problem of recognising insurgency early. ... But, in several modern campaigns – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, for example – the government or invading coalition forces initiated the campaign, whereas insurgents are strategically reactive (as in ‘resistance warfare’). Such patterns are readily recognisable in historical examples of resistance warfare, but less so in classical counter-insurgency theory.

Politically, in many cases today, the counter-insurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier – a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counter-insurgency. Pakistan's campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachment. 

The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernisation, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counter-insurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalisation.


Next -- given (a) the notation by Galula above as to "revoltionary war" and (b) Kilcullen's noting that such today is being undertaken by the governments -- the two other items that I promised you: One from the U.S. Marine Corps Manual "Mao Tsu-tung on Guerrilla Warfare." And one from a "RAND" publication: 


Revolutionary warfare is never confined within the bounds of military action. Because its purpose is to destroy an existing society and its institutions and to replace them with a completely new structure, any revolutionary war is a unity of which the constituent parts, in varying importance, are military, political, economic, social, and psychological.

END QUOTE (See Page 7.)


Conventional war rarely challenges the political system; even "unconventional" partisan war usually seeks the preservation of that system or restoration of the status quo ante--revolutionary war aims at the liquidation of the existing power structure and at a transformation in the structure of society.

END QUOTE (See the bottom of Page 54 and the top of Page 55.)

Bottom Line Question -- Based on the Above:

Based on matters that I provide above, we need to ask: 

Does the information (rightfully or wrongfully) provided by and/or attributed to Clausewiz -- and/or to Sun Tzu for that matter --  is this information relevant re: and/or applicable to the conflicts that we are engaged in today, to wit:

a.  Government-led "modernizing"/"revolutionary" campaigns,

b.  Designed to destroy or alter aspects of an existing society and to replace them; this,

c.  So as to better provide for, and/or to better benefit from, such things as globalism, globalization and the global economy?  

(These such "modernizing"/"revolutionary" campaigns being undertaken [a] by governments throughout the world today and [b] against the will of the world's popuations; this, as the recent Brexit and election of President Trump, in the West now, seems to dramatically confirm?)


Appreciate the feedback, and will admit that I had already seen your endnote when I first wrote the article. But as you know, the vast majority of your readers will never reference the endnotes, so what is most important is what you choose to convey in the main body of your work. Here is what you write in the text that links to that endnote (Rule 10):


“As Sun Tzu is said to have counseled, ‘Strategy without tactics. . . '“


I will stand by my assessment that this is still a misattribution. You never inform the reader that everyone who implied that Sun Tzu counseled this is simply making it up or else blindly relying on somebody else who made it up. If you already knew this, why bury the lede? This is no different than if I write: “It is said that the earth is flat.” Sure some people might say this, but I’m being somewhat disingenuous if I hold my skepticism over the veracity of the concept exclusively for the endnotes.

But even your endnote is problematic and you fail to make it clear that this is definitively a false quote. This line hasn’t “long been attributed to Sun Tzu.” To the best of our knowledge, it first appears no earlier than 2003 and seems to be a uniquely American invention. You also state that “it does not appear in his book The Art of War,” but you fail to mention that the AoW is not our only source for quotations attributable to Sun Tzu. We also have many fragmentary texts (see the Ames version for translations of these) as well as Chinese historian Sima Qian’s biography of Sun Tzu, all of which extensively quote Sun Tzu. Are you implying that we might find this quote in these other sources, and thus the maxim might still be one day rescued from misattribution?  

You are far from alone in this error. Besides those mentioned in the article, General David Barno, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and Sebastian Gorka have also used this quote in connection with Sun Tzu. I have only seen one strategist correctly characterizing this quote when it is used. Colin Gray clearly labels it as UNATTRIBUTED, and only then states that it is often misattributed to Sun Tzu. This should be the standard if we still choose to reference this quote. Otherwise, we are falsely giving the impression that even if Sun Tzu didn’t say it, we still have evidence that thousands of years ago the Chinese spent a great deal of time wrestling with the analytic distinction between tactics, operations, and strategy. They didn’t, and if we use this quote attached in any way to Sun Tzu, we are incorrectly endowing relatively modern thinking with the imprimatur of established “ancient wisdom.” 




Tue, 03/12/2019 - 1:14pm

Hey John,

I share your enthusiasm for Sun Tzu and agree we should be attentive readers. Hence my surprise by your article. You complain that I misattribute this quote to Sun Tzu: ""Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." 

However, in my endnote I clearly state: "This quote has long been attributed to Sun Tzu, but it does not appear in his book The Art of War."

Please be a careful reader yourself and correct this article. We are on the same team here.

All the best




In Clausewitz time -- and/or that of Sun Tzu -- was the "threat" perceived of -- as it appears to be perceived of in much of the world today -- in terms of:

a.  Populations, including those in the U.S./the West (see the Brexit and the election of President Trump) now seeing their local governments as "insurgents."

(This, given these such local governments' -- common -- effort to alter, undermine and replace the populations' preferred ways of life, their preferred ways of governance and/or their preferred values, attitudes and beliefs;  this, so as to better provide for such things as [a] globalism, globalization, and the global economy and [b] those that benefit most from same.)  And:

b.  These self-same populations seeing themselves -- as defenders of their preferred ways of life, etc. (or, indeed, those of the "status quo anti," if they believe that too much unwanted change has already occurred) -- as being the "counterinsurgents."   

Thus, could we say that either Clausewitz vis-a-vis the French Revolution -- and/or Sun Tzu vis-a-vis the Warring States -- operated in times similar to our own?

(To wit:  Times in which government-led revolutions -- rather than people-led revolutions -- were the order of the day?)