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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since Clausewitz’s ideas were forged in an era temporally removed from our own, the knowledge we glean from his text is outdated and ineffective.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:

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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.