Sunzi in the news
BYLINE: Peter Harmsen
Almost 2500 years after his death, China's pre-eminent military
philosopher Sun Tzu is profoundly influencing how US and British
field commanders in Iraq think and act, analysts say. Peter
Harmsen of AAP reports.
Tenets of Sun Tzu's classic The Art of War inform the broad outlines
of the strategy intended to lead to the fall
of Baghdad, and have even inspired
the minutiae of deception
"This is definitely not a coincidence," said Mark McNeilly, a former
infantry officer and the author of the book Sun Tzu and the Art of
"The Art of War is required reading at the higher-level military
schools and has been integrated into the doctrine of both the US Army
and Marines," he said.
Sun Tzu, a stern and sometimes cruel commander, helped the king of
the ancient state of Wu to a series of victories in the late 6th
century BC, at one point defeating 300,000 with a force of just
Generations of officers have internalised Sun Tzu's psycho-logically
refined and subtly oblique approach, including General Tommy Franks,
the US commander in the Iraq campaign, who often
quotes the Chinese thinker.
Franks is not alone. In light of the progress of the war so far, the
ancient philosopher's ghost seems to hover over all levels of the
military machine now making its way across the Iraqi desert.
"Some of the early tactical moves of the coalition forces directly
relate to Sun Tzu's teachings," said Tom Stovall, of Virginia-based
consult-ancy Stovall Grainger, a regular speaker on Sun Tzu at
US Air Force Air Command and Staff College.
"The early show of force and capability would make most people
question whether there is an opportunity for victory, and perhaps
rethink their own approach,"
Despite the immense firepower displayed by US and British forces so
far in the campaign, it is when they decide not to shoot that they
emerge as true disciples of Sun Tzu.
In one of his most famous statements, Sun Tzu argued that the ideal
commander does not 'win 100 victories in 100 battles' since 'to
subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill'.
"This is exactly the approach
the Coalition leaders are using,"
said Mr McNeilly.
"The focus is not on widespread fighting and destruction, but on
wisely chosen targets that, if eliminated, will rapidly lead to the
fall of Saddam Hussein's regime."
An early attempt to kill Saddam himself, as well as precision
attacks against infrastructure targets in Baghdad and Republican
Guard units reflect this approach, he said.
The US-led coalition's rush north, interspersed with fighting over a
select handful of key objectives, also appears to mirror Sun Tzu's
advice to avoid cities and use speed, said
"For the most part Coalition generals have avoided committing
significant troop strength to take major cities in street-to-street
fighting," he said.
"Instead, the aim has been to control key airfields, bridges and
roads that will enable fast movement towards the ultimate objective."
What has gradually crystallised as a very personal battle against
Saddam Hussein himself also seems lifted from Sun Tzu's two-millennia-
Sun Tzu urges generals to divide a united enemy and cut him off from
his allies, just as the US forces seek to separate Saddam from his
supporters within the Iraqi regime.
"Sun Tzu says that you can defeat a competitor by taking something
that is precious to him," said Mr Stovall.
"In Saddam's situation this might be his position of power."
Sun Tzu is fine in theory, but the bloody battles that constitute
the military history of China shows he did not always work in the
real world, said David Graff, an expert on medieval Chinese
warfare at Kansas State University.
"One can craft a strategy that might bring about the enemy's undoing
without physical combat, but it is much more difficult to accomplish
that in actual practice," he said.
"I think recent developments in Iraq are confirming this."
A great deal of what the US and British commanders have done in the
Iraqi desert and what Sun Tzu advised 2500 years ago, also simply
seems to be the logical way
"There is much in Sun Tzu that the US military would be doing
anyway, even if they had never read the book," said Mr Graff.
Most obvious is the notion that one should concentrate one's own
forces against selected weak points in the array of an opponent who
has been led to disperse his forces too widely, he said.
"This is more common sense than philosophical profundity."
Even if some of the similarity in approach may be spurious, there is
a growing acceptance of eastern wisdom by western military
"It's true that the Western approach to warfare in general, and the
American approach in particular, has often been direct
and based on superior technology," said Mr McNeilly.
"However, what you are seeing now is the combination of the
technological superiority of the West coupled with the indirect
approach of the East."
LOAD-DATE: March 30, 2003