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Sun Tzu’s Eternal Relevance to Warfare: A Theoretical Interpretation

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By Daniele Hadi Irandoost

Despite being written around 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu’s The Art of Waris still one of the most popular treatiseson military strategy; read not only by soldiers and their commanders, but also by thepublic at large. In fact, The Art of War is continuallytaught in major military establishments throughout the world, including China, Russia and the USA.At a glance, therefore,these facts reveal an impression that The Art of War is as relevant today as it was in Ancient China. Indeed, Sir Liddell Hart, one of the most influential strategic thinkers in the last century, believed this to be the case. Amongst all the 15 greatest military thinkers in history, he respected Sun Tzu the most: ‘Sun Tzu has clearer vision, more profound insight, and eternal freshness’. The aim of this article is to demonstrate that Sun Tzu’s The Art of Warisapplicable to war and strategy ‘eternally’, contributing,in turn, to a fresh perspective on military affairs in all regions of the globe; from America, to Europe, to Central Asia.

 

To that end, it is important (first of all)to clarifywhat Sun Tzu meant by war. Fundamentally, this raised, Sun Tzu viewed war as wholly inclusive of all activities and factors, both violent and non-violent, involved in the making of warfare. In this sense, he beheldpolitics, diplomacy, economics, technology, even morale and public support, amongst other things, as crucial towar-making: alongside itsviolent aspects at various levels. In essence,he believed no factor in war should ever (in any event) be allowed to escape from a war-maker’s attention.This, of course, reflected anAncient Chinese way of thinking,which approached life and philosophy in a holistic manner based on the philosophicaland spiritualdoctrines ofso-called Yin and Yang; or Tao. Certainly, there is little doubtSun Tzuwas influenced by these ideas, which is whyThe Art of War must be read wholly throughthis ‘lens’.

 Unarguably, the consequence in having such a holistic viewis that Sun Tzu’s precepts are not only ambiguous and open to lasting (re)interpretation, but more importantly, applicable at all times – no matter the circumstances. All meaning, even if a revolution in military affairs transforms the conduct of war, Sun Tzu’s holistic outlook, by nature, woulddemand the unfamiliaris taken into account.For Sun Tzu, thuswise, a general who has attained the state of ‘enlightenment’ (or Tao) must inevitably understand what new (or old) factors affect the outcome of wars and how to win accordingly. An enlightened general, in effect,needs to be sufficientlyflexible to change in harmony with circumstances.Naturally, the implication of this core characteristic of Sun Tzu’s theoryis that his teachingsare bound to remainperpetually relevant, as well as completely beyond dispute.

 Nonetheless,one cannot but inquireif there is in fact an ‘absolute’ scenario, theoretically speaking, in whichnone of Sun Tzu’s teachings apply.The only such hypothetical scenario, it appears, is foundwhentwo (or more)opponents are equally skilled atstrategy.In such acase,not only does strategy lose its significance as a determining factor in war, but ‘strength’ as theantithesis of strategy becomes the only decisive factor. Here, to be sure, the principal difference between the two lies in the former’s representation ofthe physical,or material,aspects of war, and the latter’s representation ofthe mental or psychological aspects, which wither in consequence.On that basis, with strength as the sole determining factor, a warmay be won only by annihilating the enemy byapplyingthe effect of maximum force through strength – resembling somehow what Clausewitz,who is usually placed in the same league as Sun Tzu, called an‘absolute’ war.

Yet, the only problem with such an imaginary scenario, as it happens, is that it is never conceivable in real life, as Clausewitz himself equallyadmitted. Primarily, this is because a hypothetical scenario such as this neglects external factors, ‘friction’ (fog of war and war’s unexpected difficulties),whichunavoidably precludean enemy from total and utter annihilation: meaning, war cannot in reality ever become ‘absolute’. This implies, thereby, that strategy – following Sun Tzu’s theory – can never lose its relevance to warfare:The psychological dominance of the enemy will always remain an invariablefactor in war.

There is, however, a counterpoint to this view, which should not be neglected. Specifically, considering that major military powers around the globe mainly focus on increasing strength (through technological, or industrial evolution),one might question whether strategy is in fact a more important factor than overall might?For even if strategy can never become irrelevant, does this global emphasis on strength not make Sun Tzu less relevant?

Admittedly, even though one finds a sense of validity in this sentiment,the argument fails to perceive the nature of strength under the aforesaid context correctly. Instead, one(rightly) ought to clarify that strength is – as a matter of evidence –a form of strategy in itself: one that is based, so to speak, on a war of attrition (disabling capacity), as opposed toexhaustion (disabling will to fight). But, of course, it must be stated here that Sun Tzu, by and large, saw the latter as the ideal victory assumed by a wise general and the former as the poorer method assumed by a less talented general. In this regard, Sun Tzu remarkably characterised his ideal victory by maximum efficiency in terms of minimal costs, and, more importantly, no bloodshed. Pronouncedly, as one may read in The Art of War, he believed such a victory would very likely be attained bystrategy manifested in the form of phenomena likedeception, maximum knowledge of the enemy and self, surprise, stealth, assault on weaknesses, etcetera, etcetera.

Contrarily, as witnessed in recent years against the War on Terror, a war of attrition (in most instances) can never remain successful, enduringly. There will come a day when an alternative strategy might be required to finally triumph. In such occasion, it rests with the belligerent to choose either a strategy around Sun Tzu’s ideal method (exhaustion), or another, if not. Regardless of the choice made, however, Sun Tzu will always remain of utmost relevance to warinasmuch as strategy – which lies at the heart of his theory –governs the principles of war. Hence, in the simplest terms, warsare ultimately governed by psychological dominance(above all) over brute strength: even then, the decision to use strength against an enemy is itself a form of strategy.

 

As Michael I. Handel stated a bit more than a decade ago, The Art of War is ‘the best short introduction to the study of warfare’.Verily, one wonders whether the short (and perhaps apothegmatic) nature of the treatises is the core reason for Sun Tzu’s everlasting relevance to war and strategy. Stated so, would results be any different if he offered more particular and comprehensive principles? Doubtless, it would be interesting to find an answer to this question. A theoretical investigation of other key military theorists such as Clausewitz, Jomini, Douhet, Mahan and others might certainly be a start. What is almost clear, on the whole,isthat the significant changes that have occurred throughout history, as well as many which are yet to come, will not likely displace Sun Tzu’s eternal relevance to war and strategy either today in the 21st century, or tomorrow for posterity.

Considering that not all nationscontain sufficient resources to meet their ‘strength’ demands, it is nowbeyond essential that strategists within striding military powers consider new, perhaps revolutionary, approaches to supremacy. In all probability, this could be an idea worth bearing in mind for Central Asian nations:notably Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (as the leading Central Asian governments),which altogether are firmly intent on the expansion of their militaries equal, perhaps, to those of other global powers like the USA, China and Russia.Assuredly, a fresh review of Central Asia’s astonishing military victories throughout history (by the likes of demi-gods such as Genghis Khan,or Kublai Khan) might yield invaluable lessons, ultimately in keeping with the teachings of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

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