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Sun Tzu:  The Art of War

Sun Tzu:
The Acme of Skill and Means Other than War

Randall Whitaker
November 1995

NOTE: All literature citations refer to materials listed in the
Information Warfare Bibliography at this site

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Sun Tzu's The Art of War (1963) has become a canonical reference point in IW literature. It is a (probably fragmentary) compendium of military theory largely unknown in the West until the 20th century. A number of Internet sites offer the lowly-regarded Giles 1910 translation of this work, and the most recent translation by Thomas Cleary can also be accessed online. All references in this document, however, are to the Griffith 1963 translation, which is the currently 'canonical' reference.

There is considerable debate over who 'Sun Tzu' may have been, or even if there were in fact one individual whose wisdom is represented in The Art of War. In any case, it is generally agreed that the work derives from the period known as that of the 'Warring States', running from ca. 453 to ca. 300 B.C. (cf. Griffith, 1963, pp. 20-29). This era of constant war toward a stable consolidation of China's factious kingdoms constituted:

'...one of the most chaotic periods in China's long history. The forested hills, the reed-bordered lakes, the many swamps and marshes provided hiding places for the bands of robbers and cut-throats who raided villages, kidnapped travellers, and exacted toll from merchants unlucky enough to fall into their hands. Many of these outlaws were peasants who had been forced into brigandage to survive. Others were escaped criminals, deserters from the army, and disgraced officials. Altogether they constituted a formidable challenge to the so-called forces of law and order.' (op cit, p. 21)

Against this turbulent backdrop, Chinese princes schemed to further purposes that '...could be served in the China of that time only by intrigue or war' (op cit, p. 25), between which no firm distinction was made. The time was ripe for what we now call consultants:

'...hundreds of scholars who wandered from one state to another ... eager to peddle ideas to rulers 'anxious over the perilous condition of their countries and the weakness of their armies'. Sovereigns competed for the advice of battalions of professional talkers, who in 'interminable discussions', captivated kings, dukes, and great men with arguments of 'confusing diversity'.' (op cit, p. 24)

Sun Tzu's success was in being the first such scholar of warfare to provide the requisite '...coherent strategic and tactical theory and a practical doctrine governing intelligence, planning, command, operational, and administrative procedures.' (op cit, p. 25) DiNardo and Hughes (1995) question the importance of Sun Tzu in IW circles, trivially challenging The Art of War on the basis of its Chinese cultural context; its age; its brevity (e.g., compared with Clausewitz); and its 'aphoristic style' (p. 3). These points are readily-dismissable quibbles and will be considered no further. Additionally, DiNardo and Hughes find it odd that a 'first-wave thinker' should be so inspirational for 'third-wave' theorists. This last point, at least, is a substantive topic for discussion.

Sun Tzu's popularity is in large part a reaction to all things second-wave, from which we are clearly diverging. The dominant military theorist of the second wave was Clausewitz, whose philosophy of war and dogmatic resistance to recognizing modes of warfare other than his 'native' Napoleonic style has been the subject of recent scholarly criticism (e.g., Keegan, 1993). The critique typically proceeds as follows. Clausewitz treated war as the open, total, and unrestricted prosecution of political initiatives by lethal means. In his wake, military science pursued efficient and effective means for such purposes, with science advancing the state of the art and second-wave industry advancing the state of the armory. These advances in means outstripped progress regarding ends or understanding of war's relation to other societal activities. Second-wave warmaking therefore increasingly took on the one-dimensional character of a technological contest. The two World Wars and the Cold War illustrate the results.

In the simultaneous presence of obvious change and absence of new theory, one often looks to the most (apparently) relevant available candidate(s). Within the context of military science, and in the face of the perceived RMA, Sun Tzu is seen to provide the most (apparently) available relevant alternative to Clausewitz. This is based on contrasts between Sun Tzu and Clausewitz (cf. Handel, 1991). DiNardo and Hughes (1995) miss the point in focusing on ancient Chinese 'first-wave' agrarianism, textual brevity, and aphoristic generalities. The Art of War is popular because it is seen to resonate (at least in part) with the current situation. This in turn is due to contextual similarities between the period of the Warring States and now.

Just as 'war and intrigue' were interwoven in the period of the Warring States, recent militarism seems less akin to formal second-wave war and more like a general warfare -- '...the set of all lethal and non-lethal activities undertaken to subdue the hostile will of an adversary or enemy.' (Szafranski, 1995, p. 57). Warmaking is increasingly interlinked with economic, social, cultural, and similar 'systems other than the political'. As a result, success in accomplishing political goals is not comprehensively correlated with success in second-wave warfighting. Proliferating 'low intensity conflicts' are certainly not characterizable as Napoleonic / Clausewitzian contests between matched opponents on open ground. For this reason alone, Sun Tzu is worthy of renewed interest because of his influence on guerrilla / insurgency warfare by way of Mao Tse-Tung (cf. Griffith, 1963, pp. 45-56).

In Sun Tzu's China, there was relative technological parity among competitors -- standing armies, brigands, and insurgents. Combatants typically were drawn from within China, affording an additional measure of parity in terms of culture, language, and value systems. This comprised a relatively finite, steady-state playing field. Successful warfighting under these conditions had to prioritize informational tactics and tactical information as tools of leverage where instrumental means were not predictably decisive. In Sun Tzu's steady-state agrarian world, advantage was obtained by being deceptive in form, fluid of act, and capable of countering skilled responses in kind. Such finesse was not so critical in Clausewitz's expansionist industrial world, where advantage (most often technical) allowed combatants to be explicit in form, ponderous of act, and attuned to responses in kind.

The expansionism of the last few centuries is bringing us around to a relatively finite playing field. Technological disparities are being reduced through the self-limitations of weapons of most massive destruction and the increased availability of more modest arms. Most relevant to IW is the increased accessibility to information technology and through this to the worldwide data / communication networks. Although major disparities still exist among culture, language, and belief systems, the global trend toward connectivity is inducing a measure of homogeneity. The world is not yet as homogeneous as Sun Tzu's ancient China, but it is certainly becoming more so each year. If Vietnam was the 'living room war' of the 1960's in the USA, Desert Storm was the 'living room war' of the 1990's for the world at large.

Just as in China during the period of the Warring States, the political map is being continuously redrawn. Today's global political stage is clearly something other than the second wave's clear-cut landscape of nation states (cf. the significance of the UN, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, the PLO, etc.). Increasingly, one must wonder if a viable map is possible. The networks enacting militaristic action (e.g., terrorist groups) and invoking militaristic intervention (e.g., drug cartels) have become as ephemeral and 'transnational' as large corporations. The localized open ground of Clausewitz's battlefields has given way to the global shadow battlespaces of urban undergrounds, back channels, and satellite news feeds. In this shadow landscape, territory is marked by informational concord rather than geographic extent.

Whatever the 'third wave' proves to be, its nascent complexities bear somewhat more resemblance to Sun Tzu's world than to Clausewitz's. However, it is important to note that today's emergent scenario is not isomorphic with Sun Tzu's China. The relative technological and social parities are the result of complexity rather than uniformity. The trend of territorialization (literal and figurative) is toward diversification rather than consolidation. The relevance of Sun Tzu to the Revolution in Military Affairs is best summarized as this: then, as now, the remaining opportunities for advantageous leverage entail informational (or at least information-intensive instrumental) means. This is the most defensible basis for embracing The Art of War as a metaphorical guide to currently emergent war forms. Beyond this, Sun Tzu is an opportunistic reference recommended mainly by its availability in the face of change. Interestingly, Keegan (1993) characterizes the renewed interest in Clausewitz following World War II as a similarly opportunistic development in response to demands for a policy suited to the new technology of nuclear weapons.

This notion of 'finesse within finitude' explains why IW literature is full of allusions to Sun Tzu's notion of the 'acme of skill' -- the ability to subdue an enemy without recourse to direct confrontation in open combat. The Art of War illustrates this concept with many anecdotes in which communication between adversaries induced perception of implications (of either relative commonality or inequality) motivating a resolution with little or no bloodshed. Owing to the pervasive references to this 'acme of skill', we should examine the full passage in which it is elucidated -- the opening of Sun Tzu's chapter on 'Offensive Strategy'(1963, pp. 77-78):

  1. 'Generally in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this.
  2. To capture the enemy's army is better than to destroy it ...
  3. For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
  4. Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy.
  5. Next best is to disrupt his alliances.
  6. The next best is to attack his army.
  7. The worst policy is to attack cities.'

Success in surpassing and suppressing an adversary's capacities can be achieved partially or wholly by the adept manipulation of information, knowledge, and beliefs. To the extent that an adversary's view of a situation can be manipulated, one might degrade or even nullify that enemy's military aims, his will to pursue them, and his means for prosecuting them. This is what Sun Tzu means when he claims 'All warfare is based on deception.' (1963, p. 66) Moreover, this provides the direct link to the idea that future warfare will be informational in nature. Success in a contest of reciprocal deception boils down to a matter of knowledge creation and exploitation, best illustrated in the closing lines of the same chapter (1963, p. 84):

The RMA's focus on 'knowing the enemy' entails '...an improved ability to understand target systems and their relationship to operational and strategic objectives' because '...knowing which subset of targets to strike out of the many identified will be crucial to the effective employment of large numbers of precision weapons.' (Krepinevich, 1994, p. 41) 'Knowing yourself' is crucial to realizing the RMA goal of '...a major increase in the ability of military organizations to extract the full potential of the human and material resources at their disposal.' (Ibid.)

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Draft Date = 15 November 1995