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Defense and Foreign Affairs Daily

Sep 21, 2004

Essential reading: A fresh look at Sun Tzu by, his descendants

Sun Tzu’s Art of War: The Modern Chinese Interpretation. By Gen. Tao Hanzhang.
Translated  by Yian Shibing. New York, 2000: Main Street, a division of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. ISBN:1-4027-1291-X.176pp, hardcover.

Review by Dr Assad Homayoun, Senior Fellow, International Strategic Studies Association.

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Many translations and commentaries have been written and published about the Chinese Strategic philosopher Sun Tzu’s book, The Art of War. Among them, the translation and interpretation by Samuel B. Griffith, with a foreword by B. H. Liddell Hart; and the translations and commentaries by Ralph D. Sawyer and the 19th Century volume by Lionel Giles are important.

War and politics are inseparable and complement each other. War has been always instrument of policy and has unfailingly been used throughout history for the attainment of political purpose. As Mao Zedong, who much benefited from the teachings of Sun Tzu, says, politics is war without bloodshed and war is politics with bloodshed. Many books have been written of War  and politics, including the great manuals:

      The Artashastra, of Kautalya, the 4th Century BCE treatise from India, on art and science polity, ruling and war;

      A Mirror for the Ruler (Ghabus-Namah), by  Amir Kaikawos Woshmgir, of Persia; 11th Century;

      On the Art of Ruling (Siyasat-Namah), by Persian statesman Nizam al-Mulk, the Grand Vizier of Seljuq, a Sultan of the 11th Century  who was assassinated by Ismailites;

      Fatwa-i-Jahandari (Guidebook for the King) by Indian historian Zia Barrani; 14th Century;

      The Prince, as well as The Art of War, and The Discourses, by Niccol Machiavelli, the 15th Century Florentine; and

      On War, by the 19th Century German Strategist, Carl Von Clausewitz, who unified the philosophy of politics with the philosophy of war; as well as the great works of Liddell Hart, Mahan, and others

As Machiavelli’s The Prince is the “Grammar for Power” so is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War a “Grammar for War”. And, both — but especially Sun Tzu’s book — are vitally important and applicable for the kind of war the world is now facing and calling asymmetrical warfare, or non-conventional warfare, such as terrorism, information, knowledge warfare, and cyberwar.

For thousands of years, terrorism has been used to promote religious, political, social and linguistic causes. But as was demonstrated in the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001, by using commercial airliners as explosive missiles to cause indiscriminate civilian death and destruction, terrorism has been elevated to a strategic level of violence, both in range and scope. Today, terrorists have access to internet. They get money and support of some isolated governments, and are essentially invisible, without geography of their own, and they pose a serious threat to international order and civilization. What we can expect in the future with a great degree of certainty is that the terrorists will employ chemical, biological and possibly nuclear means to produce mass casualty. As CIA Director John McLaughlin recently said: “In the September 2001, we had ample warning of an attack ... We had the conviction that something big was coming at us. We have that same conviction now.”

This does not portend well for the future in political, social or economic terms.

The goal in every war is victory and attaining political result. The world will come soon to the conclusion that victory over international terrorism must come at any price.

As geo-strategic thinker and analyst Gregory Copley, in his masterpiece, The Art of Victory, put it, victory is the principal goal of a society and first responsibility of the state, because only in victory is the survival possible of a people, its civilization, values, language and freedoms.  According to Gregory Copley, war is the most common and successful catalyst through which victory is commenced. What must be understood is whether victory is more greatly jeopardized by war, or by the avoidance of war.

Victory is always the main object of war, and it is much preferable to be attained without resorting to force.

Here is the importance of Sun Tzu’s philosophy to contain terrorism; all warfare is based on deception, surprise and dissimulation. The morale of the enemy is a target of high priority. Man is the decisive factor in war and it is man’s directing intelligence which counts most. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. Warfare is a way of deception. The highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plan. Next to attack their alliance, next to attack their army. There has been never a protracted war from which a country has benefited. When troops attack cities, their strength will be exhausted, because, when the army engage in protracted war the resources of state will not suffice. In a nutshell, Sun Tzu’s basic strategy focuses on manipulating the enemy, creating the best opportunity for an easy victory trough deception, surprise and simple coercion, and using bribes covertly.

Today we are witnessing of new kind of war with forces who have no regard for values of human life. The asymmetric warfare is a new threat to humanity and it is much different from conventional warfare. The theories and principles of German strategist von Clausewitz are mostly applicable to conventional war fighting and kinetic warfare, whereas the principle theories of Sun Tzu are equally applicable to conventional as well as asymmetric warfare. Although it has been written centuries ago, Sun Tzu in his masterpiece teaches us how to deal with deception, maneuver and knowledge. Deception is most important in every war and, according to Sun Tzu, to deceive we must know ourselves as well as to know the enemies.

The new version and interpretation of The Art of War by Chinese General Tao Hanzhang, translated by Yuan Shibing, is a considerable contribution to the understanding of the philosophy of Sun Tzu. It is clearly written and presented. It is also colorful and analytical, and explains the theories of Sun Tzu with valuable comments. He combined the theories of Sun Tzu with the theory of modern war accordance to strategy and doctrines of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He explains how the philosophy of Sun Tzu embraces all aspects of war, such as military force, politics, diplomacy and economics, and the relationship between war and politics. Sun Tzu, like Clausewitz, believes that war is the continuation of politics. The Art of War emphasizes that it is vital to overcome the enemy by wisdom and to disrupt the enemy’s alliances and subdue him without fighting.

Tao Hanzhang, a general of Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), in the appendix gives his interpretation of The Art of War with valuable comments.

As we witnessed in Chechnya in early September 2004, international terrorism is the number one threat posed by Islamists to world peace and international equilibrium.  Victory in the war against terrorism will be possible only with the defeat of the fountainheads of international terrorism: those states which provide sanctuary to terrorists and provide financial, training, logistical and support to them.  

The study of strategy and particularly the theories of Sun Tzu in this age of cyber war, is critical to extirpate the roots of international terrorism. Students of war and politics must study The Art of War carefully. Gen. Tao’s new interpretation of Sun Tzu is, therefore, a valuable addition to any strategic and military library