Sun Tzu and America’s Way of War

America’s way of war is, actually, not so new under the sun. Centuries ago, China’s Sun Tzu would have recognized some of our ways and errors. Indeed he would be rolling over in his grave at seeing how his famous dictums for successful wars are ignored and violated by America: a trillion-dollar war in Iraq, losing our allies, creating more and more fanatical enemies willing to do suicide missions against us, borrowing from foreigners to finance our wars. In fairness, part of our failure is the simple determinant that democracies can’t run empires and most armies hate occupation duty. Our military still trains to re-fight World War II, not for unending wars of occupation and trans-national terrorism. So now we fear and isolate ourselves from most Muslims, nearly a quarter of the world’s population, and are nearly bankrupted. However, bin Laden’s campaign followed Sun Tzu’s teachings to a "T." (See "How Bin Laden Bankrupted America." For why we can’t win our wars, see Andrew Bacevich’s “When Was the Last Time We Won A War?“)

Following are some of Sun Tzu’s main maxims from The Art of War and how and why America breaks them:

"The best victory is to win without actually fighting. Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting."

Americans instead want to start the fighting; there is little interest in winning without war. Witness Iraq, where recent British government hearings on the war repeatedly cite how Washington wanted to get the war started as quickly as possible. Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was even reported as saying that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, didn’t have enough targets that go "boom" for Washington’s intimidation strategy of "shock and awe." There was little awareness of the warnings, such as stated by Israel’s murdered former president, Yitzhak Rabin, who opposed the first Iraq War in 1991, that no nation knows when it starts a war, where it will lead, nor what will be its final consequences. Above all, Sun Tzu warned, are the costs of wars, something almost irrelevant to the regimes in Washington.

There are several reasons for this. Many Washington interests benefit from wars (see below). It’s usually easy to sell the American public on going to war. War makes for exciting TV. Most Americans like to see video of fighter planes, missiles, tanks charging through the desert, and our brave fighting men (and women). War represents no fear of devastating consequences or costs to most Americans, or at least we used to think so.

Politicians don’t vote to "win" wars. Rather, they vote to show that they are "doing something," that they are "tough on terrorism," that they are "defending America," and to send business to companies in their home districts. If Washington really wanted to "win" a permanent victory, it would address the grievances of Muslims, including the Palestinian issue, rather than just claiming that they are "evil" and "hate freedom." That is why most of the world thinks America wants unending wars so as to justify keeping its major new air bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Know thyself and know thy enemy. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."

War for most Americas is sort of like a football game: one "wins" and then goes home. Knowing our own weaknesses, much less those of our enemy, is irrelevant for the war-wanters. We knew almost nothing and cared less about Muslim cultures, their religion, why they hated us, how to win them over, their history and sensitivity to having been colonialized, their tribalism, and so on. The CIA and State Department hardly had or even now have many officers who even speak any of the foreign languages involved.

With bin Laden, our leaders argued that he did not mean what he said in his speeches, that his attacks were because of American bases on holy Muslim land, injury done to Palestinians, and to the deaths of Iraqi civilians under years of American bombing and economic blockade. Instead they tell us that America was attacked because we are "free" and "good." Consequently, more and more Muslims see America as their enemy, while we now fear them so much that nationals of 14 nations must now be bodily searched before being allowed to visit America.

"There is no instance of a country having benefited from a long war."

War is very profitable in America for all sorts of interests and careers (see Since 9/11 hundreds of billions of dollars have gone to the military-industrial, homeland security, and war contractor complexes (think Blackwater) for new weaponry, consulting fees, and high-paying jobs, most of which are irrelevant to the war on terror or any existing threat to America. The War Party needs and wants "long wars" and permanent enemies. "Winning" is not to its benefit; witness the severely curtailed armaments spending after the collapse of communism. War entrenches powerful congressmen: e.g., the F-22 fighter plane had subcontractors (and consequently donors and high-paying jobs) in 44 states. Congressional earmarks are a case in point. Money for a "bridge to nowhere" can be exposed and challenged, while money for missiles to nowhere is almost never questioned. After all, who knows what they should cost, how many are necessary, and whether or not they even work. Think now that it is costing a million dollars per soldier to put 30,000 more men in Afghanistan. Most of this money is spent in, or comes back to, American companies. Ironically, much of it also funds the Taliban enemy to help keep the war going, as supplies must be trucked in from Pakistan through territory which they control. The Taliban then charge the trucking companies hefty fees to allow them through. Similarly a recent Washington Post report stated that most economic aid to Afghanistan was paid to Americans or American companies. Think back to George Orwell’s 1984: permanent war benefits the government. Also millions of Americans want prolonged war and chaos in Palestine to bring about Armageddon. They think war will give them a free pass to heaven.

Try to break up your enemy’s alliances.

Instead, America succeeds in agitating and killing disparate Muslims so that they unite against us, e.g., the Sunnis and Shi’ites and most of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, bin Laden worked to divide America’s alliances so that we stand almost alone in fielding armies to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. It used to be just Palestinians who threatened America. Now our enemies include Iraqis, Saudis, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Nigerians, and even white European converts.

The best thing is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good.

Instead we turned Iraq into a broken nation. A million of its citizens, mostly the educated middle classes, have fled the country; government ministries are chaotic; its electoral system is dysfunctional (put in by us); its ethnic sectors are almost at war; terrorism and kidnapping is still rampant.

The American way of war has little capacity for postwar planning. Think of abandoning Afghanistan in chaos and misery after the Soviet collapse. Think of the First Iraq War. The U.S. left the nation "bombed back to the Stone Age," and then put on a brutal economic blockade to prevent reconstruction for nearly 10 years, which left a million Iraqis, mainly children, dead of starvation and disease. Think back to World War II, when America delivered Central Europe and Manchuria (China’s industrial heartland) to Soviet communism and then was surprised at the consequences. Postwar policies in Iraq were placed in the hands of a Likudnik, Douglas Feith. Various interests in Washington want to see more such destructive wars started against Iran, Sudan, Syria, and now Yemen, which would turn them into failed states like Somalia.

Empires are lost when inadequate men become leaders and wage war for base reasons or for no reason at all.

King George lost his American colonies through stupid tax policies; World War I cost England, Austria, Russia, and Turkey their empires. George Bush’s war obviously fits.

Other of Sun Tzu’s maxims are very successfully executed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda against America:

Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; go swiftly to place where you are not expected.

This if perfect for bin Laden.

That general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.

Obviously America is now trying to defend every border crossing, every transatlantic airplane, every U.S. embassy, every CIA station chief, and above all every American city from nuclear terrorism. At the same time, we don’t know where to attack and what to attack as al-Qaeda metastasizes all over the Muslim world.

If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

Bin Laden follows this rule, aggravating our arrogance and self-righteousness, causing us to fall into more of his traps to bankrupt ourselves.

Fight not unless the position is critical. The good general is full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.

America’s Army is no longer an intact force. First of all, the costs of putting "boots on the ground" are now astronomical, some half a million dollars per man. The National Guard and reservists now know that volunteering as a young man for service can mean years and years of occupation duty in strange nations where they are hated and being constantly recalled for duty. America’s army and America will never be the same.

Author: Jon Basil Utley

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative. He was a foreign correspondent in South America for the Journal of Commerce and Knight Ridder newspapers and former associate editor of The Times of the Americas. He is a writer and adviser for and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.