Sun Tzu’s approach to warfare, unlike that of Western authors, does not put force at the center: indeed, the Chinese character li (force) occurs only nine times in the text’s thirteen chapters. This reflects the conditions of warfare in China at the time (force was then in fact of limited utility) as well as Sun Tzu’s conviction that victory and defeat are fundamentally psychological states. He sees war, therefore, not so much as a matter of destroying the enemy materially and physically (although that may play a role), but of unsettling the enemy psychologically; his goal is to force the enemy’s leadership and society from a condition of harmony, in which they can resist effectively, toward one of chaos (luan), which is tantamount to defeat.
Military action is presented by Sun Tzu in an implicitly Taoist frame of reference. The idea that terrain, weather, and enemy morale in effect have contours, through which the successful general finds the best ways (tao), thereby using the force inherent in them to support his purposes, is basically Taoist, as is the recurrent theme of transformation, from one state to another, as in the interplay he discusses between regular (cheng) and irregular (ch’i) forces.
But operationally, Sun Tzu’s goal is psychological dominance and its exploitation, founded upon superior knowledge of the enemy (he lays great stress on the employment of secret agents) and kueitao, variously translated as “deception” or “unconventional means.” Thus Sun Tzu commends operations that will harm enemy morale: splitting alliances, evading battle, attacking by surprise; he condemns those that may undermine one’s own society, such as the attrition that might result from besieging a walled city. Some operations may be almost purely psychological in their purpose, such as setting fires, which Sun Tzu discusses in effect as a terror weapon. The height of military skill is to turn opposing plans to one’s own uses by “attacking the enemy’s strategy” (as the Germans did against the French in 1940), which at its best yields victory without fighting.
Sun Tzu, however, does not propose that combat can be eliminated. Rather, he is mindful of the tremendous risks attendant on any resort to force, especially bankruptcy and the social disintegration of the politically weak Chinese states of his time. So he urges that force not be squandered, but conserved carefully and used only when it may have decisive impact.
Sun Tzu writes about warfare within a single culture, wherein secret agents are difficult to detect and enemy thought processes differ little from one’s own. One might question therefore the relevance of Sun Tzu in modern conditions, in which states are robust and force abundantly available, and in wars between nations, in which ethnic differences make spying difficult and enemy thought processes difficult to assess. Such concerns were probably more persuasive in the era of era of Carl von Clausewitz than they are today. For one thing, nuclear weapons have meant that the traditional Western road to victory–the application of massive, industrialized force–is now closed against a nuclear-armed adversary, and hence strategists must consider once again how to win without fighting, or at least without fighting too much. Force, as Vietnam showed, cannot alone win victory.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.