Sun Tsu Would Be Shocked


America’s love of firepower is exploited by Hollywood directors, Pentagon generals and the networks. The current strategy in Iraq is said to come from “The Art of War,” but firepower could not have been what Sun Tzu had in mind in the ancient Chinese classic.

Consider the Pentagon concept. The first time most Americans heard “shock and awe” in connection with Iraq was a CBS Evening News report on Jan. 24 by David Martin, who talked of “airstrikes so devastating they would leave Saddam’s soldiers unable or unwilling to fight.”

Dan Rather’s footnote assuring us that nothing in the report would help the Iraqis was hardly necessary. It was obvious that CBS was announcing the official strategy of the Defense Department. Martin’s main on-camera interview was with Harlan Ullman, the lead author of a 1996 publication at the National Defense University entitled “Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance.”

“We want them to quit. We want them not to fight,” Ullman said. “So that you have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes.” Ullman was enthralled with the new precision weapons, but Bagdad is not Hiroshima. And Ullman no Sun Tzu.

The CBS report said that If Shock and Awe worked, there wouldn’t be a ground war. But the report hedged that not everyone in the administration thought it would work: “One senior official called it a bunch of bull, but confirmed it is the concept on which the war plan is based.”

Last week it became apparent that American forces were in for some deadly engagements on the ground. But that does not mean Sun Tzu’s idea was bull. It was merely misinterpreted and misapplied. I’d feel a lot better if there were some sign that the Pentagon was going back to the source of this idea.

Sun Tzu is supposed to have lived in China about 2500 years ago, in the Warring States period. Sima Qian, the Grand Historian, recorded the violence of the time, which included mass beheadings, men torn apart by chariots or boiled alive, and families executed to the third generation. Warfare involved sieges of walled cities and hand-to-hand combat by massed infantry. The weapons were powerful crossbows, tempered iron lances, and swords. There was no firepower.

“The Art of War” is a doctrine of victory by cunning, efficiency and minimum necessary violence. Under the admonition that engagement in battle is the last resort, it also discusses the political and economic components of war. It recommends that distant battles, sieges and protracted campaigns of any kind be avoided. First a ruler should try political moves such as disrupting the enemy’s alliances. And, if it comes to combat, “To capture the enemy’s army is better than to destroy it.”

Sima Qian’s famous profile of Sun Tzu tells how he was asked by his retainer, King Ho-lu, to prove his skill. Sun Tzu lined up the palace concubines, appointing the king’s two favorites as drill officers. When after repeated instruction the lovely and stylish young women giggled instead of following orders, Sun Tzu prepared to execute the two “officers.”

The king objected. He said they were his favorites, but Sun Tzu beheaded them anyway, saying, “When a commander is in his camp, there will be orders from his sovereign he will not accept.” After that, the remaining concubines became excellent “soldiers.” Ullman related the cruel story as characteristic of Sun Tzu and — this had to be some sort of pun — of the doctrine of “decaptitation,” a word applied to the attempt on the life of Saddam.

The “Shock and Awe” theorists and the Pentagon, it seems, overlooked the secondary lesson of the Sima Qian story: the need to give absolute authority to field commanders. The principle is illustrated, again by Sima Qian, in an account of how the Emperor Wen was stopped by sentries when he showed up unannounced at the camp of one of his generals. “We take orders only from him,” one sentry told the emperor, who was angry, then impressed. The sentry did not lose his head.

The New York Times in an analysis said what the “Shock and Awe” authors did was go beyond the defense doctrine encapsulated by the phrases “overwhelming force,” “dominant battlefield awareness” and “dominant maneuver.”


“Since before Sun Tzu,” Ullman and the others were quoted, “generals have been tantalized and confounded by the elusive goal of destroying the adversary’s will to resist before, during and after battle. . . . To affect the will of the adversary, Rapid Dominance will apply a variety of approaches and techniques to achieve the necessary level of Shock and Awe. . . . This means that psychological and intangible, as well as physical and concrete, effects beyond the destruction of enemy forces and supporting military infrastructure will have to be achieved.”

This passage goes deeper than overwhelming firepower, which did not exist in the Warring States period, and the insipiration very well might have been Chapter 6 of “The Art of War.” A flat literal translation by the Japanese Web site devoted to Sun Tzu’s classic ( reverses the point of view, however, in these lines from Chapter 6:

“What enable an army to withstand the enemy’s attack and not be defeated are uncommon and common maneuvers. . . . Generally, in battle, use the common to engage the enemy and the uncommon to gain victory. Those skilled at uncommon maneuvers are as endless as the heavens and earth, and as inexhaustible as the rivers and seas.”

Ch’i, the character used by Sun Tzu to describe the force that works in conjunction with the regular army, means “weird, strange, wonderful, rare or odd,” according to the standard Matthews dictionary of classical Chinese. The military-oriented translation by Samuel Griffith renders “ch’i” as “extraordinary.” Another translator calls it “surprise” force, and yet another, “the unorthodox.”

What the weird, strange, extraordinary, surprise force does is take away the enemy army’s “morale” or “spirit,” in the Griffin translation. The character for spirit here means, again in Matthew, “breath, animus, energy, soul.”

Sima Qian tells of a battle that illustrates the “ch’i” principle. Han Xin, a general obviously versed in Sun Tzu, sent 20,000 regular troops down Jing Gorge, a narrow defile, to engage a fortified army of 200,000 at the mouth of the gorge. But first he split off a ch’i force that climbed out of the gorge and approached the fortification from below.

The enemy left the fort to engage the regular forces, which seemed stupidly trapped in the gorge. The ch’i force then occupied the nearly empty fort, raised its flags and made a lot of noise, perpetuating the idea of a large army — the sort of deception often suggested by Sun Tzu. The enemy, fearful of returning, was enticed by apparently weak Han Xin forces to attack across the river. When half the enemy force was across, Han Xin breached a dam upstream, dividing the enemy army. This sort of river tactic also is discussed by Sun Tzu. And Han Xin eventually prevailed over an army nearly ten times greater.

The enemy general at the gorge, Chen Yu, was begged by an advisor who also must have read Sun Tzu to send a secret force around the gorge to cut off Han Xin’s supply lines and then to wait as the attacking forces weakened. Chen Yu, to his peril, rejected the advice and put his entire faith in the regular army. Sima Qian comments: “Chen Yu was a Confucianist who always spoke of his ‘soldiers of righteousness’ and had no use for tricky schemes or unusual strategies.”

Sun Tzu said a general should wait for weakness in the enemy. A successful army is like water, which flows down, around obstacles, into hollow places, he said. And a general, by deception, should encourage the arrogance of the enemy. “For just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes at weakness.”

Sun Tzu describes the master of war in these words: “So veiled and subtle, to the point of having no form. So mysterious and miraculous, to the point of making no sound.” This, it seems, is the true context of “shock and awe.” I have heard that Gen. Tommy Franks is a student of Sun Tzu. I look for surprises in the days to come.