The Art of War: Lessons Forgotten?

July 3, 2007

This all-new edition of the classic text is very different from the typical, discarding the now-standard commentary and analysis in favor of a pure distillation of Sun Tzu’s thoughts on strategy.

For a nation at war, the lessons seem painfully clear. From the text…

Seek quick victory;
Engage in campaigns that are swift,
Even if they are clumsy as a result.
Protracted war exhausts resources and reduces morale.

If a protracted war should occur,
People will try to take advantage —
No leader will be able to prevent the calamities that follow.

and more…

Seek to take an enemy’s country intact rather than destroy it.
Seek to capture an enemy’s armies rather than destroy them.
To fight and conquer is not excellent strategy.
Excellent strategy is to achieve victory without violence.

and ultimately…

The skillful leader embraces moral purpose,
And applies it through method and policy.
It is his means to victory.

The application of these principles has changed much since the early days of the present conflict. It seems that many of the lessons were well-applied in the early tactical thinking. But if such principles ever drove the grander strategic vision, how much remains now amidst the smoke and the blood?


  1. Regarding your second excerpt and subsequent conclusion about the application of such principles in the current conflict:

    I would offer that disbanding an army of over 300,000 Iraqi soldiers — many of whom were experienced and well-trained — is about as failed an application of this principle as is possible. I suspect history will judge this decision, originating with Walter B. Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense appointed to oversee Iraqi security forces, and implemented by U.S. administrator Paul Bremer, to be the most basic, avoidable, and costly mistake of the war.

    The Gulf War of the early 90’s is a far more comprehensive and consistent demonstration of the principles found in The Art of War — not surprisingly, it was a war prosecuted by experienced military leaders versus civilian ideologues.

  2. I totally agree with you regarding the catastrophic decision to disband the army. However, I still think that many of the military decisions in the initial conventional war (before the troubled post-invasion period when the army was disbanded) were conducted in the spirit of the principles, effecting the dissolution of most conventional resistance without direct combat.

    But I embrace your point — the overall conduct of the war has been a poor application. Or, perhaps more damningly, it could actually be considered a very fine negative example.

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