Monday, September 11, 2023

Six Timeless Lessons from Sun Tzu on the Art of War

25 years ago I created a marketing plan for a new product rollout in which I borrowed practical wisdom from Sun Tzu's The Art of War. It was fun, creative and (best of all) successful. 

This week I've been revisiting the book for the first time in a while. This time around I've been noticing something. So much of the advice Sun Tzu gives has been utterly ignored in so many of the conflicts that have taken place during my lifetime.

Here are a handful of statements from Sun Tzu's masterwork, with examples of how they were carried out or disregarded. My comments are in blue.

"Victory is the main object in war. If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale depressed."
The Vietnam War illustrates this vividly. Not only was morale depressed amongst the troops, the entire country seemed to become weary with these years of conflict. The Soviet Union's invasion of 
Afghanistan suffered a similar fate, a lesson the U.S. evidently failed to pay attention to as we proceeded to later make the same mistake there.

"Generally in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this."
Apparently Vladimir Putin missed this passage in Sun Tzu's manual. Our carpet bombing of North Vietnam likewise reveals our own generals' ignorance in these matters. 

"To win one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."
If you were to study the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, you'd see how much of Sun Tzu's wisdom Napoleon took to heart. 
He once said, "Read and meditate upon the wars of the great captains. This is the only means of learning the art of war." This passage can be illustrated in several of Napoleon's remarkable victories, battles that were won without ever firing a shot.

"Treat your captives well and care for them."
Our shameful behavior at Abu Grahib illustrates once more how far we've veered from being moral leaders of the free world, though this hardly compares to many past regimes in history. Genghis Khan's brutality in the 13th century was legendary. The Spanish Conquistadors route of the Aztec and Inca empires was likewise cruel and brutal.

"He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be  victorious."
The Granada invasion is a perfect example of this principle, or rather, what happens when this principle is violated. Norman Schwarzkopf, in his memoir, describes the rapid success their surprise invasion achieved with no loss of a single American life. Unfortunately, there was a phone call from the White House requesting that the troops check on the students at a university in another part of the island. The unplanned additional mission led to a helicopter collision that took the lives of 24 GIs. When Schwarzkopf was asked to take the lead in Desert Storm, he replied, "Yes, under one condition." That condition was that he would be in charge and there would be no phone calls from the White House asking for favors or telling him what to do. Lesson learned.

"There are occasions when the commands of the sovereign need not be obeyed."

It was General Grant who masterminded the Vicksburg Campaign that broke the back of the Confederacy during the Civil War. After crossing the Mississippi below Vicksburg, he broke his army off from Union supply lines and led a zigzag encirclement of the city from behind. His commanding officer, General Halleck, had sent orders to Grant to turn back, but it took 30 days to find Grant because his army was forraging while fighting a number of other battles to get in position for a siege. When Grant saw Halleck's orders, he sent back a reply: "If you knew where we were and what was happening here, you would not have sent these orders." Halleck's orders were not obeyed, which made Halleck furious. If I remember correctly, Halleck tried to court-martial Grant, but President Lincoln would have none of it. Rather, Lincoln was thrilled to find a general who was bold and would do whatever it took to get the job done, selecting Grant to head the Union armies and press the war to its conclusion.

* * *  

No comments:

Popular Posts