Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sun Tzu: The Art of War - Misunderstood

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Sun Tzu

Prof. Paul Eidelberg

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, written about 500 B.C.E., is the oldest military treatise in the world. Even now, after twenty-five centuries, the basic principles of that treatise remain a valuable guide for the conduct of war. Indeed, Sun Tzu may be of interest to the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, in view of the Arab Terrorist War that erupted in September 2000. Since then more than 1,600 Jews have been murdered and many thousands more have been wounded and maimed by Arab terrorists.

Referring to the IDF’s limited response to this Arab terrorism, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, “self-restraint is strength”! At first glance one might suspect that Mr. Sharon had been influence by Mother Theresa. It may well be, however, that he derived that dictum from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—or rather, from a misreading of that treatise. Sun Tzu would have an army general exhibit, at first, “the coyness of a maiden”—to draw out the enemy—but thereafter he would have him emulate the fierceness of a lion.

Of course, when the forces of the enemy exceed your own or occupy superior ground, then self-restraint is prudence. But when this situation is reversed, self-restraint is weakness. In fact, Sun Tzu goes so far as to say, “If fighting is reasonably sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbids it.”

In referring to various ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army and his people, Sun Tzu cautions a ruler against “attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom.” Although “In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign,” “he will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.” Sun Tzu emphasizes that there are even occasions when the “commands of the sovereign must not be obeyed.”

Of course, this would violate the principle of military subordination to civilian authority—a principle Israel’s political elites would proclaim to preserve their democratic reputation, especially in the United States. Never mind Jewish casualties or sacrificing Jewish soldiers on the alter of PR.

In this connection, recall the Yom Kippur War, in which 3,000 Jewish soldiers perished. Certain general officers of the IDF obeyed the commands of the Meir Government by not launching a pre-emptive attack. Later, the Agranat Commission of Inquiry blamed them for the disaster. Sun Tsu would have agreed with the Agranat conclusion—of course for different reasons. He would have faulted the generals for “self-restraint,” that is, for heeding the commands of their Government.

Admittedly, Sun Tzu did not have to worry about journalists and humanists who make the rational conduct of war impossible, and who therefore prolong the killing. When U.S. Admiral Bull Halsey said, “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often,” he was merely echoing Sun Tzu’s advice.

We read in the Torah, “When you go forth to battle against your enemies” (Deut. 20:1). The sages ask: “What is meant by ‘against your enemies’”? They answer: “God said, ‘Confront them as enemies. Just as they show you no mercy, so should you not show them any mercy.’”

Sun Tzu would therefore be appalled by the alacrity with which Israeli governments engage in cease fires or “hudnas,” which allow Arab terrorists to regroup and accumulate more and deadlier weapons, Sun Tzu calls for the uninterrupted attack. He unequivocally opposes a protracted war: “There is no instance,” he says, “of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

Hence Israel’s Government must ignore the preachments of Washington on self-restraint—as if Hiroshima and Dresden never happened.

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