How to “FAIL” at the “Art of War”

In August 2010, I ran a twelve part series on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War starting with Part 1.  In this post, I’ve brought together the series in one post and added more content.

The reason for revisiting Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has to do with a recent study by The Pew Research Center, which says, one in three Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of the post-9/11 military see these wars as a waste.

Then NPR’s Jackie Northam reported as the wars drag on, interest among Americans has dropped from 90 percent supporting the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan before the war started to 25 percent today.

Northam quotes Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “The public soured on the decision to go to war in Iraq by 2004, when not only were there no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) found, but all of a sudden, the cost of that war began to increase, [and] casualties began to be rather substantial.”

In addition, Fair Game (2010), a movie of CIA operative Valerie Plame and her husband, who wrote a 2003 New York Times op-ed piece on the topic of WMD in Iraq, alleged that the Bush administration had manipulated intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq—an accusation of fraud in the White House.

According to the wisdom of Sun Tzu, these three points are enough to indicate a “high” possibility of defeat for the United States.

So, who better to turn to than Sun Tzu to see if the goals of these wars are possible to achieve.

It is time to reexamine the master that West Point cadets study. Sun Tzu dates to China’s Warring States Period (476 – 221 BC). Traditional accounts place him in the Spring and Autumn Period of China as a military general serving under King Helu of Wu (544-496 BC).

You have to be good to still be taken seriously about 2500 years after your death.

There are three key principals to The Art of War.

1. Know your enemy and know yourself — understanding your opponent is crucial to victory.

2. Sun Tzu prizes the general who can outwit instead of outfight his opponent — to subdue the enemy without fighting is the height of skill.

3. Avoid what is strong. Attack what is weak.

In the case of President George W. Bush, when he went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is now clear that he did not know his enemy (or much at all about the culture and politics of the Middle East and of Islam).

Bush also resorted to subduing his enemy with force instead of outwitting him—as if President Bush was capable of outwitting Al-Qaeda, since finding the weakness of an organization that is like smoke would be a challenge to any president.

As for Sun Tzu, around 500 BC, the King of Wu summons him, one of the greatest military minds in history, to save his kingdom from a more powerful enemy.

Sun Tzu was a warrior and a philosopher. He was important because he had a cohesive, holistic philosophy on strategy.

Sun Tzu tells the King of Wu he can defeat the enemy with a smaller army. Doubting him, the king challenges Sun Tzu to turn the palace concubines into a fighting force and Sun Tzu accepts.

Sun Tzu shows the concubines what to do, selects the best two students and puts them in charge of the others. When Sun Tzu orders the exercise to begin, the woman laugh.

He tries again but the concubines laugh again.

Sun Tzu says, “If instructions are not clear and commands not explicit, it is the fault of the general. But if the orders are clear, and my orders are clear, it is the fault of the subordinate officers.”

Without warning, Sun Tzu beheads the two concubines he had selected to lead the others. To Sun Tzu, war is a matter of life and death. This is the key principal of his teachings. Once understood, everyone from the general to the solider will be motivated to win.

However, in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States fought wars with rules that hamper victory and ignore the fact that war is a matter of life and death.

Instead, politics and public opinion decide the rules of the battle field.

While the bodies of the first two concubines are still warm, Sun Tzu appoints two new concubines to lead the others. This time the concubines follow his orders without hesitation. The king of Wu is convinced and appoints Sun Tzu commander of the Wu army.

Sun Tzu now must train an army of 30 thousand troops to fight a force ten times larger.

The state of Wu has only 33,000 troops while Chu can field a force of 300 thousand.

Outnumbered ten to one, Sun Tzu could build his defenses and wait for the attack. However, he does the unexpected. He invades Chu.

He doesn’t attack Chu’s main army. Instead, he attacks outposts and weaker targets. When Chu sends an army to fight, Sun Tzu slips away emphasizing maneuver, surprise and deception.

After every battle, Sun Tzu learns more about his enemy.

During another war more than two thousand years later, Sun Tzu’s ultimate secret becomes more evident. In the mid 1960s, the world’s largest super power is fighting in Vietnam—a country smaller than the state of Montana.

The American general sees the battlefield like a chessboard where armies stand and fight. However, Vietnam has no clear objectives to attack and destroy.

The Communist general understands Sun Tzu and uses the Viet Cong in hit and run attacks against fixed US positions.

Sun Tzu said, “It is more important to outthink your enemy than outfight him. In war, numbers alone confer no advantage. Do not advance relying on sheer military power.”

The US commander breaks these rules.

Sun Tzu liked the enemy to maneuver and respond to his moves. This way he was in charge of the battlefield.

A US report after the Vietnam War revealed that 80% of the time, it was the North Vietnamese and Vietcong who decided where and when to fight.

Sun Tzu said, “Once you know the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, you can avoid the strengths and attack the weaknesses.” At the beginning of the war, almost 80% of Americans supported it.

As the Vietnam War continued with mounting US causalities, that support at home shifted against the war, which achieved another of Sun Tzu’s rules, “The skillful leader subdues enemy’s troops without any fighting. One does not win wars by winning battles.”

Although the North Vietnamese and Vietcong did not win battles, they won the war by turning the American people against it. To achieve this goal, the North Vietnamese commander was willing to lose ten men for every American killed.

In the end, the US lost 53 thousand troops and the North Vietnamese and Vietcong more than a million with several million more noncombatants killed as collateral damage to the American bombing.

Sun Tzu felt spies were important, and he devoted one chapter to spies. He said, “Use your spies for every kind of business,” and the North Vietnamese and Vietcong followed that advice.

Sun Tzu said, “An accurate knowledge of the enemy is worth ten divisions.”

He also said, “Let your plans be as dark as night – then strike like a thunderbolt.” The Tet Offensive in January of 1968 was that thunderbolt.

Sun Tzu said, “Keep plans as dark as night.”

The NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and Vietcong did this by moving supplies and troops through miles of tunnels built in the 1950 and 60s.

Deception was also one of Sun Tzu’s rules.

To achieve deception, the NVA and Vietcong announced they would honor a cease-fire on January 31, 1968, the Tet New-Year Holiday.

Sun Tzu said, “In battle use a direct attack to engage and an indirect attack to win,” meaning to deceive your enemy so you can win your real objective.

To achieve this goal, the NVA launched a surprise attack on Khe Sanh, a remote US base, one week before the Tet Offensive.

The South Vietnamese and American military are surprised when the NVA launches the Tet Offensive. At first, it looks like the Vietcong will win, but the NVA ignored one of Sun Tzu’s rules—moral influence.

Moral influence means a leader must have the people behind him to win.

During the early days of the Tet, the Vietcong rounded up and brutally assassinated several-thousand South Vietnamese government workers and killed many Catholic nuns losing the support of the people.

However, in America, watching the violence of the Tet Offensive on TV turned more Americans against the war.

Eight years later, in 1975, Saigon falls to the NVA and America loses the war even though the US had military superiority.

It is about 500 BC in China and Sun Tzu’s hit-and-run campaign against the state of Chu is working. The Chu prime minister is starting to lose support and the moral of his troops is dropping.

Throughout the countryside of Chu, there is fear of where Sun Tzu will strike next. When the larger Chu army threatens one of Sun Tzu’s allies, Sun Tzu uses another rule of war, “To move your enemy, entice him with something he is certain to take.”

Then, when his own forces are surrounded, Sun Tzu says, “Put the army in the face of death where there is no escape and they will not flee or be afraid – there is nothing they cannot achieve.” See The Long March

What happened to Sun Tzu in China when his small army was surrounded also happened on June 6, 1944 when allied troops in World War II invaded Europe during D-day.

Sun Tzu says, “All warfare is deception. If you can deceive your enemy before battle, you are more likely to win.”

That’s what General Eisenhower did before the invasion of Normandy. To succeed, the allies used deception to convince the Germans the attack would not take place in Normandy.

Sun Tzu says, “It is essential to seek out enemy agents who have come to spy against you and bribe them to serve you.” In The Art of War, double agents are the most important spies.

That is what the Allies did in World War II before the Normandy Invasion of France. No one used double agents better than the British did.

Britain turned almost every spy Germany sent during the war. These double agents made the Germans believed the invasion would take place at Pas de Calais and not Normandy.

Sun Tzu says, “The way a wise general can achieve greatness beyond ordinary men is through foreknowledge.” The allies had foreknowledge because they broke the German code and knew what the Germans were thinking and planning.

Sun Tzu would have praised the allied preparation for the invasion and the use of deception but he would have condemned the actual assault.

Sun Tzu says, “When a falcon’s strike breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing. When torrential water tosses boulders, it is because of momentum.”

Sun Tzu believes that the best attack can be ruined if momentum is lost, and he would have predicted the cost of lives during the Normandy invasion more than two-thousand years before it took place.

During the invasion of Normandy, the allies survived on death ground exactly as Sun Tzu predicted by fighting together and never giving up.

Sun Tzu meant when you put troops in a combat position where they must fight or die, there is no choice but to fight.

Another reason the Allies succeeded during D-day was another of Sun Tzu’s rules of war. He said, “It is essential for victory that generals are unconstrained by their leaders.”

The allied command structure gives total authority to General Eisenhower as supreme commander.

However, Germany under Hitler did not have the same command structure.

Hitler had set up a confusing system of overlapping authority so no one had total control over the military leaving Hitler the only one who made final decisions.

Hitler’s command structure is a perfect example of what Sun Tzu says about “no interference from the leader”.

The allies in France are bogged down in difficult terrain. The combat losses are horrible and little progress is made.

The solution is found in Sun Tzu’s rules of war. “Make your enemy prepare on his left and he will be weak on his right.”

The allies will follow this rule.

Sun Tzu says you must behave like the snake. When your enemy attacks, you must be flexible.

Throughout the invasion of Normandy, France, Sun Tzu’s rules of war guide the Allies to victory. The Allies used deception, foreknowledge, and a superior command structure that motivated the army to fight as one.

Sun Tzu says, “The winning army realizes the conditions for victory first then fights. The losing army fights first then seeks victory.”

More than two thousand years before the Battle of Normandy, the battle between the kingdoms of Wu and Chu raged on.

Even with a smaller army, Sun Tzu is not worried. He has split his army. While the Chu army is surrounding his smaller force, the main part of his army is moving toward the unprotected Chu capital.

The Chu commander turns from the smaller Wu force under Sun Tzu’s command and rushes back to save the capital.

Sun Tzu says, “No nation has ever benefitted from prolonged war.” The American Civil War is Sun Tzu’s nightmare scenario. Possibly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the same since so many of Sun Tzu’s rules of war have been ignored.

Sun Tzu says, “Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle. They are not brought by him.” This will happen to General Robert E. Lee in 1863.

China’s Sun Tzu says if the orders are unclear, it is the fault of the commanding general.

General Lee told one of his generals to “Attack when you think it is practical.” That general decides it is not practical and does nothing.

At the Battle Gettysburg, Lee did not give clear orders.

Robert E. Lee made a tactical mistake when he did not follow Sun Tzu’s rule to “Move only when you see an advantage and there is something to gain. Only fight if a position is critical.”

Sun Tzu says, “When the enemy occupies high ground, do not confront him. If he attacks downhill, do not oppose him.” Robert E. Lee did not listen and decides to attack the Union positions on the high ground.

General Longstreet disagrees. He does not want to attack the high ground. Instead, he wants to go around the Union Army toward the North’s capital, Washington D.C.

Sun Tzu says, “There are some armies that should not be fought and some ground that should not be contested.”

After two days of horrible losses, Robert E. Lee orders what is left of his army to attack uphill a third time. General Longstreet urges Lee not to do this. Lee ignores him.

On the third day of Gettysburg during Picket’s charge up another hill, only 5,000 survived of 12,000 troops. Sun Tzu would have been horrified.

Sun Tzu says, “When troops flee, are insubordinate, collapse or are routed in battle, it is the fault of the general.”

Sun Tzu sees a commanding general as someone intelligent and cunning and never rash or arrogant, which is the opposite of the commander of the Chu army more than two thousand years ago.

Sun Tzu won the war against Chu, which had an army ten times larger than his. He did this through preparation, deception and indirect attacks.

After winning the war against Chu, Sun Tzu retires and writes The Art of War.

The first line of Sun Tzu’s rules of war says, “War is a matter of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, survival or ruin.

As I finished the series on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, I thought of President Lyndon Johnson who invaded Vietnam (1950 to 1975)—a war where a super power lost to a third-world country as Chu did to Wu about twenty-five hundred years ago.

Nations that fought with the United States lost more than 300 thousand troops with almost 1.5 million wounded. North Vietnam and the Communists lost almost 1.2 million troops and more than 4 million civilian dead. Source: Vietnam War – Wiki

President G. W. Bush rushed into a war in Iraq and Afghanistan on faulty evidence, which may have been based on lies. For these wars, the casualties and losses continue.

Learn more at the War Resisters League

Several American presidents ignored Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Since World War II, America has spent more than 23 trillion dollars fighting wars and in defense. The U.S. won the Cold War against Soviet Russia without fighting.

Too bad the citizen of the US, Presidents Johnson and G. W. Bush did not learn from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

China’s Sun Tzu said, “Sometimes, the best way to win is not to fight.”


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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7 Responses to How to “FAIL” at the “Art of War”

  1. […] Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” […]

  2. […] Discover more of The Art of War from Sun Tzu […]

  3. merlin says:

    Also, who wrote this article? I just want to ask did we really win the Cold War with Russia without fighting?

    • I wrote the post.

      However, as for my source and who produced the videos, I’d have to do some digging to discover that. Be my guest.

      I only embedded the links in the post that I found on YouTube and summarized from what I learned from the videos, which makes for some interesting thought.

      As for winning the Cold War. The US won the Cold War with the USSR. However, even though the communist empire that was the USSR collapsed and dissolved, Russia is still there and it still has thousands of nuclear weapons and due to Siberian oil also has wealth from which comes global economic clout.

      Russia is also a member of what is known as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which is attempting to supplant the US dollar as the only International currency for trade with a basket of currencies that would be used to trade globally. This means that the Cold War has now become a war of currencies. If the US losses this struggle, then it will not dominate the world economically as it has done since World War II.

      Communism as the political system that ruled Russia may be gone, but what has replaced it and will that new political system become another perceived threat to the US somewhere through time?

  4. merlin says:

    I dont think Sun Tzu can be applied to our current war. It could be applied with the purpose of defeating 1 individual enemy, but it will not solve the problem of terrorism as a whole. Terrorism is not a WAR, but a philosophy. Fighting a war (country vs country) or individual….all u do is cut of the head of the beast and the beast dies. In the case of Terrorism, it is like a cloud. Just as Communism was a cloud of smoke too. Communism is a philosophy, which was covered up by the media and treated as a beast that can be brought down. The REAL beast was the dictator IN the communist political party. Just as Obama is IN the democratic party. Democracy is not a physical being, but a thought. That is why America exists as well as terrorists. Terrorists can knock off Americans and we can counter….but no matter what it’s a neverending battle between an immovable rock and an unstoppable force. Destroying 1 person will not stop it because democracy as well as terrorism lies in the hearts and minds of those that believe in it. The media today wants a story that makes an impact. It sells. If twisting the definition of a word creates that BIG story of the decade, then so be it.

    • Merlin,

      You said, “The media today wants a story that makes an impact.” True and that equals “Yellow Journalism”. It’s all about making money and accuracy be damned. If slanting a story means sacrificing or leaving out a few facts that would tell another story, then so be it. There is always a good and bad side to most things and this is the bad side to a “free press”.

      As for democracy, America’s Founding Fathers were of a like mind that democracy meant mob rule and they despised the concept, which is why the United States was created as a Republic and nowhere in the Constitution does it say the US was meant to be a democracy as we refer to it today.

      The popularity of the term Democracy and the changes to our political system started to morph in the early 20th century under President Wilson until today we refer to the US as a democracy instead of a republic, which lends support to your theory that intellectual ideas and/or concepts such as Communism, socialism, capitalism, democracy and terrorism are like clouds and like clouds they can easily be blown away and replaced with a different sky as we see in the US when it went from a limited republic to the mob rule of democracy.

      Consider that the US as an early Republic only allowed about 10% of the population to vote, women and children were chattel belonging to men and would remain so for about a century or more and slavery existed in the southern states and when a criminal was convicted of a capital crime that meant the death penalty, execution took place within two weeks or less without appeals that dragged on for years.

Comments are welcome — pro or con. However, comments must focus on the topic of the post, be civil and avoid ad hominem attacks.

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