How to “FAIL” at the “Art of War”

November 8, 2011

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.”

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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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Education in the Real World – Part 1/2

September 5, 2011

Many Americans live in a fantasy world, as you will learn, which may explain why fantasies and animated movies for children often earn so much money at the box office in the United States while more realistic films of a literary nature earn little.

When Henry Kissinger wrote, “American exceptionalism is missionary. It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world,” he may not have realized that spreading these idealistic values applies within the US too, from whichever group has enough political power to make it happen.

Two of these values are how to raise and educate children as if all children are equal and there should be no obstacles to success. The only parallel comparison I can make is that what has happened in America since the 1960s, is similar to what happened in China during the Cultural Revolution but without the slogans.

However, like China during the Cultural Revolution, teachers in the US may face denunciation but for different reasons. At least in China, that insanity ended in 1976.

In the US, this led to a public education system that now teaches most children as if they will all go to college, find happiness and succeed equally.

This American Cultural Revolution also spawned the self-esteem movement in parenting and education, which still raises and teaches the average American child to believe what she dreams will come true (even if she doesn’t work for it).

Due to this wide spread belief among many Americans, a law was passed by President G. W. Bush in 2001 called the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which mandated that America’s Public schools had to be successful with all  students from every walk of life and ethnicity by 2014 or be considered a failure.

NCLB did not require students to study or parents to support teachers or education. The penalties for failure are severe and were designed to only fall on the shoulders of America’s public school teachers.

If a teacher was not successful teaching every child from every walk of life that was enrolled in his class, he could lose his teaching job and see the school where he taught closed even if he succeeded with more than half of his students.

Many factors may cause a child not to cooperate with his teachers or learn in school. When we consider the impact of poverty, hunger, health, safety, environment, lifestyle, and broken families on children, not every child is equal.

When it comes to school, if a child’s mind is occupied by other, more pressing priorities such as hunger or safety, education often takes a back seat to survival, which is a fact that many in the United States refuse to accept.

However, when we study the education systems of other countries such as China, it seems that these real life issues ignored in the United States are treated as a reality of life.

Continued on September 6, 2011 in Education in the Real World – Part 2

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This edited and revised post originally appeared on August 8, 2011, at Crazy Normal as Civil Disobedience and No Child Left Behind – Part 4

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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.

To subscribe to “iLook China”, look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar, click on it then follow directions.


America’s Dual Dynasty

February 22, 2010

In America, the outcome for a Presidential Election is decided by the Electoral College, card-carrying members from the two major political parties. The popular vote does not elect the American president.

Today, the Communist Party acts similar to America’s Electoral College without the hypocrisy of a popular vote. Critics argue the American Electoral College is inherently undemocratic so China and America have more in common than anyone wants to admit.

Read Democracy and the threat of Authoritarianism, to see what I mean.

For this reason, President George W. Bush was elected America’s forty-third president while the popular vote went to Al Gore by more than a million. If American citizens really decided who leads America, Al Gore would have been America’s 43rd President.

Read China’s Modern Dynasty


Power Corrupts

February 9, 2010

The sun never set on the British Empire until endless wars brought that empire to its knees. I’m sure that at one time, a British citizen could easily say with arrogance, “If Russia (or China, or Germany, or Italy, or France or Spain) doesn’t behave, we will spank them.” And Britain did spank these countries and others for centuries until the empire was bankrupt and burdened with debt—sound familiar?  

I read a piece in The Huffington Post recently and was reminded how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Then I remembered what an “old” friend said in an e-mail.  This friend is a conservative, born-again Christian. He claims to be guided by scripture. He believes that George W. Bush was the greatest if not one of the greatest American presidents. He also believes in nation building as GWB attempted in Iraq.

He makes part of his living as a handyman. He lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment and drives a very-used car that he keeps running by visiting junk yards for parts and doing the work himself. He also votes Republican and bashes evil liberals at every chance while listening to radio-talk shows like Dennis Prager and reading authors like Ann Coulter.

This friend wrote, “If China doesn’t behave, we will spank them.” He also wrote once that Communism was evil. My reply was that individuals like Mao or Stalin were corrupted by their power and did evil things, but not all communists were evil.

I always thought that ‘power corrupts’ only applied to people in powerful positions like corporate CEOs or elected officials.  I was wrong.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

If you want to subscribe to iLook China, there is a “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar.


Deng Xiaoping’s 20/20 Vision

February 5, 2010

True, under Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976), China suffered but that isn’t the whole story. During Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, thirty-seven million died—many from starvation. Mao’s form of communist socialism did not work.

On June 30, 1984, Deng Xiaoping said, “Given that China is still backward, what road can we take to develop the productive forces and raise the people’s standard of living? … Capitalism can only enrich less than 10 per cent of the Chinese population; it can never enrich the remaining more than 90 per cent. But if we adhere to socialism and apply the principle of distribution to each according to his work, there will not be excessive disparities in wealth. Consequently, no polarization will occur as our productive forces become developed over the next 20 to 30 years.”

Deng Xiaoping on the cover of Time Magazine

Deng Xiaoping may have been right. Bruce Einhom writing for Business Week, Countries with the Biggest Gaps Between Rich and Poor, October 16, 2009, listed the top countries with the biggest gaps. America was number three on the list. China wasn’t on the list—yet.

What does this mean for America? (CBS/AP)  The Census Bureau reports that 12.5 percent of Americans, or 37.3 million people, were living in poverty in 2007, up from 36.5 million in 2006.

After 2000, the situation in America deteriorated quickly (with President George W. Bush in the White House)—all of the gains in middle-class economic security since WWII were erased within a few years.

PBS reported in “Middle Class Squeeze” (December 13, 2002), the shape of income distribution in America is changing and many are finding it increasingly difficult to afford housing while keeping up with necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and health care.”

What does capitalism, Chinese style, look like? Under Deng Xiaoping’s economic policies, China became the world’s factory floor.

Prior to 1979, the year China opened its economy to world trade, it was rare to find anything made in China. Since then, exports from China have increased 10,000%, and this year China’s economy become the second largest in the world as Japan slipped to third place.

In the last decade, something happened in China that Mao thought he had destroyed. China grew a middle class. During a trip to China in 2008, we saw the Chinese middle class everywhere we went. Instead of the majority of tourists being foreigners, they are now Chinese.

A middle-class family in China usually owns an apartment, a car, eats out and takes vacations. National Geographic in the May 2008 magazine, said, “they owe their well-being to the government’s (Deng Xiaoping’s) economic policies…”

Current estimates show China’s growth will continue and grow between five and eight percent a year. China’s real GDP growth accelerated on a year-over year basis by a full percentage point, rising from 7.9% in the second quarter to 8.9% in the third quarter (reported Oct. 22, 2009).

Learn about China’s Expanding Middle Class

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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.

To subscribe to “iLook China”, look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar, click on it then follow directions.