- - Sunday, August 12, 2018


By Sun Tzu

Translated by Peter Harris

Everyman’s Library, $24, 312 pages

Military theory comes in two forms. The first is an attempt to understand the nature of war and its relation to politics. Clausewitz and Machiavelli represent the best of this school.

The second and more prevalent form falls into the “how to do it” category. Most such works in this type of venue are written by former successful practitioners of the art and science of war. Most military professionals would agree that Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” remains at the top of the former list. Peter Harris has given us a new translation, and perhaps a new twist, on this timeless classic.

Chinese in either its Mandarin or Cantonese versions, is a notoriously hard language to translate into English. As in Arabic, some characters have multiple meaning depending on the context in which they are used. Most former military officers of the Vietnam era were raised on Marine Brig. Gen. Samuel Griffith’s 1963 translation. Griffith’s translation became popular during the Vietnam War because North Vietnam’s brilliant Gen. Giap was known to be a Sun Tzu student, as was Chairman Mao, who was then considered to be the primary sponsor of the North’s cause.

Before 1963, Western interest in Sun Tzu was spotty at best. It is highly unlikely that Erwin Rommel or George Washington had ever read Sun Tzu, but both made excellent use of deception, feigned retreats, reconnaissance and surprise to win their most notable victories in ways recommended in “The Art of War.” Critics of Sun Tzu have complained that he depends too much on the non-military aspects of war fighting rather than the mere act of trying to kill more of the enemy than he kills of you.

Washington used campfires to cloak his disengagement from a superior enemy in several situations. Rommel won many battles by withdrawing his smaller tank force through a line of the superb 88-millimeter anti-tank guns allowing those weapons to break the momentum of the pursuing British allowing his tanks to counterattack on more favorable terms. Sun Tzu would have approved in both cases.

Mr. Harris tends more than Griffith to emphasize the non-military aspects of national power — economic, information, diplomatic means.

Retired Gen. David Petraeus tends to agree on a more balanced approach in his foreword to the Harris translation. Gen. Petraeus was famous in his philosophy of a mixed military, diplomatic, information and economic approach to counterinsurgency rather than using the military sledgehammer as the main effort, and it worked well for him in Iraq.

Mr. Harris is a notable New Zealand scholar, but he has also been heavily involved in humanitarian issues, and this probably colors his views on the non-military aspects of war and policy. In Griffith’s defense, he was writing in a context of trying to understand how America’s 1963-era enemies might be expected to apply Sun Tzu. Mr. Harris has the advantage of over a half-century of military history against very diverse military situations to try to put Sun Tzu into a modern framework.

Perhaps the greatest academic controversy regarding Sun Tzu’s writing over the years is his advocacy of allowing a surrounded enemy an apparent avenue of escape to achieve political goals short of absolute destruction of the enemy army. This runs against the American way of war from Grant to MacArthur where the complete destruction of the enemy’s army was seen as the acme of success.

However, in Vietnam the Communist side made great use of negotiations to convince the Americans to withdraw from the war. The North Vietnamese had every intention of attacking once the Americans were safely gone. This reinforces the old military adage that strategy and tactics depend on the terrain and situation. The Harris translation should be read in that context.

In any case, it is a mistake to try to put the views of any military theorist into a “one size fits all” template. Several unsuccessful American Civil War Union generals tried to mimic Napoleon by applying the works of Baron Jomini who was viewed as Napoleon’s greatest interpreter of the 19th century. It turned out that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson had a very different cut on both Napoleon and Jomini.

The truly great generals of both modern and classical military times have been voracious readers of military history and have practiced recognitional decision making; “I know of a situation like this in the past” and they react accordingly. Any translation of Sun Tzu should be read in the context of a far greater knowledge of military literature.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel. He lectures at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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