Notes from a Sun Tzu skeptic
In many aspects of our lives, we tend to take certain age-old practices for granted without understanding the underlying principles and context, including our own world of investing – whilst principles of investing are broadly applicable across the world, there are nuances in each market which require a more contextual application. In this article, John F. Sullivan, a former US Army officer who served in China takes a sceptical view of Sun Tzu’s military strategy as expounded in his book – ‘The Art of War’ in terms of its universal applicability across time and place. Indeed, John highlights the fact Chinese military leaders over time themselves have questioned Sun Tzu whereas the West continues to treat his writings as the holy grail of military strategy.
“The main problem, though, is that The Art of War is no longer viewed as merely one entrant within a larger arena of competing strategic ideas. For too many, especially in the West, Sun Tzu is often the lone voice speaking on behalf of millennia of Chinese strategic and military thinking. Michael Handel’s Masters of War, which examines the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western strategic philosophies, exemplifies this issue. While Handel focuses primarily on Clausewitz in examining the Western view of strategy, he also supplements his assessment with the writings of a diverse group of competing theorists from vastly different eras, such as Thucydides, Polybius, Machiavelli, Napoleon, Jomini, Mahan, and Corbett. The Eastern side of the equation focuses exclusively on Sun Tzu, with the exception of a smattering of Mao Zedong quotes. The 2,400 intervening years of Chinese strategic writing and history between Sun and Mao—let alone the centuries preceding Sun Tzu—remain an unexamined black box. Within the curriculum of prestigious strategic studies courses such as the U.S. Army War College and Yale’s Program in Grand Strategy, Sun Tzu retains his status as the sole representative of the entire corpus of Chinese strategic thinking.
This skeptical stance does not suggest that there is nothing of value to be gained from continued study of The Art of War, nor that we should purge it from strategic studies syllabi. There is still much to be admired in the work. “Do not depend on the enemy not coming; depend rather on being ready for him,” should be carved into granite above the main entrance to each of the service’s war colleges. Sun Tzu’s admonition that “a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning,” should be affixed to the cubicle of every staff officer in the Pentagon. But we err in our unchallenged assumption that Sun Tzu also provides us a viable roadmap to achieving these goals. Despite the prevailing conventional wisdom, the text is much more reflective of the character of warfare during the early Warring States era than a treatise on the unchanging nature of war. If we insist on clinging to the false narrative of Sun Tzu’s enduring relevance, we are destined to fare no better in our quest to master strategy than the oblivious archers of Yue.”