Art of war

THE truly influential books can be counted on the fingers of both hands. Any reasonable list would certainly include Sun-Tzu’s ‘Art of War’. Written well over two thousand years ago, it has come to be recognised as an essential work for generals and commanders, as well as for rulers. Increasingly, it is being studied by corporate executives for tips about leadership qualities.

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 22 Feb 2007, 8:15 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:09 AM

While unsure if Pakistan’s military academies and staff college have made the Art of War required reading, I do believe that one of their most distinguished alumni, General Pervez Musharraf, has ignored the Chinese thinker’s very first dictum. The book opens with this sage advice: "Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analysed."

However, Pakistan’s president-general is not the only commander to ignore this wise counsel. Time and again, politicians and generals have approached war as a first resort, instead of the last. But as Sun-Tzu says:

"If it is not advantageous, do not move. If objectives cannot be attained, do not employ the army. Unless endangered, do not engage in warfare. The ruler cannot mobilise the army out of personal anger. The general cannot engage in battle because of personal frustration. When it is advantageous, move; when not advantageous, stop. Anger can revert to happiness, annoyance can revert to joy, but a vanquished state cannot be revived, the dead cannot be brought back to life."

This last phrase would be an apt memorial to the hundreds of soldiers who fell on the heights of Kargil eight years ago. Or, indeed, the thousands who have perished in Iraq. Both conflicts, although completely different in nature and scope, reflect the same rash impulse to rush into battle without sufficient analysis and thought.

The brief but intense conflict in Kargil in 1999 demonstrates the consequences of focussing on tactics, while losing sight of larger strategic considerations. Here, without provocation, the Pakistan army sent thousands of infiltrators to occupy the heights in the dead of winter. This covert move was a brilliant tactical success as it caught the Indians entirely unprepared. But as they mobilised quickly, and Islamabad became diplomatically isolated, Pakistani troops became highly vulnerable not just to artillery fire and air attacks, but also to the bitter cold and disrupted supply lines. Had Bill Clinton not provided the means to a humiliating retreat, the entire Pakistani contingent might have been captured or killed.

Clearly, there had been little or no analysis of the consequences of the Pakistani thrust. Sun-Tzu, had he been alive, would have pointed out the many holes in GHQ’s plans. Firstly, Pakistan was hardly endangered. Then, there was no prospect of clear-cut victory. But there was very real danger of the conflict spreading to the entire border, and then going nuclear.

If generals can rush to war without adequate thought, so can politicians. As the Gulf War and the subsequent occupation of Iraq continues along its destructive path, a steady stream of disclosures has made it abundantly clear that from the very outset, a cabal of right-wing ideologues took America into battle without much thought to the fallout. The results of this mindless action might last longer than we think. And although Sun-Tzu’s timeless text is taught at West Point, it seems the Pentagon was forced to embark on this mad adventure against its better judgment.

For Sun-Tzu, the best general is the one who can attain victory without having to fight his enemy: "Thus, the highest realisation of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities... Thus one who excels at employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle... and destroys other people’s states without prolonged fighting. He must fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of ‘preservation.’ Thus his weapons will not become dull, and the gains can be preserved. This is the strategy for planning offensives." It seems that the Kargil operation was designed to pay political dividends: the idea was to force India to negotiate seriously over Kashmir. But anybody who was in touch with mainstream Indian opinion on Kashmir could have told Musharraf that he did not have a hope of succeeding in his goals, even if the military manoeuvre had been a complete success. However, relying solely on their ill-formed diplomatic and political ideas, Pakistani generals convinced themselves that they would get what they wanted: a way to break the deadlock.

The reality is that warfare today is far more complex than it was in Sun-Tzu’s times. Although his basic philosophy has stood the test of time remarkable well, technology, economics and international diplomacy have changed the nature of warfare. Time has been telescoped; distances shrunk; and weaponry made infinitely more lethal. Thus the margins for error are far narrower. Miscalculation can cause nuclear annihilation, and misunderstanding can lead to carnage on an unimaginable scale.

As we watch the build-up to a possible American attack on Iran, we can only hope those planning for this contingency have studied the lessons of the ‘Art of War’ well. Currently, Iran does not threaten either the United States or Israel, whatever the rhetoric of President Ahmedenijade might suggest. Iran is an ancient and proud state that wants to be treated with respect. While the temptation to strike at its nuclear facilities might be strong, Western commanders and politicians should pause and reflect on the consequences.

It should be clear that Iran is not without the means to retaliate both militarily and economically. And it will lash back with both conventional and unconventional weapons and methods. The region and, indeed, the whole world, will be in turmoil for years.

Given the extremely tenuous nature of a possible victory, Sun-Tzu would have advised inaction on the military front, while concentrating on a diplomatic solution. This is precisely what many sane people are counselling. So for a change, will Bush and Co please give peace a chance?

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani writer based in London. He can be reached at

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