RALEIGH – The ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu (“Master Sun”) is best known for a work that many say they have read — The Art of War. Few have really done so, for reasons that aren’t hard to understand once you get your hands on the relatively slim volume and then delve into it. It’s a tough read, primarily because of its organization and sometimes-clumsy translations.
Some years ago, Cary-based author and corporate executive Mark McNeilly published two books designed for readers who want to know and apply Sun Tzu’s wisdom but either didn’t or couldn’t make heads or tails of the original work. I’ve just finished one of McNeilly’s two takes, Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare, and recommend it highly.
A former captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, McNeilly chose to approach the task by organizing the master’s observations thematically and providing dozens of historical examples to illustrate key points. He offers six fundamental principles of warcraft, according to Sun Tzu:
• Win all without fighting. McNeilly cites examples as wide-ranging as Hannibal’s triumph at Cannae, British battlefield victories against American revolutionaries, and Germany’s performance during both world wars to illustrate that winning battles is not the same as achieving national objectives, and that accomplishing those objectives without war should always be a leader’s aspiration.
• Avoid strength, attack weakness. This sounds like common sense, but the Western way of war – practiced by ancient Greek hoplites and 20th century European powers – often tended towards the opposite, Clauswitzian notion of a great big, decisive battle to “settle things once and for all.” Yeah, right.
• Deception and foreknowledge. Many wars have been won as much by spies and code-breakers as by troops and materiel.
• Speed and preparation. Moving quickly is a force multiplier, allowing even a numerically inferior army to prevail by applying superior force when and where it is needed most. Watch the NFL playoffs to see what he means.
• Shape your opponent. Prepare the battlefield that you want to fight on, rather than accepting an invitation to the opponent’s chosen ground. Again, this sounds like common sense, but has been frequently ignored by smart, talented, but unsuccessful leaders.
• Character-based leadership. No, really, it exists. Just don’t look for it in recent sessions of Congress.
Although the reader will find many familiar names, places, and conflicts in the book, one of the things I like most about McNeilly’s work is that he reached far across time and the globe to illustrate Sun Tzu’s teachings. You’ll understand a little better why the French lost their war in Indochina, what Hitler was trying to accomplish during his succession of blunders in 1941, how a few hundred Spanish adventurers defeated the massive Aztec empire, and why Winfield Scott is one of America’s least-appreciated military heroes. You’ll also read a bit about one of my favorite historical figures, the Chinese emperor T’ang T’ai-tsung. Through quick and successful military campaigns against his Turkish enemies as well as wise public policies – he cut government spending and tax rates substantially – the emperor gave China decades of peace, prosperity, and international prominence.
The T’ang dynasty did suffer a costly defeat at the hands of zealous Arab forces in 751, but that happens to everybody eventually, it seems.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation