Sun Tzu vs. USNA
12 Strong, by Doug Stanton, retells the story of the beginning of the War on Terror following the attacks on September 11, 2001. In the months after the terrorist attacks a small group of American Special Forces touched down in Afghanistan and began fighting alongside the local tribes. The mission was unlike anything the men had trained for; the soldiers had to learn to battle on horseback in unknown territory with shifty characters as allies. Given these circumstances, the Americans were able to adapt to the new style of warfare and win critical battles against the Taliban despite unfavorable odds. Some form of war or conflict has existed since the beginning of the human race, but the way wars are fought have changed significantly. In the modern age, the Naval Academy teaches very different tactics than that of the philosophy on war in Imperial China.
In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the over-arching philosophy is that war is formulaic and that the side that possesses the ideal combination of components according to Master Sun’s outlines of fundamentals, essentials, and masteries will be victorious. Each chapter of The Art of War serves as a blueprint that delineates steps that need to be taken or quotas that need to be fulfilled in order to have the strongest army. Master Sun scrutinizes each movement in battle down to how many miles a general should have his soldiers walk in a day in order to optimize “gain” and minimize “danger”. Because of this, I believe that Sun Tzu’s writings turn war into a science more than an art form.
I also believe that Master Sun’s attempt to “12-step” war sets one up for failure. Sun Tzu is not a hypocrite, but his philosophy invalidates itself. For example, he (allegedly) says, “The Way of War is / A Way of Deception,” and continues to ruminate on the strategy of expecting the unexpected from your enemy while executing movements opposite of what you believe your enemy perceives of you. Master Sun tells us to follow very specific guidelines to achieve optimum offensive strategy and while navigating “the fray”, but he also tells us to expect the unexpected. I believe that the two are mutually exclusive. This strategy does not account for new tactics being employed by enemy forces that a general will have to respond to. Following Master Sun’s philosophy to a T would leave a force jarringly unable to adapt to different styles of battle.
At the Naval Academy, much like how Special Forces had to operate in Afghanistan, we are taught that war is not a formula, but a reaction. We cannot predict every possible scenario, and attempting to do so would be futile. Instead, we are taught to develop critical thinking skills that will be applicable in a myriad of circumstances. Let’s take, for example, two of Master Sun’s teachings: “Know the enemy, / Know yourself, / And victory / Is never in doubt, / Not in a hundred battles,” and “In War, … If fewer in number, / Lie low.” The soldiers in 12 Strong were in foreign territory where they did not know the ins and outs of politics and tribal relations. In their case, they did not know the enemy (the Taliban) let alone themselves because they could not trust the tribes and Afghan leaders they had to rely on. Furthermore, they were outnumbered forty to one in almost every battle. The Special Forces fell back onto their training: using critical thinking skills to determine what their next move should be. They couldn’t follow a checklist because none existed.
I believe that the critical thinking techniques and tactics taught at the Naval Academy are superior to Sun Tzu’s philosophy that war can be broken down into succinct procedures. This philosophy is the only way a force will be able to adapt quickly enough to the evolving forms of warfare today. However, we can still learn from Sun Tzu’s writings on the characteristics that make worthy generals and skillful warriors.
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Sun Tzu’s The Art of War
12 Strong by Doug Stanton