Lessons from Sun Tzu's Art of War
"Hence that general
is skilful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and
he is skilful in defence whose opponent does not know what to attack."
What the Bhagvad Gita and
Kautilya’s Arthashastra are to India, Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Wu Chi’s
treatise on the same subject, are to China. In both nations, the teachings
of these books have been absorbed into the psyche of the nation and
their precepts are part of the lore and race memory of the inhabitants.
The difference is that while in India, westernised Generals, Statesmen
and Bureaucrats try to ignore the "native" teachings of these
books, the Chinese have not only absorbed them into their psyche but
draw constant inspiration from them in their entire spectrum of strategic
thinking, be it in matters of security, commerce, or international relations.
Every strategic step that the Chinese take can be related to one or
the other precept propounded by Sun Tzu (circa 500 BC).
It was the late Chinese
Premier Zhou en Lai who first tutored Pakistan’s Field Marshal Ayub
Khan into fighting India on a long-term basis. In order to do this,
the late Premier advised the visiting General to raise a force to act
behind the enemy’s rear, to cut off its logistics and destroy strategic
centres and so on. Premier Zhou cautioned Pakistan that in any war of
head-on collision, Pakistan had neither the strategic depth nor the
economic strength, or for that matter the numerical superiority to overpower
India. Pakistan proved to be an apt pupil and as we are experiencing,
India is fighting a low intensity war with Pakistan for close on two
decades, proving right the Chinese contention that it is only through
prolonged conflict with India that Pakistan could overcome her military
handicaps in the numbers game.
This "war of a
thousand cuts" falls very much within the precepts of Sun Tzu.
Let us now for the moment, examine which sayings or teachings of Sun
Tzu are applicable to the situation as it prevails on India’s borders
with Pakistan today, and whether there are any lessons to be drawn.
Mobilisation of Troops
It is many months now since
India has moved its Armed Forces to the border and then made them sit
it out while diplomatic pressures are sought to be put on Pakistan.
What does Sun Tzu have to say about such a move?
not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there
is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.
ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen;
no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.
it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you
Somehow, one gets the
impression that the movement of the Indian Army to the western border
was without any specific plan of action, without any delineation of
targets, without specific objectives having been decided. It was a threat,
a measure of the government’s pique, a venting of the nation’s spleen,
so to speak.
The Long Wait
Our troops are waiting
for months now at the border. Boredom and hardships can take their toll.
Morale may drop. Homesickness is likely. Incidence of "temporary
duties" could rise. Sun Tzu is most emphatically against such a
course of action. He says:
victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their
ardour will be damped.
if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not
be equal to the strain.
when your weapons are dulled, your ardour damped, your strength exhausted
and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage
of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert
the consequences that must ensue.
though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never
been seen associated with long delays. While speed may sometimes be
injudicious, tardiness can never be anything but foolish.
As severe an indictment
against prolonged posturing and overlong mobilisation as one has heard
for two millennia!
The Heat of Battle
Sun Tzu is very clear that
in order to derive maximum advantage from the fighting resources of
troops, they must be brought up to fighting pitch:
in order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger; that
there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their
The men were very much
roused to anger after the attack on the Indian Parliament and ready
to annihilate the enemy. This fever pitch of anger and motivation is
being allowed to sink into the desert sands of apathy, boredom and homesickness.
will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all
It is very important
that the levels of motivation are high at all levels – not just the
Generals or Commanding Officers, but also the rank and file must be
fired by a zeal that brooks no obstruction or stopping.
A long period of wait
at the border runs counter to Sun Tzu’s next aphorism:
will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
Marking time for months
after assuming offensive / defensive positions allows the enemy to prepare
himself. All element of surprise, even pressure, disappears. This harks
back to the days of ancient India when armies would camp weeks, even
months at the plains of Panipat, waiting for the invader to cross all
natural obstacles and barriers and coolly join set-piece battles after
he had enjoyed full physical and mental rest and recuperation!
As is well known, Sun
Tzu repeatedly stresses the value of ‘bluff’, ‘deception’ and ‘surprise’
in his treatise.
warfare is based on deception.
when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we
must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe
we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
There is the further
danger inherent in any delay in that it gives the enemy time to gather
intelligence about our troop dispositions, equipment, possible plans
of action, and so on. As Sun Tzu says:
is through the dispositions of an army that its condition may be discovered.
Conceal your dispositions, and your condition will remain secret,
which leads to victory; show your dispositions, and your condition
will become patent, which leads to defeat.
At the same time, Sun
Tzu opines that the time and place of joining battle must be left to
the Generals and not dictated by their political masters:
will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the
On the point of arousal
and anger, one of the old commentators on Sun Tzu’s treatise has a word
of advice for the Pakistani Generals too. Advice that they are likely
to follow if war does break out. A caution that we Indians are helping
them to observe:
says Chang Yu, "if a spirit of anger can be made to pervade all
ranks of an army at one and the same time, its onset will be irresistible.
Now the spirit of the enemy’s soldiers will be keenest when they have
newly arrived on the scene, and it is therefore our cue not to fight
at once, but to wait until their ardour and enthusiasm have worn off,
and then strike. It is in this way that they may be robbed of their
Indeed, the longer
they have to wait, more their keenness of spirit shall dull. In any
possible conflict over the next few weeks, this delay only dulls the
fighting spirit of the men and also allows their anger against the enemy
to simmer down.
clever general, therefore, avoids an army when its spirit is keen,
but attacks it when it is sluggish and inclined to return. This is
the art of studying moods.
Is General Pervez Musharraf
listening? Is South Block? A word of caution to New Delhi from Sun Tzu:
we know that the enemy is open to attack, but are unaware that our
own men are not in a condition to attack, we have gone only halfway
is the essence of war.
At the same time, Sun Tzu
warns the Pakistanis not to be complacent:
the enemy’s troops march up angrily and remain facing ours for a long
time without either joining battle or taking themselves off again,
the situation is one that demands great vigilance and circumspection.
On Proposals for Talks
Interestingly, Sun Tzu
has a comment on Pervez Musharraf’s repeated offers of talks and "peace
offers" without any concrete agenda or proposal. He advises us:
proposals unaccompanied by a sworn covenant indicate a plot.
For Vedic Astrologers
In times of war, Sun Tzu
advises that astrologers and soothsayers be banished or isolated as
morale can be very adversely affected:
the taking of omens, and do away with superstitious doubts. Then,
until death itself comes, no calamity need be feared.
Trigger Happy Cowboys
Sun Tzu was not a belligerent
war-monger. He enjoins states to be very circumspect in starting wars.
may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by contentment.
But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into
being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.
As clear a warning
as any to both parties to avoid pressing the nuclear button. A few battles,
a few thousand casualties, a few decades of bellicosity, what are these
in the history of nations? Have we not seen Germany and France, traditional
enemies sup together lately at the same EEC table? Have not arch enemies
USA and Russia both just taken shelter under the NATO umbrella? Does
any politician, General or government have the right to take a step
that dooms the country to total annihilation or to thousands of years
as a radio-active wasteland? Would generations to come view such leaders
as great patriots or merely as puerile, trigger-happy brats?
Finally, I just cannot
resist the temptation to sum up by quoting yet another of Sun Tzu’s
apt aphorisms which puts the whole art of war in a nutshell:
it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after
the victory has been won. Whereas he who is destined to defeat first
fights and afterwards looks for victory.
Ho Shih (a commentator)
thus expounds the paradox: "In warfare, first lay plans which will
ensure victory, and then lead your army to battle; if you will not begin
with stratagem but rely on brute strength alone, victory will no longer
Plans that ensure victory
require intelligence. Intelligence about the enemy’s strengths, weaknesses,
troop dispositions, morale, resources of men and material, strategic
reserves, etc. In other words, knowledge is power and thus denial of
information, or intelligence is also power. The power of asymmetry.
The bulk of this power is to be exercised before battle is joined for
it to lead to any meaningful success or victory.
If, therefore, as appears to observers
and analysts, the purpose of the troop movement to the western border
was merely intended as a "message" and there was indeed no
intention of undertaking any military action, then the message has served
only a partial purpose and also impact as a negative effect upon troop
morale, apart from the wear and tear of sensitive equipment and munitions
of war. On the other hand, if there was indeed a thought out battle
plan with clearly defined strategic objectives and tactical targets,
then having to mark time at the border has the inherent danger of exposing
some of these tactics and action plans and stratagems to the enemy,
thereby rendering them useless for future use. On the other hand, as
an exercise in logistics, Op Parikrama would perhaps go down in the
annals of military history as a training manoeuvre par excellence! It
would also act as an apt reminder to our Armed Forces that their Raison
d’ être is to fight the foreign enemy at our borders and not merely
undertake CI and IS duties!