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Lessons from Sun Tzu's Art of War
Amrish Sahgal

"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."
Sun Tzu

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?

l 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.

l No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.

l If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.

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:

l If victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardour will be damped.

l Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.

l Now, 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.

l Thus, 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:

l Now 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 rewards.

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.

l He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.

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:

l He 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.

l All warfare is based on deception.

l Hence, 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:

l It 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:

l He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

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:

"In war," 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 keen spirit."

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.

l A 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:

l If 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 towards victory.

After all:

l Rapidity is the essence of war.

At the same time, Sun Tzu warns the Pakistanis not to be complacent:

l If 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:

l Peace 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:

l Prohibit 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. He says:

l Anger 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:

l Thus 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 be assured."

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!





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