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In Sun-tzu and other Chinese writings, the highest achievement of arms is to defeat an adversary without fighting. He wrote: “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.” Actual combat is just one among many means towards the goal of subduing an adversary. War contains too many surprises to be a first resort. It can lead to ruinous losses, as has been seen time and again. It can have the unwanted effect of inspiring heroic efforts in an enemy, as the United States learned in Vietnam, and as the Japanese found out after Pearl Harbour.

Aware of the uncertainties of a military campaign, Sun-tzu advocated war only after the most thorough preparations. Even then, it should be quick and clean. Ideally, the army is just an instrument to deal the final blow to an enemy already weakened by isolation, poor morale, and disunity. Ever since Sun-tzu, the Chinese have been seen as masters of subtlety who take measured actions to manipulate an adversary without his knowledge. The dividing line between war and peace can be obscure. Low level violence often is the backdrop to a larger strategic campaign. The unwitting victim, focused on the day-to-day events, never realizes what’s happening to him until it’s too late. History holds many examples. The Viet Cong lured French and US infantry deep into the jungle, weakening their morale over several years. The mobile army of the United States was designed to fight on the plains of Europe, where it could quickly move unhindered from one spot to the next. The jungle did more than make quick movement impossible; broken down into smaller units and scattered in isolated bases, US forces were deprived of the feeling of support and protection that ordinarily comes from being part of a big army.

The isolation of US troops in Vietnam was not just a logistical detail, something that could be overcome by, for instance, bringing in reinforcements by helicopter. In a big army reinforcements are readily available. It was Napoleon who realized the extraordinary effects on morale that come from being part of a larger formation. Just the knowledge of it lowers the soldier’s fear and increases his aggressiveness. In the jungle and on isolated bases, this feeling was removed. The thick vegetation slowed down the reinforcements and made it difficult to find stranded units. Soldiers felt they were on their own.

More important, by altering the way the war was fought, the Viet Cong stripped the United States of its belief in the inevitability of victory, as it had done to the French before them. Morale was high when these armies first went to Vietnam. Only after many years of debilitating and demoralizing fighting did Hanoi launch its decisive attacks, at Dien Bien Phu in $1954$ and against Saigon in $1975.$ It should be recalled that in the final push to victory the North Vietnamese abandoned their jungle guerrilla tactics completely, committing their entire army of twenty divisions to pushing the South Vietnamese into collapse. This final battle, with the enemy’s army all in one place, was the one that the United States had desperately wanted to fight in $1965.$ When it did come out into the open in $1975,$ Washington had already withdrawn its forces and there was no possibility of re-intervention.

The Japanese early in Second World War used a modern form of the indirect attack, one that relied on stealth and surprise for its effects. At Pearl Harbour, in the Philippines, and in South-east Asia, stealth and surprise were attained by sailing under radio silence so that the navy’s movements could not be tracked, Moving troops aboard ships into South-east Asia made it appear that the Japanese army was also ’invisible’. Attacks against Hawaii and Singapore seemed, to the American and British defenders, to come from nowhere. In Indonesia and the Philippines the Japanese attack was even faster than the German blitz against France in the West.

The greatest military surprises in American history have all been in Asia. Surely, there is something going on here beyond the purely technical difficulties of detecting enemy movements. Pearl Harbour, the Chinese intervention in Korea, and the Tet offensive in Vietnam all came out of a tradition of surprise and stealth. US technical intelligence — the location of enemy units and their movements — was greatly improved after each surprise, but with no noticeable improvement in the American ability to foresee or prepare what would happen next. There is a cultural divide here, not just a technical one. Even when it was possible to track an army with intelligence satellites, as when Iraq invaded Kuwait or when Syria and Egypt attacked Israel, surprise was achieved. The United States was stunned by Iraq’s attack on Kuwait even though it had satellite pictures of Iraqi troops massing at the border.

The exception that proves the point that cultural differences obscure the West’s understanding of Asian behaviour was the Soviet Union’s $1979$ invasion of Afghanistan. This was fully anticipated and understood in advance. There was no surprise because the United States understood Moscow’s world view and thinking. It could anticipate Soviet action almost as well as the Soviets themselves, because the Soviet Union was really a western country.

The difference between the eastern and the western way of war is striking. The West’s great strategic writer, Clausewitz, linked war to politics, as did Sun-tzu. Both were opponents of militarism, of turning war over to the generals. But there, all similarity ends. Clausewitz wrote that the way to achieve a larger political purpose is through destruction of the enemy’s army. After observing Napoleon conquer Europe by smashing enemy armies to bits, Clausewitz made his famous remark in On War $(1932)$ that combat is the continuation of politics by violent means. Morale and unity are important, but they should be harnessed for the ultimate battle. If the eastern way of war is embodied by the stealthy archer, the metaphorical western counterpart is the swordsman charging forward, seeking a decisive showdown, eager to administer the blow that will obliterate the enemy once and for all. In this view, war proceeds along a fixed course and occupies a finite extent of time, like a play in three acts with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end, the final scene, decides the issue for good.

When things don’t work out quite this way, the western military mind feels tremendous frustration. Sun-tzu’s great disciples, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, are respected in Asia for their clever use of indirection and deception to achieve an advantage over stronger adversaries. But in the West their approach is seen as underhanded and devious. To the American strategic mind, the Viet Cong guerilla did not fight fairly. They should have come out into the open and fought like men, instead of hiding in the jungle and sneaking around like a cat in the night.

  1. Actual combat is the principal means of subduing an adversary.
  2. War should be undertaken only after thorough preparation.
  3. War is linked to politics.
  4. War should not be left to the generals alone.
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