Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and the Mistake in Iraq

I just finished reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” edited by James Clavell. Sun Tzu is an ancient Chinese philosopher that wrote the treatise on war more than 2,500 years ago. Reading it was tragic. I simply wish Paul Bremer (former U.S. Administrator of Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority), former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (who served in this capacity under Presidents Bush and Ford), and former Vice President Dick Cheney (who also was Secretary of Defense under the first President Bush) would have read it, or, if they had read it, I would like to know how they reconcile their Iraq policy choices with its suggestions. (As aside: Given the wealth of foreign policy experience that President George W. Bush had at his disposal including the above names plus Colin Powell, it is shocking that the United States could lose, in such a short time all the international goodwill it received following 9/11. In the end, this is the biggest failure of the Bush 43Presidency.)

But perhaps politics and war don’t mix, unless the goal of war is defense or conquest. Thus, using The Art of War as a guide, the political decision to disband the Iraqi Army was a mistake. (As I have argues and also noted in the very average recent movie the Green Zone with Matt Damon.) It flies in the face of the Art of War. Sun Tzu says “The captured soldiers should be treated and kept. This is called using the conquered foe to augment one’s own strength.” Soldiers take orders, period, regardless of their authority, and they could have been treated with respect and helped with stability in Iraq.

In addition, The Art of War does not speak to nation-building or spreading democracy. Instead it speaks to empire building. While imperialism may be possible, I truly question the ability of another nation to impose its own socio-political regime change on another nation without using extreme and shocking (and immoral) force (e.g., on Japan during WWII); a tool that The Art of War does not contemplate.

After reading The Art of War, I recalled Jimmy Carter’s NY Times Op-Ed entitled "Just War — or a Just War?" from March 9, 2003 where he lists the criteria that must be met before going to war.

(1) “The war can be waged only as a last resort, with all nonviolent options exhausted.”

(2) “The war’s weapons must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants.”

(3) “Its violence must be proportional to the injury we have suffered.”

(4) “The attackers must have legitimate authority sanctioned by the society they profess to represent.”

(5) “The peace it establishes must be a clear improvement over what exists.”

I’ve come to an even more well-reasoned conclusion that the decision to engage in an Iraq War could not have been justified on political and policy grounds, and, I believe that, once waged, the war was not waged properly. The political reasons for the mistake of going to war were vetted during the last presidential campaign (e.g., WMDs, oil, stability in the Middle East). But what I wonder is whether the failure to wage war properly resulted from ignoring The Art of War or our generals, or because impossible political goals drove military decisions.

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