Ancient Words of War Wisdom

CHINA'S most venerated military strategist has some advice for United States generals fighting Saddam Hussein: ``At the beginning, when enticing the enemy into combat, appear as shy as a young maiden.

``Move like the wind or stand firm as the forest; be as destructive as fire or as immovable as a mountain; remain as impenetrable as darkness or strike suddenly like a thunderbolt.''

So speaks Sun Tzu.

China's poetic sage of war has won disciples in recent years from among foreign executives, diplomats, politicians, athletes, and generals because of his simple insights on how to effortlessly vanquish an opponent.

``The military philosophy conceived by Master Sun can be applied to any field where there are two sides opposite to one another,'' says Wu Rusong, a strategist in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Master Sun's work, ``The Art of War'' (published in the United States by Shambhala, Boston and London, 1988), is reportedly a breast-pocket favorite of many commanders and front-line US Marines involved in the liberation of Kuwait. Gen. Alfred Gray, commandant of the corps, ordered all his troops last year to read the classic.

China's central military commission recently gave a similar command to several top generals, a PLA officer said on condition of anonymity.

But it is the enduring relevance rather than current popularity of Sun's work that best testifies to his sagacity: General Sun lived some 2,400 years ago.

``It's quite amazing that at that early age [in history], Sun Tzu set down principles of war without having any superstition involved in it,'' says political scientist George Totten.

```The Art of War' is really basic good sense,'' says Dr. Totten, a professor at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Sun is said to have scrawled his suggestions for strategy and tactics on bamboo strips during the latter part of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-475 BC).

Most notably, Sun's book focuses on aspects of warfare beyond combat: the imperatives of deception, espionage, and of fighting for a moral cause using a minimum of force.

``According to the ancients, the truly great in warfare are those who not only win but win with such ease and ingenuity that their wisdom and courage often go unrecognized,'' says the august strategist.

Both sides in the Gulf war could find astute guidance in the 13-chapter treatise (see boxed excerpts).

For instance, Saddam's commander could note Sun's counsel that, ``If he is sure of defeat, a general should not engage in combat, even though his sovereign orders him to attack.''

Combatants in nonviolent, workaday wars could also deploy master Sun's wisdom: marketers against business rivals, for instance, or diplomats at the negotiating table and politicians on the campaign trail, say foreign and Chinese students of Sun.

And many do, with corporate raider Asher Edelman and pollster/campaign strategist Patrick Caddell among the ancient general's most prominent disciples.

China's government is so eager to promote the work that the official press has thrust the book within the grasp of the world's most powerful commander-in-chief.

Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, President Bush has kept the ``Art of War'' on his Oval Office desk alongside a biography of Julius Caesar, according to the Yangcheng Evening News.

This comes as no surprise, the official newspaper says, because Mr. Bush carried the book with him throughout the 1988 presidential campaign.

Apparently heeding Sun's lesson in deception, the newspaper also reports that ``Harvard and Columbia business schools require their students to learn `The Art of War' by heart.''

The recent rediscovery of Sun among China's top brass is ironic, given how Beijing in the past decade has prided itself on training a professional officer corps along the lines of modern military science from the West.

Still, the books of Karl Marx and Mao Zedong have the brightest sheen at military academies and think tanks in China, says Mr. Wu.

``Master Sun's works are the military ideas of the exploiting class and should not be confused with the ideas of the proletariat class,'' says Wu.

At the same time, Wu acknowledges that Mao drew liberally from the ideas of Sun and other ancient strategists, particularly during the period of communist guerrilla warfare during the 1920s and 1930s.

Beyond the Gulf war and other ``zero-sum'' conflicts, Sun's ideas have limited value today because they are unsuited to peaceful compromise, Totten says.

``The present world has so many more dangerous weapons [than ancient China] and we have to have a larger vision even than Sun Tzu had,'' he says.

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