President Bush could learn a lot from Sun Tzu

September 13, 2006|By John Lang

Dear Mr. President,

It's too bad The Art of War wasn't on your summer reading list. If you'd read it, maybe we wouldn't be mired in Iraq. According to the author, Sun Tzu, esteemed for thousands of years as the Sage of Warfare, you're doing it all wrong.

Exactly what military principles you've broken - and how many - I learned by chance. On the first day of classes at Washington College, the title on a shelf of paperbacks caught my eye. I opened at random and found this on Page 10: "In war, better take a state intact than destroy it."

Then came a critique of your plan to recall reservists for more tours: "The skillful warrior never conscripts troops a second time." And, "Supplying an army at a distance drains the public coffers. ... Six-tenths are spent on broken chariots, worn-out horses." That last is archaically put, but don't we have thousands of war-wrecked Humvees and tanks now - while short of funds to fix them?

On Page 13, I found: "Treat prisoners of war kindly, and care for them." How does that square with Guantanamo?

Page after page, Sun Tzu has something to say to you, even though the principles were stated something like 2,500 years ago.

But your reading list this summer, so the White House said, included a three-volume history of the Louisiana Purchase. In a summer past, as casualties mounted, we were told you read a comprehensive history of salt.

That's hardly as germane as The Art of War, which states, "No nation has ever benefited from a protracted war."

Of course, reading lists of politicians are always suspect. You feed doubts when you tell us that this summer you also read "three Shakespeares." Your aides have said you don't read their briefing papers but direct them to read them to you.

Then why not get those neocons who advised you into this war to give Master Sun a glance? Vice President Dick Cheney owns the book; according to news reports, Chinese officials gave Mr. Cheney an out-of-print copy valued at $3,600, though it's not clear whether he's read it.

Perhaps your advisers can slip Sun Tzu's maxims into the daily digest. After, say, the latest blurb on slaughter between Sunni and Shiite factions, an aide could read:

"Without knowing the plans of the feudal lords, you cannot form alliances."

Or, before another retired general or formerly supportive Republican congressman goes looking for Iraq's back door, your reader can find: "When an army is confused and perplexed, the feudal princes will cause trouble. This creates chaos in the ranks and gives away victory."

Sir, you can be certain, if you don't know Sun Tzu, your enemies do. It's the revolutionary's primer. Mao Tse-tung carried a copy on his Long March. It was Fidel Castro's campfire reading when he was hiding out in the Sierra Maestre.

Can the teachings have escaped the notice of Osama bin Laden? Not likely. Consider The Art of War on evasion: "He changes his ways and alters his plans to keep the enemy in ignorance." Also, "The highest skill in forming dispositions is to be without form; formlessness is proof against the prying of the subtlest spy and the machinations of the wisest brain."

Concluding, "The place I intend to attack must not be known; if it is unknown, the enemy will have to reinforce many places ... but I shall attack few." And, "Throw your men where there is no escape, and they will die rather than flee."

Sounds exactly like al-Qaida. What would it hurt to read the guerrillas' guidebook? Don't you owe it to us, and yourself? After all, as you've said to us, "I am a wartime president."

And the Master says, "He who knows self, but not the enemy, will suffer one defeat for every victory. "

John Lang is director of the journalism intern program at Washington College in Chestertown. He was chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report during the Carter administration. His e-mail is

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