Of Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Ukraine and Gaza

Key elements of the law of war encompass: safeguarding civilians - this aspect of the law of war prohibits the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, as well as attacks that fail to differentiate between civilians and combatants.

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War is a matter of vital importance to the State…Sun Tzu

“The Art of War” is an ancient text originating from China, attributed to the military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu, who is thought to have lived during the Eastern Zhou period, approximately between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Although the precise date of its composition is uncertain, scholars have engaged in debates about the  origins of this monumental and topical work which still has immense contemporary relevance.

“The Art of War  serves as an extensive manual on military tactics and strategy, containing enduring principles of warfare that have transcended their original context and found application in diverse fields beyond the military domain, including business, politics, and sports.

In the film “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko, portrayed by Michael Douglas, makes reference to a quote from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” during a speech he delivers to a gathering of shareholders. The specific quote he employs is: “victory comes from having done your homework.”

This statement captures Sun Tzu’s emphasis on the significance of thorough planning and preparation in achieving success in warfare. Gekko employs this quote to convey the notion that triumph in business, akin to warfare, relies on meticulous planning, anticipation of outcomes, and seizing opportunities before they materialize. By using this quote, Gekko underscores his ruthless and calculated approach to business dealings.

Commentators have opined that both the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the horrendous attacks by either side in the war in Gaza had not been thought through with wisdom and foresight by the aggressors.  This is where Sun Tzu comes in.

The Central Themes

The central themes of “The Art of War” encompass various aspects: Strategic Planning and Tactical Execution– where Sun Tzu delves into the intricacies of strategic planning and the execution of military operations, emphasizing meticulous preparation, judicious allocation of resources, and decisive actions on the battlefield; Leadership and Command –  throughout the text, Sun Tzu underscores the pivotal role of leadership in warfare, delineating the characteristics of effective commanders and stressing the significance of instilling discipline and fostering morale among troops; adaptability and flexibility-  a key principle advocated in the treatise is the necessity for adaptability and flexibility in response to evolving circumstances on the battlefield. Sun Tzu advises military leaders to remain vigilant, adapt their strategies, and capitalize on emerging opportunities; deception and psychological warfare –  Sun Tzu advocates for the strategic use of deception and psychological tactics to outmaneuver adversaries and secure strategic advantages. He discusses techniques such as feints, disinformation, and the manipulation of enemy perceptions ; victory through strategic diplomacy – at the heart of “The Art of War” lies the concept of achieving victory without direct confrontation. Sun Tzu proposes that true triumph is attained through superior strategy and diplomatic finesse rather than brute force.

In summary, “The Art of War” presents a comprehensive framework for comprehending the dynamics of warfare, offering invaluable insights into the principles of strategy, leadership, and conflict resolution that continue to resonate in contemporary contexts.

Application of The Art of War

In applying the strategy professed in “The Art of War” to the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the following principles  can be attenuated: Comprehending the Terrain – Sun Tzu underscores the significance of grasping the geographical features of the battlefield and adjusting one’s strategies accordingly. In the contexts of Ukraine and Gaza conflicts, the topographical layout significantly influences military approaches and maneuvers. Acquiring an understanding of the terrain enables military leaders to make well-informed decisions regarding troop movements, defensive arrangements, and resource distribution; understanding the foe and self–  Sun Tzu highlights the pivotal role of comprehending both the adversary and one’s own capabilities in achieving triumph. In the confrontations witnessed in Ukraine and Gaza, discerning the strengths, intentions, and tactics of the opposing factions proves critical for formulating effective strategies. Similarly, recognizing one’s own strengths, weaknesses, and constraints is imperative for making informed choices during combat.

Yet another important factor is adaptability and versatility: Sun Tzu advocates for the necessity of flexibility and adaptability in warfare, stressing the importance of adjusting tactics to suit evolving circumstances and capitalizing on emerging opportunities. In the theaters of Ukraine and Gaza, military leaders must possess the ability to modify strategies and maneuvers in response to changing dynamics on the ground, including alterations in enemy movements, shifting alliances, or advancements in technology.

One of Sun Tzu’s key strategies, and arguably the cornerstone of his thinking, is triumph without direct confrontation: Sun Tzu proposes that the ultimate victories are attained through strategic maneuvering, diplomacy, and psychological tactics, rather than direct combat. In the conflicts unfolding in Ukraine and Gaza, endeavors to accomplish objectives through diplomatic negotiations, economic pressures, and information manipulation can be interpreted as manifestations of Sun Tzu’s principle of achieving success without direct engagement.

Strategic deception and misdirection is a tactical maneuverwhere Sun Tzu advises employing deception and misdirection to befuddle and outwit the adversary. In both Ukraine and Gaza scenarios, tactics such as spreading disinformation, executing diversionary maneuvers, and employing decoy operations may have been utilized to confuse and disorient the opposing forces.

Sun Tzu as Advisor in the Current Conflicts

While predicting Sun Tzu’s exact counsel to those negotiating  remains speculative, one can infer potential strategies from his principles.  The most fundamental approach of Sun Tzu would be understanding the adversary and oneself. Sun Tzu would recommend a thorough grasp of both their adversaries’ motivations, strengths, and vulnerabilities, as well as their own positions. Such insight lays the groundwork for formulating effective negotiation approaches. Sun Tzu would also advise identifying and capitalizing on sources of power and influence to secure a favorable negotiation position. This might entail showcasing military prowess, economic incentives, or diplomatic alliances.

Furthermore, Sun Tzu might suggest employing psychological maneuvers to unsettle the opposing party and gain an advantage in negotiations. Tactics could include bluffing about military intentions or spreading misinformation to sow doubt. One of the basic principles of negotiation involves seeking common ground or seeking mutual benefits. Sun Tzu would likely stress the importance of seeking solutions that satisfy the interests of both sides. Portraying concessions as opportunities for mutual gain fosters trust and facilitates agreement.

Sun Tzu would caution against rigid adherence to fixed positions, instead advocating for adaptability and responsiveness to evolving circumstances. This could involve adjusting strategies in real-time to navigate shifting dynamics. Sun Tzu would also  emphasize the need to uphold credibility and integrity throughout the negotiation process. Honoring commitments and demonstrating sincerity in pursuing peaceful resolutions fosters trust and enhances dialogue.

In summary, Sun Tzu would approach negotiations as a strategic competition, employing psychological tactics, diplomatic finesse, and strategic acumen to achieve a ceasefire in Ukraine and Gaza that benefits all parties involved.

My Take

So much for the art of war and the art of negotiation.  These two aspects have to be woven into a tapestry of laws that are non negotiable. The law of war, also referred to as international humanitarian law or the law of armed conflict, constitutes a framework of regulations and principles governing the behavior of military forces during times of armed conflict. Its fundamental objective is to alleviate the impact of armed conflict on civilians and combatants who are not actively engaged in hostilities, all while reconciling military necessity with humanitarian considerations.

Key elements of the law of war encompass: safeguarding civilians – this aspect of the law of war prohibits the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, as well as attacks that fail to differentiate between civilians and combatants. It additionally mandates the humane treatment of civilians who are not involved in armed activities; restriction on excessive force – military actions are required to adhere to the principle of proportionality, meaning that the application of force must not surpass what is essential to achieve a legitimate military objective. Actions resulting in disproportionate harm to civilians or civilian objects are proscribed.

Treatment of combatants is another important principle of humanitarian law. The law of war prescribes guidelines for the treatment of combatants, including prisoners of war (POWs). Combatants must be treated humanely and granted specific rights and protections, such as access to medical care and the right to dignity. This principle extends to hostages taken during attacks.

Commanders bear the responsibility to ensure that military operations are conducted in conformity with the law of war. They may be held accountable for violations perpetrated by their subordinates if they were aware or should have been aware of such transgressions and failed to take appropriate measures to prevent or punish them. Linked to this principle is the prohibition of certain weaponry and strategies which are banned under the law of war, including weapons causing unwarranted suffering or displaying indiscriminate effects, as well as tactics like perfidy, which involves deceitful actions such as pretending to surrender to launch an attack.

Finally, those engaged in war must ensure that cultural heritage, comprising cultural property, monuments, museums, and sites of historical significance, is safeguarded from deliberate destruction or harm under the law of war.

In summary, the law of war endeavors to harmonize military exigencies with humanitarian considerations, safeguarding individuals not participating in hostilities while permitting states to safeguard themselves and attain lawful military objectives. Rooted in principles of humanity, distinction, proportionality, and chivalry, it is enshrined in various international agreements and customary international law.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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