Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a Taoist classic probably written between 320 and 310 B.C., is not a mere text on military strategy (and by extension, competitive endeavors in business and other realms), as it is commonly interpreted today. It runs much deeper. As one of its translators into English, Thomas Cleary, has written: “Perhaps the paradox of The Art of War is in its opposition to war. And as The Art of War wars against war, it does so by its own principles; it infiltrates the enemy’s lines, uncovers the enemy’s secrets, and changes the heart of the enemy’s troops.” (T. Cleary, Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1991).
According to Sun Tzu, the greatest victory consists in defeating the enemy without having to resort to armed conflict. Any violent military victory, even the most overwhelming, represents a loss even for the victorious force. The goal of the commander is to creatively and deceptively manipulate the basic elements of warfare–formations, weather, terrain, energy, timing, and the principle of Tao (harmony)–to place the enemy in such an untenable position that it must yield without fighting. The most important tool of an army is intelligence about the enemy, particularly that gleaned by double agents. Complete victory must be seized at the earliest stage possible, before the enemy has had the chance to array its forces, even before it has formulated its final plans.
Which brings us to the current world situation. A major planned war supported by President Obama, which very possibly could have become a world war with Russia fighting the United States, has been averted in Syria. There are two basic theories why the war did not take place, both well argued in various FDL posts. The first position is that high-level diplomacy was responsible for putting an end to the crisis, that Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, approaching the precipice, cut a deal whereby Assad’s government in Syria agreed to peaceably dispose of its chemical weapons under U.N. supervision. If this interpretation is correct, the accord over Syria can be compared to the results of the numerous conferences between the major powers before World War I which delayed, but ultimately did not prevent, the great conflict which followed.
I support the second view, that “people power” stopped the war. The sequence of events which unfolded was so startling and unprecedented, and laid bare such yawning gaps in the national leaders’ actual level of control, that it cannot be reasonably interpreted as a part of a master diplomatic plan. First was the August, 2013 vote by the British House of Commons against military action, in defiance of the hawkish position of Prime Minister David Cameron. This was the first time the House of Commons voted down a war motion since 1782, when the parliament voted against further fighting against the American Revolution. See Reuters
In recent decades, the United States and United Kingdom have been two halves of a single whole when it comes to major military actions in the Middle East. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the First Gulf War in 1991, George W. Bush and Tony Blair during the Second Gulf War beginning in 2003, worked on the closest of terms. Once Britain excluded itself from participation, Obama’s position with respect to a Syrian attack was knocked so badly out of kilter that could no longer initiate military action by executive fiat. He had to go to Congress. At this point, U.S. public opinion manifested an overwhelming show of opposition, both in numbers and intensity, against the planned conflict. It soon became evident that the votes for war were not there in Congress, that indeed the Congressional vote would be a landslide defeat for Obama. Only at this point did Putin grab control of the situation with his face-saving offer.
What happened in the 10 years between the start of the Second Gulf War in 2003 and the 2013 Syrian crisis is that the people of the United States, Britain, and the world became wiser. The millions who had earlier supported the invasion of Iraq as a show of support for their leaders in the aftermath of 9/11 gradually formed a consensus that the years of endless fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan was futile, designed to strengthen the iron grip the national security state rather than combat “terrorism.” Gradually, the people learned to decode the deceptive messages of their leaders, gaining real intelligence into the situation. Informal networks of popular organization crystallized and grew below the surface. Sun Tzu emphasizes that a successful army must remain formless to the enemy until after the enemy reveals its shape. The growth of internet communication made possible a “form in formlessness” never conceivable before (not even to Sun Tzu). There were no identifiable commanders, there was no “top down” agenda, and yet the war opposition moved in synchrony, consolidating the combined intelligence of tens of millions of citizens. The result was that, when the decisive moment struck, the war forces folded.
The momentum of the peace forces proved unstoppable, like the rushing water or avalanche of boulders by which Sun Tzu analogizes the path of a victorious force. And in keeping with Sun Tzu’s advice, the popular advance skirted the enemy’s fortresses and attacked its weak points. It was not directed against the Washington bastions of the presidency, the military, and the national security state. Instead the people moved to where they still had influence, namely, their representatives in the House of Commons and Congress.
Until now, Sun Tzu’s concept of a victory without violence has been held out as an impossible goal, one to be approached but never attained in full. Remarkably, in stopping the Syrian attack, the people may have actually fulfilled the Sun Tzu ideal. What transpired was not a victory for one or the other side in Syria or anywhere else. It was a victory over war itself, and for this reason perhaps the greatest victory in history.
We have become habituated to chronicling the record of our defeats by those in power, and fighting dogged, but ultimately unsuccessful holding actions. All of this must change. We now hold the strategic advantage. Don’t fool yourself, the Powers that Be know of our triumph, and so should we.
Photo by G Meyer under Creative Commons license