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Sun Tzu And The Cost Of War

Submitted by Erico Tavares of Sinclair & Co.

Sun Tzu and the Cost of War

What if military strategy was timeless?

Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher, and is credited to have written “The Art of War”, a seminal treatise on managing conflict and warfare. It is uncertain when he actually lived, but some traditional historians date his lifetime to 544–496 BC.

The Art of War discusses military strategy within the wider context of public administration, politics and planning. Organized in thirteen chapters, the text outlines theories of battle, but also advocates diplomacy and cultivating relationships with other nations as essential to the health of a state. For centuries, it has been regarded as the definite reading for strategists and warriors of all types.

Sun Tzu’s work remains highly influential to this day. An internet search with his name produces over 10 million hits; in recent years there have been several best-selling translations and books applying the strategies to different fields, including negotiation, leadership and business.

So influential in fact that certain authors claim China’s leaders follow a modern adaptation of his principles as they seek to transform their country into a world superpower in the 21 century. Exactly at a time when the Western Establishment seems to be very busy brushing them aside.

Sun Tzu in Action

Sun Tzu observed, analyzed and distilled what works and what doesn’t at war, and eventually developed an approach which transcended the battlefield. He emphasized the need to have a strategy planned well in advance of any campaign based on a detailed assessment of both adversaries’ strengths and weaknesses: “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”

Open warfare should only be pursued as a last resort. In fact, Sun Tzu regarded winning without fighting as the pinnacle of military achievement. However, when there was no other choice, then the fighting should be as swift as possible: “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.” That applies to the loser of course but also the victor, which is forced to expend substantial resources and in the end may not get much spoils to show for it, while becoming vulnerable himself to other attacks.

Sun Tzu also warned us against relying too much on technological superiority: “Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.” Such superiority may win battles but not necessarily the war, especially in the presence of asymmetric equalizers. And it is very costly.

His principles remain relevant to this day not only because they were organized during a time of substantial human conflict in an advanced civilization - they are also deeply rooted in natural law. Even the mighty lion chooses its prey carefully, aiming for the weakest of the bunch in the most economical way possible.

The Cost of War

Stephen Daggett, Specialist in Defense Policy and Budgets at the Congressional Research Service (considered to be the Congress’ think tank), authored a report in June 2010 outlining the cost of all the major wars the US has been involved in. His estimates, as well as a recent update on the cost of all the Post 9/11 wars by Professor Neta C. Crawford at Boston University, are presented in the following table:

Source: Congressional Research Service (June 2010), Boston University (June 2014).

(a) US$ billion, in constant 2011 dollars, except for Post 9/11 which is in current dollars.

(b) Union and Confederacy added together.

(c) Includes $1 trillion in future obligations for care of Veterans through 2054.

One important fact stands out from this table. Not only are the Post 9/11 entanglements the longest of any war the US has been involved in, they are also the most expensive – even more than World War II, when the US was fighting on two major fronts against heavily industrialized powers. Rather than achieving victory quickly as advocated by Sun Tzu, the US has been involved in very costly wars for well over a decade now.

When it comes to ensuring global security it can get lonely at the top. None of the traditional US allies have the military capabilities and even the ambition to project power at the same level. As an example, the US has 19 commissioned aircraft carriers, followed by France at #2 with only four. Russia and China only have one each.

These days US politicians generally endorse this militaristic approach to governing world affairs. This might be understandable as the geopolitical landscape has become incredibly complex and uncertain since 9/11. However, after years of waging war, conflict is now expanding as opposed to receding, particularly in the all-important Middle East where openly anti-West radical groups are conquering large territories. As such, a material US disentanglement over the foreseeable future looks increasingly less likely.

Sun Tzu had something to say about this: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Seen in this light, has the Post 9/11 military strategy made the US a victorious warrior?

While all of this is taking place, the US’ ideological foes can afford the luxury of sitting back and employing a more measured approach: “To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.” Indeed, nothing breaks morale more than the prospect of never ending foreign wars.

Meanwhile, the debts keep piling up. The Pentagon’s continued ability to project power might become increasingly dependent not on its brave soldiers but on its creditors. Sun Tzu would agree.