Book Review: Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare

Last month, I read a brilliant and edifying book by Mark McNeilly titled Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare. Although it was published in 2003, regrettably, I had not heard of it (or of McNeilly himself) until last year, and did not pay much attention to Sun Tzu and his work (The Art of War) until last year, either. Once I did start paying attention to him and had read his work – which was a short but illuminating read which changed the way I think about military affairs – I had learned a lot. And once McNeilly’s book was delivered to me, I began reading it and finished the read in 2 days.

A native of Chicago, Mark McNeilly is a former US Army infantry captain, a graduate of the 101st Division’s Airborne Assault School, a former strategist for a major global corporation, and now an adjunct professor at the University of Northern Carolina (UNC). As such, he has had ample time to study The Art of War and think about it, and through that process he has found what he believes are the six most important principles taught by Sun Tzu in his ancient masterpiece. The purpose of McNeilly’s book is to demonstrate these principles (as well as others laid out in The Art of War), how they fit together, how they apply to warfare (past, present, and future), and to illustrate these principles with historical examples. This is because every theory is worthless if real world practice proves it to be wrong. Sun Tzu’s principles have been put to a test numerous times, and usually (though not always) were proven right.

The book is organized into seven chapters. The first six deal with each of Sun Tzu’s six key principles:

1) Win All Without Fighting: Achieving the objective without destroying it;

2) Avoid Strength, Attack Weakness: Striking where the enemy is must vulnerable

3) Deception and Foreknowledge: Winning the information war

4) Speed and Preparation: Moving swiftly to overcome resistance

5) Shaping the Enemy: Preparing the battlefield

6) Character-Based Leadership: Leading by example

The seventh chapter explains how to apply these principles in the future and thus how to prepare the US military for the wars of the future.

The first chaper, Win All Without Fighting, teaches the important principle of “achieving the objective without destroying it”, that is, winning without firing a shot if possible, and if not possible, winning with the least possible destruction to one’s own military, the country being attacked, and its civilian population, and at the least possible fiscal, material, and human cost. Here, McNeilly, like Sun Tzu, challenges the conventional wisdom that one should do as much damage to a hostile country and its civilian population as possible. McNeilly shows that such policy, regardless of whether it’s moral, is counterproductive: it dramatically reduces the value of what you’re invading while engendering the hostility of the targeted country’s population (to say nothing of its political class) and sets the stage for more conflict down the road. And it does nothing to achieve victory, for, in war, killing enemies or destroying their country is not the goal; indeed, killing enemies is only the means, and not necessarily the best means.

The second chapter counsels military leaders to attack the enemy where he’s weakest: the weakest sections of a front, the least-defended site, city or province, the weakest wing/flank of an army, etc. Naval commanders, instead of trying to wage a headfirst battle with an enemy navy, should attempt to wage unconventional warfare by e.g. cutting the hostile country off its sources of supplies by controlling the sealanes on which it depends, as the US did against Japan during WW2. Again, McNeilly, like Sun Tzu, challenges conventional wisdom here, including Clausewitz’s theory that one should try to engineer a decisive battle (Hauptschlacht) with the enemy.

The third chapter deals with the all-important issues of deception and foreknowledge; and as spies are needed for both, McNeilly cites Sun Tzu’s advice on these and explains how to apply it. He also gives historical examples of victors fooling their enemies of their intentions while gaining great insight into their enemies’ minds.

Chapter four deals with the necessity to attack, fight, and win quickly, not slowly, to overcome resistance as well as gain and maintain momentum (like water). The classic example McNeilly uses to illustrate this is Germany’s successful invasion of France. He’s right; Heinz Guderian, the inventor of Blitzkrieg, said that a tank’s engine is worth as much as its gun.

Chapter five reminds military leaders not to allow their enemies to shape them, and to shape the enemy instead: hold out baits, fool them, lead them into fields unfavorable to them, annoy their leaders if they are of choleric temper, etc. This also involves building, maintaining, and when the right time comes, dissolving alliances, as well as choosing the right allies and avoiding entanglements with the wrong ones. It also involves offering the enemy a face-saving way out of a war to avoid further conflict. Here, McNeilly makes a credible claim that the Allies should’ve offered Germany a face-saving peace if the Wehrmacht would topple Hitler and the Nazis and give up Western Europe. That would’ve allowed a lot of bloodshed and destruction while resulting in Hitler’s toppling (which German officers tried to do anyway) and Germany turning against the Soviet Union.

Chapter six shows how military leaders should lead by example. As McNeilly rightly says, “Leadership starts at the top and both good and poor examples of leadership trickle all the way down the chain of command.” McNeilly also deals with caring for, disciplining, rewarding, and punishing the troops, among other issues.

The book is, overall, a great work. It makes a strong, convincing case and backs it up well. McNeilly has, in my opinion, succeeded in making Sun Tzu’s work more readable and accessible to 21st century readers by explaining how Sun Tzu’s principles should be applied, especially WRT the six most important ones, which he explains in great detail and illustrates with germane, interesting historical examples from many different eras.

However, the book is not without flaws. And by that, I don’t even mean the few spelling mistakes that are here and there (e.g. “Clauswitz” instead of “Clausewitz”), but far more important issues.

Firstly, while the author underlines how pointless wars of attrition and headfirst attacks on the enemy are, he nonetheless fails to acknowledge that the Allies’ campaign against Nazi Germany was such a campaign throughout WW2. The Allies did implement some of Sun Tzu’s advice – as McNeilly documents – but despite the deception, the foreknowledge, and knowledge of daily weather patterns, the invasion of Normandy was nonetheless a headfirst attack and a huge blunder. Although the Allies were eventually victorious, they met fierce German resistance and suffered serious losses (about 30,000 men KIA, over 200,000 troops wounded, thousands of others missing). The Allies eventually liberated France and won WW2, of course – but only through their sheer advantage in numbers, not due to any strategic genius or implementation of Sun Tzu’s advice.

In fact, had the Allies TRULY listened to Sun Tzu’s advice, they would not have invaded northern France directly – that is exactly the kind of a head-on assault that Master Sun always counseled against. They would’ve instead invaded Italy and then the Balkans, advancing to Germany through Austria and liberating Central Europe as well. Thus, they would’ve won with far fewer casualties, far fewer destruction, faster, and without suffering a suprise German counterattack such as the Ardennes Offensive. Moreover, they would’ve significantly limited the Soviets’ conquests. France would be liberated afterwards, eastwards from an occupied Germany.

Churchill advocated such an invasion, as he wanted to win the war as easily as possible and to limit Soviet conquests. However, President Roosevelt was utterly naive about the USSR and Joseph Stalin, and refused to do anything that might upset the Soviets, and thus, he and Stalin insisted on a landing in France. Normandy was thus chosen as the landing site for purely political reasons.

McNeilly also wrongly claims that Germany made a mistake by invading Poland. However, it wasn’t a mistake. Although France and Britain did declare war on Germany over Poland, they did nothing effective to help Warsaw, or the Lower Countries and Denmark, when invaded by Germany. Furthermore, the Germans, as McNeilly documents, won overwhelmingly in France, while the British and General de Gaulle’s men were forced to withdraw to Britain. Soon after, the UK itself came under German bombardment. London then made the mistake of rejecting repeated German peace overtures.

Last but not least, there are a few things which I believe McNeilly should’ve said but didn’t. Firstly, he doesn’t provide much advice on how to use Sun Tzu’s advice to counter the growing Chinese military threat. Secondly, he does not acknowledge (nor deny) that WW2 and the Civil War were also wars of attrition in which even the winners, including the US and the USSR in WW2, paid a heavy price for victory.

Thirdly, McNeilly does not account for the few cases where a leader went against Sun Tzu’s advice and won anyway. For example, during the Battle of Austerlitz, when Coalition troops went down from the Pratzen Heights to attack French Marshal Davout’s divisions, Marshal Davout decided to oppose and stop them – and won despite his troops being outnumbered 4:1. Sun Tzu wrote that if your enemy is charging downhill, you should never oppose him – but Davout did oppose the enemy and won anyway. How does McNeilly explain that?

Nonetheless, McNeilly’s book was a quick, enjoyable, and fascinating read from which I have learned much. Having already read Sun Tzu’s Art of War several months prior, I now have read a book which nicely explains his work and applies it to past and future wars alike. It’s well-researched, well-written, interesting, and instructive about the past and potentially the future alike. I would give it a 9/10 rating.

CORRECTION: While the title of Sun Tzu’s original treatise was indeed The Art of War, Mark McNeilly’s book is titled Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare (emphasis mine).