Education About Asia: Online Archives

Still Relevant after 2500 Years: The Art of War and Tao Te Ching

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By Rochelle Kaplan

Sun Tzu (Sunzi in pinyin) was hired by the Emperor as a general, and instead of an interview, the Emperor told him to teach his concubines to march. Because if he could do that, he could do anything. So Sun Tzu said: ‘Do I have complete control?’ The emperor said yes. So he told them to march, and the concubines just laughed. Then he summoned the head concubine and cut off her head. Then they marched.1

In the above paragraph, Harlan Ullman, the American military strategist who developed the concept of “Shock and Awe,” the Pentagon’s initial approach to the war in Iraq, paraphrased an anecdote from the Chinese classic, The Art of War (Bing Fa) to make this point:

“The question is: how do you influence the will and perception of the enemy, to get them to behave how you want them to? So you focus on things that collapse their ability to resist. The idea is to get the other side to quit by not firing a shot and if war comes, to win it with minimum cost all around. The notion (of shock and awe) is to do minimum damage, minimum casualties, using minimum force.”2 Shock and awe was never supposed to be about obliteration but about will power: stunning one’s opponent into realizing that your might was so enormous, so unbeatable, that the fight was as good as over.