Thursday, December 12, 2019 -
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The art of war

After a summer busy with moving house, family visits and of course setting up the new Intermountain Jewish News website, I’ve been enjoying having that extra bit of time to settle in with some good books. The list has included literature (Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy), a biography (Vikram Seth’s Two Lives) and history (Odd Westad’s Global Cold War). In my other life working in the field of international relations and security, it’s important to keep abreast of the latest political developments and theory. Recently, however, I found myself browsing through a classic that abounds with stunning observations. I use the word “stunning,” because the fundamental truth of these observations nearly take one’s breath away.

I first read Sun-Tsu’s The Art of War in high school. In college, I remember a friend quoting it when planning an anti-student demonstration and thinking to myself, What a drama queen! But alas, some years later, and hopefully a tad wiser, with my chin averted in slight shame, I take it back. Boy, do I take it back. My colleague had it right; I just didn’t have the experience to realize how all-encompassing this work is. Business theory, workplace interactions, political machinations and, most obvious, military conflict. One would be foolish to discount this simply as a book about physical conflict. This is a book about strategy, competition and power, and as such it can be applied to any area of life in which these themes play a role.

Written in China during the 6th century, the book opens outlining the five essential elements to predicting the outcome of a conflict:

  • The “Tao”, or Way
  • Weather
  • Geography
  • Leadership
  • Discipline

In light of the recent entries and comments on the blog, the first element resonated. The “Way” is defined as the natural course of events and how those events are interpreted by a nation and its leaders. “With the belief that they are on the Tao,” the explanation continues, “the nation will unite and stay the course regardless of the outcome.”

In the posting of July 30th and August 4th, RM Jew talked of understanding the mentality of terrorists, of trying to understand why an individual commits a terrorist act. Hardliners dismiss this attitude, calling it apologist. But Sun-Tsu said it first: victory cannot come without an understanding of your enemy’s path. How do we fight suicide bombings without knowing why someone is willing to take their own life?

What’s shockingly missing in the current global conflict is something even Chinese military geniuses took for granted: the naming of an enemy. “Terror” is such a large term that it almost loses all meaning. As RM Jew pointed out in “Reasonable Wars,” the war against Iraq was somehow pursued under this guise of war on terror, even though drawing a connection to the Baathist regime from terrorist organizations would prove tenuous at best.

The time has come – actually, is long overdue – to clearly define which particular terror it is that we are waging a war against. Is the enemy a certain group of people, is it a way of thinking, a different set of values? Even though the definition will most likely fluctuate, depending if a new cell or groups arises, we need some kind of basis from which to strategize.

Many of those that are pro-Israel continue to vehemently state: terror is evil, it’s black and white. While this may be true, stating the obvious does not help conquer an enemy. The world is now engaged in irregular warfare, and to successfully wage irregular warfare, cultural knowledge is imperative. Knowing how your enemy thinks, what beliefs your enemy was raised with is necessary for mapping out a successful strategy.

Toward the end of the volume, Sun-Tsu writes: “Do not rely on omens. Do not rely on history. Do not rely on theory. True knowledge of can only be obtained from those who have lived with the enemy.”

In our context this could mean dissidents, artists, members of opposition parties or even people formerly engaged in terrorist activities. However we must be very careful not to engage any erstwhile ally. This is where defining the enemy is imperative and where short-term versus long-term goals must be strategically weighed. In the past the US has supported splinter groups – such as the mujahideen in Afghanistan – to win against the larger enemy – in that case, the USSR. Short-term: successful; long-term: disastrous.

Let the US take a lesson from Israel, a country that has intimate contact with its enemy and has overall pursued a policy of targeted killings: aiming to cut the enemy down at its root. Because what’s become evident from Iraq is that a suicide bomber is like a deadly weed. Pull it out superficially and it will regenerate.

And perhaps it would do us all good to pick this classic up for a re-read.



Shana Goldberg

IJN Assistant Publisher | shana@ijn.com


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