On Wars

Nonfiction by | April 20, 2008

“War is a matter of vital importance to the state, the province of life and death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.” – Sun Tzu

The opening statement of Sun Tzu’s book, The Art of War is well known among military officers, warriors and to those who study the history and conduct of war. The teachings in this book have been used by Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh in their successful campaigns of national liberation. The sixteen character formula of the New people’s Army is derived from this book: “When the enemy attacks, we retreat; when the enemy camps, we harass; when he tires, we attack; when he retreats, we pursue.” The NPA is still around after 35 years of fighting with the AFP and the PNP besides; proof of the continuing relevance and effectiveness of Sun Tzu’s teachings.

It is a relief to know from any army officer that the Art of War is part of the curriculum of the Philippine Military Academy. Although written almost two thousand years ago during China’s “Warring States” period, its precepts are still fresh and readily adaptable to our present scenario. Indeed the MILF and Abu Sayyaf are using tactics similar to Sun Tzu’s philosophy on war: hit and run attacks, reliance on stealth and deception, delaying for time and while continually building up forces. This is the Eastern concept of war. Sun Tzu advocates strategy above all: “Study, know yourself, know the terrain, know your enemy, employ secret agents.” Against guerilla armies who follow these precepts, ‘decisive’ battles using conventional methods will not work because the guerilla’s code is to run away and live to fight another day. They will not stand and fight so Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s air-land battle doctrine would be useless against them. Besides, the rebels have already learned their lesson from the burning of Jolo in 1974: no pitched battles against the AFP.

The idea of the pitched or ‘decisive’ battle is alien to our shores anyway. Before the coming of the Spaniards, tribal warfares consisted of brief skirmishes and headhunting forays followed by ritual war dance.

All out war, currently being brandished by well-meaning jingoists, is a Western concept. It is based on narrow interpretation by European militarists of Carl Von Clausewitz’s famous book, On War. Clausewitz stated that “War is a continuation of politics (or policy)” and that “To introduce into war a principle of moderation is absurd – war is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds.” This mode of thinking, this pushing of war to the utmost, plunged Europe into the First World War: a war without seeming end, unlike the world had seen before where more than 5 million combatants died in the trenches, fighting long after the reasons for the war had been forgotten. Hitler, another Clausewitz fan, pushed violence further with World war II. War became impersonal, mechanized. Finally, this brought us back to the brink of nuclear extinction, MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction – violence to its utmost bounds.

Sun Tzu states: “For there never has been a protracted war from which a country benefited.” Therefore, it is to be the best interest of a state to conduct war simply, swiftly and only after all peaceful alternatives have been exhausted. President Magsaysay knew this in his dealings with the Hukbalahap. The problem only appears after when the other side does not desire peace and wishes to wage a protracted war in order to weaken the State.

Classifying war into Western or Eastern concept is of course, ridiculous; neither is better. War is war and in the end, after the peace negotiations have been signed and feelings on both sides pacified, the dead cannot be brought back to life. In the words of the Civil War (U.S.) general, William Tecumseh Sherman: “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine…War is hell.”