Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, written about 500 B.C.E., is the oldest military treatise in the world. Even now, after twenty-five centuries, the basic principles of that treatise remain a valuable guide for the conduct of war.
Sun Tzu should be of interest to the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, in view of the Arab War against Israel which erupted in September 2000. Since then more than 1,600 Jews have been murdered and many thousands more have been wounded and maimed by Arab warriors.
Referring to the IDF’s limited response to Arab aggression—targetted killings and intermittent incursions into Arab strongholds—ormer Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, “self-restraint is strength”! At first glance one might suspect that Mr. Sharon had been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount. It may well be, however, that he derived that dictum from a misreading of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Sun Tzu would have a general exhibit, at first, “the coyness of a maiden”—to draw out the enemy—but thereafter he would have him emulate the fierceness of a lion.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is emulating the coyness of a maiden. Instead of destroying the enemy to the extent of trashing Arab arrogance, he is following the policy of self-restraint, which allows the haters of Israel more time to denounce the Jewish state and curtail its enemy’s destruction. If Olmert had a stitch courage, he would order the IDF to demolish the enemy to such an extent that seared into Arab consciousness would be a simple and stark lesson: Don’t mess with Israel!
Of course, when the forces of the enemy exceed your own or occupy superior ground, then self-restraint is prudence. But when this situation is reversed, self-restraint is weakness. In fact, Sun Tzu goes so far as to say, “If fighting is reasonably sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbids it.” This means that the IDF, more precisely, Chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, should disregard the timidity of the Olmert government and destroy the enemy, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority!
Sun Tzu insists on this principle. In referring to various ways in which “a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army,” hence on his people, Sun Tzu cautions a ruler against “attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers his country.” Although “In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign,” “he will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.” Sun Tzu emphasizes that there are even occasions when the “commands of the sovereign must not be obeyed.”
Of course, this would violate the principle of military subordination to civilian authority—a principle Israel’s political elites would proclaim to preserve their democratic reputation, especially in the United States. Never mind Jewish casualties or sacrificing Jewish soldiers on the alter of PR.
Sun Tzu did not have to worry about journalists and humanists who make the rational conduct of war impossible, and who therefore prolong the killing. When U.S. Admiral Bull Halsey said, “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often,” he was echoing Sun Tzu.
Commenting on the verse, “When you go forth to battle against your enemies” (Deut. 20:1), the sages say, confront your enemies as enemies. “Just as they show you no mercy, so should you not show them any mercy’”
Sun Tzu would therefore be appalled by the readiness with which Israeli governments engage in cease fires or “hudnas,” which allow Arab terrorists to regroup and accumulate more and deadlier weapons, Sun Tzu calls for the uninterrupted attack. He unequivocally opposes a protracted war: “There is no instance,” he says, “of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” But protracted war is the inevitable result of the supposedly humanitarian policy of self-restraint pursued by Israeli governments. And notice how Washington is always preaching self-retraint—Hiroshima and Dresden notwithstanding.
Recall the Yom Kippur War, in which 3,000 Jewish soldiers perished. Certain general officers of the IDF obeyed the commands of the Meir Government by not launching a pre-emptive attack. Later, the Agranat Commission of Inquiry blamed them for the disaster. Sun Tsu would have agreed with that conclusion, but for different reasons. He would have faulted the generals for “self-restraint,” that is, for heeding the commands of their Government.
It follows that self-restraint as a principle of war is absurd and self-destructive. Israel’s war aim should be not only the destroy the enemy’s forces, but also to eradicate the enemy’s desire to wage war for a hundred years—as the Allied powers did in Germany and the United States in Japan.