Military history

Chapter 4

Sun Tzu and Machiavelli

All warfare is based on deception.

—Sun Tzu

The most powerful dichotomy in all strategic thought was the one first introduced by Homer as the distinction between bie and metis, one seeking victory in the physical domain and the other in the mental, one relying on being strong and the other on being smart, one depending on courage and the other imagination, one facing the enemy directly and the other approaching indirectly, one prepared to fall with honor and the other seeking to survive with deception. Under the Romans the pendulum swung away from metis and toward bie. Homer’s Odysseus morphed into Virgil’s Ulysses and became part of a story of deceitful and treacherous Greeks. Even the Athenians, as they found themselves on the losing side in their war with Sparta, began to have some sympathy for the Trojans and saw Odysseus’s cruel trick in a new light. Heroes were sought who were more plain-speaking, honorable as well as brave in battle, less reliant on cunning and cleverness.

Thus the Roman historian Livy wrote of the more traditionally minded Senators’ distaste for a tendency toward “an excessively cunning wisdom.” This was akin to “Punic tricks and Greek craftiness, among whom it was more glorious to deceive an enemy than to conquer by force.” Romans would not wage war “through ambushes and nocturnal battles, nor through feigned flight and unforeseen returns upon a careless enemy.” On occasion there might be “more profit in trick than courage.” The spirit of an enemy, however, could only be truly suppressed by “open hand-to-hand combat in a just and righteous war,” rather than by “craft or accident.”1

Despite this stance, the attraction of trickery remained strong. Valerius Maximus, writing not long after at the time of Tiberius, described stratagems positively and offered the first formal definition. “Truly that aspect of cunning is illustrious and far removed from all reproach, whose deeds are called by the Greek expression strategemata, because they can scarcely be suitably expressed by a (single Latin) term.” The examples he gave were a salubre mendacium (“a healthy mentality”) to lift morale (effectively persuading one part of your force to attack on the grounds—not necessarily true— that another part was advancing effectively); a false refugee (such as Sinon) who corrupts the enemy from within; a psychological ploy of the besieged to demoralize their besiegers; deceiving one enemy army of your presence, while striking another of their armies with double strength; maneuvers to confuse the enemy, followed by a surprise attack; and besieging the foe’s city when he makes an attempt against yours. All this captured the basic psychological aspect of deception: unsettling the enemy or at least reassuring your own side. A stratagem would permit more to be accomplished than by arms alone.2

In Strategemata, composed by the Roman Senator Frontinus between 84 and 88, the traditions of Roman warfare were passed on. The book was widely disseminated and retained a long influence, including Machiavelli for example. Frontinus made a distinction, possibly of his own invention, in the introduction. “If there prove to be any persons who take an interest in these books,” he asked, “let them remember to discriminate between ‘strategy’ and ‘stratagems,’ which are by nature extremely similar.” Strategy or strate- gika referred to “everything achieved by a commander, be it characterized by foresight, advantage, enterprise, or resolution.” Stratagems, or strategemata, the subject of the book, rested “on skill and cleverness.” They were “effective quite as much when the enemy is to be evaded as when he is to be crushed.”3 Frontinus’s stratagems certainly included elements of trickery and deception, but they also included more practical matters and efforts to sustain the morale of troops. So stratagems were a subset of strategy. Frontinus did write a general treatise on military matters, but this unfortunately was lost.

In other cultures, stratagems and cunning were considered much more appealing—especially to get out of a tight spot—and commended as essential features of an effective strategy. Lisa Raphals, picking up on Detienne and Vernant’s discussion of metis, made the comparison with the Chinese term zhi. This had a wide variety of meanings from wisdom, knowledge, and intelligence to skill, craft, cleverness, or cunning. The individual who demonstrated zhi appeared as a sage general, whose mastery of the art of deception allowed him to prevail over an opponent of stronger physical force, just like those with metis.4 Winning against a weak opponent required nothing special. Real skill was shown by getting into positions that did not allow for defeat and would ensure victory over enemies. Deception was crucial: conveying confusion when there was order, cowardice instead of courage, weakness instead of strength. It also required the ability to determine when the enemy was attempting to deceive. Spies, for example, could help understand enemy dispositions and then judge when to be crafty or straightforward, when to maneuver and when to attack directly, when to commit and when to stay flexible.

Sun Tzu

The enduring model of the sage warrior was Sun Tzu, as represented by the short book on strategy known as The Art of War. Little is known about the author, or even if there was a single author. According to tradition, he was a general who served the king of Wu in Eastern China around 500 BCE, toward the end of China’s Spring and Autumn period, although no contemporary references to him have been found. The Art of War seems to have been written or at least compiled over the subsequent century during the Warring States period. The context was a competition for influence among a set of individually weak kingdoms at a time when central authority in China had collapsed. Over time the text acquired important commentaries which added to its significance. There are other Chinese military classics from this period, but Sun Tzu remains the best known.

Sun Tzu’s influence lies in the underlying approach to strategy. Influenced by Taoist philosophy, The Art of War covers statecraft as well as war. As with any ancient text, the language could seem quaint and the references obscure but the underlying theme was clear enough. Supreme excellence in war was not found in winning “one hundred victories in one hundred battles.” Rather, it was better “to subdue the enemy without fighting.” The great strategist had to be a master of deception, using force where it was most effective: “Avoid what is strong to strike what is weak.”5 Defeating the enemy’s strategy (or “balk the enemy’s plans”) was the “highest form of generalship.” Next came preventing “the junction of the enemy’s forces,” followed by attacking “the enemy’s army in the field,” and—worst of all— besieging walled cities.

In Sun Tzu’s formulaic aphorisms, the key to deception was simply a matter of doing the opposite of what was expected—look incapacitated when capable, passive when active, near when far, far when near. This required good order and discipline. Simulating cowardice, for example, required courage. It also required an understanding of the opponent. If the enemy general was “choleric,” then he could be easily upset; if “obstinate and prone to anger,” insults could enrage him and cause him to be impetuous; if arrogant, he could be lulled into a false sense of superiority and a lowered guard. A dangerous commander, according to Sun Tzu, would be reckless, cowardly, quick-tempered, too concerned with reputation, and too compassionate.

What really made the difference was “foreknowledge.” This could not be “elicited from spirits, nor from gods, nor by analogy with past events, nor from calculations. It must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation” and could acquire information about dispositions, the character of the troops, and the identity of the generals. The enemy’s political relationships could also be a target. “Sometimes drive a wedge between a sovereign and his ministers; on other occasions separate his allies from him. Make them mutually suspicious so that they drift apart. Then you can plot against them.”

For East Asian generals, Sun Tzu became a standard text. He was an evident influence in the writings of the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. Napoleon was said to have studied a French Jesuit’s translation of The Art of War. Though not available in English until the early twentieth century, it came to be taken increasingly seriously as a source of military and—during the 1980s—even business wisdom. The book’s approach was most relevant for those facing complex struggles, in which encounters were expected to be indecisive and alliances and enmities were shifting.

The Art of War did not provide a single route to victory and recognized that while battles were best avoided they sometimes had to be fought. Sun Tzu described relatively simple conflicts, in which bold moves left an enemy helpless or dissolving into disorder. A possible weakness, in a “strong tendency to point out what one should strive for, rather than explain how one should achieve one’s aim,” was also a source of strength. Any such explanations would now seem arcane and overtaken by massive changes in military methodology; if Sun Tzu had offered detailed advice on tactics, the book would now tend to be passed over. Instead, students of Sun Tzu are “merely given specific pointers as to what to ponder, but the solution, or the way one chooses to tread, must be one’s own.”6

His approach worked best when followed by only one side: if both commanders were reading Sun Tzu, the maneuvers and deceptions could lead to no decision at all or else an unexpected collision that caught them both unaware. A reputation for deception would lead to a lot of double-guessing, just as one for avoiding battle could turn into a presumption of weakness. In the face of a strong and coherent adversary, clever mind games could take you only so far. If both sides were doing everything possible to avoid a frontal confrontation, then the victor would be the one who could avoid commitment the longest, eventually reaching a point where the enemy had nowhere else to go and so had to fight at a disadvantage or surrender. There was, at any rate, only a limited amount of mystery and subtlety that a leader could cultivate without confusing those being led as much as the opponent. In the end, the point about Sun Tzu was not that he offered a winning formula for all situations but that he offered an ideal type of a particular sort of strategy, based on outsmarting the opponent rather than overwhelming him with brute force.

François Jullien developed an intriguing line of thought by demonstrating the similarities between the Chinese approach to war, as exemplified by Sun Tzu, and the Chinese use of language. He argued that the disinclination to engage in high-risk, potentially destructive direct confrontations in war was also followed in rhetorical conflicts, which were similarly indirect and implicit. Circuitous, subtle forms of expression, both allusive and elusive, could be the equivalents of armies dodging and harrying. By refusing to be pinned down or make an argument with sufficient clarity to be refuted, the initiative could be kept—although this could make for potentially infinite “games of manipulation.”7 Following an indirect approach to discourse would raise the same problems as with battle: when both sides were using identical ploys the contest could be indefinite and it would be hard to reach any sort of closure.

Jullien offered a contrast with the Athenians. They saw the advantages in decisive action that brought both war and argument to a quick close, thereby avoiding the expense and frustrations of prolonged confrontation. Warfare was direct and battle based, with troops organized into phalanxes to ensure maximum impact against the enemy, and victory coming to those with the requisite strength and courage. The generals were capable of deception and understood the advantages of surprise, but they did not want to waste time in games of dodging and harassment. In the same way, the Athenians were straightforward in argument. Whether in the theater, the tribunal, or the assembly, orators would make their cases directly and transparently, with points open to refutation, within a limited time period. There could therefore be decisive arguments as there were decisive battles. In these battles of persuasion in which—as Thucydides put it—arguments were “hurled forcefully against each other,” the decision would come from a third party such as a jury or the electorate.

This was an appealing contrast, and it may be that the approach to battles of persuasion reflected broad and enduring cultural preferences that affected attitudes to any confrontation. The suggestion, however, of a strong Greek preference for “decisive” battle came from Victor David Hanson’s controversial argument that the terms for a continuing Western way of war were set in classical times.8 Critics have challenged this theory on the basis of the analysis of Greek warfare and the subsequent history.9 Beatrice Heuser has demonstrated emphatically that at least one strong strand in Western military thought up to the Napoleonic wars was to avoid pitched battles: “Few believed either in the inevitability or the unconditional desirability of bat- tle.”10 Quintus Fabius Maximus, who gave his name to the “Fabian strategy,” was initially derided as the “delayer” because of what seemed to be a cowardly strategy in the face of the pillaging advance of Hannibal’s Carthaginian army. But after the Roman defeat at Cannae in 17 BCE, the wisdom of the approach was acknowledged. For some thirteen years thereafter, the Romans avoided pitched battles, while harassing Hannibal’s supply lines, until he finally gave up and left Italy.

The Roman treatise on warfare best known through the Middle Ages, when the vital lessons were all still believed to be contained in classical texts, was the De Re Militari of Vegetus. Because similar constraints of resources, transport, and geography were faced during the Middle Ages, the key issues were logistical and an offensive army unable to forage and pillage would get into trouble. The relevant line from the De Re Militari stated that battle was the “last extremity” and should only be followed when all other plans had been considered and expedients tried. Where the odds were too great, battle should be declined. Better to employ “stratagem and finesse” to destroy the enemy as much as possible in detail and then intimidate them. Vegetus expressed, in terms similar to Sun Tzu, a preference for starving enemies into submission rather than fighting them (“famine is more terrible than the sword”), and spoke of how it “is better to beat the enemy through want, surprises, and care for difficult places (i.e., through maneuver) than by a battle in the open field.”11 There has been a debate on whether medieval warfare was really so battle averse. Clifford Rogers argued that commanders were more prepared to seek battle—at least when on the offensive—but he was far from insisting that the decisive battle was the dominant mode of warfare.12

The Byzantine emperor Maurice’s Strategikon had a similar take at the start of the seventh century: “[I]t is well to hurt the enemy by deceit, by raids or by hunger, and never be enticed to a pitched battle, which is a demonstration more of luck than of bravery.” To indicate that there was another view, Heuser quoted Henri, duke of Rohan, writing during the Thirty Years’ War that “of all actions of war the most glorious and the most important is to give battle,” and regretting that wars were then “made more in the fashion of the fox than of the lion, and . . . based more on sieges than on combat.” But Heuser then noted that he saw no combat and that those who had experience of war were much more cautious. Maurice de Saxe, who led the French forces in the early eighteenth century, saw pitched battles as best avoided:

Nothing so reduces the enemy to absurdity as this method: nothing advances affairs better. Frequent small engagements will dissipate the enemy until he is forced to hide from you.13

Using armies for occasional raiding, assaulting the economic life of the enemy, and threatening and demoralizing the enemy’s population provided an alternative form of coercion to battle. Most importantly, when accounting for success—for example, with regard to the Hundred Years’ War— “political elements were always more significant than military ones,” even with talented strategists in command and after victory in pitched battle.14 The English made the most of their local allies in France just as the French sought to encourage the Scots to distract the English at home.

As the retrospective label “Hundred Years’ War” indicates, conflicts might move through distinctive stages but lack decisiveness because the underlying disputes were never fully resolved. In this respect, the role of battle was quite different at this time from how it later became understood. Commenting on the strategic considerations behind one of the most famous battles of this war, when the English under Henry V beat the French at Agincourt in 1415, Jan Willem Honig urged that battle be viewed in terms of the complex conventions of the time, in which sieges, hostages, political demands, and even massacres all had their allotted place. Both sides moved warily toward battle, appearing to both seek and fear it at the same time, and worked their way through an elaborate script, before the two armies confronted each other for the vital encounter. Behind all of this, argued Honig, was the “metaphysical mystique” surrounding battle, for it reflected a view of war as litigation with God as the judge and battle as decisive as a divine judgment. It came when all other forms of dispute settlement had been exhausted.

The result was a competition in risk which was tempered by the mutually shared fear of appealing to God, the ultimate judge. This fear, and the doubt that any good medieval Christian had regarding the justice of his cause and the strength of his faith, produced an incentive to develop and adhere to a set of conventions which kept the armed interaction between opponents within certain bounds.

This meant that warfare could follow relatively predictable paths, and facesaving ways of avoiding battle were available. There was still uncertainty over whether the opponent would follow the rules or offer a self-serving interpretation, but shared norms nonetheless influenced conflict and strategy.15 Despite its dangers, battle had a special role as an occasional means of resolving disputes by reference to chance. It was a form of contract, a way of agreeing on who had won and what victory meant. It required accepting that since a peaceful settlement was unavailable, this was how a dispute was best resolved. Battle was a “chance of arms,” a form of consensual violence out of which would emerge a victor. The battles were limited in time and space, fought on a defined field within a single day (tension at dawn, exhaustion by dusk). Within those confines they would be bloody and vicious, but at least they might produce a conclusion without spilling over into the rest of the country. The minimum required to declare victory was to hold the field of battle at the end of the day, as the enemy fled. A battle could only be decisive if both sides agreed who had won and the practical value of victory. This was not the self-restraint derived from either aristocratic codes of chivalry or a concept of limited strategy but a function of law. Battle was considered an enforceable wager. It was precisely because so much could be at stake and fortune could play such a large part that it was approached with such caution.16


I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;

I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;

I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,

Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,

And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.

I can add colors to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavel to school.17

Whether rules for acceptable behavior were always followed strictly, they certainly shaped the discourse of the time. This helps explain the dramatic impact of Niccolo Machiavelli’s sharp explanations for political behavior based on the self-interest of rulers. He went beyond tolerance for ruses and subterfuge in war to the heart of the conduct of all the affairs of state. He came to be placed on the line of cunning and thus untrustworthy operators that began with Odysseus. It was not long before “Machiavellian” came to describe anyone with a talent for manipulation and an inclination to deceit in the pursuit of personal gain, fascinated with power for its own sake rather than with the virtuous and noble things power allows one to do. Machiavelli’s amorality was denounced by the Church, so that the “Machiavel,” the embodiment of this theory, could be presented as almost an instrument of the devil (Niccolo fitting neatly the pre-existing Satanic moniker of “old Nick”). In the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), whose words are quoted above, Shakespeare identified a man who epitomized the worst defects of such a character.

Niccolo Machiavelli himself was a Florentine bureaucrat, diplomat, political adviser, and practical philosopher. His most famous book, The Prince, was written as a handbook for rulers and asserted Machiavelli’s own qualifications to serve as an adviser at a time of great turbulence and danger in Italian affairs. There was urgency in his prose that reflected the desperation of his times and a fear of the political consequences of weakness for Florence in particular and Italy in general in the face of French and Spanish strength. For the same reason, Machiavelli also wrote intelligently and persuasively on military affairs. He sought a more enduring form of military capability, based on conscription, that could provide a more reliable base from which to defend the state and extend its power. Unfortunately, the Florentine militia he helped establish was defeated in battle with the Spanish at Prato in 1512. As with Thucydides, Machiavelli’s exclusion from actual power gave him the time to write about how power might be exercised by others.

It also gave him a detached perspective, adding to his sense of the difference between the ideal world, in which the truly noble would always be rewarded for their virtue, and the less uplifting reality. Machiavelli’s method was empirical, which is why he is considered the father of political science. He did not consider himself to be offering a new morality but rather a reflection on contemporary practical morality. Political survival depended on an unsentimental realism rather than the pursuit of an illusory ideal. This meant paying attention to conflicts of interests and their potential resolution by either force or trickery. But guile and cunning could not create their own political legacy: the foundation of states still lay in good laws and good armies.

Machiavelli’s interest in political methodology reflected the same challenge that stimulated most strategists, including Sun Tzu: how to cope with the potentially greater strength of others. Machiavelli did not exaggerate the scope of strategy. There would always be risks. It was therefore not always possible to identify a safe course. Anticipating the “minimax” outcome in twentieth-century game theory, he observed that: “In the nature of things you can never try to escape one danger without encountering another; but prudence consists in knowing how to recognize the nature of the different dangers and in accepting the least bad as good.”18 What could be done depended on circumstances. “[F]ortune governs one half of our actions, but even so she leaves the half more or less in our power to control.” Even in this area of apparent control, it would be necessary to adapt to circumstances. Free will suggested the possibility of fitting events to an established character; Machiavelli suggested that the character would be shaped by events.

Machiavelli’s Art of War was the only book published during his lifetime. This might have been the inspiration for the title given to Sun Tzu’s work. Indeed, almost all disquisition on the subject—from that of Raimondo Montecuccoli in the seventeenth century to Maurice de Saxe in the eighteenth to Baron de Jomini in the nineteenth—was called The Art of War. This was a generic title, often covering largely technical matters. Machiavelli’s contribution to the genre was extremely successful and was translated into many languages. He addressed the potential value of a standing army and how one could be properly formed to serve the true interests of the state. He struggled with the practical issues of the day, from fortresses to the advent of gunpowder. Because the book took the form of a conversation between individuals debating the key issues, and it cannot be assumed that one always represented Machiavelli’s thoughts, exactly where he stood on some issues remained ambiguous. But the broad thrust of his concerns was evident, particularly the importance of a competent and loyal army in providing for security and creating diplomatic freedom to maneuver. He understood the relationship of war to politics and the importance of making sure an enemy was clearly defeated even after it left the field of battle, so there was no chance to regroup. He understood that battle might be a place where Fortuna had a large hand and for that reason was wary of leaving her too much of a role. Hence the need to engage all forces in battle rather than make a limited commitment. Not surprisingly, he also showed regard for deception, trickery, and espionage, the advantages that could come through being better informed than the enemy, and an occasionally stated preference for winning without battle if possible.

The most interesting aspects of his work, however, were less about dealing with an external enemy and more about sustaining loyalty and commitment internally. This concern was reflected in his preference for a local militia rather than professional soldiers motivated only by money. He was unsure about appeals to patriotism and more confident in tough discipline, including practical measures to make sure that deserters could not take their possessions with them. “To persuade or dissuade a few of a thing is very easy. For if words are not enough, you can use authority or force.” Convincing the multitude was more difficult: they had to be persuaded en masse. Because of this, “excellent captains need to be orators.” Speaking to the army “takes away fear, inflames spirits, increases obstinacy, uncovers deceptions, promises rewards, shows dangers and the way to flee them, fills with hope, praises, vituperates, and does all those things by which the human passion are extinguished or inflamed.”19 The sort of orations that might make men want to fight would encourage indignation and contempt toward enemies and make the soldiers ashamed of their sloth and cowardice.

In The Prince, Machiavelli offered notoriously cynical advice on how to gain and hold on to power, by being ready to indulge in all manner of private dealings while appearing publicly beyond reproach. The underlying message was that if you sought to be virtuous in both word and deed you would suffer badly. Survival must be the highest objective; otherwise nothing could be achieved. This required the prince to vary his conduct according to changing circumstance, including a readiness to act immorally whenever necessary. In one of his most famous passages, Machiavelli posed the question whether it be better to be loved than feared, or the reverse? The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other: but because it is difficult to combine, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both. One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well, they are yours. They would shed their blood for you, risk their property, their lives, their children, so long, as I said above, as danger is remote; but when you are in danger they turn against you.20

This negative view of human nature was central to Machiavelli’s approach. At one point he contrasted the lessons to be learned from the lion and the fox, the first representing strength and the second cunning. One needed to be a fox “in order to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves.” As “men are wretched creatures who could not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.” It was, however, no good to be caught in displays of bad faith. That was why it was useful to be a fox: “One must know how to color one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver. Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find somebody ready to be deceived.” As much as possible it was best for the prince to appear to be “compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout,” and even to act that way so long as it was prudent to do so. It could be helpful to be seen to be harsh, for that helped maintain order, but not to be considered entirely without virtue. “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are . . . The common people are always impressed by appearances and results.”21 A capacity to mislead—and on a large scale—was an essential attribute. At some point the appearance of virtue could not be wholly detached from practice. Machiavelli understood that to hold on to power it was necessary to reduce the reliance on harsh, cruel methods and to behave in more moderate, graceful ways.

Princes, he warned, should avoid being hated and despised. He was not against the use of cruelty but thought it should only be employed when essential and then “once and for all” so that it was possible to turn to “the good of one’s subjects.” He advised strongly against the sort of cruelty “which, although infrequent to start with, as time goes on, rather than disappearing, becomes more evident.” This was based on his assessment of human psychology. If the prince got his harsh behavior over right at the start, and then refrained from repetition, “he will be able to set men’s minds at rest and win them over to him when he confers benefits.” Otherwise, the prince “is always forced to have the knife ready in his hand and he can never depend on his subjects because they, suffering fresh and continuous violence, can never feel secure with regard to him.” Though violence should be inflicted once and for all, for “people will then forget what it tastes like and so be less resentful,” benefits by contrast should be conferred gradually because “they will taste better.”22 Machiavelli understood that even if power was obtained by force and guile and consolidated with cruelty, it required consent to be secured. The best power was that which had to be exercised least.

Although Machiavellian has become synonymous with strategies based on deceit and manipulation, Machiavelli’s approach was actually far more balanced. He understood that the more the prince was perceived to rely on devious methods, the less likely it would be that they succeeded. The wise strategist would seek to develop a foundation for the exercise of power that went beyond false impressions and harsh punishments, but on real accomplishments and general respect.

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