The Supreme Art of War

Sun Tzu, author of the ancient text Sunzi Bingfa  or “Sun Tzu’s Military Rules”, said:

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu was a military general, a warrior who understood that there is almost always an alternative to war.

Wednesday, at the commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, former President Carter said “I believe we all know how Dr. King would have reacted” to such things as new I.D. requirements to exclude certain voters, high unemployment, and so on. Shortly afterward, President Obama added his words, lauding King’s dream and accomplishments. I wonder how Dr. King would have reacted to the military action against Syria Obama is evidently trying to sell to a skeptical Congress and an American public weary of war.

Perhaps, Dr. King would say something like this, remarks made a mere four months after the historic march:

And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace . . . They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.”

When I see the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State going around talking about a country in the Middle East and “weapons” and the need make sure the country in question is “held accountable” through military action, I can’t help but feel that I’ve sat through this movie at least once before, and I didn’t much care for it.

There are arguments both for and against a strike on Syria. There are various takes on the possible consequences. They are all out there, on television, on the Internet, so I won’t rehash them here.

As a Buddhist, I wonder how the Buddha would react to the current situation. From what we know about the Buddha, from the early texts, it appears that he believed in the power of dialogue and diplomacy. The Mahaparinibbanna-sutta tells the story of how Ajatashatru, the king of Magadha, was about to launch an attack on the neighboring Vajjian Republic. Ajatashatru sent a messenger to the Buddha to seek his advice. The Buddha did not give a direct response, rather he said that “As long as the Vajjians do all things enjoined upon and expected them, they will not be defeated or ruined.”

Hearing this, the messenger replied, “So, Gautama, the Vajjians cannot be overcome in battle; they will be overcome only by diplomacy or internal dissention.”

The messenger took this message back to the king of Magadha and war was adverted.

The reason Ajatashatru wanted to strike against the Vajjians is unclear, but also unimportant for this discussion. The takeaway here is that the Buddha suggested an alternative to war. He understood the deeply corrupting effects of violence, and that depending on war to solve the problems facing humankind, or as a tool to protect civilians and preserve security, is an unwise strategy.

Such a strategy is actually reckless. It accomplishes only a little in the short run, and often unleashes further suffering and more violence in the long run. Diplomacy, on the other hand, is “smart power,” as our previous Secretary of State described it. Someone else, I don’t remember who, said diplomacy is useful when you want to talk to people you really don’t like.

As long as there is a possibility for dialogue and diplomacy, there is an alternative to war.

Now that the British have voted against military strikes in Syria, President Obama has signaled that he may willing to go it alone. But UN chief Ban Ki-moon has pleaded for more time to allow the United Nations inspectors in Syria to establish the facts and to give diplomacy another chance to end the Syrian conflict. Instead of touting our military might, the U.S. would be better served by exerting the full force of our diplomatic influence and resources to press the Syrian regime to allow unfettered access to the UN team investigating the alleged chemical weapons attacks.

Once again, all we are saying is give peace a chance.


2 thoughts on “The Supreme Art of War

  1. David, most people I know agree with you… but I have a different point of view. I think as a great power we have a responsibility to see that chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons do not become business as usual in the affairs of states. I think Obama was right in setting his initial red line, and wrong in not responding the first time it was crossed. While I oppose US intervention in a horrendous civil war that has no possible good outcome and where our actual influence is quite limited, I do support a policy of making the use of chemical weapons costly for the user. If we do nothing, the odds of someone using these weapons again increases. There really are no diplomatic options at our disposal — we have already applied all the levers of diplomacy that are ready to hand. The proposed intervention meets all of my tests for the moral use of military force. My only fear is that the response will not be strong enough to be a sufficient deterrent. A mere wrist slap will not do. The cost has to be high enough that the Assad regime will understand the repeat use of these weapons is not in his interest, and significant enough to impress the Iranian rulers that the U.S. still has interests in the region that it takes seriously. The use of force is always a terrible thing, but sometimes the failure to employ force when it is called for is even worse. The key is that the use of force be “proportionate.”

    1. Seth, thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts and they are well-taken. The use of chemical weapons is a horrible thing and we are right to be concerned about the possibility of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, especially knowing that Syria has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons on earth. But I just feel like military action, at this point, is just asking for trouble. Our efforts will not be appreciated; intervention could cause the entire region to erupt, and there no legitimate reason to believe military action would save any lives. Even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently said intervention “would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict.” Getting involved in a civil war is always messy.

      I’m not sure all the diplomatic avenues have been explored. I could be wrong but I don’t think we’ve tried sanctions yet.

      It seems to be that this is mostly about America’s creditability and Obama saving face. If Obama was foolish enough to draw a red line in the sand and effectively paint himself into a corner, that’s his problem. We do have an “obligation” to take action against Syria and diplomacy is certainly a form of action, but I do not feel we have any obligation to make sure Obama looks good in the history books.

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