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The American Experience and Sun Tzu


Highlights of ways Americans have felt the impact of Sun Tzu's philosophies


Written by the author of Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War and the Art of War: Sun Tzu Strategy Card Deck

  • Yamamoto and Pearl Harbor 


Yamamoto, the planner of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was a known student of Sun Tzu's philosophies.  The intent behind the Pearl Harbor attack was to surprise and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet and force a quick end to the war before the power of U.S. industry could come into play.  It did not work. 

  • China and Mao Tse-Tung


Mao Tse-Tung made Sun Tzu’s philosophies part of his own and used the in his successful campaigns to gain control of China through a protracted guerilla war.  In this guerilla war, Mao masterfully fought Japanese and Chinese Nationalist forces and played Chinese Nationalist, Allied, and Japanese forces against each other to obtain his goals of a peasant supported worker state.  Chinese and American forces fought against each other directly in Korea.  America stays committed to the defense of Taiwan, where the previous U.S. supported government fled after Mao’s revolution succeeded on the mainland. 


Mao's Little Red Book and his books on guerilla warfare are filled with ideas taken directly from Sun Tzu.  See below.  To understand Mao, it is important to also understand Sun Tzu.  (See Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War at Amazon.com.)    

All the guiding military principles of military operations grow out of the one basic principle: to strive to the utmost to preserve one’s own strength and destroy that of the enemy. Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (The Little Red Book)

If you have never read Sun Tzu before, see our free e-book version or the original English translation of Sun Tzu on the Art of War.

  • Vietnam and Gen. Giap

Gen. Giap, the military mastermind behind victories over French and the American forces in Vietnam, was an avid student and practitioner of Sun Tzu’s ideas. Americas defeat here, more than any other event, brought Sun Tzu to the attention of American military thought leaders.  It also emphasized the difficulty inherent with trying to liberate a country from itself that has caused America, since the Vietnam war, to be cautious about the commitment of troops to other conflicts.

  • Latin America


From the 1960s, through the collapse of the Soviet Union, leftist guerilla forces threatened a number of governments supported by America south of its border.  Guerilla leaders, such as Che Gueverra, took note of fighting methods espoused guerilla leaders, such as Mao Tse-Tung, who had in turn used Sun Tzu as a foundation.  American Green Berets and other forces involved in countering Latin American guerilla fighters also studied the lessons of Sun Tzu in quite some detail.      

  • Boyd and the F-16 Fighting Falcon

The F-16 fighter was the brainchild of Col. John Boyd, who is one of the greatest American strategists few people have ever heard about.  Boyd proved that the ability of fighter planes to afford clear observation for pilots and outmaneuver opponents outweighed raw speed and power.  Boyd studied Sun Tzu, and his ideas on high tempo warfare and rapid decision cycles stem directly from Sun Tzu and Boyd's own experiences as a pilot.   

The quality of decision is like the well-time swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.– Sun Tzu 

  • U.S. Marine Corps 

The U.S. Marine Corps embraced John Boyd’s ideas more than the Air Force from which Boyd belonged. The U.S. Marine Corps book of strategy Warfighting, published in 1989, is in many ways an updated version of Sun Tzu on the Art of War.  (Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War, the book associated with this Web site, is available at the U.S. Marine Corps Base Quantico book store.)

Warfare by maneuver stems from a desire to circumvent a problem and attack it from a position of advantage rather than meet it straight on.  The goal is the application of strength against selected enemy weakness.  By definition, maneuver relies on speed and surprise…Tempo is itself a weapon. – U.S. Marine Corps 

  • Japanese and Chinese Business

Japanese business success in the 1980s spurred the interest of western businesspeople in Sun Tzu's Art of War as studied by Japanese businessmen.  The rise of Chinese business power causes a similar interest for similar reasons.  Sun Tzu's ideas are deeply imbedded in Asian culture and understanding them is key to understanding how to conduct business in Asia successfully.   

  • "Shock and Awe" 

The opening phase of Gulf War II provide a text book example of high-tempo maneuver warfare.  “Shock and Awe” is essentially a media friendly term for effects-based operations (EBO), a military theory that places Sun Tzu's ideas at its core.  EBO puts greater emphasis on psychological aspects of war fighting than more traditional material aspects, and puts more emphasis on the idea of shocking an enemy into submission without necessarily killing him or destroying his surroundings. 


No conventional military can stand toe-to-toe against an appropriately sized U.S. military task force, no matter whether using EBO, more traditionally American methods of overwhelming force (Powell Doctrine), or some combination of the two.  Of course for this reason, enemies have taken to other ways of fighting.


The flaw in shock and awe in its late use is that the targeted enemy in Iraq adapted and did not present much in the way of targets.  This is a risk any time a nation attempts to liberate another nation from itself where is is easy for the enemy to melt into the population.  Though shock and awe can result in gaining a lot of ground quickly, it is not as useful in holding ground once you succeed, particularly without the support of the population.  Soldier-to-soldier fighting may ultimately prove the only way to finish the job, where even Sun Tzu advocates the benefits of numbers.

  • The Insurgency


For a victory to be declared, the loser also has to acknowledge his defeat or the loser has to be destroyed so he can no longer resist.  If he is not accepting in his defeat and yet not destroyed or otherwise negated, he will fight back.  Sun Tzu is a textbook for guerilla fighters, as well as for those who might fight a guerilla insurgency.  Warfare characteristic of insurgencies involves attacking respective physical, psychological-behavioral, and moral weaknesses in opponents.  If an insurgent cannot win militarily, he may chose to attack the economic or moral base that supports that opposing military, or opt to avoid losing, which can exhaust the other force. 


 Those who study Sun Tzu understand that although Sun Tzu advocated winning without fighting, his text fully acknowledges that when fighting, if an enemy will not surrender and yet must be defeated, you ultimately have to destroy that enemy.  If you cannot destroy that enemy, you must isolate him, integrate him, or negate him.  If you cannot do any of those, then you have a serious problem.   

  • Future Military Conflict 

There is a reasonable probability that the war in Iraq will be the last major non-nuclear war.  Since no enemy can stand toe-to-toe against an appropriately sized U.S. military task force, hostile entities will seek some form of deterrent to serve as a mitigating factor in conflict.  However crude a device might be, nuclear weapons can provide that deterrence. 


A military theory of "Ever Present Yet Mostly Absent," whereby overwhelming force can be applied and removed exceedingly fast, will prove important for achieving result while minimizing the growing risk associated with both nuclear and non-nuclear WMDs.  Sun Tzu's text deals very well with how to make such apparently conflicting states of being as "present yet absent" a reality. 

  • The Coming "War" with China


Globalization, and the integration of multi-national businesses, plus the increasing proliferation of nuclear devices in both developed and developing countries,  has made 20th century style warfare too mutually costly to be a viable way to resolve conflicts between states.  The battleground has shifted to the economy where the United States is currently suffering some significant, if unrecognized, setbacks.  One can only imagine the delight of United States economic rivals, such as China, plus the terrorists themselves, at the enormous costs the United States has burdened itself with to protect its interests.  This is a rarely discussed but very real threat to U.S. status as the world superpower.


The tipping point of the "war" with China occurs if or when China obtains the economic and intellectual power base to produce equivalently marketable ideas to those coming from traditional U.S. strongholds.  It is likely to happen, just as it did with Japan, though to stay optimistic, this does not mean that China's rise, just like Japan's rise, cannot ultimately benefit the U.S.  However it must be noted that China has actively engaged the U.S. in a form of commercial warfare up to and including economic espionage that most U.S. businesses have yet to take seriously enough.  (This author has spent over ten years on the business side of competitive intelligence to have first hand experience with this threat.)  It is a different kind of war because as China and the U.S. engage each other, they also need each other's respective economies to stay vital.  Sun Tzu's ideas are important in this war because Sun Tzu deals so well with the ambiguity and duplicity that is a significant part of business, and also for the reason that the Art of War is a text of Chinese origin that is a significant part of the Chinese strategic philosophy Chinese business people employ in their own way of doing business.   


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