The Art of War by Sun Tzu is essential reading for any Marine Officer or individual interested in strategy. Read on to find out why.
The ancient military treatise was written in China during the late Spring and Autumn period (4th century BC) and is attributed to the general and strategist Sun Tzu .
The Art of War is widely viewed as the foundational text behind the ideology of the Eastern Way of War (as opposed to the Western Way of War) and its principles focus heavily on deception and outmaneuvering the enemy as opposed to attrition warfare or costly, protracted engagements.
For Marine Officers, this is highly relevant, as the preferred style of warfare described in MCDP-1 "Warfighting" is maneuver warfare.
Unlike other treatises on military strategy, the principles in The Art of War have been
relevant and applicable for over 2500 years, due to the fact that Sun Tzu avoids tactical details
(which constantly change and are rendered obsolete as technology changes) and emphasizes the
utilization of efficient means to achieve practical goals and results.
The Art of War is a work of strategy, not tactics.
Major themes of the treatise include knowledge of one’s own resources in addition to knowing the enemy, the use of the military only if it is in the best interest of the state, allowing the generals to make tactical decisions uninhibited by civilian leaders, moving swiftly on actionable intelligence, and defeating the enemy in other ways than battlefield confrontation.
Sun Tzu viewed the ideal as not having to fight at all, and that “...to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
If the need to fight arises, Sun Tzu strongly emphasized speed and surprise as a means to rapidly
defeat the enemy. Lastly, Sun Tzu did not view warfare in a vacuum but rather, as an extension
of policy and as a means to profit the state.
Sun Tzu is quoted multiple times in MCDP-1 "Warfighting," which is no surprise as many of the Marine Corps' foundational principles regarding warfare are straight out of The Art of War .
Attrition warfare, as defined by MCDP-1 "Warfighting," is characterized by “victory through the cumulative destruction of the enemy’s material assets by superior firepower.”
The goal of attrition warfare is to annihilate the enemy completely, with the expectation that the enemy will surrender before they are utterly destroyed. Thus, attrition warfare emphasizes efficient application of firepower and technical prowess over strategy and guile.
Maneuver warfare on the other hand views the enemy as a system that can be disabled and rendered impotent by striking critical vulnerabilities that critical capabilities rely on. Maneuver warfare relies on speed and surprise to apply combat power and shock to specific points that will have large negative ramifications on the enemy system.
Marine Corps doctrine emphasizes maneuver warfare as the preferred means of fighting, and makes a clear distinction between the inferior attrition style of warfare used in WWI (trench warfare) which was incredibly costly and did not deliver decisive results.
Since it's arrival to the West in 1772, The Art of War has been credited with influencing Napoleon, the German General Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, and the planning of operation Desert Storm (in which United States forces used overwhelming firepower and maneuver warfare to defeat the Iraqi army in under 100 combat hours).
If you want to learn why the Marine Corps is so effective as a fighting force, and get to the very origins of military strategy, The Art of War is the (short) book that started it all.
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