TCS Daily

War as Art

By Mark McNeilly - April 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Much has been made of the accuracy and precision of the "smart weapons" the Coalition forces are using in the war in Iraq. These technological marvels have indeed proven their worth by effectively destroying targets while minimizing collateral damage. However, our fascination with this military technology at times overshadowed something more significant; a brilliant strategy that combined these weapons with many other tactics, all leading to a fast and successful conclusion to the conflict.

To careful observers of the war it is clear that not only are our soldiers well-trained and brave but that their leaders at all levels are wise students of military history and theory. As true professionals they have combined modern technology and tactics with time-tested strategies. For example, General Tommy Franks, the commander of the Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is said to be a student of the ancient Chinese military classic The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, wrote The Art of War roughly twenty-five centuries ago to hand down the wisdom he gained from his years in battle during the Age of the Warring States in China. This book, which details a complete philosophy of how to win decisive victories, has been the strategic handbook for many military leaders throughout the ages. The Art of War is also required reading at the higher levels of leadership in the U.S. armed forces. Evidence of this is shown in the strategy used by the Coalition forces. For example, The Art of War states;

"For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."

This is exactly the approach the Coalition leaders employed. The focus was not on widespread fighting and destruction but on wisely chosen targets that, if eliminated, will rapidly lead to the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. These include the "decapitation" attacks on Saddam himself, the regime's infrastructure in Baghdad and those Republican Guard units who chose to fight.

"Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy's army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations. They conquer by strategy."

This advice from The Art of War illustrates the Coalition's approach the sealing off and bypassing the major cities in order to facilitate the approach to Baghdad. For the most part our generals have avoided committing significant troop strength to take major cities in street-to-street fighting. Instead, the aim has been to control key airfields, bridges and roads that enabled fast movement towards the ultimate objective. Once the fedayeen were cut off from Baghdad they were dealt with at the time and place of the Coalition's choosing.

"Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions."

The Coalition's strategy also followed The Art of War dictum to divide the enemy's leadership.

"When he is united, divide him. 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."

This has been done by offering positive and negative incentives to those serving Saddam. The choice posed? Being part of the future Iraqi state or being destroyed with the old regime. This served to weaken resistance.

"Do not press an enemy at bay...wild beasts, when at bay, fight desperately. How much more this is true of men!" If they know there is no alternative they will fight to the death."

Our generals consistently stated that to date there have really been no major surprises in the campaign. This is because they prepared many months for the operation and wargamed many possibilities. Through this planning they covered the majority of potential occurrences and were prepared to meet them.

"To rely on rustics and not prepare is the greatest of crimes; to be prepared beforehand for any contingency is the greatest of virtues."

Yet they have also remained flexible enough to change the plan at the last minute, to include the appearance of the fedayeen troops. Other adjustments were made, such as the armored raids into Baghdad, as circumstances dictated.

"The general must rely on his ability to control the situation to his advantage as opportunity dictates. He is not bound by established procedures. A general prizes opportune changes in circumstances."

While there were minor setbacks and reverses along the way and the Coalition forces suffered some losses, the amazing success of the campaign is clear now to all. It will stand as an example to be studied by future military leaders on how to execute a winning campaign. And they will realize that the success was not only to superior technology but to superior strategy as well.

"If a general who heeds my strategy is employed he is certain to win."

Mark McNeilly is the author of Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare (Oxford University Press). He is a former infantry officer, amateur military historian and currently works as a business strategist.

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