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Term Paper on Sun Tzu


“Warfare is a matter of deception – of constantly creating false appearances, spreading disinformation, and employing trickery and deceit,” – wrote great Chinese thinker Sun Tsu several centuries ago. Almost the same conclusion drops McNamarra in The Fog of War. In his interview, which became the basis for the documentary movie shot by Errol Morris, Kennedy and Johnson Defense Secretary Robert McNamara uncovers truth about the war policy of the US and gives his ideas about the future of the country. I believe that Sun Tsu, who wrote about the art of war many centuries ago and counted on the principles of diplomacy and strategy, same as humanness and justice, would appreciate conclusions, made by Mc Namarra. Movie-interview consist of 11 “lessons” taught by the man, who was in the center of the US external policy and took an active part in two great wars, which had great influence on the history of the whole mankind.

I believe that Sun Tsu would agree with the principles, described by McNamarra. McNamarra, being a wonderful strategist and skillful planner, followed the principles, formulated by Sun Tsu many centuries ago. He used all possible means, including lies and deception, in order to smash the enemy. Lessons, taught by McNamarra echo some of war strategies, described by Sun Tsu in his Art of War. “Maximize efficiency,” “Get the data,” “Never say never”, “Belief and seeing are both often wrong,” and other lessons have much in common with war wisdom, proclaimed by Sun Tsu.

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With stunning sincerity McNamarra gives us insight into the strategies, used in the modern battle field and, what is more interesting, he talks about real battles, which decide the history of the world and which occur not on the battle field, but in quite cabinets of higher officials.

McNamarra knows what he is talking about because he saw both sides of the war. He participated in the World War II as a soldier and took decision as a minister of war during the Vietnam War. McNamarra followed the principles of diplomacy in many conflicts. He describes the seriousness of the threat during the Cuban missile crisis, when the US was just about to perform active actions using nuclear weapon against Soviet Union. The situation was saved by rational arguments of Tommy Thompson. Any active actions performed at that time would cause a lot of deaths and destruction from both sides. Despite shocking truth uncovered in the movie McNamarra never apologies for his active participation in the Vietnam War. He doesn’t want to waste time on apologies and pity because there is too little time left. He wants to make people think and drop necessary conclusions in order to avoid terrible mistakes in the future. The movies contain a lot of philosophical and ethical reflections about the war and leading a battle. It could be regarded as a set of rules for the future generation of politicians, unfortunately people are too busy in the effort to satisfy their ambitions that have no time to think about the possible results of their actions. Talking about the Cuban missile crises, McNamarra reveals one of basic war laws described by Sun Tsu. They both talk about compassionate attitude to the enemy. One generous gesture, when the US let its enemy save the face and forgot some bellicose statements of Moscow, save millions of innocent lives. As the history shows, this policy turned to be the only right one and prevented a great disaster. Sun Tzu said, “Those who excel in war first cultivate their own humanity and justice and maintain their laws and institutions,” and this truth McNamarra wants to remind everybody. People who work out war companies are too centered on themselves, their own need and fears and very often forget about the opposing side. Knowing about your enemy, about his concerns and fears, breathing same air can not only help to win the battle, but also to stop it. Most of the conflicts arise because of the wrong understanding of other’s desires and concerns. Sun Tsu states that: “the essence of war is dislocating the enemy psychologically, then dominating him.” That is one of basic rules, described by Sun Tsu and that it the understanding, McNamarra wants to share with us. In his teaching, Sun Tsu advocates a holistic approach to war and strategy. Through military examples, he explains the psychology of the winner and this concept is different from those adopted by modern strategists. Victory isn’t always reached by forces and defeat can also turn to be a victory if we adopt holistic perspective. McNamarra examines present situation the United States are in now and makes a sad conclusion, that “We are the strongest nation in the world today, and I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political or military power unilaterally. If we’d followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning” and finds no solution. “You can’t change human nature,” sounds like a verdict but there is always hope and since one of the lessons states “Be prepared to re-examine reasoning,” we can apply it to all external policy and find its merits and demerits if we are brave enough to confess our own faults. Talking about acting without the full information about the subject described by McNamarra resembles Sun Tsu’s words about war strategy. Sun Tsu wrote about the importance of the development of strategy in advance but at the same time he insisted on the ability to be flexible and meet unexpected turn of events. Bounded rationality is a term, used to describe the limits of rational behavior, which exist during the war. Originally used as a sociological term, The Fog of War deal with bounded rationality during war actions.

Rational thinking and the victory-at-any-cost logic aren’t always the only right ways and sometimes they only prove old truth that many small victories can lead to one great defeat. Changes in the attitude to war and enemy are necessary as only this way the catastrophe can be avoided. McNamarra wanted to deliver this message to the audience and that is the message Sun Tsu would agree, to my mind.


McNamara, R. 1967 ‘San Francisco Speech’, in US Nuclear Strategy: A Reader, Bobbitt. P, Freedman, L. & Treverton, G. (eds), MacMillan, New York USA
The Fog Of War 2003 // Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // May 17th, 2004
Sun Tzu, (1988). The Art of War Thomas Cleary (Translator), Shmbala

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