Technology & National Security Reflection Series Paper 2: Sun Tzu’s Art of War: Strategy or Stratagems?

Manaswini Singh*

About the Author: The author is a 2020 graduate of National Law University, Delhi. She is currently pursuing an LLM with specialization in Human Rights and Criminal law from National Law Institute University, Bhopal. 

Editor’s note: This post is part of the Reflection Series showcasing exceptional student essays from CCG-NLUD’s Seminar Course on Technology & National Security Law. In the present essay, the author reflects upon the following question:

Edward Luttwak critiques Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a book of ‘stratagems’ or clever tricks, rather than a book of ‘strategy’. Do you agree with this assessment? Why/ why not?

Introduction to Luttwak

Edward Luttwak in his book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace discusses the conscious use of paradox versus the use of linear logical and straightforward military tactics as means of strategy of war. According to Luttwak, strategy unfolds in two dimensions i.e. the vertical and the horizontal dimensions. 

The vertical dimension of strategy deals with the different levels of conflict. Among others his work considers the technical aspect, the operational aspects, the tactical as well as strategic ones. The horizontal dimension of strategy is the one involving dealing with an adversary i.e. the opponent whose moves we seek to reverse and deflect. 

A grand strategy is a confluence of the military interactions that flow up and down level by level, forming strategy’s vertical dimension, with the varied external relations among states forming strategy’s horizontal dimension.      

While discussing the paradoxes inherent in war, he mentions the famous Latin maxim si vis pacem, para bellum which translates to – if you want peace, prepare for war. Simply understood, readiness to fight can ensure peace (Emphasis added). He says that situations of conflict tend to reward paradoxical logic of strategy which leads to lethal damage sometimes in defying straightforward logical action.

Art of War” by Nuno Barreto. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Critiquing Luttwak’s Assessment of Sun Tzu’s Art of War

Sun Tzu’s military treatise the Art of War comprises of chapter-wise lessons and basic principles discussing key war subject matters like laying plans, logistics of waging war, importance of a military general, the requirement of deception in war, resources, surprise attack, attack by stratagem, tactical dispositions, knowing the strength of one’s army in opposition to the other and attacking accordingly, preparedness for surprise, political non-interference in war chain of command, defense, quick and decisive attack, seeking victory as opposed to battle, use of energy to one’s advantage, managing the army, strengths and weaknesses, arrival on battle ground, opponent’s weakness, significance of secrecy and identifying weak places and attacking those. Secrecy and deception are crucial tactics of war for Sun Tzu who on one hand goes so far as to say that all war is based on deception. 

Luttwak, on the other hand, finds deception and secrecy to be costly plans in armed conflicts. He discusses the Normandy Surprise attack and Pearl Harbor raid. The diversion created to mislead the opponent involves costs and diverts valuable resources when engaging in paradoxical action and maintaining secrecy of the actual plan of action but he fails to acknowledge the success of these operations. Luttwak also fails to provide alternatives to those strategies which showcase a desirable end achievable by other better replaceable means, especially when deceptions proved effective.

In the example of the 1943 battle of Kursk, Luttwak himself negates his earlier claims of high-risk uncertain war tactics being more harmful than useful, by highlighting Stalin’s trust in the intelligence information received about the German attack. The Soviet leader, on deliberation, decided to take a defensive stance in the battle, giving the German forces an initial offensive advantage. But this defensive measure was taken to draw the Germans into a trap and to destroy their armors creating conditions for an effective counteroffensive by the Soviet army. The Chinese general’s principles of knowing one’s enemy favored the Russian leader immensely. Having a well-equipped and robust army, he ordered his men to surround and attack the Germans, giving effect to Sun Tzu’s principles. Luttwak seems stuck on the strategy of surprise attacking the weakest zone of the opponent while forgoing other lessons from Sun Tzu’s work on intelligence, importance of spies and knowing one’s enemies as well as we know ourselves.

In Luttwak’s view, operational risks and the incidence of friction will ultimately affect the combat by reducing effectiveness of manpower or resources. But when parties waging war are not on an equal footing of resources and manpower and combat risk is already high, operational risks may prove to be better chosen risks as compared to combat risks when outnumbered by the enemy’s weaponry and manpower. Meeting an opponent with equal strength and resources may be more common nowadays than it was in ancient times, and here is where Sun Tzu’s principles lose some contemporary application. But a dismissal of his principles as cheap tricks remains extreme. 

The Role of Diplomatic Engagement: A Blind Spot in the Art of War?

Luttwak emphasizes on strategy involving the existence of an adversary and recognizing the existence of another in one’s plan of war and postulates that the Chinese system now or historically does not engage in this. Chinese do not look into the enemy and decide their own actions in isolation. He alleges lack of diplomacy in its historical events due to the geography which minimized interaction between kingdoms. His argument is that the Art of War was composed in the backdrop of Chinese culture that flourished with jungles to the south, protected by the sea towards east, thinly populated areas and of Tibet to its west and an empty northern border which was the entryway for infrequent invasions. 

According to Luttwak, intra-cultural conflict between kingdoms in this isolated culture hindered the advent of diplomacy in Chinese culture. Conversely in Europe where arguably the interaction between sovereign states made strategies and elaborate planning a necessity. Adversarial logic is important for him in strategizing and in his opinion this was not present due to lack of third party intervention in China unlike Europe. He says Sun Tzu’s tactics work best intra-culturally because in dealing with foreigners, prediction becomes a more tedious and a less accurate task. But Sun Tzu himself stresses the knowledge of the enemy’s tactics to be an important aspect of strategy building by a general preparing for war. He has recognized the existence of an adversary and penned down military tactics that constitute the Art of War accordingly. The term ‘enemy’ in his treatise cannot be assumed to be exclusive of an enemy sovereign state.

Relevance of the Art of War in Modern Times

To Luttwak, Chinese geography did not facilitate diplomacy. But the researcher argues, geography plays an important role in strategizing as acting in accordance with terrain and natural forces is specific to the places. Sun Tzu’s ideas of utilizing the heaven (weather) and earth (terrain) to one’s advantage places importance on the geographical terrain and weather conditions in one’s favor. Principles cannot be dismissed as cheap tricks just because they were not formulated in the era of modern warfare between nation-states that are enabled by high technology, especially when these wars involve the existence of nuclear weapons and other high-tech means of warfare rather than mere low-tech close contact combat more prevalent in former times. Modern strategy promotes economic war rather than military wars. This may be the contextual limitation to the strict application of Sun Tzu’s principles in modern contexts. But reliance on infantry as a method of warfare is also resorted to in armed conflict and Sun Tzu’s writings cannot be held obsolete in this regard.

Sun Tzu promoted non-interference of the sovereign in the General’s command of war, so as to prevent confusion in the minds of troops with regard to the chain of command. Contemporary developments in international politics create a heavy political and bureaucratic influence on military strategy; and war and politics are intertwined so deeply in the relations of States that this aspect of Sun Tzu’s principles seems irrelevant. But to the extent that we are concerned with the ground level operational chain of command, it must still be vested in the capable hands of military strategists and commanders of forces with minimal interference by members of political parties even when in power. 

The nature of national armed forces of sovereign states is such that the commanders are individuals of authority whose commands derive authority from their military ranks and because of their expertise in the ground realities of conflict. An established chain of command headed by experienced high ranking officials of a state’s military is pivotal for effective execution of war strategy.

Sun Tzu gave importance to secrecy and spying as important methods of maintaining information awareness in warfare. Modern day nation-states are diverting heavy funding to national intelligence agencies and keep the gathered information out of the general public’s knowledge. For example in India, as per section 24 of the Right to Information Act of 2005 the Intelligence Bureau and National Security Guard of the Ministry of Home Affairs of India are few of the intelligence and security organizations that  are exempted from the state’s duty to divulge information to the public. Military secrets and secret missions today are still as relevant as they were in Sun Tzu’s time or even during the World Wars. 

Final Conclusion

Luttwak agrees that actions based on paradoxical logic have always been a prevalent military tactic and will still remain to exist in the most competent military tactics even when straightforward logical tactics that avoid operational risks are favored for parties with great strength, power and number. He gives the example of Israeli armed forces whose actions became predictable and were intercepted by opponents appropriately. But Sun Tzu’s work provides for the use of a more direct attack when one is stronger than the opponent. He stressed the importance of non-repetition of surprise tactics so as to not make the enemy aware of such patterns that become predictable. Even in the case of deceptive attacks of a strong Israeli force, a straightforward logical attack was a digression from its common strategy of attacking weak points and can be taken to be an unanticipated move digressing from Israel’s general tactics.

A paradoxical action is not synonymous to an illogical action. In many strategies like that of the Viet Cong, a paradoxical action as opposed to a straightforward linear act is most suited to ascertain or increase the probability of winning.1 In current times, the Art of War acts as an inspiration. It gives broader strategic principles rather than clever tricks, with its own set of limitations due to technological development and political relevance within war i.e. due to increased friction at vertical level due to variables (factors that were either unknown or avoidable in ancient times but are relevant now). Luttwak’s dismissal of the ancient text as clever tricks may be motivated because of the text being ancient or because of prejudice against eastern political systems by the west as barbaric but that certainly does not completely delete the influence of the Art of War as an important text on war and strategy.

* The views expressed in the blog are personal and should not be attributed to the institution.


  1.  Luttwak, Edward N., Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001, pp. 13-15.