Sun Tzu, Steve Bannon, and the Trump White House “Warriors”

Steve Bannon, self-professed student of the Art of War (Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

A favorite book of Steve Bannon’s is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  A classic of military strategy, The Art of War was compiled during the Warring States period (403-221 BCE) in ancient Chinese history.  It was a time of intense civil warfare in China, a time when a cessation in fighting was merely a pause between the next round of battles among warlords.  It’s still widely read today for its insights into war, its clever stratagems and tactics, and its lessons into human nature and behavior.

Bannon, who served in the U.S. Navy, is an armchair strategist with an affinity for military history books.  He appears to believe in inevitable conflict between the Judeo-Christian West, which he favors due to its “enlightened” values, and the World of Islam, which he sees as retrograde and barbaric when compared to the West.  He sees the world as already being in a “warring states” period writ large, a realm of conflict marked by “holy war” to be mastered by warrior/scholars like himself.

Joining him in this belief is Donald Trump, who took great pains to recite the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech before Congress, as if using these words were a mark of personal courage on his part.  Trump has boasted about winning the “next” war, as if war during his presidency is inevitable.  And I suppose it is, with Trump at the helm and advisers like Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller pursuing a bellicose hardline against Islam.

Be careful what you wish for, Trump and cronies, and be especially careful about declaring victory in wars before you’ve even fought them.  Here Sun Tzu has much to teach our “warriors” in the White House.

For one thing, Sun Tzu writes that a battle is best won without fighting at all.  Said Sun Tzu: “Fighting and winning a hundred wars is not the greatest good.  Winning without having to fight is.”  In other words, you set the stage so carefully that the enemy must surrender or face obliteration before the curtain is even raised on war.

Secondly, Sun Tzu warns about the folly of protracted wars, how they deplete the national budget and weaken a state, especially when support among the people is tepid.  Warfare, notes Sun Tzu, must be treated with the greatest caution, even as it is waged with great cunning.  Best of all is to outsmart the enemy; next best is to form alliances, to build a much bigger army than the enemy, which may force them to capitulate.  Worst of all is to get bogged down in long wars, especially in cities, which require expensive sieges that wear on both sides (just ask the Germans at Stalingrad about this).

Ultimately, Sun Tzu writes that by understanding oneself and one’s enemy, a skilled leader can engage in a hundred battles without ever being in serious danger.  But an unskilled leader who does not truly know his own nature or that of his enemies is one who is fated always to lose.  Trump, who fancies himself a great leader and who is ignorant of foreign nations and peoples, does not inspire confidence here, even as he promises the American people that we’re going to win so much, we’ll get bored with winning.

Sun Tzu puts great emphasis on careful planning and sober deliberation before launching attacks.  If the recent Yemen raid is any indicator, Trump is neither a careful planner nor a sober deliberator.  Indeed, Trump’s personal qualities expose him to being manipulated by a cunning enemy.  In listing the personal traits that are dangerous in a commander, Sun Tzu mentions “quick to anger” as well as “self-consciousness” or vanity.  One who’s quick to anger can be goaded by insults into making poor decisions; one who’s vain and self-conscious can be humiliated or manipulated into rash action.

Trump promises an American military that is so big and so strong that no country will dare attack us.  Yet Trump himself, surrounded by his “warrior” advisers, isn’t content to build a huge military while not using it.  Indeed, Trump is already using it, notably in Yemen, pursuing policies that are fated to perpetuate warfare around the globe.  And it’s hardly encouraging that, after the failed Yemen raid, Trump shifted the blame to his generals rather than taking it himself.

Remember what Sun Tzu warned about vanity as well as perpetual warfare, especially when your own people are increasingly divided?  Something tells me this lesson is lost on Trump, Bannon, and crew.  Embracing the stratagems of The Art of War, its emphasis on surprise, subterfuge, deception, and quick strikes, is not enough.  You must seek the wisdom at its core, which is very much against war except as a last resort.

Know thyself, said Sun Tzu, echoing the Greek philosopher Socrates.  Face yourself squarely, recognize your flaws, your vanity (“All is vanity,” say the Christian Bible, a book Trump professes to treasure), and be careful indeed in unleashing war.

Do Trump, Bannon, and company know themselves, admit to their flaws and vanities, and recognize that war, in all its perils and costs, should be a course of last resort?  So far, evidence is wanting.

Update (8/12/17): Bannon has said his concern about a civilizational conflict with Islam dates from his time in the Navy and a visit to Pakistan.  Apparently, however, his ship visited Hong Kong rather than Pakistan.  Bannon also recalls specific details of Iran — its resemblance to a “primeval” wasteland — that he apparently was not privy to.  All this is revealed in an article at The Intercept.  Either Bannon’s memory is faulty or he is an esteemed member of the “alternative fact” club, where you just make things up to fit your preconceived notions.

As Peter Maass at The Intercept notes: “It turns out that Bannon, who has drawn a large amount of criticism for his exclusionary stances on race, religion, and immigration, has also inaccurately described his military service, simultaneously creating an erroneous narrative of how he came to an incendiary anti-Muslim worldview that helps shape White House policy.”

13 thoughts on “Sun Tzu, Steve Bannon, and the Trump White House “Warriors”

  1. You know, I’ve been hearing this war talk for a long time. What strikes me is the American hubris that they can win. Of course everyone who starts a war thinks they can win, otherwise they would never start the war.

    Now we have the threats to Iran, Russia and China. Would I be naive to point our that these three nations have built their militaries and armaments for success in defence! Not one of them is making aggressive threats while Americans have to move their militaries and support many thousands of miles, these three nations just have to stand their ground. If America cannot achieve a very quick victory, they will be a a major disadvantage in maintaining their forces so far from home.

    Secondly, none of these three nations are slouch’s when it comes to their technical and manpower resources. The latest Russian military is new, having been rebuilt since 2000 – ditto China and Iran. While America still has old tanks, old planes and old ships in considerable numbers that look good on paper but may be like the French Maginout Line. It looks good, but is it good? The track record of the last 15 years has not been that successful.

    Frankly when I see a Chinese Army parade of such exquisite precision or the Red Square parade of Russian soldiers, I seriously doubt the majority of American forces can project that degree professionalism and commitment at the level of the individual soldier. And at the end of day, it is the individual fighting man in the mud and snow who wins the day and I don’t think Americans have that kind of grit anymore. Of course you have good and brave soldiers but I am suspecting that these other countries also have those kind of soldiers – maybe more of them than Americans can field.

    Just some thoughts from a blog reader.

    Thomas Lunde

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    1. Good point about the logistics of war. Even for the USA, it’s incredibly expensive to project power into places like Afghanistan. Global deployments may make some sense for stability, enabling trade and profit, but global warfare will bankrupt the US, especially against enemies with resources like China.

      I’d like to think even the US has learned not to get involved in yet another land war in Asia, but with the current crop of White House “leaders,” you just never know.

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  2. How pertinent to where we are at now with arrogant, cretinism dolts running the show. Our best hope is that they overreach and destroy themselves before they destroy the rest of us..

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    1. Arrogant, yes. But also crafty and sly, in their own way, which makes them dangerous. We’re going back to the days of Nixon, Kissinger, the Cold War, nuclear fear, and political intrigue driven by hubris and paranoia.

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  3. Won’t ever read Sun Tzu :-), but one word quoted from his writing expresses my civilian lay-woman’s continuing bewilderment when observing the ways of ‘modern warfare’ : the abandonment of the ‘surprise’ factor (apart maybe from drones) in major attacks. What if the allied forces in WW II had publicly announced months in advance their intended D-day landing in Normandy? Obvious madness, as Hitler’s army would have been waiting for them and would have decimated them as they waded through the water! Yet that is exactly what is happening nowadays with ‘surges’, ‘attacks’, ‘reclaimings’, etc. Next month we’ll surge in X, next week we’ll start liberating Y, and then there’s the surprise (?) that the enemy either disappeared (temporaily) if it felt too weak for the confrontation or had time to position its snipers and wins the battle. No wonder that many Afghans claim that the foreign armies have no intention to win and want the war to continue for ever – even if they’re not always able to pinpoint the rationale behind this weird bahaviour.


    1. That’s an interesting point, and I think it relates to war as a continuation of politics — domestic politics, that is. Thus “the surge” in Iraq was a political blitz that allowed Bush/Cheney to declare a victory of sorts in a war that was patently lost. In Afghanistan, another “surge” failed, but again a victory of sorts could be declared (a few areas “pacified,” however briefly, together with claims of Afghan governmental “maturity”). The current drone strikes are a demonstration of “resolve,” at least to American eyes. That Trump seems to be escalating them is a show of his “toughness.” Again, the main concern seems to be domestic politics, not military victory, which is not achievable in any quick or decisive way in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

      Of course, economic concerns also play here. “Surges” take money and resources to implement, and someone is always profiting …

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  4. I sincerely wish you could get through to that bunch of psychopaths with Sun Tzu’s advice & lessons. But even if you could manage to hold their attention for an extended timespan of 5 minutes, they would discard Sun Tzu out of plain stupidity & ignorance, qualifying him as a pre-historic “chink” from a country that they believe is decades behind the US in military capability. How sad & utterly dangerous.

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