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.”