Gen Sun Tzu at the Allied Front

Entering the Marketplace. Courtesy of Hosho, 1991.
Entering the Marketplace. Courtesy of Hosho, 1991.

A Chinese text on military strategy written 2,500 years ago for the Chinese kingdom of Wu is now an indispensable element of U.S. Marine Corps modern warfare. The Corps’ commandant, General Alfred Gray, has made The Art of War, by General Sun Tzu, required reading for his men. Shambhala Publications, Inc., recently shipped 10,000 copies of the audiotape to the marines, and the book was a reported favorite among commanders and frontline marines during the Kuwait liberation. 

Sun Tzu won his General rank by demonstrating he could make his skeptical king’s 180 concubines perform a close order drill. His master plan advocated the assessment of five key points in preparation for military action—the Way, the weather, the terrain, military leadership, and strict discipline. According to translator Thomas Cleary, the text stresses “invincibility, victory without battle, and unassailable strength through understanding of the physics, politics and psychology of conflict.” The book, derived from Taoist philosophy, emphasizes speed and efficiency while opposing prolonged conflict.

In the late 1970s, retired Air Force colonel John “Thirty Second” Boyd (nicknamed for his lightning fast exploits as an ace pilot in Korea) created his own slide show on Sun Tzu’s philosophy. General Gray, then an obscure marine planning officer, heard Boyd speak and felt compelled to study the original text.

Upon his promotion to marine corps commandant three years ago, Gray immediately ordered FMFM-l—the basic fighting manual for officers, rewritten to incorporate Sun Tzu’s more subtle tactical approaches. The traditional Marine Corps doctrine, for example, teaches “wear down the enemy’s strength.” Sun Tzu counters “If the enemy has occupied precipitous heights before you, don’t follow him, but retreat and try to entice him away … to overcome another’s armies without fighting is the highest of skills.”

“I expect every officer to read—and re-read—this book, understand it, and take its message to heart,” Gray prefaced the rewritten versions sent to every marine officer’s home.

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