THE ART OF WAR: 5 WAYS OF WINNING WITHOUT FIGHTING (AS PROVED BY THE USA)
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is the cult classic of military strategy. And yet Sun Tzu often comes across as a pinko pacifist pussy, quoting poetry to hide that when he’s not being obvious, he’s being obtuse. I mean, come on – “The onset of troops is like the rush of a torrent which will even roll stones along in its course” and “The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon”. What?! Of course, part of this is because The Art of War is thoroughly imbued with Taoist philosophy, including my personal favorite principle of ‘wu wei’ or the art of doing nothing effectively. Nowhere is this more evident than in its defining principle that the true art of war lies in winning without fighting. Well obviously, but how? It brings to mind Bart Simpson’s response when his karate teacher gives him a copy for his first lesson – “Um, I already know how not to hit a guy”.
In fairness, Sun Tzu does explain how to win without fighting, when you cut away all the poetry. However, as usual, history shows it much more bluntly, as proved by the United States of America. Of course, it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that this superpower excelled at the art of war (at least until recently) – as opposed to, say, Germany, which despite (or perhaps because of) its reputed military professionalism, proved that it was very good at fighting but not very good at war. (All it achieved in two world wars was encirclement and attrition by enemies with superior resources). So how does history show the art of war in winning without fighting? Let me count the ways…
(1) SPLENDID ISOLATIONISM (OR STAYING OUT OF WARS)
Now this one should be a no-brainer, as it is Sun Tzu’s apparent eagerness to avoid war that makes him seem such a pacifistic pussy. Wars are costly and destructive, especially big or long wars of attrition, and even when you win, you often lose. So, the best strategy lies in avoiding wars in the first place, if possible – and the worst place to be in war is at the front line. The best place to be in war is sitting it out at the sidelines, ideally playing the balance of power and making money through financing or supplying your favored side – and only entering, if at all, to tilt the balance of power in your direction. This pretty much defines the historical foreign policy of Britain towards continental Europe – they coined the phrase ‘splendid isolationism’ and it served them pretty well, until you know, they fought two world wars too many.
USA! USA! USA!
The Brits might have coined the phrase, but the United States historically defined itself by isolationism. George Washington declared it in his Farewell Address in 1796 and Thomas Jefferson similarly announced in his Inaugural Address in 1801 the policy of “entangling alliances with none”. Isolationism suited the United States pretty well, generally avoiding war with European powers until, you know, it was big enough to win – and the above strategy of sitting it out on the sidelines also essentially defines American foreign policy in the world wars. After the Second World War, it was a different story, as isolationism got a bit of bad press, although critics of American foreign policy on both left and right would argue that the United States has not been isolationist enough. It is even arguable that the United States fought the First World War to “make the world safe for democracy”, only to make it safe for fascism – then fought the Second World War against fascism only to make it safe for communism.
Of course, like most things in life and history, there’s a catch to isolationism – the luck of geography. No doubt Belgium would have loved splendid isolationism, but the geography of being wedged between France and Germany was against it. The isolationist ideal is to effectively have a continent to yourself, like the United States – or better yet, to actually have a continent to yourself:
Islands are the next best thing, particularly as historically you could get by with a strong navy instead of a standing army. We’ve already mentioned Britain, but another example was Japan (to the point that it closed itself off from the world from 1641 to 1853), which did pretty well until, you know, it fell victim to the most famous of classic blunders by getting involved in land wars in Asia. Of course, you can’t just sit around in your isolationism like some shut-in crazy cat lady, you have to do things so as to win without fighting. What to do? Well…
(2) MAKE LOVE NOT WAR
The hippies were right! Well, half right – as it should be make babies, not war. War isn’t purely a population numbers game, but it’s hard to beat a big population (and ideally the land area to go with it) – just look at China or Russia. At the very least, you have reserves. Also, there’s nothing quite like a population change in your favor (both between nations and between groups within nations) to tilt the balance of power your way without firing a shot. Historians will probably always debate the causes for the fall of the Roman Empire (or even when and if it fell), but at least one factor was its declining population, particularly as opposed to the increasing population of German tribes. And so the Roman Empire slowly became…German (or more precisely the western Roman Empire slowly became a number of German kingdoms). History never repeats but sometimes it rhymes, and in the modern era, France was eclipsed as the predominant power in Europe when the more populous Germany was united under Prussia (and even more so with France’s declining birthrate and demographic demoralisation between the world wars).
Population growth can basically be your baby BOOM!
USA! USA! USA!
Again, war is not purely a population numbers game, so it’s hard to be definitive about it, but it is no coincidence that the rise of the United States to superpower was linked to its rise to the most populous Western nation, fuelled by massive immigration. Even in its origin, one hypothetical example might be whether the United States could have effectively won the American Revolution without firing a shot by just waiting until its population outgrew that of Britain – or indeed, if it had secured parliamentary representation instead of revolution whether it would have ended up running Britain and the British Empire.
However, there is one cold, hard example that has recurred throughout history whenever hunter-gatherers have come up against agricultural societies, which can feed more mouths (and have more diseases) – the Indian Wars. The United States basically steamrollered its manifest destiny from coast to coast over the native American tribes as a function of population growth – while most of its population barely noticed. (The United States population that is – the native American population noticed a lot).
So population helps, but there is another set of numbers that usually counts for even more…
(3) MAKE MONEY NOT WAR
There is a military adage “Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics” – and ultimately logistics are a matter of money, so nations with money are hard to beat. Sun Tzu bemoaned the daily cost of keeping an army in the field (“a thousand ounces of silver a day”) – and that was when armies could forage and loot much of their supplies. Wars are costly and expensive, especially with modern industrial technology. As we’ve seen, the best place to be in war is sitting on the sidelines – making money from trade and financing or supplying your side of choice (and entering, if at all, to win it so they can pay you back), or effectively fighting with money by subsidizing other nations. Even better, money is a means to become powerful without fighting at all – through trade, finance, investment and influence. Germany dominates Europe today and Japan rose to power through money more effectively than they ever did by war, while China has risen to superpower through making money more than it ever did through its military and nuclear bluster under Mao.
USA! USA! USA!
Need we say more? Money has been the fundamental American art of war. Who says money can’t buy superpower? Just ask Batman…and the United States has been the goddamn Batman of the world – crimefighting with cash, gadgets and firepower. For starters, the United States simply bought large parts of its territory, most notably the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1804 and Alaska from Russia in 1867.
When it has come to wars, the United States has relied on its economic, financial and industrial strength – from the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War to victory in the world wars. As Stalin is reputed to have said of the victory in the Second World War (and if he didn’t, he should have) – England provided the time, Russia provided the blood and America provided the money. That’s how you win without fighting and that’s what Germany got for trying to be a Nietzschean Superman, trying to fight its way to victory (“he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterward looks for victory”), rather than being Batman like the United States. (It also goes to show who would really win between Batman and Superman. Even in the comics Batman could just pay Wonder Woman to beat up Superman or cut a deal with Lex Luthor, all while getting rich from shares in kryptonite). And for the ultimate money shot of winning without fighting, there’s the Cold War, where the United States won when the Soviets essentially ran out of money.
Of course, historically speaking, sooner or later in your rise to power through becoming populous and rich (indeed often as obstacles during it), you will face wars with adversaries or rivals. So, how do you win them without fighting?
PICK CURB STOMP BATTLES
It’s simple – you should pick battles that are so ridiculously one-sided in your favor that they have their own trope, like stomping someone into the curb. Monty Python demonstrates the basic principle:
Empires are generally built by big or powerful nations stomping on small or weak ones. Picking curb stomp battles or “winning with ease” is the essence of Sun Tzu’s strategist – “hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage”. Typically, this is a matter of numerical superiority, as Sun Tzu himself emphasized – “though an obstinate fight may be made by a small force, in the end it must be captured by the larger force”. However, it is very often a matter of qualitative superiority (from what in military lingo is termed force multipliers) – such as superior training or technique but most demonstrably superior technology, the historical equivalent of beating opponents who bring knives to gunfights. This is how the Europeans curb stomped their colonial empires – as Hillaire Belloc wrote, “whatever happens, we have got. The Maxim gun and they have not”. The Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted the whole of 38 minutes on 27 August 1896, as British ships used the Zanzibari sultan’s palace for target practice from 9.02 am to 9.40 am. (Part of the terms of peace was that the Zanzabaris had to repay the cost of the shells).
USA! USA! USA!
O land of the free and home of the brave – but one has to admit, this is kind of how the United States won its smaller wars. H. L. Mencken typically mocked this in his essay “The Anglo-Saxon”, but as we’ve seen, it is the essence of clever strategy and all nations like to do it if they can, even Mencken’s beloved Prussian Germany, which lost when it took on opponents bigger than itself – the world in general and the Soviet Union in particular. Sure, the United States started off big, as the potential stompee against the British Empire in the American Revolution (and its sequel, the war of 1812), but after that it curb stomped its manifest destiny across the continent. We’ve already talked about the Indian Wars, but there was also the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, which Ulysses S. Grant – no pinko pacifist pussy – called “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger on a weaker nation” (and added about half of Mexico to the United States).
The debut of the United States into the international scene with a war against a European power was equally as sordid, as it pounced upon an enfeebled Spain in 1898 and snatched the last decent remnants of the declining Spanish empire (like the Philippines and Cuba), leaving Spain with such gems as the Spanish Sahara and Fernando Poo. (No, really – Fernando Poo). The Mexican-American War and Spanish-American War typified many American wars south of the border and across the waters, from the so-called Banana Wars through Panama and Grenada to the first Iraqi War.
And for that matter, even the bigger wars of the United States have something of this character. Such was the economic strength and resources of the United States in the world wars, that they were really a foregone conclusion after its entry, especially when you throw in the other allies – and as the United States swarmed Japan with its ships and planes in the Second World War, it did indeed have some actual curb stomp battles, such as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’ in June 1944, labelled by American naval aviators for the ease with which they shot down the remnants of Japanese carrier aviation (prompting Japan to resort to kamikazes). Also, although the American Civil War – a war that the Pacific War oddly resembled in many ways – was hardly a curb stomp battle, the North had such advantages in population and resources over the South that its victory was virtually a foregone conclusion as well.
Of course, sooner or later, you will face adversaries or rivals with which you are more evenly matched and which would involve wars of attrition, which Sun Tzu labelled the worst possible wars. How do you win without fighting?
(5) HAVE OTHERS DO THE FIGHTING FOR YOU
Again, it’s simple – sit back while others do the fighting for you. This essentially comes in two versions. There’s the adversarial version, in which you sit back while your adversaries or rivals destroy or exhaust themselves fighting each other, although that’s often as much a matter of good luck as good strategy. One reason for the Islamic conquest of the remaining eastern Roman or Byzantine empire and the Persian empire is that they were exhausted from decades (or centuries) slugging it out against each other like glazed-eyed punch-drunk boxers. Alternatively, there’s the allied version, which is much the same except you sit back while your allies bear the brunt of the fighting, although typically you’ll have to finance or supply them or at least do some cheerleading.
USA! USA! USA!
Again, one has to admit that, through good luck or good strategy, this is kind of how the United States has won its bigger wars. Perhaps its biggest war, at least in terms of the disparity with its adversary, was the American Revolution, so it was just as well France fought it for them – not just France but Spain and the Netherlands as well, in what was essentially a world war against Britain. The sequel War of 1812 was somewhat similar, as the United States was mostly a distraction from Britain’s main concern with, in the words of H. L. Mencken, “an enterprising Corsican gentleman, Bonaparte by name”. The world wars were even more of the same. The United States entered the First World War at the tail end of it, when every other combatant was exhausted by years of fighting, with far fewer casualties as a result. In the Second World War, it came in about halfway, but it was the Soviet Union that did most of the fighting against Nazi Germany, as well as most of the dying – at least 20-30 MILLION dead (albeit mostly as civilians or captured prisoners) as opposed to about 420,000 dead for the United States.
The biggest exception to the rule was the war it fought against itself, the American Civil War, which is why it involved the most casualties of any American war.
Again, like most things, there’s a catch. The adversarial version needs good judgment – in correctly judging that your adversaries will destroy each other, rather than one defeating the other and becoming stronger or more dangerous to you as a result. The allied version on the other hand has a problem all of its own – namely that your uppity allies, having done the fighting, might think that they should do the winning as well. Once again, the United States has excelled at putting an end to this crap. France went broke from its spending in the American Revolution and had a revolution of its own, while Spain had similar problems and lost its American colonies. Virtually everyone was exhausted, broke and owed money to the United States or swallowed up by revolution or civil war at the end of the First World War. The biggest exception was the Second World War, with the Soviet Union claiming its spoils of victory. It just took a bit longer – and the United States winning the Cold War by making money – for them to be exhausted and broke as well. Although there was also something Sun Tzu didn’t see coming, which luckily turned into one last way of winning without fighting (and hopefully has helped the world turn away from fighting), because fighting would mean everyone losing…