The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy


The Art of War

Filed under: Foreign PolicyThe Israel Defense Force — eidelberg @ 6:38 am

An early version of this article appeared in 2004.

The Art of War: Part I

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, written about 500 B.C.E., is the oldest military treatise in the world. Even now, after twenty-five centuries, the basic principles of that treatise remain a valuable guide for the conduct of war.

Perhaps Sun Tzu may be of interest to the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, in view of the Arab Terrorist War which erupted in September 2000. Since then more than 1,600 Jews have been murdered and many thousands more have been wounded and maimed by Arab terrorists.

Referring to the IDF’s limited response to this Arab terrorism, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, “self-restraint is strength”! At first glance one might suspect that Mr. Sharon had been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount. It may well be, however, that he derived that dictum from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—or rather, from a misreading of that treatise. Sun Tzu would have a general exhibit, at first, “the coyness of a maiden”—to draw out the enemy—but thereafter he would have him emulate the fierceness of a lion.

Instead, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is emulating a pussy cat. Instead of destroying the enemy—especially Arab arrogance—he is following the policy of self-restraint, allowing the haters of Israel more time to denounce the Jewish state and halt its offensive. If Olmert had a stitch of courage, he would order the IDF to demolish the enemy to an extent that seared into Arab consciousness the lesson: Don’t mess with Israel.

Of course, when the forces of the enemy exceed your own or occupy superior ground, then self-restraint is prudence. But when this situation is reversed, self-restraint is weakness. In fact, Sun Tzu goes so far as to say, “If fighting is reasonably sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbids it.” This means that the IDF, more precisely, Chief of General Staff should disregard the timidity of the Olmert government and destroy the enemy!

Sun Tzu insists on this principle. In referring to various ways in which “a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army,” hence on his people, Sun Tzu cautions a ruler against “attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom.” Although “In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign,” “he will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.” Sun Tzu emphasizes that there are even occasions when the “commands of the sovereign must not be obeyed.”

Of course, this would violate the principle of military subordination to civilian authority—a principle Israel’s political elites would proclaim to preserve their democratioc reputation, especially in the United States. Never mind Jewish casualties or sacrificing Jewish soldiers on the alter of PR.

Sun Tzu did not have to worry about journalists and humanists who make the rational conduct of war impossible, and who therefore prolong the killing. When U.S. Admiral Bull Halsey said, “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often,” he was merely echoing Sun Tzu’s advice.

We read in the Torah, “When you go forth to battle against your enemies” (Deut. 20:1). The Sages ask: “What is meant by ‘against your enemies’”? They answer: “God said, ‘Confront them as enemies. Just as they show you no mercy, so should you not show them any mercy’”

Sun Tzu would therefore be appalled by the alacrity with with Israeli governments engage in cease fires or “hudnas,” which allow Arab terrorists to regroup and accumulate more and deadlier weapons, Sun Tzu calls for the uninterrupted attack. He unequivocally opposes a protracted war: “There is no instance,” he says, “of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” But protracted war is the inevitable result of the supposedly humanitarian policy of self-restraint pursued by Israeli governments. And notice how Washington is always preaching self-retraint—Hiroshima and Dresden notwithstanding.

The Art of War: Part II

Israel some years ago, while teaching officers at Bar-Ilan University, I learned that Israel’s Command and Staff College did not teach Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), one of the greatest military scientists. It shows, as it showed so glaringly in the Second War in Lebanon.

Clausewitz’s classic On War is as valid for insurrgent warfare at is is for nuclear war. For example, contrary to democratic humanists (including not a few general officers of the Israel Defense Forces), Clausewitz warns, “… in such dangerous things as war, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst.”

The IDF has nonegtheless been imbued with the absurd principle that “self-restraint is strength”! Imagine winning a war against Jihadists by adhering to this principle. Yet this has been the guiding principle of one Israeli government after another, at least since Arafat’s Terror War broke out in September 2000, a war still going on eight years later.

It’s quite obvious that Israeli governments lack the will to win this war: to utterly vanquish the enemy in the shortest possible time. It’s obvious that Israeli governments do not understand the basic principles of war and therefore multiply the number of Jewish casualties. Let’s elaborate on the teachings of Clausewitz.

Clausewitz defines war as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will. Violence is the means; submission of the enemy to our will the ultimate object.” For as long as the enemy remains armed, he will wait for a more favorable moment for action.

The ultimate object of war is political. To attain this object fully, the enemy must be disarmed. Disarming the enemy “becomes therefore the immediate object of hostilities. It takes the place of the final object and puts it aside as something we can eliminate from our calculations.” In other words, first disarm the enemy, subject him to your will. The political comes later.

Clausewitz warns: “Philanthropists may readily imagine there is a skillful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without causing great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the Art of War. However plausible this may appear, still it is an error which must be extirpated; for in such dangerous things as war, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst.”

Not that Clausewitz advocates indiscriminate slaughter. He warns, however, that “he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary uses less vigor in its application.” “Let us not hear of Generals who conquer without bloodshed. If a bloody slaughter is a horrible sight, then that is a ground for paying more respect to War, but not for making the sword we wear blunter and blunter by degrees from feelings of humanity, until someone steps in with one that is sharp and lops off the arm from our body.”

It follows that a Governmment that regards moderation or self-restraint as a principle of war is suffering from mental degeneracy, and that any general who passively obeys such a government is a coward who cares not for the welfare of his soldiers or his people. ASny general worthy of his country’s uniform knows that to defeat the enemy his power of resistence must be utterly crushed. Period.

Meanwhile, the prime minister—if he is a statesman and not a hack politcian—must solidify the confidence and determination of his people. The people must believe in the justice of their country’s cause and understand the importance of victory as well as the consequences of defeat. The statesman must display wisdom, decisiveness, and clarity.

Above all the statesman must have, in his own mind, a clear view of his post-war goal or political object. The political object will determine the aim of military force as well as the amount of force or effort to be used.

Here is where Olmert, following Sharon, spells disaster. His political object is a Palestinian state. For which he needs a “negotiating partner”—Mahmoud Abbas being his current choice. It was because he advocated a Palestinian state for which he needed a “negotiating partner” that Sharon did not destroy the entire Arab terrorist network in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. This is why he employed limited means: targeted killings and destruction of a few Arab houses and bomb factories—but never a full-scale attack to win the war and so devastate the enemy as to eradicate the enemy’s desire to wage war for a hundred years—as the Allied powers did in Germany and the United States in Japan.

Had Sharon destroyed the enemy, as could have been done in two weeks after 9/11, any international howl that might erupt would have subsided in two weeks, and the people of Israel would once again walk upright, proud and confident in Israel’s future.


Sophisticates speak of “post-heroic warfare” and the need to win hearts and minds. Whose hearts and minds? We need statesmen and generals who care infintely more about the hearts and minds of our own people than the hearts and minds of our enemies, incliuding those misleading called “civilians.”

Again I am reminded of General George S. Patton, the most feared, most successful, and most erudite American general in the Second World War, who wrote: “When the enemy wavers throw caution to the winds… A violent pursuit will finish the show. Caution leads to a new battle.” “War means fighting. Fighting means killing … Find the enemy, attack him, invade his territory and raise hell while you are at it.”

Audacity! Audacity! Audacity! was the motto of Frederick the Great which Patton made his own. The motto among Israel’s ruling elites is Caution! Caution! Caution!—or should I say Timidity! Timidity! Timidity!