In your book The Art of War: War and Military Thought, you
stated Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is “the best work on war ever.”
This is a distinct compliment to Sun Tzu considering your vast
knowledge and analyses of history’s works on warfare, from von
Buelow to Jomini to Clausewitz, would you mind sharing your
thoughts about Sun Tzu and what distinguishes him from other
van Creveld: Let me
start by saying that Sun Tzu does not need my praise. His work
has lived for over two thousand years, and will surely live
for another two thousand without any help from me.
To my mind, what sets Sun Tzu
apart are the following three qualities.
First, like Clausewitz's On
War, The Art of War is not a cookbook. It does not focus on
telling readers how to make war, but provides an entire philosophy.
By so doing, it raises itself above the momentary political,
economic, social, technological, and cultural circumstances
under which it was written. It creates a framework for thought
that may be used by anyone out to understand or wage war, at
any time, at any place.
Second, unlike On War, The
Art of War is a Daoist text. The significance of this is that
Sun Tzu sees war not as a means to an end, let alone as a positive
good, but as a necessary evil. While fully aware of the vital
role war plays in human affairs and prepared to do whatever
it takes to win, he never allows the reader to forget what a
horrible business it is. This in turn results in The Art of
War being pervaded by a deep humanity which On War, precisely
because it treats war as a means to an end, does not display.
Third, whereas On War is a
weighty philosophical treatise The Art of War is at the same
time a work of art; in this respect it resembles Lao Tzu as
well as Plato. I am no Chinese scholar, but those who are tell
me that each word rings like a bell. To some extent, this quality
comes through even in translation.
You have lectured or taught at virtually every strategic
institute in the Western world, including the US Naval War College,
and have already written 17 books. What first got you interested
in writing and teaching about military history and strategy,
and what keeps you continuing to do so?
van Creveld: For an
answer, look up the introduction to Plato's Republic. Here,
Socrates says that the imaginary city he and his interlocutors
are about to construct will act like a magnifying mirror for
looking into the human soul. With war, things are similar. More
than any other human activity, war subjects men—both as individuals
and in large groups—to the most extreme conditions. By so doing
it brings out the human soul in all its baseness and all its
It has been said there are two major camps in the US military
leadership: Those who follow the principles of Clausewitz and
those who follow the principles of Sun Tzu. Do you agree in
general? If so, which of the two ideas do you think will apply
more in future wars? If not, what doctrines or sets of principles
do you see the US military leadership following?
van Creveld: I doubt
whether the U.S military leadership has followed either Clausewitz
or Sun Tzu, or else it would hardly have gotten itself involved
in an unwinnable war in Iraq.
In the future as in the past,
both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu will undoubtedly have a lot to offer.
As to the U.S, I do not see that it follows any particular set
of principles except hypocrisy: meaning, the heart-felt need
to dress up its extraordinary hunger for power with fine-sounding
phrases about freedom, democracy, women's rights, etc.
You believe the current US involvement in Iraq will end
up like the Vietnam War. What are the major parallels? In a
more philosophical sense, why do we as human beings do not tend
to learn from our history and past mistakes, especially in a
serious matter as warfare?
van Creveld: Both Iraq
and Vietnam are, to use the terminology I developed in The Transformation
of War, non-trinitarian conflicts. Experience shows that almost
all countries that tried to fight such wars from, let us say,
1941 on, have lost, as did the U.S itself in both Vietnam and
Somalia. Why should the war in Iraq end up differently?
Concerning the second question,
you really should ask Mr. Bush. According to Carl Woodward's
Bush at War, which has many verbatim reports of the decision-
making process that led to Iraq, Bush, repeatedly referred to
Vietnam, adding that "I am not stupid". Why, assuming the reports
are correct, he nevertheless decided to go to war escapes me
and will no doubt preoccupy historians to come.
You recently wrote a book about who many consider as Israel’s
greatest leader, Moshe Dayan. From your research, what are the
main attributes that made him exceptional, and how can current
and future leaders learn from how he operated?
van Creveld: Dayan's
strongest suits as a military leader were probably as follows.
First, there was his known courage, which caused men to follow
him and enabled him to demand the supreme sacrifice of them.
Second, he had an in-depth, almost intuitive, understanding
of the relationship between politics and war unusual in military
men. Third, he possessed a certain cunning, disguised as frankness,
that caused him to always look for ways to outwit the enemy.
Since Israel in his time was always fighting enemies who were
larger and stronger than itself, all three qualities were absolutely
We have been hearing a lot about China (the origin of Sun
Tzu and written military thought) and its economic rise in the
last 20 years. What do you think about their military program?
Should we be concerned about it?
van Creveld: Assuming
China does not become destabilized and continues to grow,
it will no doubt develop a military program in proportion
to its resources. That said, one should add that, historically
speaking, China has been inward-looking. Unlike the U.S.
and the former U.S.S.R, it has never sought to make the
rest of the world share the blessings of its own ideology.
Nor does it have a particularly bad record of military aggression.
These facts give rise to cautious
optimism. I do hope that, working together, China and the U.S.
can avoid a second Cold War. That means neither taking the Chinese
program lightly nor exaggerating it, but finding ways to minimize
competition and cooperate instead.
In your professional opinion, do you think wars will be
with us for another thousand years? If so, what do you think
are the consequences, and is there anything you think we can
do as a civilization to curb or mitigate these deadly conflicts?
van Creveld: I must
say I dislike your references to my "vast knowledge" and "professional
opinion". They are beside the point.
I think that war, i.e. politically-organized
armed conflict, is part of human nature; recent observations
have even confirmed the existence of something very like it
among chimpanzees. Therefore it is almost certainly going to
be with us as long as humanity itself lasts.
As history since Hiroshima
shows, the best, perhaps the only, way to curb war is to deter
it with such overwhelming force as to turn it from a struggle
into suicide. The best way to mitigate it is to use all possible
means to bring it to a speedy end. I think both Clausewitz and
Sun Tzu would agree on these points.