“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the
enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
Sun Tzu, Chinese military strategist, 544-496 B.C.
Clearly, we have not paid close enough attention in 2500 years. The problem is that Sun Tzu’s
prescription is lost advice on misguided policy makers, pundits, and military leaders who limit
their security calculations to how to make our military “things” better than the prospective
enemy’s military “things.” And shallow thinking in national security is more than a debating point;
it is potentially catastrophic.
Our military has two essential tasks, and Sun Tzu’s counsel addresses the underappreciated
second one. The nearly universal current national approach to security is limited to the first
task–winning the nation’s wars. “The acme of skill,” though, is in the second task–deterring
conflict by creating near certainty in the minds of potential enemies that the United States would
win. But do not jump to conclusions; the standard for calculating effective deterrence is not in
what we think constitutes national combat power, but what the enemy thinks. Wars occur when
a nation or force calculates that they stand a good chance of prevailing whether it is a valid
judgment or not. Deterrence, then, occurs when a nation or force fears the power of the other.
What is lost in the current discussion of our national security is that our nation’s foes are losing
the conviction that the United States has the will and toughness to prevail in a conflict.
The prevailing method for assessing combat power is by technological standards. Not good
enough. The adversaries who judge the military power of the United States respect our
technology, but they also assess that “things” are not enough. In colloquial terms, “It’s not the
size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” In military terms, another close
observer of conflicts and strategy, Napoleon, said that in war, “The moral is to the physical as
three is to one.” In this context, Napoleon’s counsel is that the greatest power is derived not
from the physical domain of a force, but from its conviction, training, and toughness. And that is
where adversaries judge our terminal weakness.
Our adversaries observe how social engineering has become deeply embedded in our military,
and they conclude that we are weak….built on feet of clay. They lampoon and deride our
silliness (and so do many of our troops). When enemies read of male soldiers wearing
pregnancy suits and high heels, required “sensitivity” training, “Emma and her two moms”
recruiting videos, “safe spaces” from the pressures of introductory training, the dilution of our
ground combat forces, and transgender special treatment, they judge these actions not by our
standards, but by their own. These policies may play well in the salons on the U.S coasts, but
they most decidedly do not impress the audiences in China, North Korea, Russia, or Iran. This
was not the case even a dozen years ago, but the picture is different today, and the situation is
Our current image of softness has not always been so. Just two examples to illustrate:
“Panic sweeps my men when they face Marines.” North Korean major from the Korean War.
“We will not fight them. They are not normal. When we shoot at them, they run towards us. If
we fight them, we die. They are worse than the sons of Satan” Taliban radio intercept.
If you fail to see the value of these perceptions, you’re part of the problem. The corridors of
power and communication in our country have come to believe that what is appropriate and
desirable in our civil society is also appropriate and desirable in our military. H.L. Mencken: “An
idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than cabbage, concludes that it will also
make a better soup.” Perhaps this myopia is because such a minuscule percentage of our
nation has served, but even current military leaders are accommodating measures that both
weaken our image and deter the neo-Spartans among those who serve (or might). Whatever
the rationale for accommodation, such thinking is both flawed and deeply dangerous. Test
case: Will China be more or less emboldened to seize Taiwan if they misjudge the strength and
grit of our military? Further test case: Will Vladimir Putin conclude that our forces are not as
tough as the Russian soldier, and will that assessment further allow him to expand on his
seizure of the Crimea in 2014? And don’t forget our allies and those nations sitting on the
fence. If they perceive U.S. weakness, are they more or less likely to align with our foreign
Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had it right: there should be only one measurable
standard for our defense policies and priorities: does the action make us more lethal or less
lethal? If the acme of skill is to subdue the enemy without fighting, what would the great
Chinese strategist say of a country whose policies aid and abet challenge and confrontation? I
suspect that he’d conclude we will pay a severe price for delusion. If so, Sun Tzu’s only error is
that “we” won’t pay the price; those who will then be 18-20 years old will.
About the Author:
Lieutenant General Gregory S. Newbold is a retired United States Marine Corps 3-star general who served as Director of Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 2000 until he retired in 2002.