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Sun Tzu or the art of winning battles (B. Alexander)


American historian Bevin Alexander has just published Sun Tzu or the art of winning battles, a work devoted to the use - or lack of use - of the famous Chinese strategy treaty by Western warlords since the end of the 18th centuryth century. A veteran of the Korean War, a specialist in military history, Alexander has already written several books devoted to the analysis of the great strategists of the contemporary era ... and their mistakes.

He notably addressed the Civil War. The problematic of his latest book is as follows: to scrutinize the strategic decisions of a few key campaigns of the contemporary period under the principles set out by Sun Tzu. The result is a 300-page book that is clear, pleasant and quick to read, well provided with explanatory notes and references. We can add the pretty maps of Jeffrey L. Ward, precise and well done, even if the French translation has added a few small approximations - which are sometimes found in the text.

The art of war according to Sun Tzu

One of the great classics of Chinese literature, The art of War of Sun Tzu is generally believed to have been compiled in Vth century BC, a turbulent period in Chinese history known as the "Spring and Autumn" period marked by many conflicts within a China still divided among many warrior principalities. The very existence of its author is controversial, but The art of War, he is very real. Individual or collective work, The art of War outlines in thirteen chapters some key ideas to keep in mind in the conduct of military operations. As is often the case with Chinese treaties of this type, it is above all a collection of simple principles based on common sense. Known in the West from the 18th centuryth century, its distribution remained confined to lovers of Chinese literature, until the success of Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War (1945-49), then the Korean War (1950-53), ensured the popularity: in his own writings which are themselves widely distributed, Mao makes no secret of having drawn strong inspiration from Sun Tzu. Alexander's study focusing precisely on the Korean War, it is almost certain that the leaders whose strategy he analyzes have not read Sun Tzu - or not otherwise than out of simple curiosity or a taste for it. exoticism, rather than with the real intention of being inspired by it. None of them, in any case, ever referred to it.

Overall, Alexander's application of Sun Tzu to his case studies remains fairly shallow. The principles he applies are most often limited to the indirect approach and its corollary, the binomial "anvil - hammer". The indirect approach is simply, as Sun Tzu himself writes, " hit what is weak ", That is, to strike the enemy where he least expects it (and where he has therefore concentrated less force). Sun Tzu also recommends fixing the enemy with an orthodox element, regular or not very mobile, the zheng, while surprising it in another place with a fast, moving or irregular element, the qi, who will strike the opponent where his reaction to the attack zheng will have left vulnerable. A simple, common tactic, not unlike the use of hammer and anvil. If these are the two major points implicit in Alexander's analysis, it would not do justice to his work to claim that they are the only ones, and other aspects of Sun Tzu's thought are discussed in the book. Alexander shows that he fully understood its deeper meaning - very opposed to the Western conception of war - and mastery. We only regret that it does not make its readers discover all its richness better.

Nine battles for a book

The heart of Sun Tzu or the art of winning battles is formed of nine case studies : the Battle of Saratoga (1777) during the War of Independence of the United States, that of Waterloo in 1815, the campaigns of 1862 during the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) during the same conflict, the Battle of the Marne in 1914, the invasion of France by the Germans in 1940, the Battle of Stalingrad (1942-43), the campaign for the liberation of France in 1944, and finally the first year of the Korean War ( 1950) - with the North Korean invasion, the American landing in Incheon and the Chinese intervention.

The analysis of the campaign Saratoga - an English operation to subdue the Hudson Valley, north of New York, conceived far from the realities on the ground and very poorly coordinated on the spot, with the capitulation of an entire British army at the end of it - widens to the English strategy as a whole. Alexander notes - like the famous naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan before him - that the English simply did not seek to strike where they were strongest: at sea. Their powerful navy could largely suffocate the rebel colonies, depending on their influence. foreign trade, by subjecting them to a blockade. Deprived of a fleet, the Americans would then have had to submit. England ultimately did nothing, preferring to hire German mercenaries at full cost to supplement the insufficient strength of their land forces and to occupy the colonies militarily. Ultimately, it was the English armies that were eventually suffocated by the French navy, as was the case - decisively - at Yorktown in 1781.

The chapter devoted to Waterloo is an opportunity to analyze the strategy of the one who has perhaps applied the most, without knowing it, the precepts of Sun Tzu during most of his career: Napoleon Bonaparte. The latter is indeed a past master in the art of mystifying his opponents, of striking where he is not expected, of driving his enemy to capitulation. For Alexander, Napoleon made two mistakes at Waterloo: handing over the two wings of his army to obedient subordinates who were incapable of initiative (Ney and Grouchy); and prefer frontal attacks rather than flank maneuvers - otherwise a combination zheng/qi. Alexander correctly notes that the former is in fact recurrent in Napoleon, who viewed with suspicion any general brilliant enough to overshadow him. However, it is to be regretted that his study was not somewhat more extensive over time, for it might perhaps have been noted that the second defect was not new to Napoleon either. On several occasions from 1807, the Emperor of the French had already shown an increasingly strong tendency to resort to these frontal blows (Eylau, Essling, Borodino) that Sun Tzu recommended to avoid at all. price.

We will return later to the two chapters devoted to the Civil War, which are as worthy of interest as they are of commentary. Alexander’s analysis of the battle of the Marne This isn't exactly new, but her extensive knowledge of Sun Tzu makes it clear. The Germans were defeated because their commander-in-chief, Helmuth von Moltke, did not correctly understand and implement the battle plan devised by his predecessor, Alfred von Schlieffen. The latter had planned to take the bulk of his forces across the Seine west of Paris, where no one expected to see the Germans; from there, they could bypass the French capital by the south and come down on the rear, vulnerable, of the French armies engaged on the Franco-German border. By turning towards Paris and its powerful garrison instead of bypassing it, Moltke reduced to nothing the dimension " hit what is weak », Dear to Sun Tzu, in the Schlieffen plan. One can however wonder about the real feasibility of this strategy, in particular on the possibility for the Germans to continue to supply their armies while leaving Paris behind their backs. Alexander does not address this point, nor does he insist on Moltke's obsession with the Russian front, for which he had stripped the Schlieffen plan of part of the forces assigned to him - and this before. even the start of hostilities.

The three chapters centered on the Second World War are interesting in several ways, even if they tend to join conventional historiography in many cases. Bevin Alexander thus notes the ineptitude of Adolf Hitler as a military strategist, but this has already been noted by many authors. Hitler was unable to devise an indirect strategy like Sun Tzu, which led him to launch a predictable and overly ambitious offensive aimed at both Stalingrad and the Caucasus, with disastrous results as we know it. Alexander opposes him to Erich von Manstein, who did not cease using it - whether in France in 1940, or in Russia in 1943 - to surprise his enemies, but whose efforts were constantly hampered by Hitler himself. In this sense, the American historian essentially agrees with the point of view of Manstein himself in his autobiography Lost victories : Hitler's interference in military affairs cost Germany decisive successes. However, Sun Tzu was expressly concerned that political leaders never interfere with generals in command of their armies. Only downside: Alexander could have wondered more about the sources of Hitler's aversion to the indirect approach, to which his ideas about the superiority of the "Aryan race" were probably not foreign, rather than to them. simply attribute to incompetence, even to a far-from-proven madness.

The errors of the Allied command were not left out, however, particularly in Normandy in 1944. Alexander contrasted the aggressiveness of a Patton with the rigidity of his superiors - Bradley, Montgomery and Eisenhower. There, he believes the Allies missed two serious opportunities to cut short the war. The first came when the Germans launched a premature and haphazard counterattack between Avranches and Mortain, in an attempt to halt Patton's breakthrough in this area. It would then have been possible to encircle and destroy the German forces in the Falaise pocket by pushing vigorously east - but the Allied command sent Patton in the opposite direction, in a futile effort to seize the Breton ports. The second would have been to then allow Patton to lead his tanks into Germany along a narrow front, giving him priority in the allocation of supplies. Instead, the Allies stuck to their initial plan of a broad front advance, and Patton's tanks had to stop for lack of gasoline. As Alexander points out, months and many lives could have been saved without a trivial incident in July 1943: the slap Patton administered to two soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which he mistakenly thought were simulators, and which confined him to a relatively subordinate position in the Allied chain of command.

The study ends with korean war, which Alexander knows well from his service there. He points out how typical the idea of ​​the landing at Incheon, due to General McArthur, was qi dear to Sun Tzu: an attack against the rear of the enemy, with the aim of destroying the North Korean army while it was engaged around Pusan ​​by the rest of the American and South Korean forces - the element zheng, in this precise case. The audacity of such a maneuver is commensurate with its incomprehension by the rest of the American staff, which only thought of reinforcing the perimeter of Pusan, and it took all the insistence of McArthur for his project is successfully completed. However, Alexander is careful not to fall into the hagiography, since he then highlights committed after the victory of Incheon: refusing to take seriously the warnings of Communist China, McArthur and the American leaders ended up provoking an intervention. Chinese who put them in an extremely delicate military position, and from which they struggled.

A relevant but narrow study

Bevin Alexander omits one thing in his analysis of the Korean War, however: as when, for example, he points out the strategic errors of a Hitler, there is hardly the question of why. The same is true of the reluctance displayed by the American command vis-à-vis the landing of Incheon. Admittedly, the site chosen was a priori not very conducive to a large-scale invasion, but the naval and air superiority of the Americans was then almost complete. So why not take advantage of this advantage to strike where the enemy did not expect it? The reason may have a name: Anzio. This central Italian town had been the scene, in January 1944, of a similar landing intended to take from the rear the German defenders of Cassino, who blocked the Allies in their march towards Rome. The planned invasion had turned badly, however, and the beachhead had been left in a precarious situation, under constant Axis fire, for several months. Perhaps Anzio's strategic failure was what motivated the US command to be wary of McArthur's planned landing at Incheon. The idea is debatable (the Anzio operation also failed because it was not carried out with all the necessary vigor, when it had caught the Germans by surprise), but it does not remain less regrettable that Alexander didn't even mention it. An absence that betrays the major flaw of an otherwise interesting work: the author, all in his analysis, fails to take into account the context of the events he is studying, and chooses to limit himself closely to his problematic. This choice belongs to him, but at the same time narrows the scope of his work, reducing it at times to a simple observation.

For this reason, Bevin Alexander fails to highlight, if not a conclusion, at least an observation that his book nevertheless leads to raise. All the strategists whose decisions he analyzes have in common that they come from a common military culture, that of Western Way of Warfare that the American historian Victor Davis Hanson theorized in 1989. For the latter, the European conception of war stemmed from that forged in ancient Greece, at the crossroads of the archaic and classical eras. The Greeks, whose economy was based on cramped agriculture on narrow plains, had developed a form of limited warfare designed to reduce its impact on arable land. A clash essentially confined to a single decisive battle, a frontal - and fair - clash between two phalanxes of heavy infantry: "may the best win", in a way. For Hanson, this dimension agonistic (Greek agon, "Competition"), in the perfect lineage of Greek culture, then spread to the rest of Europe, then to the Western sphere. The result is this propensity of the West to seek a decisive, often frontal confrontation, simply hoping to get the best of their opponent and crush him. From this stem all these frontal attacks that Sun Tzu, who wrote in a totally different cultural setting, considered so much nonsense. It’s a shame that Alexander only pointed it out - with great relevance, by the way - without really trying to understand or explain them. The result was the impression that the authors of these strategic blunders were incompetent when in reality their main fault was above all being too conformist.

Alexander and the Civil War

This flaw is found in the two chapters on the Civil War, but they are no less interesting for several reasons. Already author of a work on the subject (How the South could have won the Civil War, 2007), Alexander reiterates his conviction that the Confederation had a unique opportunity to win the Civil War in 1862: by avoiding both the main Northerner army, isolated in the Virginia Peninsula, and the concentrations of troops defending Washington, a Southern army could have descended on the rest of the northern territory - Pennsylvania and Maryland - and wreaked havoc there by threatening large cities, such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, poorly defended and vital to the federal war effort. For him, Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson was best able to command this force qi while Joseph E. Johnston or Robert E. Lee acted as a force zheng containing McClellan. In this he joins another of his works (Lost Victories: the Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson, 2004) to show that Jackson, of all the generals of the Civil War, is the one who most applied - again, without knowing it - the precepts of Sun Tzu. Alexander may even go a little deep in his admiration for the character, whose flaws and weaknesses he ignores. No word on his poor performance on the Seven Days, where he ruined Lee's strategy by failing to fulfill his role as an element qiprecisely because of his stubbornness in ignoring his extreme physical and mental fatigue. Jackson also repeatedly sinned by taking action without knowing enough about his opponent's strength or intentions, in direct violation of Sun Tzu's maxims. He recovered his only loss, at Kernstown, and narrowly avoided another at Cedar Mountain for the same reasons.

The rest of the story is no less relevant. Jackson excelled in the art of mystifying his opponents - to the point of sometimes mystifying his own subordinates - and, unlike most of his contemporaries, was not afraid to carry out the daring and decisive moves which enabled the Confederacy to win its victory. biggest wins. To this analysis, Alexander adds a certain originality by being Robert Lee review. The most famous of the Southern generals is generally portrayed as a brilliant tactician and peerless leader, but Alexander moderates this view very strongly. And his well-argued reflection hits the mark: Lee is, obviously, grossly overrated as a warlord, even if his charisma with his soldiers is not in question. None of his victories produced a decisive result in the rest of the conflict. During the indecisive but deadly engagement of Antietam, which Lee considered his greatest victory, the Southern general deliberately locked himself in terrain that prevented him from maneuvering, where his army avoided annihilation only thanks to the almost superhuman sacrifices made by his soldiers. He then made a similar mistake at Gettysburg, insisting on attacking a powerful Northerner position relying solely on the martial skills of his troops - a costly failure resulted which deprived him of all strategic initiative. Furthermore, whether it was during the Seven Days, the second battle of Bull Run, in Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville, he never gave himself the means to turn the crushing defeats inflicted on the Northerners into decisive victories for the South.

This review of Lee, for fairness, demands no less to be moderate. Firstly, because Alexander, as elsewhere in his book, does not question the influence of external elements. In the first place, political factors, especially with regard to the strictly defensive strategy long followed by the Confederation, and which only became more offensive once Lee, precisely, used his recently acquired prestige to reorient it in this direction. The fact remains that the two northern invasions he launched - Maryland in 1862 and Pennsylvania in 1863 - were poorly conducted, and carried out without a truly pre-established goal once they were started. Moreover, these invasions were carried out for a purpose - in part - political, which shows once again to what extent Lee, like the other leaders of the Civil War, was immersed in a typically Western strategic context, where the war , to use Clausewitz's word, is " continuation of the policy by other means ". Quite the opposite of Sun Tzu's thinking, as we have seen. The moderating influence of a James Longstreet, a subordinate in whom Lee placed great confidence, greatly offset Jackson's offensive and maneuvering spirit. This was the case, in particular, during the second battle of Bull Run. Interestingly, one of Lee's greatest Chancellorsville triumphs was won thanks to another daring maneuver by Jackson - who lost his life - in Longstreet's absence. However, the latter cannot be held responsible for all ills: in Gettysburg, when he proposed a move to Lee that Jackson would not have disowned had he been alive, his superior refused to listen to him. Perhaps influenced, like many of his compatriots, by his prejudices about the individual superiority of the southerner soldier, Lee preferred to rely on the courage of his men to prevail… wrongly. Finally, Alexander simply fails to point out that if Lee failed to achieve a decisive victory in the Seven Days, it was precisely because of ... Jackson.

In summary, Sun Tzu or the art of winning battles looks like an interesting, informative and pleasant to read book, which the military history lover will read with pleasure and benefit. The more discerning reader, for his part, will appreciate just as much, but will no doubt regret that Bevin Alexander did not extend his thinking further outside the limited spectrum of his analysis. His work, however, clearly shows to what extent the art of war professed by Sun Tzu, still relevant despite its two and a half millennia, is far removed from Western strategic conceptions - conceptions which he nevertheless easily fails, as Alexander did. watch. Too bad the American historian has not explicitly noted this, forcing his readers to read between the lines to realize it - and at the same time restricting access to an audience already informed on these issues. Positive : Sun Tzu or the art of winning battles will not leave the said public indifferent, and will give rise, let us guarantee, to rich reflections.

Bevin ALEXANDER, Sun Tzu or the art of winning battles, Paris, Tallandier, 2012. 300 pages, 20.90 euros.


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