Sun Tzu on War

When going into war, or when fighting one, Sun Tzu says we should always take into account the five ‘Heads of War’ in our deliberations, so as to seek to determine the conditions obtaining in the field:

1. The Moral Law: these are our guiding values and moral principles. You need to be on the right side of them.

2. Heaven: night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons. I always think of my mountain climbing (including guiding) experiences here: one must constantly evaluate the snow and weather conditions and respect them. Sometimes they work against you, and then you just have to patiently wait.

3. Earth: distances, danger and security, open ground or narrow passes, the chances of life and death. I think of this as ‘situational awareness’ – tactics (as opposed to the more strategic evaluation of the factors of Heaven).

4. Our Commanders  and their virtues: wisdom, sincerity and good faith, benevolence and humanity, courage, and strictness (self-respect, self-control or ‘proper feeling’).

5. Method and Discipline. That needs no further explanation. It is related to practice. Wisdom and knowledge are good (otherwise you do not know where you are or where you want to be next), but only practice gets you what you want and to the place where you need to go next.


I will let the reader judge, but I think the US scores well on method and discipline only. The US scores very poorly on all else – especially on situational awareness: satellites, spy operations and in-country presence (even massive presence, such as in Afghanistan) do not substitute for (human) intelligence.

Also, if even 99-year old Kissinger sees a dangerous lack of strategic purpose in US foreign policy, then you know the US cannot possibly be on the right side of the all-important Moral Law.

Finally, even US generals who once inspired confidence – I am thinking of General Powell and General Petraeus here – have admitted they lied on behalf of their political administration or, in the case of Gen Petraeus, that their job was just to implement serious mistakes made by their political bosses without questioning them. So I do not see much virtue in any of the US commanders.


As for the EU, we score very poorly on all of the five heads which, Sun Tzu reminds us, “determine life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.” No more needs to be said.

We are in a hot war with Russia, and in a cold war with China now. The cold war with China is likely to spiral into a hot war too. Next year or even earlier. For all practical purposes, our side is led by the Sovereign of the US (Mr. Biden) and his Commanders. I would and will not fight for them. I do not trust neither their intention and judgment, nor do I trust their preparation. Also, our Sovereign(s) should embody the Moral Law and inspire. Mr. Biden or Ms. Pelosi do not. EU leaders do not, either. [Of course, I do not trust Russia’s or China’s leaders either, but at least they are more predictable, which is at least one advantage to consider when trying to make sense of the current post-modern dash towards what I refer to as the old new world order: it is effectively pretty much like the 1960s and 1970s (cold war, with some hot proxy and not-so-proxy wars thrown in as well).]

Post scriptum: I am appalled by the black-and-white logic of the vocal minorities who call for total defeat of Russia. What do they mean by that? A roll-back of the 2014 events? A regime change? Total destruction of Russia’s economy? What is the goal? Sun Tzu’s wise council also says this: the goal of war is to defeat the enemy militarily. The goal is not destroy a country or its people. On the contrary, we should try to win hearts and minds. Mao Zedong used that to defeat the much more powerful Kuomintang army, and this principle has also consistently been applied by other guerilla armies against powerful armies. A lot of would-be analysts of what is currently going on and of what is in the works should study history a lot better than they do.

As for the factors of Heaven, my experience and instinct (I have been in war theaters: Afghanistan mainly and, briefly, in Ukraine) tells me they are definitely not on our side now. If they are not, we should not move and get back to safety. If the factors of Heaven are not on your side on a dangerous mountain climb, you should return to base camp. Immediately. Few casual observers appreciate the fact that these things are effectively matters of life and death. All questions regarding war and peace are. We are not discussing some new limit on speed on EU highways or other mundane political issues that our governments have been dealing with over the past 20 or 30 years.


What I do not understand at all is why the US wants to provoke China. A trade, tech, business or – worse – a real war with China is the last thing we need. We must collectively tackle global issues such as climate change, lingering poverty and hunger (especially in Africa, which is all but a forgotten continent now), and, yes, freedom and democracy in many countries, but not necessarily China or Russia. Why not focus on EU-internal issues? There are many issues inside of the EU that need to be addressed when it comes to rights and freedoms. Do we also want to focus away from them by creating our own external enemies, just like the US is doing now? The terrorist threat is out of fashion, so now we are back to demonizing the good old Russians, and the good old Chinese? The reds, and the Yellow Peril.

I cannot believe that humanity has come so far on the road to enlightenment, through science and rational decision-making, but that many of us now suddenly feel a need to collectively engage in plain warmongering and emotionalism. Social, economic, political and historical complexity is reduced to two categories: good versus bad, West versus East, fascist versus democratic or free. I can go on. We are either in or out, pro or against war, or pro or against the Russians or the Chinese. These are extremely simplistic classifications feeding negativity – much worse: plain hatred – between people and countries. That is, quite simply, not what intelligent men and women should stand for. It is what led to the world wars of the 20th century. We should not burden our children with the consequences of another conflagration. The stakes are too high. We should all cool down, calmly take another look at things, and see what we can do to restore normalcy.


Lest I be misunderstood, I am not calling for appeasement with Russia. I am calling for engagement. As I explained in previous posts, any comparison to Chamberlain’s policy vis-à-vis Germany is unfounded. The US responded militarily (thereby turning the original David-versus-Goliath geometry between Russia and Ukraine on its head), and the EU applied sanctions (some sensible, others not so sensible or outright counterproductive). As I wrote in my previous post, the frontlines have stabilized, and Russia’s military has been weakened considerably. Now is a time to negotiate a settlement: not peace (that is not possible anymore because of the escalation) but a ceasefire and practical arrangements to stop the bleeding and start reconstruction.

The conflict will then just become one of the many frozen conflicts of Eurasia, and we can all focus again on what we should be focusing on: work, family, fun. We should do it now because we are in a position of strength vis-à-vis Russia. The winter will weaken our position. Russians are used to surviving long winters. We are not, and surely not, ready to go into five or ten cold winters, which is what the Belgian prime minister is telling us Belgians to prepare for. The average Belgian is sensible and will, quite simply, vote him and all of his coalition partners out when they can, which is in 2024 at the latest. He should return to base camp as soon as possible. I recognize too many symptoms of altitude sickness, including emotional speech and non-rational behavior. Other politicians seem to suffer from the same.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s