Art and War

January 16th, 2007

All war is deception.
–Sun Tzu

The most famous and perhaps most studied book on military conflict is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (6th century BC). The metaphoric title is in fact a translator’s conceit (the literal title is “Sun Tzu’s Military Strategy”), but the translated title is irrevocably tied to the book (in Western minds at least). The persistence of the book’s relevance with its adopted title raises the question, can one legitimately, or at least “profitably,” think of war as art?

War is art — at first glance, an absurd notion. Reflecting on the idea, it is natural to ask, if war is art, what kind of art is it, and how is it made? Is it some kind of performance art on a grand scale, with a good amount of Jackson Pollock randomness thrown in? Thinking in this way, parallels between war and art become uncomfortably salient.

If all war is deception, and art is undefined, we might ask, what do we know about either topic? For art, I read Art & Perception. When I want to learn about contemporary war and politics, I turn to the New York Times — in order to see if they are discussing what Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) has already written about in his blog, Pen and Sword.

Known Unknowns

Guest post by Jeff Huber

If there’s one thing we do know, it’s that our government is not telling us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The party of Abraham Lincoln based a successful political strategy on a policy of fooling “most of the people most of the time” through largely nonsensical talking points and frightening images crafted at conservative think tanks like the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Project for the New American Century.

At this point in the failing American experiment, our information environment is so polluted that no message delivered through any media source can be taken at face value. We can’t tell for sure if something cited to an “unnamed” government official is a genuine piece of whistle blowing or a deliberately planted tidbit of misinformation/disinformation/propaganda.

The best we can do is filter out the noise and look at as much “factual” information as we can find, and if we do that, we’ll find a situation that bodes ill for the United States under the neoconservative Bush doctrine.

Saying and Doing and a Strategy of Ignorance

“If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.”

“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Sun Tzu

Foreign policy-wise, we’ve blown it. Iraq is unwinnable. Afghanistan is irretrievably squandered. Our recent incursion into Somalia is just another lit match applied to an ocean of kerosene.

Punky little Iran has us by the zipper, and its biggest, bestest buddies–Russia and China–are on the cusp of reemerging from their Cold War defeat, and they’re about to do it “without fighting.” Why should they pour blood and treasure into the fan through war and a pointless, symmetrical arms race. It’s far wiser for them to sit on the sidelines and let us bleed and spend ourselves into the sand on our own.

Mr. Bush continues to heed he advice of neoconservative point talkers like Fred Kagan, whose understanding of the enemy and himself would fit comfortably in the fold between his chins.

A former professor of military history at West Point, Fred Kagan is the brother of Bob Kagan and son of Donald Kagan, both of whom are neo-cronies of Weekly Standard editor and Project for the New American Century founder Bill Kristol (who is the son of Irving Kristol, considered to be the “godfather” of American neoconservatism).

None of these surly characters have any experience of military service, which brings to mind another cogent Sun Tzu quote:

It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.

[Karl here again with a note on the image: The black and white photo is something I saw in the New York Times, a picture from the Spanish Civil War. The Times caption read “LIMITED The Spanish Civil War never erupted into a world war.” Not very reassuring, since the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that was in part a proxy battle between the USSR and Nazi Germany, ended in 1939, the year the Second World War started. Japan and China had already been fighting throughout the 1930’s.]

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4 Responses to “Art and War”

  1. Rex Crockett Says:

    Definitely an interesting post, Karl.

    I do not see a connection between the thesis and the content however. Where is the art in the war?

    I’ve read the Art of War a half dozen times. I’ve read The Book of Five Rings many more times. I practice historical swordplay. I do martial arts. I’ve been in dozens of fights. The connection is there, but you didn’t make it!

  2. Karl Zipser Says:


    You’re right! It is an awkward post because I’m trying to do different things. Not the end of the discussion . . .

  3. Rex Crockett Says:

    Glad to hear it’s not the end of the discussion. Great theme. I’m practically sitting on my hands to keep from writing it for you. :)

  4. Karl Zipser Says:

    Um, please go ahead and write about it yourself. As you know, this first attempt was an effort in more ways than are visible here ;-)