General David Petraeus Ph.D., Icon Of Counterinsurgency & The Ideals Of Mao Tse-tung & Sun Tzu

About fifteen years ago Nien Cheng (author of ‘Life & Death In Shanghai’) gave the commencement address at Marist College in New York.  I was unaware of her life and her relation to Mao Tse-tung, she was best friends with Mao’s wife (Jiang Quing) and remained close confident to Mao throughout his life.  During the ‘Cultural Revolution & Great Leap Forward’ she was considered an ‘imperialist’ and labelled a criminal.  She was in fact CEO of SHELL throughout China during the 1940’s-1960’s.  A complete recount of her life and solitary confinement along with the murder of her daughter is detailed in her book mentioned above.  It is harrowing to intimately know the murderer of one’s child, let alone to see one’s life dissolve.  Fr. Luke William McCann Ph.D, professor and campus minister began a long correspondence with Ms. Neng that upon his retirement, was a gift that I have treasured, and will, I hope remain in my family for generations.

I remember how Dr. McCann quietly asked if I would like to ask Ms. Cheng anything, embarrassed at such an unprepared opportunity, I only asked about Chairman Mao.  She gently smiled a long bright smile of a Sinic cast that to knowledgeable foreigner signified an authoritive grasp of personal significance.  After a long pause, which at the time proved embarrassing, Ms. Cheng detailed fine crafted points of counterinsurgency that helped Mao and by extension China gain advantage over westerners.  Her story is recounted by Dr. Robert Payne who is an authority on Mao and his counterinsurgency.  He writes:  “Living high on a cliff in a monastery, completely surrounded by hostile armies who were in command of all roads and communications, Mao was compelled to revise all his thinking on revolutionary tactics and strategy. . . Although he was familiar with commanding guerrilla battles with swift moving attack, he continued to suffer massive losses.  He began the basis of his counterinsurgency by acquiring the good will of the villagers in the plains, he then began to employ them as scouts and his personal intelligence staff, next he was to invite attack by a superior force SO HE COULD REPLENISH HIS DIMINISHING SUPPLY OF AMMUNITION.  He later said that their was not a single machine gun at his disposal at the beginning, but he was successful because he knew the terrain, firmly grasped the political significance of tight command in contact with a superior force.”

To my surprise Ms. Cheng recounted this very tactic that native Guatemalans used during the 1980’s to create an advantage over communist native forces being trained by foreign Cubans and Congolese.

Both Ms. Cheng’s comments, the Civil Wars of Central America during the 1980’s and Mao’s counterinsurgency tactics all derive from Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art Of War’.

It remained for American’s to rediscover and perfect the successful counterinsurgency tactics (it is not a strategy!) that were employed and perfected by the Marine Corps. in the 1920’s – 1930’s in Nicaragua and the Philippines.  Sun Tzu’s manual simply cannot withstand the impact of contemporary technology, however, he is regarded as an authority on tactics developed in counterinsurgencies.

His chapter 10 ‘Terrain’ is the most sophisticated and least well learned part of his manual.  It is often referred to a ‘principals of Earth’, which is a Sinic code word for ‘ground’.  Sun Tzu distinguished six kinds of terrain that a battlefield commander must understand how to utilize:  accessible ground, entangling ground, temporising ground, narrow space, precipitous heights and positions at a great distance from the enemy.”

Before our engagement in Iraq and the elevation of Dr. Petraeus, the American military always erroneously put emphasis on ‘Mass’ in its calculated ratios.  This was to prove disastrous with Secretary of Defense Rumsfield and  his overtly cautious appeal to remain unengaged in the region.  Sun Tzu’s only error of emphasis in chapter 10 is his little appeal to the use of communications in regard to terrain.  Clausewitz himself but little emphasis on communication.  Napoleon’s dictum can fulfill Sun Tzu’s manual when he wrote “the secret of war lies in the communications.”  (Pensees de Napoleon ch. I no. 47.)  Col. Henderson (‘The Science of War’) speaks to these conditions when he wrote “when a commander is in a position where his communications are threatened and faces a superior force, he must split his forces into isolated detachments, permitting the utmost autonomy.’  Did not the North Vietnamese understand this regarding their ability to master the French and American’s.  Has not General Petraeus developed the ability of the American’s to adapt to both geography and enemy!  It seems that we are relearning what we already developed, namely a superior grasp of implementing Sun Tzu’s text.

The political class in Washington continues to be taught the political dimensions of conflict as they engage the military class.  Both Ralph Peters and Ann Marlowe continue to report on this topic.  What can Sun Tzu teach us today as we engage enemies throughout Central Asia?  Specifically from ch. 10 ‘Terrain’?

We can begin by accepting the validity of Sun Tzu’s writings on giving up ground that is difficult to reoccupy, for he admonishes commanders (think Washington political class) who do.  He writes that it is better policy to ONLY PARTIALLY LEAVE THE FIELD, LEAVE INITIATIVE TO THE ENEMY, THEN SLAUGHTER THEM WITH SUPERIOR FIRE POWER AND ENGAGEMENT WHEN THEY TAKE THE FIELD.

Let’s hope Joe Biden is reading Sun Tzu!

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About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
This entry was posted in Central Asia, China, Sun Tzu, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to General David Petraeus Ph.D., Icon Of Counterinsurgency & The Ideals Of Mao Tse-tung & Sun Tzu

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