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Modern-Day Version of 'The Tao of War'?
Published on Tuesday, April 15, 2003 by the Cape Cod Times
Modern-Day Version of 'The Tao of War'?
by Sean Gonsalves

I've got more questions than answers. That's not a bad thing. As the African proverb says: to ask well is to know much.

My interdisciplinary research into military history and social ethics led me to a book I just finished reading - "The Tao of War," an ancient Chinese military classic in the tradition of Sun Tzu's "Art of War."

"The Tao of War" was penned by a 9th-century military commander named Wang Chen and is studied by all serious military leaders and scholars; not to mention a handful of inquisitive amateurs like myself.

"Wresting military victory is not hard, but preserving it is," Chen cautions. If Chen is right, why does it seem so many American news consumers see the tearing down of Saddam's statue on cable TV as a signal to engage in I-told-you-so rhetoric?

Those who are opposed to the president's preventive war doctrine never questioned the might of U.S. armed forces or said that American fighters would lose the battle for Baghdad. And no one that I know of is shedding tears of sympathy for Saddam.

However, all ethical systems are based on this fundamental principle: moral agents are always responsible for the predictable consequences of their actions, regardless of the behavior of others. So it is there that we must begin.

Opposition to the invasion of Iraq was (and is) based on what opponents regard as a violation of the rule of international law and a breach of a higher spiritual law. These sentiments are not without valid reason, as evidenced by what the pope and the Dalai Lama have been exhorting since long before March 19.

Cheers of U.S. victory ought to be tempered by looking at the situation our Israeli brothers and sisters are in. They've won several wars against Arab regimes and still, decades later, Israel has neither peace nor security.

Laying aside polemics about the true motive behind the decision to invade Iraq, practical reality must be confronted. And sooner rather than later, we are going to have to have to answer the question: what about the rule of law?

If the rule of law is our guide, it should be acknowledged that the U.S. invasion of Iraq is a violation of the U.N. Charter, as pointed out in a letter Veterans for Peace wrote to CENTCOM just prior to the invasion.

The Bush doctrine of preventive war is illegal under international law in its very conception. Pre-emptive strikes are nothing new. Preventive war is a different matter.

Two counter arguments come immediately to mind. 1.) We were truly under "imminent" threat and to hell with international law, even though Iraq's violation of international law was the official justification for the invasion.

(Note: no WMD has been found to date, and after two wars against Iraq, Saddam didn't use what the Bush administration has insisted he would employ.)

Or 2.), you could argue that international law is of supreme importance, particularly since the U.S. Constitution says that any international treaty we enter into (i.e. U.N. Charter) is considered to be on the same legal footing as the Constitution itself.

Of course, this doesn't solve the "threat" problem. So let's suppose you think international law ought to be adhered to but you also think a preventive war is a good idea. Shouldn't we lead by example, especially since we talk the loudest about the rule of law, and change international law so that it reflects the "new reality" where international police actions are necessary and so forth?

Back to "The Tao of War." In it, Chen lays out how those of "superior virtue" in military leadership ought to conduct themselves: "Weapons are inauspicious implements, not the instruments of the perfected man...victories achieved are not glorified, for glorifying them is to take pleasure in killing men... After killing masses of the enemy's men, weep for them with grief and sorrow. After victorious in battle, implement the rites of mourning."

Who will implement the rites of mourning?

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. His column runs on Tuesdays. Call him at 508-775-1200, ext. 719, or e-mail him at

Copyright © 2003 Cape Cod Times


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