Sunzi on ISIS

ISIS fighters near Mosul, in the 2014 advance against the city. 

Image source: “ISIS in Mosul, thousands of Refugees Flee,” (9 July 2014).

Last week Strategy Bridge published an interesting piece by Sebastian Bae. In it Bae analyzes the United States’ strategy to defeat ISIS through the lens of the Sunzi and its precepts. I have a few comments on its prescriptions, so I recommend you read the full thing before reading any more of this post. [1]
In a general sense, I am a fan of Bae’s approach towards the Sunzi. Recently I read a creative take by Xavier Marquez on the different reasons today’s political theorists might study and read the works of ‘old’ political philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes, Locke, et al. As I am quite certain that most of you will find that post more entertaining and intellectually stimulating than this one, I recommend you read that post in full as well. [2] However, I think Marquez missed a major strain when detailing his ‘map’ of the modern uses ancient political thought, and it is this approach that Bae practices here. It is also one that I favor. It is a method particularly common in the field of strategic studies (which would explain why both Bae and I embrace it), but others outside the field occasionally adopt it as well. Indeed, I think it was best articulated by a complete outsider to the field. Here is journalist Joseph Sobran explaining why he is so fond of quoting Shakespeare in his columns:

Dogged readers of my columns will observe that I habitually quote a handful of classic writings, chiefly the Shakespeare works, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and The Federalist Papers. If those readers suspect that these few masterpieces pretty much exhaust my learning, they are correct…. In Mark Twain’s famous definition, a classic is a book everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read. Gulp! But those daunting all-time must-reading lists are a little misleading. It can take years to master a single great author. Much of what we “know” about the classics is what we’ve heard about them in advance, and we may not get beyond their reputations until we’ve read them several times. 

Yet the few classics I know thoroughly have been invaluable, even in my work as a journalist. To know a single old book well, even if it hasn’t been canonized as a “classic,” is to have a certain anchorage you can’t get from most contemporary writing.

There are no particular classics, not even Shakespeare, that you “must” read. But you should find a few meritorious old writers you find absorbing and not only read them, but live with them, until they become voices in your mind — a sort of internal council you can consult at any time. 

…When confronted with a new topic or political issue, I often ask myself what Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, or James Madison — or, among more recent authors, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, or Michael Oakeshott — would have thought of it. Not that these men were always right: that would be impossible, since they often disagree with each other. The great authors have no specific “message.” 

But at least they had minds of their own. They weren’t mere products of the thought-factory we call public opinion, which might be defined as what everyone thinks everyone else thinks. They provide independent, poll-proof standards of judgment, when the government, its schools, and the media, using all the modern techniques of manipulation, try to breed mass uniformity in order to make us more manageable.[3]

To state this idea in another way, we do not read the Sunzi Art of War or Clausewitz’s On War (or Plato and Aristotle’s works, for that matter) because their authors were infallible, or because they provide theories of politics that have the same sort of scientific validity that the economic theories of folks like Kenneth Arrow or Ronald Coase do, or even because they offer insights into the nature of war and man that cannot be found anywhere else. They were not infallible, their theories have no relation to modern scientific methods, and in a world that has seen wars uncountable fought and talked about by men innumerable, no insight they provide is unique to them alone. However, each offers a coherent conceptual framework that has withstood the test of time. The works produced by this framework can be used as a lens through which any issue can be analyzed. Asking “what would Clausewitz make of this quandary?” is a powerful analytic frame that forces the questioner to consider hard questions about the political context, strategic aims, available means, and enemy intent of the conflict in question. Even if not all of the solutions Clausewitz would submit to his interlocutor are the best ones, the process of thinking through his worldview and adapting it meet the demands of a current crisis will uncover hidden assumptions and point to new possibilities the modern day strategist may not have considered.

The other benefit of this approach is that it combats the tendency to downgrade ‘great books’ to a series of detached and shallow maxims. Memorizing such maxims is easy, but usually useless. Connecting the famous phrases of any given thinker to the wider web of assumptions, intentions, and arguments found within their corpus requires more work; assessing which of those assumptions and arguments are valid in the context of a contemporary conflict requires even more of it. In my experience this work pays off. However, even if you go through the process and conclude that  the framework presented in a great work like the Sunzi has nothing valuable to add to your analysis of a given issue, you will at least walk away with a deeper appreciation for the depth and sophistication of the thinker in question than his popular image as a collection of proverbs  would suggest. 

This brings us to Bae’s treatment of Sunzi. There are some parts of Bae’s analysis I agree with wholeheartedly. On other points I am ambivalent. There is one point, however, in which my interpretation of the Sunzi differs strongly from his. To quote:

Sun Tzu believed warfare was incredibly costly, both in terms of wealth and men. Therefore, he sought to leverage the minimum force to win key decisive engagements, striving to mitigate the heavy price of open warfare. Therefore, Sun Tzu would never approve of the U.S.’s plans to retake Mosul from ISIS in a bloody, direct offensive. When U.S.-Iraqi forces retook Ramadi in January 2016, the city was completely devastated by the ensuing battle. The campaign involved house-to-house engagements and was bogged down by bobby traps and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Although Ramadi was nominally liberated, the city was essentially decimated. Sabah Karhout, the head of the Anbar provincial council, told The New York Times that “Ramadi is a city of ghosts” and the reconstruction would cost roughly $12 billion. Similarly, a direct offensive on Mosul would be another bloody rendition of a previous strategic mistake. U.S.-Iraqi forces may win on the battlefield, but the wholesale destruction will only feed the narrative of grievance advocated by ISIS. Therefore, Sun Tzu argued, “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good.” He understood post-war reconstruction would only incur additional costs for the state. One has only to look at the U.S.’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which total roughly $1.5 trillion in reconstruction efforts, to see the wisdom in his words.

Hence, instead of a direct offensive, Sun Tzu would advocate to “hold out bait to entice the enemy” and then “attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” At the moment, ISIS’s growth and appeal is rooted in the perception that the group is winning the war—fueled by grotesque public displays of violence and a savvy use of social media. Consequently, ISIS has dictated the terms of the war in every aspect, whether in the realm of public opinion or on the battlefield. Therefore, like Clausewitz, Sun Tzu would advise the coalition to attack softer yet strategically important targets such as the ISIS-controlled Omar oil field, which generates roughly $1.7 million to $5.1 million per month for ISIS. By recapturing ISIS-controlled assets, coalition forces would slowly, but steadily apply both political and military pressure on ISIS. Eventually, ISIS would be forced to seek new initiative in an offensive campaign of its own, whether out of logistical desperation or an ill-fated effort to regain its prestige. At that moment, coalition forces can dictate the terms of the engagement in terms of time, place, and manner. Therefore, instead of attacking headlong into a well-defended city, laden with traps and IEDs, the coalition can coax ISIS into a decisive engagement on its terms, best playing to its strengths instead of those of ISIS. [4]

Perhaps tthe writers of the Sunzi would argue against a direct assault on Mosul, but I do not think this is necessarily true.

Let’s look at the full context of the ‘take the country whole and intact’ quotation to understand why I say this. As every edition of the Lionel Giles translation should be ripped apart and then burned before a large crowd the Lionel Giles translation is a bit dated, we shall consult a more recent translation. Here is Victor Mair’s translation of the passage in question:

The method of waging war holds that it is always best
to take the opposing country intact,
whereas destroying the opposing country is next best.

Taking an opposing army intact is best,
whereas destroying it is next best.

Taking an opposing regiment intact is best,      
whereas destroying it is next best.  

Taking an opposing company intact is best,      
whereas destroying it is next best.  

Taking an opposing squad intact is best,     
whereas destroying it is next best. [5]

For comparison’s sake, here is Ralph Sawyer’s rendering of the same:

In general, the method for employing the military is this: Preserving the [enemy’s] state capital is best, destroying their state capital is second best. Preserving their army is best, destroying their army second best. Preserving their battalions is best, destroying their battalions second best. Preserving their companies is best, destroying their companies second best. Preserving their squads is best, destroying their squads second best. [6]

In the piece “The Radical Sunzi” I argued rather forcefully that the key to understand the Sunzi is realizing that it was not written in a vacuum. Much of it was written as a direct response to common attitudes of the time, which depicted war as a ritualized contest of heroes, and the conquest and conduct of war were treated as religious rites. Less time separated the China of the Sunzi from the China of Aztec-style human sacrifice than separated the Greece that produced Thucydides’s rationalist vision of war from the Greece that created the honor-driven duels of the Homeric epics. It is difficult to say if the Sunzi simply reflects a change in norms that was sweeping through ancient Chinese society, or if it was actually one of the causes of it. In any case, the change itself is clear. Before the Sunzi violence was justified as a sacral act, and it was employed mostly on for the purpose of personal honor; after the Sunzi violence was justified as a central pillar of statecraft, used mostly on the grounds of cool realpolitik. [7]

That is the context for the quotation above. When the Sunzi says that the best victory is the victory achieved without recourse to warfare at all, it was attacking the idea that victory and it’s glories were the purpose of war. When it says that a country conquered intact is better than a country ravaged by conquest, he is suggesting that ravaging is not a worthy end in and of itself. The unspoken subtext of this passage is that decisions in war should all be judged on the basis of interest (or ‘profit,’ the Chinese word used here is li 利) of the ruling house. The Sunzi may well have been the earliest voice in recorded history to argue that generals must use cost-benefit analysis to decide on whether or not to embark on any new campaign. 

The idea that military force should be used rationally to accomplish national interests; that if possible it is better to achieve those same aims without war; and that every campaign should be subjected to a rigorous calculation of potential costs and benefits are so obvious to modern military planners that most of these ideas are simply assumed, not argued. They do not need to be argued because everyone already accepts them as the baseline for new discussion. When the Sunzi was originally etched into bamboo, however, this was not true. The idea that violence should be used as a rational instrument of policy was a new and radical idea. 

The trouble of course with applying Sunzi‘s advice to measure the costs and benefits of a campaign to our wars today is that the means by which these things are calculated has changed tremendously over the last 2,500 years. The Sunzi argues for capturing territory whole because in the context of the Warring States era it was fairly easy to incorporate territories stolen from other kingdom’s into the administrative structures of your own. This was not unique to China; it was true for population-dense, agrarian empires just about everywhere. Before the industrial revolution the fastest way to increase your tax revenue and national wealth was to take it from others. Conquest paid–if you were careful about how you went about conquering. The Sunzi implores its readers to ensure that their conquests are paying more to the treasury than they are sucking from it. 

The rest of the passage–which Bae does not quote–develops this theme. Enemy soldiers should not be captured and sacrificed, nor killed en masse. Why? Because they could be incorporated with ease into the armed forces of their conquering enemy, or barring that, sent home to work their farms and contribute to the tax base. 

You can probably see how difficult it is to apply the Sunzi‘s advice directly to operations in Iraq. Iraq is a money sink. For the United States of America this would be true even if Mosul was taken without a brick out of place. Likewise, the men fighting for ISIS are not likely to become recruits in the American military machine. This will be true regardless of how many of them survive the coming battle for Mosul. In other words, the Sunzi‘s economic calculations simply don’t work in this context, and it is not useful to apply them literally to the campaign against ISIS. 

The broader principle behind the Sunzi‘s calculations may prove more useful. The Sunzi‘s advice, when boiled down to its essence, is that no armed power should squander its resources on campaigns that do not materially advance its interests. The writers of the Sunzi would thus have little patience for the “bomb the sand till it glows” types, correctly seeing such a policy as a form of armed virtue signaling, the very attitude the Sunzi was originally written to combat. But this does not mean the Sunzian strategist would shy away from massive destruction and violence. What matters to the Sunzian thinker is greatest return for smallest investment. [8] The only reason the Sunzi argues against laying waste to your enemies lands is because it recognizes that doing so usually reduces the material advantages a commander might gain from waging war in the first place.

But what if the amount of destruction wrecked did not reduce or increase the material gains the victor could claim? In such a scenario, there is nothing in the Sunzi‘s philosophy that prohibits bloody, costly battles. The Sunzian strategist looking to maximize America’s profit (li) in Iraq might conclude that it is in the United State’s best interest to fight in such a way as drag as much of ISIS’s manpower into the battle as possible. The goal of such a campaign would be to 1) leave ISIS’s millenarian ideology and sense of “spirit” broken and discredited 2) exhaust and deplete the groups that give active support to ISIS so that even if Salafi-Jihadist thought doesn’t lose its luster in defeat, the groups in question will not have the material means to support it in the future. If a drawn out siege of Mosul could accomplish those things then from a Sunzian perspective it would be worth it. This is because for the United States, maximizing profit in the cold realist sort of way the Sunzi advocates means using force so effectively that the United States does not have to return to Iraq again. If it is not possible to use military force to this effect in the fight against ISIS, the Sunzian strategist would likely advocate leaving the region entirely, using force only where there are clear material benefits for doing so. 
I do not know if I fully agree with the Sunzian approach here. I’ve laid out my preferred course of action in the post “The Fight Against ISIS–a Few (Unorthodox) Points For Discussion,” and refer readers curious about my views on the question there. However, the purpose of this post is discuss the Sunzi. Whether or not you agree with the policy options presented above, this is probably the closest articulation of a true Sunzian approach we can get to.


[1] Sebastian Bae, “In the War With ISIS, Don’t Forget About Sun Tzu,” Strategy Bridge (15 April 2016).

[2] Xavier Marquez, “Does the History of Political Thought Matter,Abandoned Footnotes (11 July 2011).

[3] Joseph Sobran, “Reading Old Books,” Sobran’s Real News of the Month (or. published 6 April 1999).

[4] Bae, “War With ISIS,”

[5] Victor Mair, trans., The Art of War: Sunzi’s Military Methods  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 84-85.

[6] Ralph Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, 2nd ed (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 159.

[7] For more on this see the post referenced, T. Greer, “The Radical Sunzi,” Scholar’s Stage (2 January 2015) and Andrew Seth Meyer, “Introduction,” in The Dao of the Military: Liu An’s Art of War, trans. Andrew Seth Meyer and John S. Major (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012),

[8] The Sunzi generally recommends manipulating shi (势), usually translated as ‘the configuration of power,’ or ‘strategic momentum,’ in order to do this. Indeed one could argue that shi is ultimately about being able to do the most with the least force available. That is a topic best reserved for its own post, however.

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You ignore the fact that the US is fighting the war in Iraq not for itself, but for the Iraqi government. While it makes little direct difference to the US what condition Mosul is in when it is captured, it makes a large amount of difference to the Iraqi state.
The Iraqi state is already economically collapsing and they simply do not have the money for the reconstruction that Mosul would need were it to be destroyed like Ramadi was, or to deal with the wave of IDP's and so on. Nor are the social and political consequences that will inevitably come from destroying the land and homes of the Sunnis good for the Iraqi state. They will engender more armed resistance and ensure the perpetuation of the civil war.

I would advise taking the words of Sun Tzu that 'capturing the enemies country whole is best' literally, without the obsfucation you have added to this.


"You ignore the fact that the US is fighting the war in Iraq not for itself, but for the Iraqi government."

–> This raises its own question: why in the world is the United States waging war on behalf of another country, and not for its own interests? If we are out to maximize li, as the Sunzi would direct us to do, then we should be fighting for America's material advantage or not at all. The Sunzian approach: either fight for direct material advantage or don't bother fighting. Trying to shore up a government in Baghdad for decades on end doesn't match the Sunzian approach.

"Direct material advantage" is a bit too literal. The US is fighting to forestall attacks on itself or its allies – loss mitigation if you will, rather than profit. Still, Sun Tzu (and Clauswitz) direct attention to the political schwerpunkt. Where is it that one can fight ISIS with the least loss and the greatest pay-off, not in resources, but in humiliation?

Long time lurker here, and I really appreciate that such a blog as your exists! It seems like familiarity with or interest in the Chinese Canon is much greater among well-educated Americans than I expected, which kind of shocked me honestly when I first came to America.

On ISIS, it seems the most important war is the ideological war, or war of identity, and the land war is in fact an adjunct to this other goal.

Honestly, I wonder why the US hasn't taken part in concentrated bursts of PsyOps already, since the field of operations–the media–is so easy for us to dominate. Just blast videos that aim to humiliate and discredit, that promote the squalid aspects of their so-called struggle, to utterly puncture this bubble of bravado that ISIS has managed to build around themselves and subject would-be members to loads of cognitive dissonance.

Now that we're making headway against them fear as an emotion would work too. Also playing on the sense that they've been abandoned by Allah, for one reason or another.

It doesn't even has to come from an official source, the vids just have to go viral from multiple 'amateur' accounts, should issues of cultural sensitivity come into play.

Though one could also ask whether the idea of the caliphate, more generally, can be completely erased as a catalyst around which revisionist islamist movements can nucleate.


I have never thought of characterizing Americans as well educated re: Chinese history!

The reason the United States does not do PsyOps is because the United States cannot do them. Here is how I put it in my earlier post on ISIS, linked to in the post above:

"f your ideal strategy to defeat ISIS (or Salafi-Jihadism generally) involves Westerners, and especially Americans, engaging in a nuanced and culturally aware contest of narratives seamlessly coordinated across all branches of government, then your ideal strategy will fail…..

In the context of this discussion, this means that American leaders and officials should stop declaring takfir. They do not and never will have the cultural knowledge or sectarian authority to engage in eschatological or doctrinal discussions with the Islamic world. None of them are ulama, and they look foolish when they try to play kingmaker among the uluma.

A corollary to this is that if your preferred strategy to defeat ISIS requires right-wing elements in Europe or the United States to not say (or do) nationalistic, populist, anti-Islamic things, then your preferred strategy will fail. These people are a part of us. They will be with us in the foreseeable future. Their voices will likely grow stronger in the coming days. This is simply a reality of the current policy environment that must be embraced or worked around."

See also my post, "Wanted: A Stupidproof Strategy FOr America" for a much more detailed exposition on the theme:

@ T Greer

Interesting, and thanks for replying!

I'm here as an undergraduate, and I see that many of the people I most intellectually respect seem to be much more tuned in to the Chinese tradition that I would have expected; though of course this is a view gleaned from experiences with a narrow elite. Hopefully through the vagaries of intellectual fashion, this curiosity will percolate down.

About the PsyOps thing, I was riffing off a phenomenon that shook the Islamist Web, I think half a year ago(?) when a humiliating video of ISIS militants being decimated by Kurds, and reacting in the most cowardly, unwarriorlike and unbecoming way, went viral via LiveLeak and other such sites where young men of a particular bent go to get their entertainment; since the demographic of the viewers overlapped considerably with that demographic interested in ISIS, the propaganda branch had to go into damage control mode, and not very successfully at that, as the heroic narrative built up in other videos was so irreparably damaged.

Since so much of ISIS's power is built around perception, it seems incredibly easy to shatter, by a targeted campaign from a single group of determined personnel, camouflaged by a constellation of informal sources. We could get our own bunch of wumao, who would can channel the footage to the platforms most well-placed to reach the target audience.

Look forward to your next article.

There's a parallel to ISIS in the Algerian Islamic uprising. That, too, proclaimed a caliphate, and dwindled into sporadic violence after military defeat. The differences with ISIS are the backing of outside forces (Gulf ideologues), the dispersion of opposing forces into multiple conflicting parties, a more porous border, and the Shi'a/Sunni rift. Still, ISIS is not in a strong military position, and getting weaker. It, too, is likely to fade.

There probably are things the US could do militarily to hasten the end, but they require a degree of military imagination and diplomatic flexibility not so far in evidence.

Great article as always, but I somewhat have to agree with Sebastian Bae approach on Isis, and its take on Sun Tzu.

ISIS is a physical force yes, but its real power derives from its ideology, the ideology that we don't need your liberal order to survive in modern age, our traditional Islam order works just fine, and by creating this Islamic State is how I'm going to prove it to you.

If we had physically destroyed IS then yes, that would be the end of the ISIS as a organization, but unfortunately its ideology will live on. Because they can always says that the state we created worked just fine until the infidels come as always, and humiliated us.

If you are saying that US's destruction of ISIS will demonstrate it's power to deter future aggression, I don't think that would be necessary, because everyone already know US have this ability with or without destroying ISIS.

The best way to destroy ISIS and discredit poison ideology is actually let it govern, while we make it as difficult for them as possible, by destroy its revenue source, use spies and money bribes to make a mess of its social order, force the top ISIS leadership to commit brutality towards the civilians it control, use our vast propaganda apparatus to point to its failure to rest of the world etc… basically make them a corrupt fail state, and let them destroy themselves from within. By doing this, ISIS will seems to self destruct from within, and a huge blow to it's perceived aura of purity/superiority and its Islamic ideology.

Oh and of course, Isis is as much a problem of ideology as much as Sunni's loss of power in post war Iraq government. Once Isis self destruct from within, the best thing US can do is to exert pressure on the shia government to allocate resources to the Sunni regions more fairly, and let Sunni participate in the government as well, and I think this will be harder for US to achieve than the actual physical destruction of Isis, because Saudi and Iran will use their best influence to fight against this.

Your link to "human sacrifice" is broken, and the Internet Archive preserves no copy; perhaps you should indicate some other support for this claim.