Summer Reruns?

No, not really...although I am anxiously awaiting the summer round of TV...I digress. I was looking through some of my old files for my MA program...and I was struck at how those topics were and remain incredibly timely...hmmmm history and strategy never goes out of style....unlike bell bottoms and boy bands...but I digress again. One thing that struck me is that Western students of military history and strategy don't study the East enough...especially the Chinese. This of course, is very topical for anyone studying military issues these days.

SO here are some of my thoughts on Chinese strategy and a comparison of the Ancient Chinese and Ancient Greeks from a class on National Strategy and Political Goals:

Culture and Strategy: Getting the “Message” Across

The role of culture, coercion and their end result, communication, are a vital but often neglected part of strategy formulation. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, if you don’t understand your opponent at least as well as yourself, your strategy is likely to be unsuccessful. This is especially important when a country is trying to achieve a goal short of the complete destruction of their enemy. 
When a power wages limited warfare, it is important to ensure their opponent gets the “message” on why violence is being used and what actions are required to bring the conflict to a close. As shown in several of our case studies, this is often easier said than done. In many cases, there is a complete misunderstanding between what each side in a conflict is trying to achieve, unless the goal is “stark rather than subtle—for example, Surrender or die.” [1]

The Chinese strategy for dealing with the Mongol steppe horseman is a clear example of cultural blinders preventing the creation and implementation of a successful military and political strategy for dealing with a major security problem. Because the Chinese could never completely reconcile the cultural differences between the steppe and settled civilizations of 14th-17th century China, the biases and assumptions made by the Ming dynasty officials did not present practical solutions to their long-term security needs. [2] 

The Chinese could have greatly simplified their military problems with the Mongols by understanding the economic causes of the conflict and establishing commerce with the steppe people. However, the periodic Chinese xenophobia against “barbarians” prevented a realistic understanding of why attacks on the northern provinces occurred and how to prevent them. The Chinese of this time period also had their own internal political and cultural issues as well. The institutionalized division of power and responsibility on military and security issues designed to avoid a threat to the Emperor also ensured there was no long-term coherent policy for dealing with the steppe raiders. This internal political issue was also influenced by a Chinese military culture where war was a necessary evil that could severely deplete the resources of a state and should be avoided if possible. This cultural conflict of refusing to deal with the Mongols diplomatically while eschewing the prolonged warfare needed to suppress them only ensured that successive Ming strategies were always in turmoil. Because the Chinese would or could not understand the Mongols because of their internal and external cultural biases, the final chosen solution was to simply build a series of static fortifications or “walls” to contain the problem without really solving it. [3] 

The lack of success for the Athenian strategy during the Peloponnesian Wars can also be attributed to cultural bias an misunderstanding of communications and coercion. The Athenians attempted to wage a limited war to wear down the Spartans by avoiding a pitched land battle and using a strategy of attrition to achieve a favorable negotiated settlement. Unfortunately, the Spartans refused to cooperate and continued to wage war beyond what the Athenians expected, causing a change in strategy and an eventual overreach, leading to the disastrous Athenian Expedition. 
Additional examples can be found in current warfare as well. Betts’ discussion of America in Vietnam is probably the best example in modern warfare of how cultural misunderstanding prevents the implementation of a successful strategy. But the current American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan also highlights the need to understand the culture where military operations occur.

[1] Richard K. Betts, "Is Strategy an Illusion?," International Security (Harvard University) 25, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 5-50 
[2] Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein, ed., The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War (New York: Cambridge University Press: 1994), 88. 
[3] Murray, et. al., 109-110.