Shackled by Doctrines: Why Western Strategists Need to Start Taking Ancient Chinese Texts Seriously

Marathon, Thermopylae, Guagamela, Cannae. These iconic battles permeate the collective consciousness of most contemporary Western military strategists, even if the historical details remain hazy. Writing after the conclusion of World War II, Dwight Eisenhower argued that “every ground commander seeks the battle of annihilation; so far as conditions permit, he tries to duplicate in modern war the classic example of Cannae.”[9] Most will not need a history refresher to grasp his point.

Similarly, by denying the importance of China’s own military history, Western strategists needlessly handicap their own ability to gain deeper insight into Beijing’s unique strategic and military thought processes. The People’s Liberation Army’s authoritative text on strategic thinking, The Science of Military Strategy, holds up the battles of Changshao (fought in 685 BCE)  and Bi (597 BCE) as “outstanding examples demonstrating the successful implementation of strategic guidance (戰略指導).”[10] While accounts of these iconic battles are readily found in extant historical sources, such as the Zuozhuan and the Grand Scribe’s Records, how many Western strategists possess even a basic awareness of these conflicts, let alone a deeper understanding of what contemporary lessons Chinese military leaders might be drawing from them? As Yuen Foong Khong argues in his work on the use of analogies in strategic thinking:

Because policymakers often encounter new foreign policy challenges and because structural uncertainty usually infuses the environment in which responses to such challenges must be forged, policymakers routinely turn to the past for guidance. When they do so, it behooves us to take the historical analogies they invoke seriously: these analogies do matter…analogies exert their impact on the decision-making process; they make certain options more attractive and others less so.[11]
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