The Forgotten Counter Insurgency Manual and Classical Kissinger: Studying More Than Sun-Tzu

Sunzi (Sun-Tzu) tends to overshadow the rest of the commentary on classic Chinese military theory. The translations are too many to count and just the famous ones include Giles, Griffith, Cleary and Sawyer. And this is before getting into various proliferating boutique editions sold at major book stores.

But this focus on Sunzi borders on obsession and it blinds the general public to the many more works in existence, hinders those with academic training in military theory from the rich potential of the rest of the corpus, and the texts beyond Sunzi are often ignored by most scholars who specialize in those texts. Scholars are increasingly starting to examine the wide body of literature beyond Sunzi that remains to be examined.  These texts include new translations of the Mozi, the Dao De Jing, the Analects of Confucius (Kong Fuzi), The Seven Military Classics, Huainanzi, Sun Bin’s Art of War, Shizi, Guanzi, Mencius, Xunzi, the Yi Zhou Shu, the Pheasant Cap Master of Heguanzi and the so called “lost classics” of the Yellow Emperor and combined with the existing translations like the Book of Lord Shang, Han Feizi and fragments or excerpts from the works of thinkers like Shen Puhai and Jia Yi this becomes a sold corpus. Yet despite being publicly available, some of them for close to 100 years, very little has been done to systematically assess and evaluate over 30 translated classical Chinese texts.

A comprehensive study and systematic assessment of these texts will fill a book, but a preliminary examination includes the three important points that provide timely, detailed, and sophisticated advice to policy makers and analysts.

The Forgotten Counter Insurgency

The phrase “win hearts and minds” has often been mocked as an ineffectual counter insurgency strategy where starry-eyed rhetoric didn’t match reality or seemed rather incongruous with strategies that often focused on kinetic military operations and body counts. At best the term winning hearts and minds often seemed like empty rhetoric that justified overpriced and mismanaged infrastructure projects.

But the Chinese classical text, Yi Zhou Shu (Lost Book of Zhou) has been neglected by Chinese scholars throughout history that objected to its brutality, and only recently translated into English. Its military theory contains fascinating insights into military policy rooted in good governance, and preventing costly insurgencies through adroit policies of the conquering commander.

Even though Confucian scholars objected to many parts of it, the Yi Zhou Shu takes the sound, but general principles described by leading Confucian thinkers like Xunzi and Mencius about how to win hearts and minds but then provides specific details that if followed, presumably prevented classical insurgencies and would have corrected numerous counter insurgency blunders from the 20th century.

These principles include providing relief to the starving and widowed, many of which were likely caused by the invading army in the first place. The Yi Zhou Shu calls for selective releases from prison. This sounds dangerous as the Afghan government begins the release of hardcore Taliban prisoners and leadership. But military writers like Wei Liaozi point out that the harsh Legalist policies typical of classic Chinese states imprisoned many people for minor offenses. They would also imprison their families to the point that the number of men and civilians to support a small army were held in prison. The newly conquered power releasing them signifies the new state’s comparative benevolence and the newly released prisoners make prime recruiting sources for a constabulary counter insurgency force or fulfills the advice of the Yi Zhou Shu to employ the masses with kindness.

What took American forces years to understand about Iraqi culture the Yi Zhou Shu advised right away. Further methods include respecting local shrines and religious leaders. Both are key elements around which the people could rally during an insurgency.  To further stop the insurgency the text advised military leaders to collect weapons, and pardon low level banditry and rebellion (which were often interchangeable during political chaos and conquest.) Pardoning is a way to end the insurgency without bloodshed and fulfill the goal of so many writers like Sunzi to win without battle.

This text and other ignored passages provide what is a thorough and forgotten manual that can train leaders in foundational counter insurgency methods and civil military problems that were only rediscovered during or after the Iraq War.

The Classical Kissinger

In a brilliant section of analysis, the legalist scholar Han Feizi recognized the difference between words and actions, and how both can be flexibly interpreted to support or oppose just about any course action:

The important thing in persuasion is to learn how to play up the aspects that the person you are talking to is proud of, and play down the aspects he is ashamed of. Thus, if the person has some urgent personal desire, you should show him that it is in his public duty to carry it out and urge him not to delay… If you wish to urge a policy of peaceful coexistence, then be sure to expound it in terms of lofty ideals, but also hint that it is commensurate with the ruler’s personal interests. If you wish to warn the ruler against dangerous and injurious policies, then make a show of the fact that they invite reproach and moral censure, but also hint that they are inimical to his personal interests.

This is an astounding passage that presents an almost Henry Kissinger like analysis of foreign policy.  Kissinger outlined two different schools of thought categorized as Wilsonian like moral imperative along with a Theodore Roosevelt like realism. Kissinger argued that Wilson often presented the need for warfare in terms of moral obligations. Thus, World War I was argued as the war to end all wars and Wilson strived to implemented international organizations that could lead to peace. Roosevelt in contrast argued that wars are based on self-interest, and that America had in interest in making sure the balance of power in Europe wasn’t upset by Germany.  Kissinger in turn argued that America’s most popular and successful wars had a clear self-interest that was promoted using moral terms.

Kissinger’s thoughts are clearly like the passage from Han above. Han Feizi presented foreign policy and warfare in lofty moral terms but also something that is imminently hospitable to the ruler’s self-interest. And most importantly, these were categories of thought and rhetoric that could be changed or even manipulated depending on the situation such as the mind of the ruler. A ruler should be convinced to pursue peaceful goals in terms of lofty ideals but also self-interest. If they wanted to invade, they should be convinced that their action will invite moral reproach and also hurt his self-interest.

This is the best evidence that classical Chinese thought and justifications for war could be manipulated. The Five Lost Classics, a collection of Daoist writings, advised that punishments and prohibitions must accord. This isn’t necessarily referring to domestic policy but refers to the justifications for war and how they cannot be exaggerated to such a degree that people dispute the rationale. Other writings left the door open for the corruption of noble ideals by self-interested, expansive, and power-hungry rulers. The most noble writers such as the strident opponent of offensive war, Mozi, argued that war as punishment war is just and the prominent Confucian, Mencius, said that correction is different than warfare.

Noble Self Interest

This leads to the final point about how the two can be combined. Sun Bin, purportedly the lineal descendant of Sunzi, was the adviser that took part in the pre campaign talks that led to the Battle of Maling. This suggests he thought that moral matters might impel a nation to war, but the exact nature of the campaign, its goals, and methods could be incredibly flexible, practical, and accord with a nation’s self-interest. The rulers discussed the need to declare war so they could honor their alliance and maintain honor among the Warring States, but that didn’t mean they marched straight at the army invading their neighbor. Doing so would have led to a costly fight, and even in victory resulted in their allies being stronger (since they would presumably lose less men withstanding the siege than their allies would fighting in the field.)  The campaign instead marched in the opposite direction of their besieged allies, protected their supply lines, offered an easier battle than lifting a siege, and left both their enemy and ostensible ally in a weaker position than the start of the war showed how they pursued their self-interest with moral justification.

The last two points might offer important lessons on how the US can remain committed to its ideals, but at the same time pursue a strategy that protects their interests, leaves the army in a strong position, and results in a state that is stronger than the allies they are helping. Under this theory, the US might reconsider its lengthy counter insurgencies (that often fail to apply other classical Chinese advice), and instead find a way to fight terrorists while conserving resources. The money used for costly nation building might be better used helping allies fight.


Astute reading might recognize how a discussion of money and finances ties into Sunzi’s advice to avoid costly, lengthy campaigns. But the other texts help to refine, expand, and sometimes override Sunzi’s advice and provide more specific application for policy makers. While authors might cite Sunzi’s advice to “know thy enemy”, it is texts like the Yi Zhou Shu that give exceptionally specific and well-tailored advice to prevent an insurgency. Sunzi might say that costly wars should be avoided, but it was Han Feizi that offered advice worthy of Kissinger, and Sun Bin showed how states might pursue strategies that honor their ideals and advance their self-interest.  A thorough study of texts beyond Sunzi will provide many more lessons.



Morgan Deane is a military historian, freelance writer, and former US Marine. He is the author of the forthcoming, Beyond Sun-Tzu: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Statecraft.