But What is Warfare?
My discussion so far has not indicated what I mean by warfare. Although I perused numerous books in contemplating the subject,13 I have no precise definition, but simply take it as subsuming a wide range of conflicts, from skirmishes between companies to massive encounters. As a working definition I consider warfare to be any armed clash, but especially sustained conflict, generally involving significant numbers of troops, and normally requiring the mobilization of armed forces for ostensibly political, as well as simply military purposes. Thus phrased, it equally subsumes a single firefight, a sequence of battles, the internecine strife of the Warring States, the interminable steppe sedentary conflict, millenarian revolts, and prolonged civil uprisings. Obviously Im not concerned with a legal definition, especially as the Chinese certainly werent, although they did have formal, if internal, oath-taking ceremonies. However, the initiation of campaigns, often consisting of a single battle to achieve an immediate military or political objective, was rarely marked by declarations of war before actually attacking the enemy since it was considered extremely stupid to sacrifice the advantage of surprise.14 Baldly put, although punitive expeditions might announce the cause and measures to be taken, and so-called righteous wars might profit from similar declarations, the military ideal was essentially strike first, justify afterwarda lesson much emulated by students of Chinese methods.15
From antiquity through the Ching the frequency of warfare in China was overwhelmingat least one armed clash large enough to be recorded every eighteen months; a major battle every few years; and a large-scale campaign or prolonged war every decade. Just discussing the major trends and recording the most important battles recently required nineteen volumes of Chinese text,16 one ten-page account of which became a sixty-page reconstruction and analysis in our translation of the Art of War.
Warfare is the Greatest Affair
All the military writers of course contemplated warfares impact and importance, but remarkably few others except for the Legalists, who often viewed conquest as a means to enlarge and profit the state, and the many arrayed in opposition who disparagingly condemned its practice. Sun-tzus incredibly famous Art of War opens with the following statement whose position emphasizes its fundamental importance: Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Tao to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed. The early Ssu-ma Fa equally emphasized that warfare cannot be neglected: Even though calm may prevail under Heaven, those who forget warfare will certainly be endangered.
Accordingly Sun-tzu stated:
Even a cursory examination of the apparent causes of Chinas innumerable battles and frequent wars yields a very extensive list, including revenge, shame, lack of recognition, greed, hatred, religious visions, oppression, inequities, political entanglements, anger,18 fear, temptation, jealousy, and weakness. In addition, the ongoing conflicts arising between a sedentary, agrarian-based China and its nomadic steppe neighbors were engendered by nomadic needs for grain and some industrial products as much as a reputed desire to exploit easily obtainable profits. Naturally class or interest distinctions might be perceived, particularly in the pursuit of power, with heroes such as Liu Pang and Hsiang Yü fighting on rather than divide the empire; conniving subordinates instigating conflicts when slighted or inadequately rewarded; and the common people being swept along, often entangled in regionalized hatreds, sustaining the effort to overthrow perverse, oppressive regimes, or willingly participating in millenarian quests to realize religious visions. While potential hegemons and kings also proclaimed righteous, benevolent motives in seeking to eliminate evil and unite the people under the banner of humanityand many were no doubt so motivatedin general such quests were similarly expressions of a desire for absolute, uncontested power. However, simply to survive in the Warring States period, rulers were often compelled to wrest control over ever-larger areas through a series of preemptive conquests and thereby secure their borders against rapidly escalating threats.
As frequently conceptualized by the earliest military writers, warfare originated out of moral impulses, the justification for killing other men having been to protect lives and establish order. For example, the Ssu-ma Fa asserts that:
The Kuan-tzu surveyed ancient efforts to profit the realm and bring order to the peoplethe central visionby repressing barbarian forces and seeking honor for the central states,19 concluding their objectives were not territorial aggrandizement, but world order. 20 Later centuries thus conceptualized historical military activities in terms of Virtue having brought order to the world; therefore they asserted, in accord with Mencius, that the emperor merely needs to cultivate his virtue and righteousness, and all others will submit. Although many truly believed in this vision, particularly when bolstered with opulent material prods to stimulate decadence among ones enemies (and perhaps covert actions to ensure objectives), it would eventually prove largely to be a luxurious delusion.
A Ssu-ma Fa chapter on the formal charges to be issued before conducting a punitive expedition against miscreants apparently preserves a list of nine major offensesall violations of their ideals of order and moralitythat would elicit a sanctioned response.21 However, as the Confucians, Taoists, and ordinary men all agreed, civilization had been characterized by moral deterioration ever since the golden age of antiquity; therefore, the tendency was an increasing reliance on force of arms, less the implementation of Virtue.22
Not only were perversity and brutality justifications for embarking on punitive military campaigns, but they were also viewed as moral imperatives:
Beyond this vision of warfare as a corrective arising out of benevolent and righteous impulses was the frightening deduction that conflict is innate to both men and animals. Sun Pins view on the origins of weapons and warfare may be clearly seen in this fragmented passage:
Warfare was also thought to be inherent to civilization due to the existence and effect of human desires, including the irrepressible desire for power. A text from the early Han dynasty known as the Huai-nan Tzu preserves an eclectic, though subsequently popular, view:
While this was a prevalent interpretation, China was actually characterized by a multiplicity of views. Although Confucius himself never discussed human nature beyond noting that men are alike at birth but differ in practice, a passage from the Hsün-tzu, explicates the realist or conservative Confucian position on the innate nature and source of conflict:
War thus being inescapable, Hsün-tzu therefore subscribed to the view of the Ssu-ma Fa that righteous activity inevitably becomes necessary to eliminate human suffering and constitutes one of the unavoidable burdens of humanity and righteousness:
The Taoists, mentioned previously, observed that desire makes men go mad, and therefore associated it with warfare, concluding that there is no crime greater than having too many desires.26 It hardly need be mentioned that a fundamental Buddhist tenet asserts that suffering stems from the root cause of desire.27 However, the Taoists advanced a second belief critical to understanding the causes of warfare with their analysis of conceptualization and valuing, of defining boundaries and possessing things and places and thereafter being compelled to defend them.28
Another view that was widely discussed and remarkably influential in the Warring States periodbut subsequently vanished from the historical stage was that of the militant pacifist Mo-tzu. Succinctly put, Mo-tzu believed that human suffering arose not from desires or evil behavior per se, but from the creation of distinctions and partiality. The solution he advanced, known as universal love although much reviled by the Confucians as inimical to human relations and proper order, was less naive than might be apparent. While he lacked a method to induce universal love, he argued persuasively for following the behavioral dictates consequent to its existence, if only out of enlightened self-interest. In his most infamous chapter Mo Tzu said:
Mo-tzu also attempted to shatter the conceptual blindness that prevented men from recognizing the evilness of warfare:
Minxin Pei asks, Is China Unstable?
Carl Fritz on China in 1945: One Man's Experience:
Thomas D. Grant in Taiwan Trouble:
Joseph J. Borich in US-China Relations: Springtime Ice Beginning to Melt:
The height of deception horse and rider are wooden or papier maché dummies with explosive cores, designed to propel 100 or more small arrows in all directions. (Used to disrupt an enemy formation.)
"Fire-oxen" used to break out of an encirclement at night during the Warring States (firebrands set alight on the tails).