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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 I’m not concerned with a legal definition, especially as the Chinese certainly weren’t, 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 afterward”—a lesson much emulated by students of Chinese methods.15

From antiquity through the Ch’ing the frequency of warfare in China was overwhelming—at 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 warfare’s 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-tzu’s 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:

If it is not advantageous, do not move. If objectives cannot be attained, do not employ the army. Unless endangered do not engage in warfare. The ruler cannot mobilize the army out of personal anger. The general cannot engage in battle because of personal frustration. When it is advantageous, move; when not advantageous, stop. Anger can revert to happiness, annoyance can revert to joy, but a vanquished state cannot be revived, the dead cannot be brought back to life.17


Even a cursory examination of the apparent “causes” of China’s 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 humanity—and many were no doubt so motivated—in 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:

In antiquity, making benevolence the foundation and governing with righteousness constituted uprightness. However, when uprightness failed to attain the desired objectives, they resorted to authority. Authority comes from warfare, not from harmony among men.

For this reason—if one must kill people to give peace to the people, then killing is permissible. If one must attack a state out of love for their people, then attacking it is permissible. If one must stop war with war, although it is war it is permissible. Within, the government gains the love of the people, the means by which it can be preserved. Outside, it acquires awesomeness, the means by which it can wage war.

The Kuan-tzu surveyed ancient efforts to “profit the realm” and bring order to the people—the central vision—by 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 one’s 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 offenses—all violations of their ideals of order and morality—that 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:

When action should be taken one who hesitates and is quiet, without advancing, seriously injures all living beings. Weapons are inauspicious instruments, and the Tao of Heaven abhors them. However when their employment is unavoidable it accords with the Tao of Heaven.23

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 Pin’s view on the origins of weapons and warfare may be clearly seen in this fragmented passage:

Now being endowed with teeth and mounting horns, having claws in front and spurs in back, coming together when happy, fighting when angry, this is the Tao of Heaven, it cannot be stopped. Thus those who lack Heavenly weapons provide them themselves. This was an affair of extraordinary men.

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:

Now whatever beast has blood and ch'i, has teeth and bears horns, has claws in front and spurs in back—those with horns butt, those with teeth bite, those with poison sting, and those with hooves kick. When happy they play with each other; when angry they harm each other. This then is Heavenly nature.

Men have a desire for food and clothes, but things are insufficient to supply them. Thus they group together in diverse places. When the division of things is not equitable, they fervently seek them and then conflict arises. When there is conflict the strong will coerce the weak, while the courageous will encroach upon the fearful. Since men do not have the strength of sinews and bone, the sharpness of claws and teeth, they cut leather to make armor, and smelt iron to make blades.

In antiquity men who were greedy, obtuse, and avaricious destroyed and pillaged all under Heaven. The myriad people were disturbed and moved, none could be at peace in his place. Sages suddenly arose to punish the strong and brutal and pacify a chaotic age. They eliminated danger and got rid of the corrupt, turning the muddy into the clear, danger into peace.

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:

Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity. The nature of man is such that he is born with a fondness for profit. If he indulges this fondness, it will lead him into wrangling and strife, and all sense of courtesy and humility will disappear. He is born with feelings of envy and hate, and if he indulges these, they will lead him into violence and crime, and all sense of loyalty and good faith will disappear.

Man is born with the desires of the eyes and ears, and with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds. If he indulges these, they will lead him into licentiousness and wantonness, and all ritual principles and correct forms will be lost.

Hence, any man who follow his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal.24

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 benevolent man does indeed love others, and because he loves others, he hates to see men do them harm. The righteousness man acts in accordance with what is right, and for that reason he hates to see men do wrong. He takes up arms in order to put an end to violence and do away with harm, not in order to contend with others for spoil.25

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 period—but 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:

It is the business of the benevolent man to try to promote what is beneficial to the world and to eliminate what is harmful. Now at the present time, what brings the greatest harm to the world ? Great states attacking small ones, great families overthrowing small ones, the strong oppressing the weak, the many harrying the few, the cunning deceiving the stupid, the eminent lording it over the humble—these are harmful to the world. So too are rulers who are not generous, ministers who are not loyal, fathers who are without kindness, and sons who are unfilial, as well as those mean men who, with weapons, knives, poison, fire, and water, seek to injure and undo each other.

When we inquire into the cause of these various harms, what do we find has produced them? Do they come about from loving others and trying to benefit them? Surely not ! They come rather from hating others and trying to injure them. And when we set out to classify and describe those men who hate and injure others, shall we say that their actions are motivated by universality or partiality? Surely we must answer, by partiality, and it is this partiality in their dealings with one another that gives rise to all the great harms in the world. Therefore we know that partiality is wrong.29

Mo-tzu also attempted to shatter the conceptual blindness that prevented men from recognizing the evilness of warfare:

If someone kills one man, he is condemned as unrighteous and must pay for his crime with his own life. According to this reasoning, if someone kills ten men, then he is ten times as unrighteous and should pay for his crime with ten lives, or if he kills a hundred men he is a hundred times as unrighteous and should pay for his crime with a hundred lives. Now all the gentlemen in the world know enough to condemn such crimes and brand them as unrighteous. And yet when it comes to the even greater unrighteousness of offensive warfare against other states, they do not know enough to condemn it. On the contrary, they praise it and call it righteous. Truly they do not know what unrighteousness is.30

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