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Robert E. Lee, read your Sun Tzu!

March 11, 2011 |  8:00 am

 Gettysburg-military-park

Of course Sun Tzu wasn’t at the battle of Gettysburg, which plenty of historians say was the turning point of the American Civil War. A Chinese royal advisor, he lived in the 6th century B.C. –- a looonnggg time before Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg in 1863, when he took his Confederate troops into Pennsylvania as part of a planned Northern invasion.

But what if the ancient author of “The Art of War” had been there? What would he have said about Union and Confederate strategies?

Those are questions that military historian and author Bevin Alexander answers in his forthcoming book, “Sun Tzu at Gettysburg: Ancient Military Wisdom in the Modern World” (W.W. Norton), a book mentioned Sunday as part of a spring preview of Civil War books coming this year. Jacket Copy talked to the author about the unique angle of his book -- along with Gettysburg, Alexander applies Sun Tzu’s principles to other conflicts in world history including Waterloo, Stalingrad and the Korean War.

Jacket Copy: How did the idea for this book come about?

Bevin Alexander: I can’t claim originality on this one. That goes to a young man named David Baeumler, a producer for the History Channel. He contacted me for a History Channel special on Sun Tzu and "The Art of War." I spent the day, in 2008, talking about Sun Tzu in front of the camera. They wanted to know a good bit about “The Art of War’s” relationship to the present day even though the main emphasis was on Sun Tzu’s historical contributions in China.  After I finished that interview, I thought, my goodness, that’s not a bad idea for a book. I wanted to take the principles that he set down and apply them in a variety of battles, especially Gettysburg in the Civil War.

JC: When you look at the battle of Gettysburg, how do you apply Sun Tzu there? Are his ideas really adaptable?

BA: Oh yes, absolutely. One of his principles is: "The way to avoid what is strong is to strike what is weak." That’s a tactic at Gettysburg that Robert E. Lee started to follow and then abandoned. That's why he lost there. He just had no strategic sense.

JC: Lee, the great Southern general, was a general without strategy? That seems hard to believe.

BA: Well, look at it this way. When you study the battles, you find that he always preferred to wage a fight head on. His idea was that you throw one army against another; you match strength against strength. Sun Tzu said that wars aren’t won that way. Another of his axioms is: "As water seeks the easiest path to the sea, so armies should avoid obstacles and seek avenues of least resistance."

 More after the jump

JC: So what happened at Gettysburg? In your book, you write that, at first, Lee had the upper hand because he did seem to embrace several of Sun Tzu's principles.

BA: Yes, Lee followed them completely by accident.

JC: By accident?

BA: When you really study Lee, you find that his mantra was always to attack things headlong. But when he decided to move his forces into Pennsyvlavian in 1863, he did pick what Sun Tzu called the '"avenue of least resistance" to avoid the Union forces under George Gordon Meade. He used the Cumberland Valley, which gave him easy access into the north. It was something of an accident that he got into a spectacular strategic position.

The Union armies were protecting Washington, D.C., and here's Lee, just 100 miles away, with a straight shot to Philadelphia. He could have broken the North's railroad line. It would have been a devastating blow to the Union war effort. Lee didn’t understand that, though, even though Sun Tzu would have spotted it instantly. Instead, Lee gave up his positions to consolidate and attack the Union forces head-on. Stonewall Jackson knew that was a mistake, but Lee wouldn't listen to him.

JC: Your background says you were a combat historian during the Korean War. What does that mean?

BA: I was part of what they called a historical detachment. Historical detachments were created in World War II so that combat historians would go into the battle, study what took place, analyze it, and create a report that’s uninfluenced by any propaganda. I was young, just out of college, and I was picked for this detachment: We went across the front in Korea and studied battles as they were fought. Some of that work actually helped me with a late chapter in my book about Korea.

Art-of-war-penguin-coverJC: Your book coincides with a reissue, by Penguin Classics, of "The Art of War." Why is Sun Tzu so impressive to you?

BA: There is no one else quite like him in military history. He deals with fundamental principles, and these principles don’t change. 

JC: No one else is like him? Didn't other military leaders, like Napoleon, write down their insights into warfare?

BA: Sure, Napoleon gave advice about waging war, but he never came up with a coherent view. That's the case with many great generals. They know how to fight a war, but they don't know how to explain it. It's like my father, who was a great baseball player. He couldn't tell you how to play, he just did it. Sun Tzu was the one, 2,400 years ago, who gave us a complete doctrine of war. It’s fantastic.

-- Nick Owchar

Photos: A 2005 photo of the statue of Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren of the Union Army on Little Round Top overlooking Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa.; book cover design for a reissue of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." 

Credit: Steve Ruark for the L.A. Times; book cover courtesy Penguin Classics.

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