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Sawyer, Ralph D. The Tao of Deception: Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China.

Sawyer, Ralph D. The Tao of Deception: Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China. New York: Basic Books, 2007. 489pp. $29.95

Ralph D. Sawyer, noted scholar of Chinese strategic thought, has produced an enlightening study of the beginnings and the evolution of deception in Chinese political and military history. Contrary to some contemporary commentators, China has a long martial tradition. Warrior leaders and military heroes permeate both historic and contemporary Chinese literature, as well as modern movies. Deception has long been an integral part of Chinese warfare. Drawing on the classic works of Chinese military thought, Sawyer demonstrates that deceptive practices and unorthodox approaches are the norm rather than the exception. Deception is a fundamental tenet of Chinese strategic culture, one that permeates strategic thinking not only in the military realm but also in the diplomatic, information, political, and economic spheres. (Readers of Sawyer's previous work, The Tao of Spycraft, reviewed in the Winter 2007 issue of this journal, will recall that Chinese states were using "all elements of national power" several millennia ago.)

The reader can conclude from this work that Chinese military thought places deception on an equal level with fire and maneuver. In this it differs from Western military thought, which fundamentally considers deception as "unsportsmanlike" and relegates it to the operational and intellectual fringes. Deception and unorthodox approaches afford ways for the inferior to defeat the superior force. The "stronger" force, as judged by conventional military standards, is not necessarily more likely to win in battle. Rather, the force that applies the orthodox and the unorthodox in a way that fits the situation better is more likely to prevail. The book abounds with examples of how a little deception or unconventional application can have a great effect on outcomes.

The relationship between military operations and statecraft is another fundamental thread through this book. Subversion of an enemy state begins well before military conflict, and ideally it makes conflict unneeded. Bribery, assassination (both physical and character), dissension, and distraction are all basic tools of statecraft, as well as of war. Fundamentally, Chinese thought makes no real distinction between the two.

The final chapters address the ongoing renaissance of traditional Chinese military thought in the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The once-despised classic works are now widely used in PLA institutions.

Several years ago, two PLA officers published a book, Unrestricted Warfare, that describes unconventional approaches for defeating a superior force. In light of Sawyer's new work, Western scholars should reinterpret Unrestricted Warfare. Rather than being an exception to PLA military thought, it may well reflect current, core thinking.

Sawyer argues that "China has a lengthy heritage of conceiving and implementing systemic programs for subverting other states." It would be interesting for scholars of contemporary Chinese diplomacy to compare the "active measures" stratagems outlined in the book against current U.S.-China events.

This book reads well. A dynastic chronology helps place the events in historical (Chinese, if not world) context. However, maps would have greatly assisted understanding.


Major, U.S. Army Reserve (Retired)

Centreville, Virginia
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Author:Arpin, John R.
Publication:Naval War College Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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