I saw "Zero Dark Thirty" last night, a bracing film. I am also reading Sunzi with my students here; so, it seems quite natural for me to bring these two texts together.
As a movie, "Zero Dark Thirty" is quite good: absorbing story-telling; persuasive cinematography; some taut performances. But I agree with those, most notably Steve Coll, who argue that its claim to verisimilitude sends it into politically problematic territory: the film exaggerates the role of torture in the capture of bin Laden, Also, its ambiguity toward torture, which might reflect something in the historical moment, leaves open a justification for its continuing use. The film-makers are attempting to walk a fine line between journalism and fiction, but by intimating the former they assume a responsibility for the political interpretation of the film that might not attach to a fuller embrace of fiction.
But what would Sunzi think? At first, he would agree that torture should be generally eschewed. He straightforwardly states, in 2.19 (Griffith translation): "Treat captives well, and care for them." To which Chang Yu, a later commentator, adds: "All soldiers taken must be cared for with magnanimity and sincerity so that they may be used by us." Not much ambiguity there.
Notice, too, in chapter 13, "Employment of Secret Agents," (13.17) he states:
It is essential to seek out enemy agents who have come to conduct espionage against you and to bribe them to serve you. Given them instructions and care for them. Thus double agents are recruited and used.
Something like this failed spectacularly in the movie, when the apparent double agent blows himself up at Camp Chapman. But the possibility of such failure does not lead Sunzi to accept the costs associated with torture.
It might be argued that the importance that Sunzi places on "foreknowledge" and intelligence could offer a limited rationale for torture. He accepts the necessity of killing a secret agent who might prematurely divulge information to the enemy (13.15):
If plans relating to secret operations are prematurely divulged the agent and all those to whom he spoke of them shall be put to death
Rough treatment,indeed. But this applies to spies working for you, not to detainees you have captured from the enemy. And execution for a breech of military discipline is not the same as torture. Sunzi recognizes the crucial importance of good and full intelligence, but he shies away from an explicit endorsement of torture as a means of intelligence-gathering, even though we might assume such practices were known to him in his own time.
It might be the case that Sunzi would tolerate a momentary, exceptional breech of his general treat-prisoners-well stance. But that is not what US policy was during the Bush administration. Torture was routinized and systematized and bureaucratized. It was not the exception but an established practice. As Coll points out, we do not know how widely it was actually used, because so much information remains classified, but we do know that Bush's lawyers laid the legal basis for regular use of torture by US agencies. And that is what must be struggled against. Sunzi, too, would reject the way in which Bush tried to normalize torture, reducing it to a banal evil.
One aspect of the movie that Sunzi would applaud is the more mundane and prosaic practice of intelligence gathering. A woman searching through old files make a key connection that mattered. A host of neighborhood spies painstakingly chart the movements of bin Laden's courier to finally locate the house where he is living. That sort of detailed knowledge of local conditions and possibilities - the shape of the battlefield, as it were - is very much in keeping with Sunzi thinking: "Those who do not use local guides are unable to obtain the advantages of the ground." (7.11)
As to whether, ultimately, it was worth it to kill bin Laden, Sunzi might agree that it was. He tells us that our strategy should be aimed at attacking the enemy's strategy (3.4). A commentator, Li Ch'uan, adds a story to illustrate this point. It recounts how a general agree to talks with an envoy of his adversary. Presumably, it was understood that such an envoy would be granted safe passage. But the general, K'ou Hsun, killed him. When asked by his staff why he did it, he replied that the envoy was the enemy leader's "heart and guts, his intimate counsellor. If I had spared [the envoy's] life, he would have accomplished his schemes, but when I killed him [the enemy leader] lost his guts."
A similar logic may have applied to bin Laden and al Qaeda: to rob the organization of its "heart and guts" could effectively counter its strategy.