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Sun Tzu and COVID-19 (Masters of War Part 3)

Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a four part series which uses military theorists to draw lessons learned from and provide insight on the COVID-19 pandemic. This article covers Sun Tzu. 

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is one of the most foundational pieces of military strategy in the world. Despite its origins in Chinese military philosophy, the insights inform thinking across geographic and cultural boundaries and influence actions across professional sectors. What separates Sun Tzu from theorists like Clausewitz and Mao is that Sun Tzu believes fighting should be treated as a last resort. This requires objectives aimed at mitigating the need for conflict in the first place, which involves exercising various tools other than the military to achieve objectives.

Sun Tzu acknowledged fighting an all-out war sometimes happens despite those mitigation efforts. However, the goal of mitigation does not end when fighting begins. The army’s offensive and defensive tactics can shape whether the fighting worsens or alleviates, for if an army or state can achieve its objectives without fighting, that, as Sun Tzu wrote, “the acme of skill.”1

Sun Tzu’s Perspectives on Wartime Organization

Prior to explaining Sun Tzu’s contributions to the lessons of mitigation, offense and defense, it might be useful to understand how Sun Tzu’s thoughts on wartime organization compare to Carl von Clausewitz, which can directly affect attitudes and approaches towards mitigation, offense and defense.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War covers similar ground to Clausewitz, though from a broader, more strategic perspective and 2300 years prior to Clausewitz’s On War. For example, Sun Tzu said that military generals receive their commands from the ‘sovereign’ — the political leader — analogous to Clausewitz’s notion that “war is the continuation of policy by other means.”2 Therefore, Sun Tzu would also likely articulate the obvious importance of sound policy decisions in an effective COVID-19 response.

However, Sun Tzu seems more explicit about the implications of effective wartime organization and interactions between the government, the fighting force, and the people. First, Sun Tzu argued the sovereign must not make wartime decisions unless those decisions are in the interests of the state.3 In fact, Sun Tzu warns that any emotional or self-interested decisions made by the sovereign risks the survival of the state.4

Sun Tzu would probably perceive that most of the political leaders and sovereigns leading all levels of the COVID-19 response are doing what is necessary to eradicate for the virus and restore their countries and their citizens to full strength.

However, Sun Tzu would criticize those countries whose leaders and other actors leveraged the response to achieve personal political or economic gain. For example, in the United States, political leaders across the political spectrum reportedly used their knowledge about the COVID-19 outbreak to preserve their own personal financial security.5. Others threatened to withhold COVID-19 aid based on historical policy disagreements with local and state leaders.6 The United States has withdrawn federal funding for COVID-19 testing, which will reduce awareness of COVID-19 cases.7 Multi-level marketing schemes sought to take advantage of the worsening situation.8These actions place the interests of the state and its people second to that of political and financial expediency.

Even in the absence of these self-interested directives, Sun Tzu argued that there is benefit to the lower-level commanders and forces having some autonomy from the capital, or political center.9 The lower level political leaders and military commanders are the ones most exposed to the threat that the state is fighting. Therefore, the lower-level authorities and commanders should have the autonomy to ensure that all actions adhere to the war’s objectives, and that all actions are in the truly best interests of the state and the sovereign.10

Of course, this assumes that the overarching strategy from the center is selfless, correct, and uniformly guides the actions of the state against the perceived threat. If this is not the case, Sun Tzu argued that it is the military or lower-level commanders’ responsibility to either refuse the order, or modify its execution to benefit the state, the sovereign, and the people. 11Just because the sovereign gives an order, it does not mean the order is legal, or in the best interest of the state or the people.

By arguing this, Sun Tzu does not imply that the military or lower-level authorities should revolt against their political overseers when they simply do not agree. Rather, Sun Tzu would advocate for the principle of “disciplined disobedience.” Disciplined disobedience occurs when a lower-level individual in war disobeys a tactical order in favor of an action that clearly would fulfill the objectives.12 Disobeying the order does not occur out of simple disagreement, but based on tactical judgment with strategic consideration.13 Autonomy at the lower-levels is vital to ensuring that the fighting force and its operational-level commanders can execute the order in the best interest of the state, the people, and the sovereign. Ultimately, the fighting force and leaders at the lower levels can still follow the sovereign’s orders, but doing so blindly, with a lust for fame or with fear of punishment, jeopardizes the integrity of the war effort.14

Sun Tzu would commend the lower-level leaders and forces who took initiative during the COVID-19 response to carry out directives in the state and the people’s best interest, even if the higher-level political leaders failed to do so, or gave orders antithetical to the state’s interests. This includes how public health officials do not recommend the drug hydroxychloroquine as a viable treatment option for COVID-19, despite the public insistence of its effectiveness by some high-level political leaders.15 Or, those companies that dedicated resources to producing medical and other equipment to ensure that there were enough supplies to support medical treatment.16 Most directly, this includes state or provincial leaders who maintained lockdown measures despite the urging of higher-level officials to reopen their states.17

A direct example of lower-level commander initiative during the COVID-19 crisis occurred with respect to the U.S. military. Early in the U.S. COVID-19 response, U.S. Navy Captain Brett Crozier voiced his concerns to U.S. leadership about what he believed was an underwhelming response to COVID-19 given the documentation of cases on the aircraft carrier he commanded.18 His concerns were leaked to the press, which prompted his relief of command of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt.19

Although there remains debate about whether he reported his concerns through the proper channels, the fact that he raised those concerns was admired by the public and by the people he commanded.20 In fact, the behavior of senior U.S. Navy officials towards Crozier afterwards prompted their own forced resignations.21

Mitigation: The Ultimate Objective

Sun Tzu provides some of the same insights as Clausewitz, but Sun Tzu’s strongest contributions to military philosophy’s application to the COVID-19 response are on the systemic and holistic nature of war. Sun Tzu believed that war is not just about the part where armies are fighting.22 Preparing for war involves removing the need to use force against the enemy in the first place. As such, Sun Tzu’s first lesson applicable to the COVID-19 response is on mitigation.

A state can only mitigate war if it knows how to mitigate the factors that could lead to war. War often occurs when one state or group perceives another state or group as a threat. However, a state or group becomes a perceived threat only because they are acting in a way they believe will make themselves appear stronger and less insecure to other states or groups.23 Many states, groups, and individual human beings, operate under the paradigm that one’s gain is another’s loss.24 Therefore, actions taken at the geopolitical level achieve strength is perceived by other states or groups as a threat to survival.25

Clausewitz also provided some commentary on this idea, though in much more general terms. In On War, Clausewitz wrote that war is not an isolated act, arguing that the emergence of war — of fighting — does not simply emerge.26 The enemy a state or group is fighting does not simply become an enemy. Events in the political world — a series of negative and sometimes escalatory interactions — precipitate war between states or groups. Mitigating war between states requires de-escalatory tactics, like peace negotiations or establishing defense relationships.

In order to mitigate the risk of fighting an amorphous and microbial enemy like COVID-19,Sun Tzu would likely argue that modest investment in health security and heightened monitoring of diseases would have prevented the need to fight against COVID-19.27 Everyone probably would argue that. However, Sun Tzu’s unique contribution to this argument is that the focus should be on avoiding the need to fight, rather than reacting to the fight when it arrives. These health security improvements and disease monitoring measures should have been the priority investment long before COVID-19’s emergence. Doing so would have reduced the risk of COVID-19 having such destructive outcomes. If COVID-19 emerged regardless, at least healthcare systems could have been more resilient and prepared to manage the influx and spread of the cases.

NNDSS | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Little did the CDC know that an ancient Chinese general had beat them to the punch…

Mitigation requires following one of Sun Tzu’s most cited principles: “Know thy enemy and know thyself, and in one hundred battles you will never be in peril.”28 In order to mitigate war and its causes, a fighting force and its political institutions must understand the strengths and weaknesses of itself and those of the enemy. Doing so will help identify and address one’s critical vulnerabilities but exploit the enemies’ as well.

However, the COVID-19 outbreak revealed that although knowing thy enemy and thyself is more likely to make people prepared to respond, the success of the response relies on a desire to act on that knowledge. National security organizations have long assessed the world’s vulnerability to a pandemic and its effects.29 Yet, national security institutions prioritized other issues perceived as more immediate threats, like terrorism and great power competition, leaving healthcare systems vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 once it struck.30

Mitigation does not only apply to preventing war. It is also important when the fighting starts. Even when fighting begins, whether mitigation measures were applied beforehand or not, the behavior of the belligerents can mitigate or escalate the nature of the fighting, end the fighting, and, even once the war ends, determine whether fighting occurs in the future. When Sun Tzu made this point, he was arguing that when surrounding a desperate, opposing army, it is best to leave an outlet or way out to show deference to the enemy and give it an opportunity to surrender to pave the way for a peaceful end.31  

Negotiating a peaceful end is both impossible and discouraged when dealing with an infectious disease outbreak. Unless actions are taken towards eradication, COVID-19 will remain a threat.  Even if mitigation measures do not prevent fighting, or mitigation measures were not implemented, the offensive and defensive tactics taken during the fighting can mitigate further escalation. It can also determine whether one’s fighting forces are vulnerable to future outbreaks.

Offense and Defensive Tactics: Mitigation During Conflict

As such, the fighting force must know when and how to implement offensive and defensive tactics to achieve wartime objectives. More importantly, the fighting force must be able to transition between both.  Going on the offensive if in war is an attempt to destroy the enemy; directly confront it. The defensive, on the other hand, involves preserving one’s own strength and preventing the enemy from eroding it.

Sun Tzu’s ideas about offense and defense are clear. Both are necessary, for “Invincibility lies in the defense, victory in the attack.”32  One cannot win without some form of attack, but one should not attack without abundance of strength if it can be avoided. Abundance of strength can only be ensured through defensive tactics.

Offensive and defensive tactics in the COVID-19 response are more complicated. If the offensive is defined as destroying the enemy and confronting it, then going on the offensive could include any number of responses. Reopening the economy, ending restrictions, and fully sending people back into the workforce are some. Leveraging Sweden’s COVID-19 response policy, which involved placing individual responsibility on citizens for enforcing social distancing while keeping society open is another.33 Offensive tactics would also involve deploying a vaccine, once one is developed.

These options would be considered offensive tactics because these methods involve direct engagement with the virus. For example, Sweden’s policy, though controversial and flawed, aimed to keep the economy open and people living their normal routines in the hope that the population would develop a sort of herd immunity to COVID-19. 34 Although this offensive tactic does provide more opportunities for COVID-19 to spread, advocates of this policy argue that by exposing more people to COVID-19, the assumed herd immunity would directly curtail COVID-19’s center of gravity (COG), human contact. 35

However, unless abundance of strength is confirmed, Sun Tzu would recommend that states go on the defensive. In the case of COVID-19, this means maintaining social distancing and shelter-in-place rules — and not relaxing them too prematurely — until a vaccine, cure, or viable treatment plan emerges to ensure people can combat the virus directly.

Some might argue that strict, nationwide lockdowns designed to wipe out the virus — like in New Zealand — would constitute an offensive tactic.36 This is plausible since human contact is COVID-19’s COG and locking down the country targets that COG. The lockdown itself would constitute a defense tactic because it does not directly attack the virus; it simply removes opportunities for the virus to become stronger.  However, the lockdown facilitates the conditions for more targeted, offensive attacks. The lockdown forces people into their homes, thereby requiring COVID-19 to ‘separate its forces’: Infectious diseases are most powerful when they are able to infect mass numbers of people. The lockdowns prevent that from happening.

How New Zealand brought new coronavirus cases down to zero
A bold and disciplined commander?

As a result, the burden of fighting the virus is shared among a wider population of people, increasing each person’s relative power compared to the virus. When an individual is quarantined in their own home, their immune system does not have to fight the entire outbreak; just the infection within that one individual. Fighting the individual infection constitutes a more targeted offensive attack as a result of a defensive one.

Therefore, lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders are analogous to Fabian military strategies, where large, offensive assaults on the enemy are avoided in favor of smaller, targeted attacks in order to curtail the enemy’s will to fight.37 Reducing the availability of human contact literally weakens COVID-19’s will to fight. COVID-19’s will to fight weakens not only because it reduces the number of people the virus could infect, but because the immune systems of those who are infected are more capable of fighting it if they are only fighting the individual infection rather than staving off a mass assault from being out in the open. Fabian military strategies are designed to preserve strength and only attack on smaller footings where an advantage is clear. Therefore, lockdowns are more closely associated with defensive tactics designed to limit the need to confront the enemy.

The offensive and defensive tactics taken to fight a war can mitigate escalation in war, or cause it. For instance, relaxing restrictions prematurely before the population has the tools to confront COVID-19 places undue risk to the population and health workers. By prematurely relaxing social distancing measures, the risk of virus transmission increases, meaning more people could be exposed and hospitalized, which stresses the already strained public health response. Fighting an infectious disease outbreak requires constant, concentrated effort, and the effective use of defensive and offensive tactics to bring COVID-19 to bay. Sun Tzu said that one must never press a desperate enemy too hard.38 The idea is that if an army pressures a desperate enemy too hard, that enemy might fight harder, believing they have nothing to lose. An unduly offensive approach against COVID-19, such as relaxing restrictions too soon when it seems that those restrictions have been successful could allow the virus to return in full strength.

Clausewitz bolsters Sun Tzu’s idea that one’s actions in war can precipitate further violence, particularly the notion that the end in war is never final.39 According to Clausewitz, the defeated state in war often views the defeat as a temporary setback, which it could rectify in the future under more favorable conditions. This statement highlights the importance of effective war termination.40 If measures are not taken throughout the fighting and at the end of fighting to rebuild, recover, and make peace in an effective way, the likelihood for future war increases.

Building Back Better: Mitigation After War

COVID-19 is a vital case study for how actions now can affect vulnerability in the future. Through the course of the pandemic, people around the world have posted and talked about building back better. To return to normal would be to learn nothing from the war against COVID-19, and to make the world more vulnerable to the next pandemic. Based on the insights gained from Sun Tzu, the world must prioritize mitigation more proactively. Although the COVID-19 pandemic occurred naturally, the systemic weaknesses in the world’s physical and institutional infrastructure are what forced much of the world into lockdown and uncertainty. Sometimes, states cannot avoid the fighting, but by focusing on mitigation as the end state before, during, and after the fighting, resiliency to these complex threats can improve.

Jordan Beauregard

Jordan Beauregard is a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence officer. He holds a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the U.S. National Intelligence University and studies Strategy, Operations, and Military History at the U.S. Naval War College. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence University, Naval War College, or the U.S. Government.


  1. Sun Tzu, 77
  2. Sun Tzu, 102; Clausewitz, 87.
  3. Sun Tzu, 112-113; Handel, 65-66.
  4. Sun Tzu, 112-113; Handel, 65-66.
  5. Caleb Ziolkowski, “Senators Dumped Stocks Amid the Coronavirus Crisis. Here’s What We Know About Congress and Financial Self-Interest,” The Washington Post, March 25, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/25/senators-dumped-stocks-amid-coronavirus-crisis-heres-what-we-know-about-congress-financial-self-interest/, Accessed May 24, 2020.
  6. Elizabeth Elkind, “Trump’s Funding Threat Amid Flooding and Pandemic is ‘Scary’ and ‘Unacceptable,’ Michigan Governor Says,” CBS News, May 21, 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-michigan-funding-threat-mail-voting-scary-unacceptable-governor-whitmer/, Accessed May 24, 2020; Nik DeCosta-Klipa, “Charlie Baker and Marty Walsh Rebuke Trump’s Suggestion that Coronavirus Aid be Used Against Sanctuary Cities,” Boston.com, April 29, 2020, https://www.boston.com/news/coronavirus/2020/04/29/donald-trump-coronavirus-aid-sanctuary-cities-charlie-baker-marty-walsh, Accessed May 24, 2020.
  7. Kaiser Health News, “Trump Administration To End Funding For 13 Federally Run Coronavirus Testing Sites,” Kaiser Morning Briefing, June 25, 2020, https://khn.org/morning-breakout/trump-administration-to-end-funding-for-13-federally-run-coronavirus-testing-sites/, Accessed July 9, 2020.
  8. Lisette Voytko, “FTC Warns 16 Multi-Level Marketing Companies,” Forbes, June 9, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisettevoytko/2020/06/09/ftc-warns-16-multi-level-marketing-companies-about-coronavirus-fraud/#7e95cad87b9d, Accessed July 8, 2020;
  9. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Lionel Giles (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Chapter III, Number 17, http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html, Accessed July 9, 2020.
  10. Sun Tzu, Chapter III, Number 24.
  11. Sun Tzu, Chapter III, Number 24; Sun Tzu, Chapter X, Number 24.
  12. C. Todd Lopez, “Future Warfare Requires ‘Disciplined Disobedience,’ Army Chief Says,” United States Army, May 5, 2017, https://www.army.mil/article/187293/future_warfare_requires_disciplined_disobedience_army_chief_says, Accessed July 27, 2020.
  13. Lopez, 2017.
  14. Sun Tzu, Chapter III, Number 24; Sun Tzu, Chapter X, Number 24.
  15. Ariana Eunjung Cha and Laurie McGinley, “Antimalarial Drug Touted by President Trump is Linked to Increased Risk of Death in Coronavirus Patients, Study Says,” The Washington Post, May 22, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/05/22/hydroxychloroquine-coronavirus-study/, Accessed May 24, 2020.
  16. Samuel Stebbins and Grant Suneson, “Amazon, Apple Among the Companies that are Helping Americans Fight COVID-19,” USA Today, April 21, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/04/21/companies-that-are-helping-americans-fight-covid-19/111565368/, Accessed July 10, 2020.
  17. Rick Rojas, “Trump and Allies Push Toward Reopening Economy. But Governors Urge Caution,” The New York Times, April 12, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/us/when-lockdown-ending-coronavirus.html, Accessed July 11, 2020.
  18. James Fallows, “2020 Time Capsule #1: ‘Captain Crozier,’” The Atlantic, April 3, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2020/04/time-capsule-11-captain-crozier/609409/, Accessed July 10, 2020.
  19. Fallows, 2020
  20. Fellows, 2020
  21. Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Acting Navy Secretary Resigns After Outcry Over Criticism of Virus-Stricken Crew,” The New York Times, July 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/us/politics/coronavirus-navy-captain-firing.html, Accessed July 10, 2020.
  22. Sun Tzu, 77
  23. Capt. David Belt, “An Interpretive Sociological Framework for the Analysis of Threats,” American Intelligence Journal 32, no. 1 (2015), page 52.
  24. Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Acting Navy Secretary Resigns After Outcry Over Criticism of Virus-Stricken Crew,” The New York Times, July 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/us/politics/coronavirus-navy-captain-firing.html, Accessed July 10, 2020.
  25. Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Acting Navy Secretary Resigns After Outcry Over Criticism of Virus-Stricken Crew,” The New York Times, July 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/us/politics/coronavirus-navy-captain-firing.html, Accessed July 10, 2020.
  26. Clausewitz, 78
  27. Sun Tzu, 77.
  28. Sun Tzu, 84.
  29. U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community (Washington, DC, 2019), https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR—SSCI.pdf, Accessed July 11, 2020.
  30. Oona Hathaway, “COVID-19 Shows How the U.S. Got National Security Wrong,” Just Security, April 7, 2020, https://www.justsecurity.org/69563/covid-19-shows-how-the-u-s-got-national-security-wrong/, Accessed July 11, 2020.
  31. Sun Tzu, Chapter VII, Number 36.
  32. Sun Tzu, 85.
  33. Sun Tzu, 85.
  34. Anderson, 2020.
  35. Clausewitz, 703.
  36. Siwa, 2020.
  37. James Holmes, “Fabian Strategies, Then and Now,” War on the Rocks, September 17, 2015, https://warontherocks.com/2015/09/fabian-strategies-then-and-now/, Accessed July 11, 2020.
  38. Sun Tzu, Chapter VII, Number 36.
  39. Clausewitz, 80.
  40. Clausewitz, 80.

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