By Brent Parrish
The Right Planet
Ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu wrote authoritatively in his famous treatise on warfare, The Art of War, about an unavoidable reality in warfare, and how its exploitation can prove essential in achieving victory … it’s called “death ground.” The whole concept is based on human nature–the human being’s intensely strong instinct for survival.
A little parabolic context … I remember a story that received a lot of press back in 2003–and understandably so–about a solo hiker named Aron Ralston. MountainZone.com reported at the time:
“GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – With no water and as little hope of survival, Aspen mountaineer Aron Ralston, 27, used a pocketknife to amputate his own arm and free himself from a boulder weighing 800-1,000 pounds that fell and trapped him for five days in a remote desert canyon in eastern Utah.
Pinned in a 3-foot wide slot canyon near the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park south of Moab, Utah, Ralston cut through his own arm below the elbow Thursday morning, applying a tourniquet and administering first aid before rigging anchors and fixing a rope to rappel to the bottom of Blue John Canyon and hiking out to meet rescuers. Ralston had been hiking alone when the boulder fell and pinned his right arm as he was moving through the narrow slot last Saturday afternoon, according to information from the sheriff’s offices in Emery and Wayne counties….”
For five days he attempted to free himself–all to no avail. With little water, our unfortunate hiker now found himself on “death ground”–meaning, if he was to survive, he would have to fight for his life.
The choices were grim and stark–either accept his fate and wait for dehydration, exposure and death to set in–slowly dying an utterly miserable death, or endure intense pain and sever his own arm through the elbow to free himself. Although the loss of blood could kill him, it held the promise and hope for survival–another chance to let the feet hit the floor in the morning, albeit minus a useful limb.
All Ralston had was a pocket knife. Pocket knifes are not really designed for cutting flesh and bone per se. It was going to take some time to hack his arm off. This is “death ground”–one will either have to fight to assure survival (victory), or one will die (defeat).
I know I can’t imagine, and I know many others can’t as well, what kind of intense physical pain we’re talking about here. But he did it … he cut his own arm off to save his own life. He did his best to stem the blood loss and made it out … Aron survived. But he had to fight to survive in a way many of us pray we never have to. The human instinct for survival is extremely strong and not easily overcome. There are numerous stories of people in similar predicaments who severed their own limbs to survive. The will to live–amazing!
Sun Tzu realized placing warriors on “death ground” can assure victory at the appropriate time, but he was very well aware of the fact its misuse could prove disastrous in battle–total defeat (death). People will fight tooth and nail to survive when placed on “death ground,” but placing people unto “death ground” without any hope of victory is self-induced mass suicide. There are many examples in history–specifically, the misuse of Sun Tzu’s “death ground” maxim.
One maxim that provides the backbone of Sun Tzu’s strategy of warfare is one must prepare in order to assure victory. Sun Tzu would never attack an enemy until he had made thorough preparations and gathered intelligence on many levels concerning the disposition and capabilities of the enemy. Victory must be assured–as much as can be. Preparation was the most intensive and meticulous part of any Sun Tzu strategy–the balk of the effort.
To Sun Tzu, it was not just about the training of men for combat and maintaining strict discipline among the ranks–which Sun Tzu surely did. Sun Tzu did not approach warfare as science (“Kantian”), but rather as an art (“Machiavellian”).
Sun Tzu was acutely in tune with his environment and understood that the ultimate sovereign on the earth was the universe and earth itself. His concept of earth and sky–meaning, awareness and knowledge of the terrain, weather factors, support for logistics, natural barriers, etc.–was crucial in preparing to attack the enemy at the appropriate time. But attacking at the right moment is a lot like music (art)–the string must be plucked at just the right moment in time!
Sun Tzu understood that one cannot forever play defense, not in warfare. There comes a time to attack the enemy … the enemy must be crushed! Attacking a superior force without sound strategy, operations and tactics is anathema to Sun Tzu’s way of warfare. Sun Tzu approached engaging a superior force much differently than the Western-style of warfare; whereby, one will see modern Western armies hunker down into defensive positions when confronted with a superior force. Sun Tzu would harass and harangue the enemy by employing guerrilla warfare tactics–constantly putting pressure on the enemy and instilling palpable fear.
By the way, the Romans used the same strategy against Hannibal when Hannibal became too powerful to engage on the battlefield.
Via Spartacus Educational (emphasis mine):
“Although Hannibal’s elephants survived the Battle of Trebia, most of them died soon afterwards from the cold weather. However, the lack of elephants did not stop Hannibal inflicting a series of defeats on the Romans. The most important of these was at Cannae where over 50,000 Roman soldiers were killed and a further 19,000 were captured. Hannibal, on the other hand, lost less than 6,000 men.
Even though they suffered these losses, the Romans refused to surrender. As Hannibal was never strong enough to attack Rome itself, he failed to obtain a total victory over the enemy….”
Additionally, Sun Tzu understood human psychology and the importance of solid intelligence regarding the disposition and mindset of the enemy. He clearly knew he must define the enemy.
Sun Tzu mastered the use of deception in order to crush the enemy.
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near,we must make the enemy believe we are far away,when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”
It is quite noteworthy to read in the above quote that when Sun Tzu did attack the enemy, he crushed the enemy! He did not engage in long, protracted struggles and lengthy bloody melees. It is a simple concept, really: would you rather knock your opponent out in one round and win? Or duke it out for 15 rounds–resulting in a draw or stalemate?
But more importantly, if Sun Tzu could avoid bloody conflict altogether, so much the better. If he could achieve his goal of crushing the enemy without bloodshed–this was the greatest coup–no loss in men or material and victory has been achieved–a win-win. Many times this end can be achieved through diplomacy with muscle–peace through strength. But the enemy must know you are willing and able to attack if need be … if the enemy does not fear you, they will not respect you.
“In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War, III. Attack by Strategem
Sun Tzu was adamant about avoiding the protracted struggle–stating in one of his maxims (paraphrasing) that no nation, people or army benefit from a drawn-out and lengthy conflict; it bleeds the troops and the treasuries dry, thereby demoralizing the people (cf. Vietnam War).
“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”
–Sun Tzu, The Art of War–II. Waging War
Violence with no foreseeable end is not a good strategy; it’s a terrible strategy! The goal should be clear and precise–total victory, or one should not fight. Sun Tzu never lost a battle, by the way.
The fluidity of the battlefield–the many unknowns that occur in war and fighting–was also deeply engrained in Sun Tzu. He knew the best-laid plans can go awry at a moment’s notice during the heat of battle, particularly against a determined and implacable foe. He never underestimated the enemy–quite the contrary. He knew there were pivotal and critical times in battle where losing was not an option, but the opposition may be fighting fiercely and the possibility of defeat is looming.
Sun Tzu’s maxims of warfare cover not only tactics, but strategy and operations as well. They all must function together in harmony in order to achieve total victory–crush the enemy. Victory is always the final goal with Sun Tzu; otherwise, warfare is not advised, not without full preparation assuring victory (strategy), and adherence to the operational and tactical maxims (tactics) in order to achieve victory.
Which brings us back to “death ground”–to gain a better understanding of the “death ground” maxim, let’s look at two examples of its misapplication in war, and an example of its correct application, so to speak. We’ll start with the American Civil War.
One tactical maxim enshrined by Sun Tzu is to never attack the enemy uphill. Conversely, never try to defend from an enemy attacking downhill.
“It is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill.”
–Sun Tzu, The Art of War, VII. Maneuvering
If you’re attacking uphill, you’ve lost the momentum. The enemy now has the advantage and controls the high ground. Conversely, if you defend from an enemy attacking downhill, momentum is now working against you.
During the Battle of Gettysburg, one Rebel general urged General Robert E. Lee to avoid a direct frontal assault on Cemetery Ridge–believing it to be “suicide.” Instead, the wise Rebel general wished to bypass the position altogether and attack deep in the enemy’s rear–which would draw the enemy off the high ground, thereby forcing the enemy onto a battlefield of their choosing.
Sun Tzu, in his day, faced a similar decision and bypassed the stronghold and marched to the enemy’s capital city and attacked it instead–negating the power of the stronghold. He won the war, by the way.
As for the results of Lee commanding the attack on Cemetery Ridge, Rob Miller writes poignantly in his Gettysburg tribute:
“On the third day, July 3rd, Lee decided to risk everything on a frontal assault on the right center on the Union lines, and 12,500 Confederate troops advanced from the ridge line three-quarters of a mile (1,200 meters) towards Cemetery Ridge in that gallant attempt to reverse fortune known to history as Pickett’s Charge.
It was a slaughter. The Union artillery had deliberately held its fire during the Confederate bombardment prior to the Charge, but as the Confederate troops approached they were hit with fierce artillery fire from Union positions on Cemetery Hill and north of Little Round Top, and from the Union center. Nearly one half of the Confederate troops who participated in the Charge failed to return from the attack.
Somehow, some way, Confederate General Lewis Armistad’s brigade managed to make it through the withering fire and briefly breach the Union lines at a place called the ‘Angle,’ a place with a low stone fence near a small wooded area. But they were quickly hurled back, and with that, the battle was essentially over….”
Disaster at Dieppe
Another tragic and sobering example of putting men on “death ground” without fully preparing for victory–per Sun Tzu’s maxims–was the suicidal raid at the port of Dieppe in northern France during World War Two. The Dieppe raid was ill-conceived from the outset (strategy). The operation was an utter disaster. The fact that any made it off the beach is a miracle in and of itself–most did not. Hundreds were killed, wounded and captured that fateful and awful day on the bloody beach at Dieppe.
The strategy behind the raid (originally codenamed “Operation Rudder,” later changed to “Operation Jubilee”) was to test the German defenses–a reconnaissance in force–in a heavily-defended sector at the port of Dieppe on the northern French coastline. Dieppe was a small, prosperous fishing village and a port facility for the Germans. It was hoped the operation would relieve pressure on Russia and provide useful intelligence for the eventual Allied invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
Ominously, the 2nd Canadian Armored Division, which was slated for the main attack, had primarily been engaged in garrison duty in Iceland, and then found themselves defending southern England. The troops were bored and restless and the Allied Command decided that the Dieppe raid would be a good “test.”
The plan was to attempt an amphibious assault using early-model British Churchill tanks that had been hastily adapted for amphibious operations. The Allies had no real experience in deploying tanks from landing craft onto a heavily defended beachhead at this time.
Allied amphibious capability was woefully inadequate for the task as well–only eight destroyers would be provided by the Royal Navy for support, since the Royal Navy had experienced heavy losses of larger naval vessels in the Channel prior. Once the operation had been concluded, or so it was hoped, Allied forces would be withdrawn from the beach and head back across the Channel.
On 18 August 1942, the Allies began operations on Dieppe proper. The first objectives were assigned to No. 3 and No. 4 Commando units (British)–attack the “Goebbels” gun battery and the “Hess” battery on the northern and southern flanks covering the approaches to the beach.
Early on, preparations went awry. Airborne troops were to be utilized in neutralizing objectives behind the beach, but the operation was scrapped at the last minute.
No. 3 Commando attacked the northern “Goebbels” battery at Bernavel. They were required to climb steep cliffs under continuous and intense fire to reach the objective. By the time they reached the top of the cliffs, one of the large German guns turned and fired on the Commandos. The element of surprise had been lost and they were evacuated off the beach.
No.4 Commando attacked the “Hess” gun battery on the southern flank at Varengeville. They were also forced to scale steep cliffs to reach the objective. Commandos were able to set up a mortar and fire three rounds on the gun battery–the third round hit the battery ammo dump. An intense firefight broke out, resulting in the deaths of 150 Germans and 45 British Commandos. This was to be the only real success for the Allies that day, albeit with heavy losses.
The Allied attack was a combined air and sea operation. Fifty-six fighter and bomber squadrons took part, some from the U.S. 8th Army Air Corps. The Allies failed t0 achieve air supremacy over the battle area–losing twice the number of planes than the Lufwaffe–by both anti-aircraft fire and German fighters. Additionally, German Stuka dive bombers wreaked havoc on Allied naval vessels.
At around 5 A.M. on the morning of August 19, 1942, the men of 2nd Canadian Armored boarded landing craft and began to move in on the beach at Dieppe under the cover of smoke. All eight Royal Navy destroyers began to pound the beach ahead with their inadequate 4-inch guns.
Within minutes, the first wave came under heavy fire from the German guns–the dawn breaks … bombers fly above the landing craft toward their targets. Allied bomber crews were given strict orders to avoid civilian causalities, so the bombing was largely ineffective. As the landing craft move closer to the beach, German fire intensifies.
The hapless Canadian General in command of the raid, John Hamilton Roberts, was unable to establish radio contact with the main attack force that was being decimated on the beach. The Germans specifically targeted Allied radiomen on the beach. Roberts then makes the fateful decision to send in the reserve force.
Since the flanks covering the approaches at Dieppe beach had not been secured, the Germans were able to hit the Allied flanks and funnel the Allies into kill zones where entire regiments were literally wiped out–sometimes within minutes.
Not only was carnage occurring on the beach, but in the air as well. The RAF lost 106 aircraft–67 pilots killed, including two Americans. It was the worst losses for the RAF inflicted by the Luftwaffe during the war. The Royal Navy paid a stiff price as well–550 sailors killed … one destroyer and 33 landing craft sunk.
The debut of the hastily adapted Churchill tanks in amphibious operations on Dieppe beach encountered the black swan. The beach at Dieppe consists of a deep layer of large, slick pebbles (not sand) which got caught up in the boogies and tracks of the Churchill tanks–effectively disabling them. The tanks then became mired in the deep layer of pebbles on the beach–the earth at Dieppe conspired against the deployment of tanks and armored vehicles. Of the 29 Churchill tanks that were able to land at Dieppe, every single tank was knocked out by the Germans.
The Commandos experienced 265 killed, wounded and missing. Of the 5,000 Canadian troops that took part in the main attack, few would return from the Dieppe fiasco. Hundreds were cut down under murderous fire before they ever reached the shore. The ones who did were funneled into murderous kill zones, where they were cut down in droves. The first Americans to die in Nazi Europe were killed at Dieppe on 19 August 1942.
The hapless Canadian commander, General John Hamilton Roberts, was never given another active command.
When one studies the Allied strategy for the Dieppe raid, one sees an ill-conceived goal and a lack of full preparation for attacking such a hardened position–a defensive position that gave every advantage to the defender. Operation Jubilee was a tragic failure at every level–strategic, operational and tactical.
Additionally, the strategy of relying on untested and unproven weapon systems (tactics)–amphibious Churchill tanks–proved disastrous. But most importantly, the entire strategy of using a large force to conduct “reconnaissance” by engaging the enemy in combat would go against Sun Tzu’s stealthy approach for gleaning intelligence–which was one of the goals of the Dieppe strategy in the first place.
Conversely, the Germans had anticipated the attack by observing the buildup of amphibious craft and naval vessels in southern England. The Germans also studied the tides and weather to accurately predict when the Allies might attack. Live fire exercises were conducted routinely by the Germans at Dieppe beach; they were fully prepared to defend against an amphibious assault.
So, not only did the Germans follow Sun Tzu’s maxim of full preparation for victory, the Nazis understood “earth and sky,” not to mention their solid intelligence on the Allies’ intentions. Surprise would be crucial for the Allies if such an audacious raid would have any chance of succeeding, according to its ill-conceived objectives. All surprise had been lost early on.
The controversy surrounding the raid on Dieppe remains to this day. But, in my opinion, it should have never been conducted for such spurious and nebulous objectives in the first place. The hard lessons learned at Dieppe were unnecessary, in my opinion, and could have better been achieved through stealth, spies, double-agents, Fifth Columns, resistance groups, special operations and aerial reconnaissance.
D-Day–The Landings at Normandy
One of the greatest accomplishments of the D-Day landings at Normandy, France–in reference to Sun Tzu’s maxims on warfare–was the brilliant use of deception by the Allies. The Germans knew the Allies would eventually attempt an amphibious assault on Fortress Europe. But where would the Allies strike? From the shortest route across the Channel–Pas-de-Calais area? Or, as Rommel predicted, the Normandy sector?
The uncertainty was increased by the creation of a “fake army” in southern England, commanded by none other than General George S. Patton, Jr. himself.
“Politicians are the lowest form of life on earth. Liberal Democrats are the lowest form of politician.” —General George S. Patton, Jr.
The Allies used inflatable tanks, airplanes and fake ships to trick German reconnaissance into thinking a large buildup of Allied forces was mobilizing to attack at the Pas-de-Calais area, when, in fact, the real buildup was occurring in the north to attack the beaches at Normandy in the south.
Unlike the Dieppe raid, the Allies achieved air supremacy over the battle area at Normandy. Additionally, cooperation with French resistance and the use of double-agents provided a wealth of details concerning the German defenses at Normandy, which greatly facilitated the planning and preparations for the the final invasion–D-Day.
Following the bitter lessons learned at Dieppe, special-purpose tanks (called “funnies”) were developed to deal with a variety of combat situations that could occur on the beach during the initial landings.
Amazingly, surprise was also achieved when Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower made the fateful decision to launch the D-Day invasion during a sketchy break in weather conditions. Conditions were not optimal on June 6, 1944 for crossing the Channel with such a large invasion armada–the biggest in human history–but this proved instrumental in catching the Nazis with their pants down.
By the time Allied ships of the invasion armada started popping out through the murky, foggy haze–as viewed by the Germans from their positions on the Normandy beachheads–it was too late. The greatest invasion force in history was at the doorstep of Hitler’s Fortress Europe and nothing could be done to stop it. Every conceivable preparation that could possibly have been made at that time was implemented and employed by the Allies, thus assuring victory.
When the first waves of Allied troops hit at Normandy, they were on “death ground.” Some 6,000 Allied troops were killed in the initial first waves that crashed against the beaches of Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha beach–for “death ground” surely means “death ground.” One must be assured of victory before ever putting people on “death ground.”
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War