The Art of War by Sun-tzu translated by John Minford

The Art of War by Sun-tzu is a provocation;it giveth answers and taketh them away. Its principles are those of most strategies, culminating in the overriding edict: fight when you will win; don’t fight when you won’t.

In John Minford’s excellent version, we encounter a series of observations bordering on truisms that are meant to point out the variables of conflict, leadership, loyalty, natural fact, and informed judgment. Here we have sayings that probably are an accretion or compendium of many different Chinese military thinkers perfectly at ease with war–and diametrically opposed by non-military thinkers like Confucius and Mencius who preferred peaceful means of rule and leadership.

For psychological depth, I prefer the meditations of the Roman general and emperor Marcus Aurelius, but for glittering opacity, The Art of War stands up well in comparison with any epigrammatic work, Blake and Nietzsche included. It is so general and yet assertive that war need not be how it is put to use. It can equally serve as a stimulus to good financial planning or gardening; one must simply have a talent for taking martial pronouncements and bending them to different purposes.

Strategy, after all, is strategy. It is the admission to oneself that one wants something of vital importance and one is unlikely to have it fall in one’s lap without a plan, discipline, a sense of tempo, a restless eye and sufficient support in the rear. Generals don’t win wars on their own. They have rulers behind them and troops ahead of them. One must therefore think holistically; that’s the essence of strategy–determining an objective, deciding on necessary resources, devising tactics, and showing flexibility and cunning when an enemy or opponent tries to outwit or deny you.

My observation is that there has been a widespread militarization in American life and worldwide over the last 20 or 30 years. This certainly is true in the corporate world, where Sun-tzu is quite popular, but it’s also true in football, police work, journalism, and even the latest stages of the eternal war between the sexes. How does one fight to win, not come out a loser, get the story, the touchdown, the respect, the money, whatever is most desired? What wisdom can one draw on to sustain a battle of years and even decades? When is it time to build alliances? When is it time to admit the terrain ahead is sub-optimal? What does sub-optimal terrain mean anyway, in a metaphorical sense?

Modern weaponry, from nuclear weapons on down, would appear to represent that most powerful force on earth and what is thought of first when one considers, for example, the meaning of American power, and yet is it, really? Stalin wryly asked, in dismissing the force of the Roman Catholic Church, “How many divisions does the pope have?” Well, Stalin’s gone, communism is gone, and the pope’s successor is still standing. By the same token, one can see easily enough that it is a bad thing to have too many weapons. That can break budgets,and it also can become a crutch, causing leaders to resort to force before they fully explore the possibilities of peace.

The Art of War really doesn’t advocate settling everything by war, either explicitly or implicitly. To read it carefully is to realize the folly of the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. had the wrong forces, did not understand its enemy, did not know the terrain, and went too far, trapping itself in costly mistakes for more than a decade in both cases. Sun-tzu warns against all this. He urges reflection with an almost divine insistence. He predicts disaster in certain cases with equal certainty.

Sun-tzu has always been a favorite in China (and Japan), and the breadth of his terse thought seems to have had more effect there than elsewhere in the world. Mao revered Sun-tzu, and how many years did he spend attempting to gain control over China? As long as it took; that would be the best answer. His successors, it seems to me, are equally patient and tenacious. They do not envision war as necessarily a fatal military engagement. They think about China’s economic strength, its diplomatic resources, its human capital, and the terrain upon which its interests lie . . . or where they would like to think their interests lie.

This is wise, and The Art of War is above all things a wisdom book. These many pronouncements have a proverbial quality to them. They are meant not just to launch the ship but provision it properly and adjust its course adeptly. Corporate leaders in the early 1970s began massively diversifying their business lines. Now they are well-represented by GE’s recent decision to divest itself of its financial arm. GM did the same in its recent moments of near-death experience. This is called “spinning off” or in a more negative phrase, “learning to stick to your knitting.”

Politically, the analogy would be pursing an imperial course of domination or focusing on strength at home that works well in cooperation with the strength of others abroad.

These days we are constantly reminded of China’s rise and the implicit threat of it become Asia’s bully, if not the entire world’s bully. I personally think this is a hangover from Cold War thinking: the West always needs an existential enemy against which it must brace itself.

Despite the fierce certainty with which Sun-tzu presents his observations, there are many hues and options in his thinking. War, he counsels, is a grave thing. Indeed, it is the gravest of things and potentially ruinously costly, diverting national strength into conflict at the cost of systemic weakness at home.

I recently heard an internationally respected Harvard academic comment that he could think of nine ways China and the U.S. might clash militarily. I frankly think this is an overstatement. It would be much better to say there were nine or ninety ways for the U.S. and China and the region’s other countries and the global community to cooperate. This would be to take Sun-tzu’s thinking, his subtlety, his aversion to courting defeat and apply them to international relations creatively rather than destructively.

A final word: It’s fascinating that this edition of The Art of War follows Chinese custom in presenting the text twice: once by itself and a second time with the interpolated comments of subsequent thinkers. It struck me that here we have the mirror image of Talmudic interpretation of previous texts and questions and Muslim commentaries on the Koran. This is a rich way to go about tangling with the perplexing yin/yang dynamics of Sun-Tzu’s thoughts. What did he mean? When does the Old Testament mean? What did Mohammed mean? They all meant many things, and it is a better place to fight it out– on the fields of thought as opposed to the fields of battle.

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The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers is a perplexing novel, so good that when it is bad it makes me cringe and it gets worse toward the end when the challenge for any writer is to rise but not go over the top.

Basically the story is a tapestry of stories that involve a young man who suffers injury in a truck accident and ends up with Crapgas Syndrome that leads him to believe his loving, self-sacrificing sister is an impostor, who in turn calls upon an Oliver Sacks-like cognitive neuroscientist to help her recover her brother but who feels his career as a scientist has devolved into mere popularization and who also feels, ultimately, an attraction for a mysterious caregiver at the recovery facility where the brother is housed . . . all of which is enveloped in a beautifully written myth/motif about the cranes that pass back and forth through Sand County, Nebraska, and serve as an analogue (especially when their resting places along the Platte River are menaced by developers, one of whom the desperate sister is entangled with) to the demise of civilization . . . which is echoed in the vagaries of the brain . . . and which cannot be stopped by an environmentalist, with whom the sister is also involved.

Did I say “basically” at the outset of that synopsis? Afraid I did, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. There are so many complex but intersecting issues thrown up by this ambitious novel that it seems to answer every imaginable question without, I fear, resolving any of them persuasively.

Powers is a successful writer who probably is too accomplished and sure of himself to accept editing, both when he writes silly love scenes and when he hammers his intricate plot into an unbelievable cycle of coincidences.

The Echo Maker won the National Book Award a few years ago. I suspect that this acclaim came as much for its stunning display of neuroscientific data and naturalist’s acumen as it did for its generally engaging characters and often (but not always) powerful prose. Here is a book that protests too much, melodramatically placing said characters in the context of both the microscopic intricacies of the brain and the imponderables of 60 million years of evolution. No doubt we need to know what’s offered about the brain and evolution here, but even the Sacks-based character can’t handle it, and he, like Powers, is a polymath.

What am I saying? I’m saying Powers sacrifices his novel to what he wants to get off his chest and yet what he has on his chest is important and fascinating, not trivial. He keeps pace with the front pages, including the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but at an artistic cost. Had he restrained himself, had he not ginned up an obvious and coy mishmash of suspense-filled subplots, had he not brought everything together so neatly at the end, had he not written so many breathless sentences, this novel would have been a knockout.

A few decades ago the naturalist/adventurer/novelist Peter Matthiesson wrote a novel of the sea called Far Tortuga. What it offered was a fine lyricism that conveyed the story line quite deftly without overindulging in data and scientific surprises. Powers might have taken a book like that into account, surrendering his grand finale and letting the mysteries he had developed breathe a little more easily in the reader’s mind.

I would say seven out of ten novel readers would enjoy this book despite my reservations, but the other three might put it aside and look for something tighter, swifter, and more plausible.

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Democracy by Henry Adams

Democracy by Henry Adams was published in 1880 but only attributed to him by his publisher after his death in 1918. Descended from two presidents–John Adams and John Quincy Adams–Henry Adams was deeply schooled in American political life, and that, in a sense, is what this ambivalent novel is about.

On the one hand it is a tale of the ambitious Silas Ratcliffe and his efforts to become president. He is well-decribed as a politician more interested in power than principle. On the other hand, it is a tale of Madelaine Lee, a widow, who comes to Washington fantasizing that somehow she can learn enough about America’s democratic system to affect it. These two figures are unintentionally (I suspect) quite similar to Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Ratcliffe wants to use Mrs. Lee, and Mrs. Lee, for a time, foolishly thinks she wants to be used.

The narrative is well-paced and conveys a gristly disdain for democracy, 19th century American style. Adams has to have had his doubts about the common man deciding the terms of his life. There’s no great issue,fortunately, because that would turn it into a kind of dreary policy tract. Rather, the core of the tale is one of sentiment, moral values, and what kind of life one wants to lead.

The final exchange between Ratcliffe, who never loses a gambit, and Mrs. Lee, who finds him almost overwhelming, is a virtual business-negotiation nonetheless. The nicety of 19th century marital propositions, underpinned by not so much as a kiss or embrace, raises dark questions in the 21st century reader’s mind. What on earth is it going to be like if these two people ever touch each other?

Henry Adams is most famous for his autobiography and massive history of the Jefferson administration. He also was a medievalist who taught at Harvard. He was an accomplished writer best described as a man of letters. In this case, he slips into the novel form with grace, numerous cliches, and a purpose: he loathed Washington in its grubby dealmaking and wanted his battered heroine to help the reader understand that D.C. was in his eyes a place where foul arrangements, partisanship, and power weren’t worth the candle.

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Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

Theodore Roosevelt was the first of the great 20th century presidents; Franklin Roosevelt was the second; and I personally think Harry Truman was the third.Edmund Morris’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt captures his fantastic energy, intellect, civility, high spirits and strong convictions. It is a book that begins just as TR assumes the presidency after President McKinley’s assassination and sees TR through his first tumultuous term of three years and second term of four.

During these 7+ years, TR was a whirlwind of initiative, both domestic and foreign. He settled the Russo-Japanese War, headed off a war that might have enveloped Venezuela, engineered the politics and chicanery that led to the United States building the Panama Canal, advanced workers’ rights, and many other important issues, none more important than setting aside vast tracts of the United States as national monuments and parks.

As with FDR, TR was loved or hated but almost everyone liked him whether they hated him or not. He seemed to have a decency, a bon homie, that drew everyone’s attention the moment he entered the room. He liked to laugh, play with children, and enjoy conversation with exceptional peers. I can’t think of anyone who read more books as president, certainly not in as many languages.

This likeability factor contributed a great deal to TR’s success. Wall Streeters mistrusted him,but he got along with them well enough; foreign sovereigns swallowed some of his tougher messages; and the common man (excepting white Southerners) thought he was a straight-talker, the man who offered them “a square deal.”

Morris captures all this in exuberant detail. It’s not his fault that TR is a great subject, and he only occasionally writes “over the top” in trying to explain the whirlwind (which Job wasn’t able to explain to God.)

A few insights in this book are invaluable. Overall it makes clear that the robber barons having made more money than Bill Gates, the time had come for reining them in. TR did that to an extent, but not as much as one might think. He was always a man of the middle, the golden mean. TR’s genius, as Morris puts it, was to understand knowledge as a platform for action, not for further introspection. The great writer Henry Adams captured this Rooseveltian quality with the word dynamo. He seemed to see in Roosevelt a major turn in history, a symbol of modern industrial/economic strength as capable of plotting quietly as roaring loudly.

Bill Clinton’s fundamental political thesis is that the candidate who is most positive about America will win the election. He may have been thinking about Reagan, but TR and FDR were even more convincing in their determination to prove that America, when it put its mind to it, could do anything.

TR’s diplomacy in mediating a final settlement of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 is expertly rendered here. The trial of diplomacy (and it’s a trial in war, too) is making a move and then giving it time to ripen and take effect. TR had the kind of strategic mind necessary to play the diplomatic game. He was far-sighted and he was objective. He fundamental conclusion was that for the first time in history Asia had bested Europe. That’s a major development and one that Euro-centric Americans might not like to accept, but TR took the world as it was, not as it had been, or as he wished it were.

In the course of a year this safari-master of a hunter might also read dozens of books about ancient Rome, Persia, the Incas, and the Spanish empire at its height and depth (to which he contributed). One would think this propensity to be bookish and an outdoorsman would be almost impossible, but TR somehow managed it. In most photographs, he exhibits a quality of bursting at the seams. His smile bursts at the seams. His suits seem to burst at the seams. The crowds that surrounded him seem to burst at the seams. But this was a larger-than-life figure, determined to define the boundaries of his own seams, and they were distant boundaries, indeed.

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is a collection of interrelated short stories set in coastal Maine and revolving, quite loosely, around the willful, spiteful, tart figure of Olive Kitteridge herself. Her story itself is scattered throughout this collection: She married a good man, a pharmacist named Henry, and loved him without much passion. They had a son who moved away–to California and New York–who largely proved uncommunicative as he grew older and passed through his first to his second marriage. At midlife, Olive fell in love with a man (a fellow teacher) who seems to have committed suicide by driving into a tree, perhaps out of guilt about his feelings for Olive. And after Henry dies in a nursing home (a stroke victim), Olive tumbles into the arms of a man she doesn’t much like but needs–she’s 74, he’s about the same age, a widow and a widower seeking solace from their grief and loneliness.
Olive’s spitefulness, her sharp tongue, her deflating views on the follies of life make her an interesting character. She has the whiff of reality about her and perhaps some of the laconic humor that characterizes many of the citizens of Maine.
Other characters in the book exhibit similar qualities of longing, desperation, and self-contradictoriness. They populate their town the way Sherwood Anderson’s characters populated Winesburg, Ohio–all of them, all of us, are somewhat freakish when seen up close and in private, which is one of Strout’s greatest strengths as a writer. She proves once again the novelistic fullness of the short story form when one tale is linked together. Think Alice Munro. Think Flannery O’Connor. Not as good as either of these writers, but very good, especially in her ability to find a polyvalent ending for her stories.
The narrowness of life in a small town in Maine is seldom penetrated. From time to time someone leaves by bus or appears from New York or Boston, and this provides a certain relief, but the essence of this book is its quality of people going nowhere, deeply ingrained in their families, habits, community, and sometimes their jobs.
In one outstanding story, Olive visits a woman whose son is in prison for stabbing a woman to death 29 times. The woman lives in self-ostracized seclusion, somewhat like a poisonous spider in an out-of-the-way web, just waiting for anyone to get close enough to bite, because she knows the whole town is curious about her and not very sympathetic. Her bite–what she does to Olive, a formidable person–is spectacular. Of course she’s a lunatic but a crafty one, and her sense of timing as she lets Olive have it repeatedly is exquisite. Here’s where Strout reminds me of Flannery O’Connor exploring the damned delights of wickedness.
This is a quiet book, well-written, and worth reading.

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Why We Lost …the War on Global Terrorism by Daniel Bolger

Last night I went to a talk by retired Lt. General Daniel Bolger where he discussed his recent book, Why We Lost … the Global War on Terrorism. I have not read the book, but Bolger talks fast and is comprehensive. His argument basically is that he and other generals lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because instead of making the wars’ wrongheadedness clear to policy officials they tried to carry out their orders. In Bolger’s view, the U.S. military is designed for quick, decisive action, and then withdrawal. It is not designed for long wars against irregular forces or terrorists. When pressed into such duty, the military fails. So the military has to accept responsibility and now, at least on Bolger’s part, provoke a soul-searching debate.

Having served in Iraq and followed Afghanistan closely for almost forty years, I went to Bolger’s talk with a clear idea. My idea was that those wars should never have been fought. At most we should have targeted and eliminated al Qaeda and any Taliban who got in the way defending Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. We should not have made the Taliban a primary target in and of itself and definitely should not have proposed that we help build a strong Afghanistan capable of maintaining order within its borders. That is impossible, but this is not the military’s fault. It is George Bush’s fault. The most important decision a president can make is whether we should go to war. Once made, that decision to go to war entails unforeseeable hazards. Anyone who knows anything about Afghanistan knows it cannot be organized. In fact, Afghanistan is of no interest to the United States. But as we proceeded to tear it apart, we assumed a moral responsibility to put it back together again. Fault Bush for that, not the military; then fault Obama for following Bush’s lead. Obama turned a campaign theme into a policy. That’s a bad thing to do. Policy and campaigns are quite different. Now we are considering, or Obama is considering, leaving more U.S. forces on the ground than previously decided. The most crucial error Bolger made in all this was constantly conflating the Taliban and al Qaeda. If I am not mistaken, the Taliban did not commit the acts of 9/11. The Taliban represents a noxious force, without question, but even a senior general like Bolger seems to think that it has to be punished and eradicated. He’s a softly spoken man, not a vengeful man, but he just confuses things unhelpfully when he misrepresents a country in which he served for several years.

In the case of Iraq, Bolger seems to think that at the time Bush had no alternative and since we were already overflying and bombing Iraq, it would have been all right to conduct a land invasion to oust Saddam, just as long as we pulled out fast. He noted that Saddam’s links to WMD, the primary reason for the invasion, were discredited, but he talked about old canisters that could have been used for chemical weapons (none existed), and he fuzzed Saddam’s links to al Qaeda because Saddam was, after all, in league with other bad guys.

I intervened at a certain point to say this: We could not have avoided losing wars that should not have been fought. Two presidents, with Congress in mealy-mouthed absentia, prosecuted these fiascos. No doubt the military is to blame for a great deal of the carnage, but war is a senior level political decision, not a military decision.

In his soldierly way, Bolger accepted too much responsibility. That is noble on his part, but what we have seen is feckless political leadership. The ongoing civil wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are written into centuries of history. Literate people can read that history. It’s no secret. Military tactics cannot change the Shia/Sunni/Kurdish splits in Iraq, nor can they assemble Afghanistan, a much more complex place, into anything resembling a country with a government enforcing the rule of law.

One cannot help liking Bolger unless one is adamantly anti-military. I’m not anti-military. Ultimately, Bolger knows what the military can and cannot do. But the problem lies not in tactics, it lies in military leaders telling civilian leaders not “Yes, we can,” but “No, we can’t.”

Will presidents and congress listen? Probably not. As Madeleine Albright once said to General Colin Powell about the Balkans, What good is it to have this wonderful military you tell us about if we aren’t going to use it?

What good indeed?

How about simply doing what the military is supposed to do–defending America?

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Suffer the Children, a novel by Robert Earle

My new novel, Suffer the Children, is now available on Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, Google Books,  Kobo, and Barnes and Noble.  If you’re interested, here is a synopsis followed by links to each of these stores.

After an elementary school massacre, Pru Malveaux reignites her affair with disgraced General Budge Kleeforth by urging him to develop a way to keep kids safe in the classroom. Kleeforth takes his ideas to his Connecticut hometown, Glenwood Park. The anxious community approves a pilot test—training children to maneuver into safety while teachers employ the prototype of a sophisticated, nonlethal device called the Defender that the arms industry fears may undermine its markets.

Local teenagers regard the adults as clueless. They think they know the community’s misfits well enough to identify any sociopath dwelling in their midst. But they miss the possibility that the next shooter might be their de facto leader, Mike Houghton, the police chief’s grandson.

To kill Kleeforth’s project, influential gun interests undermine his relationship with Pru and buy control of the Defender, which they will jettison. The ensuing crisis raises the troubling question: If America can protect  its weapons, why can’t it protect children, too?

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