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.