Friday, December 26, 1997

The Art of War


Notes on Ralph Sawyer’s translation of Sun-tsu’s The Art of War:


  • I’m not so sure I want a quite so scholarly translation at this point. I’m only peripherally interested in ancient Chinese history; I’m primarily interested in military and philosophical value. For instance: I don’t really care, at this point, who Lord Shang and Han Fei-tzu are. Maybe I should just avoid the notes. Perhaps I should find a contemporary military translation, leaving out nonessential Chinese history and personages, and focusing on how these doctrines apply to modern philosophy and warfare.


Screw it; I skipped to the actual text. The front notes were becoming impenetrable.


  • I pretty much agree with everything so far (p. 168; p. 2 of the text)—although again, I’d like a more Western viewpoint; I don’t really feel like dealing with Yin and Yang and Heaven and Tao. But I do have an issue on p. 168: Sun-tzu says that “If they are rested, force them to exert themselves.” I have an alternate viewpoint, that says “If they (the enemy) are weary, force them to exert themselves. But if they are rested, consider letting them rest…and rest…and rest until they become bored and unready and stir-crazy and neglectful of maintenance and generally complacent—and then attack.”
  • Always consider, with every action, what you teach your enemy. Not what the enemy may learn—that’s simple counterintelligence. But what you teach him—about how you fight, about your competence, about your methods, and about war.
  • Never forget—either when considering your own forces or when doing battle with your enemy—that war always boils down to privates and new sergeants and lieutenants—to those young men on the battlefield who actually operate the equipment and do the actual fighting. It is they who actually fight the war, and they, in the end, who collectively decide the outcome. If their morale is low, if they are complacent, if their fear controls them, if they are incompetent or poorly trained or do not understand the objective or how to accomplish it, you will lose, no matter how intelligent, well-trained and motivated your senior leaders are, or how detailed, thought-out or well-made your battle plans are, or how superior your military is in equipment or numbers. (Actually, numbers can save you here, if you are willing to waste your near-useless men. Given working equipment and no way to escape, men will fight, as well as they can.)        So when considering the previous point, remember that nearly everything your enemy’s young fighters know about war they will learn from you. Try and teach them all the wrong lessons, if you can, so that they learn the right ones only disastrously.


Tʜɪs ɪs ᴛʜᴇ ᴅᴏᴄᴛʀɪɴᴇ ᴏғ ᴍʏ ʟɪғᴇ


  • Above all, especially in warfare, understand why you do what you do. Blindly following any doctrine could lead to disaster.* Only perfect—utterly perfect—doctrine will not lead you astray under any circumstances—and how will you know it is perfect if you do not understand it?

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