In this short series, lessons will be gathered from classical works on politics, and the parallels between ancient and medieval political texts and their modern contexts will be analyzed. The text is thousands of years old, and the meanings are not always clear, but the closest relevant meaning in English will be gleaned for application.

This will focus on the text, 孫子兵法, a collection of political wisdom compiled of quotes from Sun Zi (Sun Tzu), a Chinese general. A handful of quotes will be selected.

All the portions discussed in this part will come from 謀攻, mou gong, which means the plan of attack, i.e. strategy

Quote: 孫子曰:凡用兵之法,全國為上,破國次之;全旅為上,破旅次之;全卒為上,破卒次之;全伍為上,破伍次之。是故百戰百勝,非善之善者也;不戰而屈人之兵,善之善者也。

English interpretation:Sun Zi said, it is better to capture than to pillage, to conquer than destroy, to leave things intact for use rather than decimate the land. To fight one hundred battles and stand a chance to lose half is never as good as using psychological warfare to negotiate a settlement instead of facing the risk of battle, that is the true greatest victory.

Application:There are several elements here. The first should be understanding that we won’t fight battles to kill or destroy, we fight them to win spoils, honor, or rights. Therefore, it is not always in our best interest to dishonor, to emasculate, to punish the vanquished for their loss. It behooves us to take the spoils but leave some honor for the loser, so that there does not fester a burning hatred which may come back to bite us later, or poison the well that we all must drink from. Consider the world’s reaction after WWI and WWII. After WWI, most of Europe was left decimated, but Eastern Europe, the loser was ordered to pay for it all. Instead of being the war to end all wars, this left a malignant instability that turned Europe back to a previous era, one of conquering and persistent war instead of peace and stability. Contrast that with how the world treated Japan and Germany after WWII. Militarily stripped and politically tamed, the countries were not to be punished forever and were given the blood and sweat of America to help rebuild their economies and grow. The difference in peace outcomes based on how the defeated were treated may have made the difference between a century of relative tranquil versus the prelude to a nuclear war.

The second large element regards psychological warfare, and the avoidance of violence. Coming from a general, this sounds out of place, but modern IR theory often conceptualizes war as a breakdown of communication, a failure to come to a settlement that both countries would prefer, since war is so costly to both sides, that would avoid a battle. By focusing on bringing your enemy to the table to discuss terms before a single drop of blood has been spilled, it can be understood that in most cases, with two rational states, they stand to gain a lot more from reasoned discourse and an avoidance of the cost of war than mutually destructive battle. Thus, perhaps Sun Zi was one of the first IR theorists in Asia, writing thousands of years ago.

The second is from Verse 2

Quote: 故上兵伐謀,其次伐交,其次伐兵,其下攻城。攻城之法,為不得已。。。

English interpretation:Destroying the enemies plans is better than meeting them in battle, so too is meeting in battle better than laying siege to cities; this should be avoided…

Application:Utilizing the intelligence one has gathered, sabotage is the best tactic to avoid the risk of battle altogether. Using ones strength to meet them, not on their turf, but on your own, is also superior. It allows one to maintain their advantage. Thus, avoiding conflict through outsmarting your opponent, changing the rules of the game, and tinkering with the calculus of the conflict until who will be the victor is no longer clear can help you win before the battle has even begun.

Consider the Vietnamese after they removed the Khmer Rouge from power. This angered China so much, that they invaded Vietnam, their communist ally who they had just spent years helping fight the Americans to keep out. Rather than meeting their enemy in open battle, the Vietnamese, who knew best the terrain took to the jungles for a guerrilla fight, just like the ones they had fought with the Americans before, bogged down the Chinese, and changed the calculus so significantly that they gave up before they were any to capture any significant territory. Forcing an enemy to fight in your turf and working hard to sabotage and frustrate their expectations was the key to keeping this conflict short.

The third is from Verse 3

Quote: 故善用兵者,屈人之兵,而非戰也;拔人之城,而非攻也;毀人之國,而非久也。必以全爭于天下,故兵不頓,利可全,此謀攻之法也。故用兵之法,十則圍之,五則攻之,倍則分之,敵則能戰之,少則能守之,不若則能避之。故小敵之堅,大敵之擒也。

English interpretation:The best leader is one who can win an battle without fighting, conquer a city without a siege, divide a people with sheer will. With an intact army, they can control all under the heavens, and assume ultimate power; this is the way to victory. When outnumbering the troops surround them, when even divide them, when outnumbered use guerrilla tactics, adapt to achieve victory. A small force can be fierce and can hold the line while the large force can be used to capture and conquer.

Application:In addition to all the notions above about intelligence, strategy, and avoiding conflict, the last key offered is flexibility. When information is imperfect, or conditions less than optimal, instead of despairing, one must make the tough decisions necessary and brainstorm a path to victory. This requires a flexibility of both mind and tactics to enable the creative solutions that are needed to face difficult challenges. When faced with continuous leaks and decryption of their military secrets during WWII, the US military relied on a natural language that would be easier to utilize and harder to crack than the synthetic encryptions of English that had been used before. They sought a new solution, and arrived at one that had never before been used, the native American Navajo language, and used Navajo code-talkers to not only carry on the war effort, but improve the efficiency of communication, being able to use a spoken language on channels that was directly translated to English taking seconds, instead of the minutes it would take to feed a message through a decryption machine. The language was used up until the Vietnam war, and was never broken.

Staff writer: Ari B

One thought on “Political Lessons from the Past : Sun Tzu Part II”

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