Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

47. The Art of War

Note: This post is the forty-seventh in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

In Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs theorizes that most of the guardian virtues have origins in the military. With that in mind, I thought it might be worthwhile to look at one of the most famous books of military thinking ever written, Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War.'

Sun Tzu starts by laying out 5 key factors that must be take into consideration in any war planning:

"The MORAL LAW causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

HEAVEN signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.

EARTH comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

The COMMANDER stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness.

By METHOD AND DISCIPLINE are to be understood the marshalling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure."

One of the things that I found surprising while reading 'The Art of War' was the strong emphasis that Sun Tzu put on not actually engaging in battle unless it was absolutely necessary. Sun Tzu seemed to have a strong sense of warfare as a largely zero or negative sum game unless it was carried out with superior strategy:

"There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare."


"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."

Another key theme that Sun Tzu comes back to again and again is the need for unity. The first key factor listed above stresses unity between the ruler and ruled and there are many quotes regarding keeping one's forces concentrated while trying to catch the enemy with his forces dispersed - e.g. "When an invading force crosses a river in its onward march, do not advance to meet it in mid-stream. It will be best to let half the army get across, and then deliver your attack."

This notion of concentrating your own forces and dividing the enemy in battle seems to me to be analogous to the economic notion of economies of scale. With economies of scale, doubling the amount of production requires less than a doubling of the inputs. so the bigger the company, the more efficient it is. In battle, doubling one's force has an effect on the outcome greater than a simple proportional increase, so that having 20,000 troops vs. the enemy's 10,000 is much more than twice as good as having 10,000 against 10,000.

With this in mind, Sun Tzu comments on the use of signals (such as drums and banners) to keep the army together, "The host thus forming a single united body, it is impossible either for the brave to advance alone, or for the cowardly to retreat alone."


In line with Jacobs' thinking, most of the guardian syndrome gets a positive mention at one point or another, including:

- Be Obedient and Disciplined, "If a general shows confidence in his men but always
insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual."

- respect hierarchy, "If in training soldiers commands are habitually enforced, the army will be well-disciplined; if not, its discipline will be bad."

- dispense largesse, "When you plunder a countryside, let the spoil be divided amongst your men; when you capture new territory, cut it up into allotments for the benefit of the soldiery."

- deceive for the sake of the task, "All warfare is based on deception."

Sun Tzu also touches on the general notion of the guardian syndrome involving duty to something other than self-interest, "The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom."


A couple of guardian virtues that weren't stressed by Sun Tzu were 'be fatalistic' and 'adhere to tradition'

Rather than adhering to tradition, Sun Tzu emphasized the need for generals to be flexible and to adapt to circumstances as necessary to take advantage of anything that might be to the advantage.

He also urged generals to combat any use of magic charms by the army as he felt that these would undermine morale.

"Prohibit the taking of omens, and do away with superstitious doubts. Then, until death itself comes, no calamity need be feared."


Of course, much of 'The Art of War' has to do with military tactics, the use of terrain, reading clouds of dust and the flight patterns of birds and so on, but for this post I focussed on those elements which had relevance to the issue of ethics.

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  • "One of the things that I found surprising while reading 'The Art of War' was the strong emphasis that Sun Tzu put on not actually engaging in battle unless it was absolutely necessary."

    I read the art of war when it was fashionable to do so ( 25 years ago give or take ) and the same thought struck me. This was in the midst of the "greed is good" capitalism as a cudgel era and I always thought that those looking for inspiration must have either missed the points or been disappointed.

    By Blogger KevinG, at 10:50 PM  

  • Jane Jacobs mentions the Sun Tzu fad of the '80s in 'Systems of Survival', commenting on how the world of commerce got infected by guardian values during the leveraged buyout craze of the 80's. Too bad the business people didn't take the message about avoiding battle more to heart...

    By Blogger Declan, at 1:01 AM  

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