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How to win without fighting

Battle ready: The terracotta army of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, at Bowers Museum in California.

Battle ready: The terracotta army of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, at Bowers Museum in California.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The 2,500-year-old ‘The Art of War’ is a still a favourite, chiefly among business executives

Military texts have always fascinated man. I use ‘man’ in the literal sense because I knew very few women who are interested in this. I do not say this pejoratively: the theoretical study of violence is hardly the sort of thing that should interest rational people.

There are a few texts that have survived the years and some that have become relevant at a particular point in time. Not many know that it was the Russians who actually defeated Hitler’s armies and not that windbag Churchill (90% of all Germans killed in the Second World War died on the Eastern Front facing Stalin).

After surviving the most epic sieges in history, the Russians threw the Wehrmacht back in 1943 and 1944. As the Germans retreated, their generals pulled out copies of a work written by one of Napoleon’s aides, Armand Augustin Louis de Caulaincourt. He had written a most evocative description of the long and disastrous retreat of the Napoleonic armies from Moscow. The Germans read him with the grim realisation that they were going through the same thing.

Learn the tactics

Then there are texts that have philosophical import for the warrior. One from the modern era is by the Prussian soldier Carl Von Clausewitz, whose text is called On War (it was unpublished in his time and was put together and edited by his widow). This is a revered work that few non-soldiers have read because it isn’t easy to read. His fundamental message was that warfare was an extension of politics and a political instrument.

Two other modern texts should find mention here. One is Men Against Fire, by the American general S.L.A. Marshall. His thesis is that there are only a few of us humans who like violence and war. Most soldiers fired in the air and above the heads of their ‘enemies’ (Marshall writes that in Vietnam, it took 50,000 American bullets to kill one Viet Cong soldier). And the second work is by the French soldier Ardant du Picq (killed in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870). His book opens with an amazing sentence: “Man does not enter battle to fight, but for victory. He does everything that he can to avoid the first and obtain the second.”

It is instructive to read this, because we are otherwise accustomed to nonsense from the media on the mindless heroism of armies. The fact is that the soldier is a human being first and a human being last.

The earliest text of this sort is about 2,500 years old and written by the Chinese soldier-scholar Sun Tzu. It is a direct text, meaning that it tells the general something about the nature of battle and then dives into what is to be done in terms of tactics.

It is this simplicity that has made this text a favourite. It has been required reading in many armies over the centuries and across borders. It is easily the most translated military text in history.

It has also become popular with business executives, who fancy themselves as warriors in their armour of suit and tie. I used to have a boss many years ago, who carried a copy of The Art of War with him. One of the things that makes it appealing to such people is that it values coldness and ruthlessness and these are seen as qualities to be aspired to in the modern world of business.

Know your enemy

We have many phrases of modern use that come from Sun Tzu. Lines like “the supreme art of war is to win without fighting”. This is something that he repeats over and over again in many different ways and is of course much the same thing as du Picq wrote more than 2,000 years later. He also said, “in every crisis is an opportunity”. He said that if you know your enemy and you know yourself you will win 100 battles.

Sun Tzu’s work is divided up into 13 chapters. Many are specific, such as the use of terrain, the use of spies and the use of fire. He values deception and confusing the enemy. He also insists on unity and the unity of command, with a strong and patriarchal leader (probably another reason why CEOs like his work).

Because these messages are simply phrased and quite brief (one can read the entire text in a couple of hours or so), they are therefore also open if not vague. This is what makes them applicable to the modern era by those who can read deeper meaning into the words. And it is this that has kept Sun Tzu relevant for two and a half millennia.

(A monthly series on the world literary classics.)

The writer is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 2:50:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/how-to-win-without-fighting/article25797014.ece

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