Jun

28

Sun-Tzu, by Nick White

June 28, 2010 |

I re-read the Sun-Tzu on the weekend. I know it is one of the most hackneyed books out there, but I wonder how many have actually read it. It is an extraordinary text, and one with which I feel a great affinity. I singled out a few verses from within which i'll send to you. I love the ideas of formlessness, of having the enemy come to you and making them spend all their force in doing so; that the attacker is vincible, while the defender / passive is invincible. That numbers count for nothing, but strategy with sound tactics is everything and can defeat the largest force. The power that comes from knowing the enemy - and the even greater power that comes from knowing oneself. All very strong stuff.

Ken Drees comments:

I especially like the secret agent dealings that are laced throughout. See "secret agents" in the index for page numbers.


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2 Comments so far

  1. Mike Kozak on June 28, 2010 11:13 am

    “I love the ideas of formlessness, of having the enemy come to you and making them spend all their force in doing so; that the attacker is vincible, while the defender / passive is invincible. That numbers count for nothing, but strategy with sound tactics is everything and can defeat the largest force.”

    Hmmm! Makes one wonder whether Al-Qaeda/Taliban are following the Sun-Tzu playbook?

  2. Don Chu on June 30, 2010 8:13 am

    Cool.

    True, the 虚-实(formlessness/vaccous-form/substance), 奇-正(unorthodox-orthodox), 势(strategic primed power) of the Sun Tzu are indeed extraordinary and lends itself to a lifetime of unending rereadings, fresh discoveries, insights and pleasure.

    But while this iconocastic classic is renowned for being amongst the foremost (and there are many others) and more importantly, clearest application and articulation of quintessentially chinese philosophies (taoistic and even earlier thought) towards national-military strategy; in contrast to it’s apparent theme of ‘formlessness’, it is above all, a wholly pragmatic work based on the most mundane of considerations.

    In line with the spirit of ‘counting’ favoured by this site, here is an instance of a quantitative method employed by the Sun Tzu, when tabulating the cost of war — for Sun Tzu, ‘money is truly the sinews of war’:

    (from chapter 13)
    “Raising an army
    Of a hundred thousand men
    And marching them
    One thousand li (~330 miles)
    Drains the pockets
    Of the common people
    And the public treasury
    To the daily sum of
    A thousand taels of silver.
    It causes commotion
    At home and abroad
    And sets countless men
    Tramping the highways
    Exhausted.
    It keeps seven hundred thousand families
    From their work.”

    A later commentary of the above lines by another military-statesman genius, the Regent-General Cao Cao, clarifies part of the calculation above:

    “Of old, eight families made up a neighbourhood; if one family sent a man to war, the other seven families had to support them. So when a hundred thousand troops were mobilized, seven hundred thousand families were thereby prevented from tending their crops properly.”

    Accordingly, the larger the distance from home, the more ruinous the cost of transport; plus the presence of an army will drive up prices of everything. Thus, Sun Tzu considers it most prudent to impose this burden on the enemy instead.

    And on the subject of ’secret agents’, this is of course the main topic of “Chapter 13 - The Use of Spies”. Sun Tzu again counts the cost, this time of not using spies:

    “Hostile armies may face each other for years, striving for the victory which is decided in a single day. This being so, to remain in ignorance of the enemy’s condition simply because one grudges the outlay of a hundred ounces of silver in honors and emoluments, is the height of inhumanity.

    One who acts thus is no leader of men, no present help to his sovereign, no master of victory.”

    Chapter 13 continues, saying that the acquisition of foreknowledge or intelligence,

    “cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation.
    Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”

    … before detailing the 5 fascinating classes of spies:
    Local, Internal, Double, ‘Dead’ or doomed, and Live spies.

    Interestingly, in the west, the Prussian monarch and general, Frederick the Great, was ostensibly the first to use the “double agent”, a captured enemy spy working for both sides and used by his captors to send false information to his original employers. And in the merciless spirit which Frederick was infamous for, in instilling fear in both his enemies as well as his own rank and file, Frederick considered
    “[t]he best method of espionage, ‘which always succeeds’, was to choose a peasant, arrest his wife as a hostage, and attach to him a soldier disguised as a servant before sending him into the enemy’s camp…”

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