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The relevance of Sun Tzu 08/03/2007

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BOOK REVIEW

The relevance of Sun Tzu
The Art of War

translated by John Minford

 

 

 

The Art of War by Sun Tzu, translated by John Minford. New York: Penguin, 2006, ISBN 0143037528. US$8.95, 101 pages.

Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh

The classics are always worth reading. The Art of War by Sun Tzu certainly falls in this category, and this is apparently the reason it was republished recently in English. Sun Tzu’s treatise is regarded as a classic of military science and seems to be especially appropriate reading for the English-speaking public at a time when the United States and its major European ally, Britain, have engaged in wars or are in preparation for new wars on many fronts. Indeed, Sun Tzu has become quite a popular author and is frequently quoted.

Therefore, it is not accidental that when the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Jintao, visited the US, he gave the book to President George W Bush, as a hint on how the United States should deal with its numerous geopolitical challenges. Yet one could doubt that Sun Tzu’s advice would be of use to a US administration, regardless of who sits in the White House.

The message of the book is clear: war is won not through strength but through skillful manipulation – a victory of the writing brush and brains over sword and strength. This vision of war is related to another major point of the book, or at least can be interpreted in this way: war is not just the function of the military but is the exercise of the entire societal body. And it is here that the US military behemoth fails: America’s socio-economic fabric as a whole is not designed to win the current wars, regardless of what seems to be enormous and constantly increasing investments in the country’s military machine.

Among Sun Tzu’s profound ideas is the assumption that war cannot be victorious without a sense of solidarity between the elite and those who fight. He made it clear that generals and other officers should share the hardships and dangers of campaigns. The fact that officers lived like common soldiers would create the sense of solidarity and comradely spirit without which a war could not be won. In modern times, the spirit of solidarity should have much broader application, and soldiers should feel this solidarity not only with the officers but with the entire nation, which should share the hardships of war and provide adequate rewards for those who sacrifice themselves for the state.

The opposite has happened at present in the US. Soldiers, even those who risk their lives on the battlefield, receive less for their years of service than prosperous lawyers, managers or bankers do in a few days. If a soldier is disabled, the state tries to minimize the expenses of his medical treatment, and his pension will often be barely enough to pay for heating his home. In fact, he may be thrown on the street like any other “fellow American”. (Throngs of homeless ex-soldiers can be found in many US cities.) And if he dies on the battlefield, his surviving family not only will receive quite meager remuneration by US standards but also will not have health coverage.

It is clear that this sort of arrangement, despite the profusion of flag-waving and patriotic statements on television, has bred a mercenary mentality where the spirit of sacrifice, without which no war could be won, especially a war that might last for generations, is practically absent. One can wonder why this could not be changed. Reading Sun Tzu would provide the answer.

The inability to make changes is certainly not a result of naivety or because good advisers, with the Sun Tzu book in their hands, are not around the president’s court. The army is an integral part of society as a whole, and this is one of the basic premises of Sun Tzu’s holistic approach to society as a whole. A profound change in the spirit of the armed forces would require the same profound changes in US society.

An army of well-paid and well-cared-for troops whose attachment to the cause transcends the limits of a mercenary paycheck cannot be created by flag-waving statements that “united we stand” and propaganda shows where selected brave servicemen and -women announce to TV viewers that they are thankful for the honor given to them: to fight and, if need be, die for the defense of liberty. The creation of armies whose soldiers are ready for a war that could last for generations requires a dramatic increase in benefits and remuneration for those who fight and for their immediate families.

This would require a massive redistribution of wealth. It would mean the end of the perks of various societal bodies irrespective of whether they are supported by the left or the right, and, of course, massive intervention by the state in all aspects of life. This society, if it were to emerge, would come to resemble Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia or China – or at least the Oriental monarchies such as the one in which Sun Tzu lived.

Of course no arguments or even problems most Americans would see as manageable would be able to push the United States away from the operational model by which it has lived throughout most of its history. Change at the very core of society would need not just tolerable discomfort but massive and acute pain, which would demonstrate the futility of all the old medicine.

Such an abrupt change in paradigms would require a global crisis, which might not happen because the collapse of the US economy and geopolitical/military machine would not just be a disaster for the US but might send tsunami-type waves all over the globe. The majority of America’s global adversaries – China, for example – would try their best to prevent US society, including its socio-economic and even military structure, from collapsing like the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Because of this, the elite of US society would most likely operate more or less in the same paradigmatic framework, regardless of who occupies the White House. And for this reason the behemoth of the US military machine and society in general would be slowly worn down, regardless of the future occupants of White House and innumerable billions of dollars invested in more and more expensive and exotic military gadgets.

A geopolitical retreat, manageable and gradual if possible – and this is a desirable scenario for most of the rest of the global community – would create a vacuum that could well be at least partly filled by the country from which Sun Tzu came – China.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu, translated by John Minford. New York: Penguin, 2006, ISBN 0143037528. US$8.95, 101 pages.

Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter – The Life of Themistocles, 2005.

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