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Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Art of War

One of the classics of military education, I figured I had to read Sun Tzu's The Art of War as a self-respecting political scientiest. It is definitely one of the oldest books I have ever read (the old testament and Homer come to mind as being older). I was disappointed though in the sense that I had expected a real book, in something like an extended essay form. In reality, The Art of War is basically a collection of aphorisms. That means more patience is required by the reader than I usually show and a lot more thought has to be put in every sentence or even word.

After I had read all of them, I discovered that the second part of the edition I had was exactley the same text interspersed by various commentators (from early Chinese ones to early 20th century American ones (General Crook is quoted once)). That second version I found a lot better, it placed Sun Tzu into context somehow, before some of his aphorism seemed a little too obvious ('never attack downhill; use spies'), but the aphorisms made clear how military leaders in all of history had heeded Tzu's advice and fared well on it (even though I am sure that a patient researcher could show as many examples of people who suceeded even though they had counteracted to Tzu's advice). Shocking was how many proverbs still ring true today:

The consumate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline, thus it is in his power to control sucess.

The comment on this read:
There is a very strong temptation ... for government forces to act outside the law, the excuses being that the processes of law are too cumbersome, that the normal safeguards in the law for the individual are not designed for an insurgency and that a terrorist deserves to be treated as an outlaw anyway. Not only is this morally wrong, but, over a period, it will create more practical difficiculties for a government than it solves. A government which does not act in accordance with the law forfeits the right to be called a government and cannot expect its poeple to obey the law. Funcontionning in accordance with the law is a very small price to pay in return for the advantage of being the government.

Sir Robert Grainger Ker Thompson, Defeating Communist INsurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam (1966)

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