(This is imported from an earlier blog of mine and serves as a for-the-record setting things straight about ancient strategists and ruthlessness vs. morality and so on. Some context is required. – JB)

This poist addresses in depth a core misconception about the classics of ancient strategy: that they all counseled ruthlessness, how to gain and keep power at any cost in human life and suffering, and that they stand opposite to the modern idea that strategy can be used for good ends. This misconception is by no means intentional; Machiavelli, in particular, does much to tarnish the craft. However, the question is a good one, and deserves a proper response.

We’ll start with Sun Tzu.

During China’s Spring and Autumn Period, China experienced the rise of the professional general for the first time. Prior to this, men had been led to battle by whomever among the retainers of the ruler was deemed most fit for the task. The concept of a professional at war was still relatively new and raw when Sun Tzu codified his strategies, tempered by the knowledge that his state of Wu was numerically inferior in troops to the neighboring upstart state of Yue. Thus being toe to toe with an opponent with a larger army, with five other powerful states dominating that particular part of the age, the need for waging war smarter, not harder, was evident.

Drawing upon his Taoist philosophy of viewing reality as it is, not as one wishes it to be, Sun Tzu addressed his ruler in particular, but, in laying down general principles, laid out ideas for rulers and generals to follow throughout history.

However, the core principle of Sun Tzu is really quite simple:

War is hell.

Sun Tzu wrote that war is extremely destructive, the death of the state, not the health of the state; war impoverishes both the treasury and the common people; war not only destroys lives, but entire kingdoms. Therefore, it must be studied thoroughly so that one’s own state is not to be consumed by the flames.

Sun Tzu wrote, “In war, then, let victory be your great object, not long campaigns.” Why? Because long campaigns bring ruin, even if your side “wins” (and I qualify “winning” here just as Sun Tzu would have). War is such a great evil, it must be ended as quickly, efficiently, and decisively as possible, so that peace – an absence of war and a restoration of civilian order – may reign.

In counseling the capture of enemy troops and officers, the taking of cities intact without bloody sieges, and the avoiding of senseless slaughter and massacres that bring nothing but blood and corpses, Sun Tzu was a radical humanitarian for the ancient world (as professional generals go); he counseled the aggressive use of spies mainly because of the false economy of skimping on espionage while spending fortunes on equipping a field army only to fail due to lack of information.

In writing that the mere presence of an army drives up local inflation and impoverishes the local populace, Sun Tzu makes a deep insight worthy of Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics. In writing that the general should treat his soldiers like his own beloved sons – but to ensure that his commands are obeyed, lest he be loved but despised, thus ensuring the ruin of his army and the maximum possible deaths of his soldiers – Sun Tzu laid out a path for humanity combined with practical strictness to lead an organization through thick and thin with a minimum of casualties and carnage.

It is in this spirit that Sun Tzu lays out a path for creating strategies that follow the path of least resistance, striking with maximum force at the weakest point; for water can both flow silently in twists and turns, and rage with torrential force, sweeping away all in its path.

Next, Musashi.

Miyamoto Musashi came later in life to the study of strategy; he was, first and foremost, a swordsman and duelist of immense skill, living by the rules of his day. Surviving the warfare at the end of Japan’s warring states period, he wrote about his experiences and the lessons he had gained in his life, not only from his legendary victories in duels, including duels to the death, but from his participation in at least one major battle, assisting in the construction of a castle, and finally, developing his skills as a painter; some of his works survive to this day.

Musashi was not in the service of a feudal lord until late in his life; but in the end, Musashi retreated to a cave to lay down his Book of Five Rings, so named for the Japanese elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void (the Void being that which is intangible and invisible to the naked eye). The core theme of Musashi’s strategic thought is how to win: as an individual, but also, on the battlefield, commanding smaller units than the conscript armies of Sun Tzu’s time, but formed of well trained feudal soldiers that really could act with the decisiveness of a single man, if commanded well.

Ultimately, Musashi wrote down his strategy both to promote his own special school of swordsmanship, using a style of two swords simultaneously that was largely shunned, both then and now, as impossible for ordinary men to master, but also, to assist the individual in becoming better, not only in swordsmanship, but in life itself. For Musashi’s theme was that, to learn how to master one thing, is to learn how to master everything; success breeds success, and just as there is a flow to one career (carpentry was his great parable), by learning these flows and rhythms, one could gain new insight into another aspect of life. This is, perhaps, why he painted.

As his work came at the end of an age of war, not at the dawn of one, Musashi’s book survived as a tangible record of his legendary warrior’s journey and as defining the “Real Man” school of samurai culture, and thus earned its way onto the bookshelves of samurai for centuries to come, and business leaders today.

Finally, Machiavelli.

Machiavelli’s heart wasn’t actually in helping princes rule better; rather, his heart was with cities governed like democratic republics, with citizen armies – militias, in those days – defending such cities. However, reality intervened, and the Italy of the day was not fertile ground for such idealism. So, seeking to remake himself as an advisor to princes, he wrote this book, which, incidentally, made him unemployable; hiring a man openly advising such ruthlessness would dent the principle of being ruthless while appearing generous. Though, in the case of the nobles he was trying to impress, this appearance probably was paper thin.

At any rate, hurling himself into pragmatic analysis, Machiavelli dispassionately assessed the causes of the rise and fall of princes; he, too, defined war as something absolutely critical to the state, though in this case “the state” and “the prince” were, in fact, one and the same. (Think of it as a small-scale version of “L’etat, c’est moi.”) Machiavelli separated being loved from being respected; and, if one cannot be loved and respected, one must be feared; and above all, one must not be seen as weak as well as unworthy of respect, for then one can never sleep in peace with threats from without and within seeking for any opportunity to plunge the dagger in.

Among Machiavelli’s insights are that people will sooner forget the deaths of their fathers than the dispossession of their lands (which compromise not only their present, but their future and their children’s future); people trust those who arm them and despise those who take their weapons away; and colonies are a surer means of occupation than simply occupying with troops, which draws on the Roman experience, but which preceded modern colonialism.

Among the odder mixtures was this theme: you can be ruthless, and indeed, you may need to be ruthless, but only by also being generous and magnanimous, and by keeping free from personal corruption, can one rule securely; such a ruler is very unlikely to be overthrown from within, and only if he is horribly defeated in war can he be destroyed. Thus do we see that humanity is, on purely pragmatic grounds, a necessary part of governance.

Taken together, I make the following conclusions:

– Strategy is a tool. Like any tool, it is neither good, nor evil.
– Strategy can be used for many ends.
– Strategists are not only rulers acting for themselves, but those employed by and advising rulers who seek to use the most effective means to implement the policy laid out by those they answer to.
– Though Machiavelli has given strategy a bad name, and many masters of strategy have been inhumanly ruthless, strategy can be the tool of the humanitarian, seeking to go to war only when necessary, and when it is necessary, to end it in the most efficient and effective way possible, restoring a more stable peace.

When things get down to brass tacks, however, one theme truly rises above the rest: strategy can only be practiced through seeing reality as it truly is, not as we wish it to be. This is the core of my being unimpressed with those who halfheartedly practice strategy in an unrealistic, destructive manner that brings neither victory nor gain.

What I assess, when I analyze strategy, is not who is right; I assess who is more effective. I seek to learn from human behavior, both good and bad, so that I do not have to make all of their mistakes myself before learning from them. I view the teaching of strategic thinking similarly; we do not need to pretend that there is no history that preceded us. We can learn from the words laid down by others. Of course, we must know how to apply them; that is the challenge.

Above all, I see acting on the world stage without strategy, but rather, out of personal pique, or frustration, as not only self-destructive, but selling short those who rely upon the successful practice of strategy.

Notwithstanding this, I do not see any reason to deny who I am: a resident of North America who has no reason to cheer planes being flown into buildings. If those who practice strategy in the present day and at the present hour do so imperfectly, let me at least try to help others learn from their successes and failures to deal with what shall come in the future. That, too, is some of my motivation, but perhaps I am better off dealing with the past. It is an open question.

If you have an answer, by all means, comment or contact me some other way. These are questions worthy of thought and inquiry.