33 Strategies of War Introduction

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We live in a culture that promotes democratic values of being fair to one and all, the importance of fitting into a group, and knowing how to cooperate with other people. We are taught early on in life that those who are outwardly combative and aggressive pay a social price: unpopularity and isolation. These values of harmony and cooperation are perpetuated in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—through books on how to be successful in life; through the pleasant, peaceful exteriors that those who have gotten ahead in the world present to the public; through notions of correctness that saturate the public space. The problem for us is that we are trained and prepared for peace, and we are not at all prepared for what confronts us in the real world—war.

The life of man upon earth is a warfare.
JOB 7:1

Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum (let him who wants peace prepare for war)

This war exists on several levels. Most obviously, we have our rivals on the other side. The world has become increasingly competitive and nasty. In politics, business, even the arts, we face opponents who will do almost anything to gain an edge. More troubling and complex, however, are the battles we face with those who are supposedly on our side. There are those who outwardly play the team game, who act very friendly and agreeable, but who sabotage us behind the scenes, use the group to promote their own agenda. Others, more difficult to spot, play subtle games of passive aggression, offering help that never comes, instilling guilt as a secret weapon. On the surface everything seems peaceful enough, but just below it, it is every man and woman for him- or herself, this dynamic infecting even families and relationships. The culture may deny this reality and promote a gentler picture, but we know it and feel it, in our battle scars.

It is not that we and our colleagues are ignoble creatures who fail to live up to ideals of peace and selflessness, but that we cannot help the way we are. We have aggressive impulses that are impossible to ignore or repress. In the past, individuals could expect a group—the state, an extended family, a company—to take care of them, but this is no longer the case, and in this uncaring world we have to think first and foremost of ourselves and our interests. What we need are not impossible and inhuman ideals of peace and cooperation to live up to, and the confusion that brings us, but rather practical knowledge on how to deal with conflict and the daily battles we face. And this knowledge is not about how to be more forceful in getting what we want or defending ourselves but rather how to be more rational and strategic when it comes to conflict, channeling our aggressive impulses instead of denying or repressing them. If there is an ideal to aim for, it should be that of the strategic warrior, the man or woman who manages difficult situations and people through deft and intelligent maneuver.

[Strategy] is more than a science: it is the application of knowledge to practical life, the development of thought capable of modifying the original guiding idea in the light of ever-changing situations; it is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions.

Many psychologists and sociologists have argued that it is through conflict that problems are often solved and real differences reconciled. Our successes and failures in life can be traced to how well or how badly we deal with the inevitable conflicts that confront us in society. The common ways that people deal with them—trying to avoid all conflict, getting emotional and lashing out, turning sly and manipulative—are all counterproductive in the long run, because they are not under conscious and rational control and often make the situation worse. Strategic warriors operate much differently. They think ahead toward their long-term goals, decide which fights to avoid and which are inevitable, know how to control and channel their emotions. When forced to fight, they do so with indirection and subtle maneuver, making their manipulations hard to trace. In this way they can maintain the peaceful exterior so cherished in these political times.

This ideal of fighting rationally comes to us from organized warfare, where the art of strategy was invented and refined. In the beginning, war was not at all strategic. Battles between tribes were fought in a brutal manner, a kind of ritual of violence in which individuals could display their heroism. But as tribes expanded and evolved into states, it became all too apparent that war had too many hidden costs, that waging it blindly often led to exhaustion and self-destruction, even for the victor. Somehow wars had to be fought more rationally.

The word “strategy” comes from the ancient Greek word strategos, meaning literally “the leader of the army.” Strategy in this sense was the art of generalship, of commanding the entire war effort, deciding what formations to deploy, what terrain to fight on, what maneuvers to use to gain an edge. And as this knowledge progressed, military leaders discovered that the more they thought and planned ahead, the more possibilities they had for success. Novel strategies could allow them to defeat much larger armies, as Alexander the Great did in his victories over the Persians. In facing savvy opponents who were also using strategy, there developed an upward pressure: to gain an advantage, a general had to be even more strategic, more indirect and clever, than the other side. Over time the arts of generalship became steadily more sophisticated, as more strategies were invented.

Although the word “strategy” itself is Greek in origin, the concept appears in all cultures, in all periods. Solid principles on how to deal with the inevitable accidents of war, how to craft the ultimate plan, how to best organize the army—all of this can be found in war manuals from ancient China to modern Europe. The counterattack, the flanking or enveloping maneuver, and the arts of deception are common to the armies of Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and the Zulu king Shaka. As a whole, these principles and strategies indicate a kind of universal military wisdom, a set of adaptable patterns that can increase the chances for victory.

“Well, then, my boy, develop your strategy So that prizes in games won’t elude your grasp. Strategy makes a better woodcutter than strength. Strategy keeps a pilot’s ship on course When crosswinds blow it over the wine-blue sea. And strategy wins races for charioteers. One type of driver trusts his horses and car And swerves mindlessly this way and that, All over the course, without reining his horses. But a man who knows how to win with lesser horses Keeps his eye on the post and cuts the turn close, And from the start keeps tension on the reins With a firm hand as he watches the leader.”

Perhaps the greatest strategist of them all was Sun-tzu, author of the ancient Chinese classic The Art of War. In his book, written probably the fourth century B.C., can be found traces of almost all the strategic patterns and principles later developed over the course of centuries. But what connects them, in fact what constitutes the art of war itself in Sun-tzu’s eyes, is the ideal of winning without bloodshed. By playing on the psychological weaknesses of the opponent, by maneuvering him into precarious positions, by inducing feelings of frustration and confusion, a strategist can get the other side to break down mentally before surrendering physically. In this way victory can be had at a much lower cost. And the state that wins wars with few lives lost and resources squandered is the state that can thrive over greater periods of time. Certainly most wars are not waged so rationally, but those campaigns in history that have followed this principle (Scipio Africanus in Spain, Napoleon at Ulm, T. E. Lawrence in the desert campaigns of World War I) stand out above the rest and serve as the ideal.

War is not some separate realm divorced from the rest of society. It is an eminently human arena, full of the best and the worst of our nature. War also reflects trends in society. The evolution toward more unconventional, dirtier strategies—guerrilla warfare, terrorism—mirrors a similar evolution in society, where almost anything goes. The strategies that succeed in war, whether conventional or unconventional, are based on timeless psychology, and great military failures have much to teach us about human stupidity and the limits of force in any arena. The strategic ideal in war—being supremely rational and emotionally balanced, striving to win with minimum bloodshed and loss of resources—has infinite application and relevance to our daily battles.

Inculcated with the values of our times, many will argue that organized war is inherently barbaric—a relic of man’s violent past and something to be overcome for good. To promote the arts of warfare in a social setting, they will say, is to stand in the way of progress and to encourage conflict and dissension. Isn’t there enough of that in the world? This argument is very seductive, but not at all reasonable. There will always be those in society and in the world at large who are more aggressive than we are, who find ways to get what they want, by hook or by crook. We must be vigilant and must know how to defend ourselves against such types. Civilized values are not furthered if we are forced to surrender to those who are crafty and strong. In fact, being pacifists in the face of such wolves is the source of endless tragedy.

Mahatma Gandhi, who elevated nonviolence into a great weapon for social change, had one simple goal later on in his life: to rid India of the British overlords who had crippled it for so many centuries. The British were clever rulers. Gandhi understood that if nonviolence were to work, it would have to be extremely strategic, demanding much thought and planning. He went so far as to call nonviolence a new way of waging war. To promote any value, even peace and pacifism, you must be willing to fight for it and to aim at results—not simply the good, warm feeling that expressing such ideas might bring you. The moment you aim for results, you are in the realm of strategy. War and strategy have an inexorable logic: if you want or desire anything, you must be ready and able to fight for it.

Others will argue that war and strategy are primarily matters that concern men, particularly those who are aggressive or among the power elite. The study of war and strategy, they will say, is a masculine, elitist, and repressive pursuit, a way for power to perpetuate itself. Such an argument is dangerous nonsense. In the beginning, strategy indeed belonged to a select few—a general, his staff, the king, a handful of courtiers. Soldiers were not taught strategy, for that would not have helped them on the battlefield. Besides, it was unwise to arm one’s soldiers with the kind of practical knowledge that could help them to organize a mutiny or rebellion. The era of colonialism took this principle further: the indigenous peoples of Europe’s colonies were conscripted into the Western armies and did much of the police work, but even those who rose to the upper echelons were rigorously kept ignorant of knowledge of strategy, which was considered far too dangerous for them to know. To maintain strategy and the arts of war as a branch of specialized knowledge is actually to play into the hands of the elites and repressive powers, who like to divide and conquer. If strategy is the art of getting results, of putting ideas into practice, then it should be spread far and wide, particularly among those who have been traditionally kept ignorant of it, including women. In the mythologies of almost all cultures, the great gods of war are women, including Athena of ancient Greece. A woman’s lack of interest in strategy and war is not biological but social and perhaps political.

Instead of resisting the pull of strategy and the virtues of rational warfare or imagining that it is beneath you, it is far better to confront its necessity. Mastering the art will only make your life more peaceful and productive in the long run, for you will know how to play the game and win without violence. Ignoring it will lead to a life of endless confusion and defeat.

The following are six fundamental ideals you should aim for in transforming yourself into a strategic warrior in daily life.

Look at things as they are, not as your emotions color them. In strategy you must see your emotional responses to events as a kind of disease that must be remedied. Fear will make you overestimate the enemy and act too defensively. Anger and impatience will draw you into rash actions that will cut off your options. Overconfidence, particularly as a result of success, will make you go too far. Love and affection will blind you to the treacherous maneuvers of those apparently on your side. Even the subtlest gradations of these emotions can color the way you look at events. The only remedy is to be aware that the pull of emotion is inevitable, to notice it when it is happening, and to compensate for it. When you have success, be extra wary. When you are angry, take no action. When you are fearful, know you are going to exaggerate the dangers you face. War demands the utmost in realism, seeing things as they are. The more you can limit or compensate for your emotional responses, the closer you will come to this ideal.

Although a goddess of war, [Athena] gets no pleasure from battle . . . but rather from settling disputes, and upholding the law by pacific means. She bears no arms in time of peace and, if ever she needs any, will usually borrow a set from Zeus. Her mercy is great. . . . Yet, once engaged in battle, she never loses the day, even against Ares himself, being better grounded in tactics and strategy than he; and wise captains always approach her for advice.

Judge people by their actions. The brilliance of warfare is that no amount of eloquence or talk can explain away a failure on the battlefield. A general has led his troops to defeat, lives have been wasted, and that is how history will judge him. You must strive to apply this ruthless standard in your daily life, judging people by the results of their actions, the deeds that can be seen and measured, the maneuvers they have used to gain power. What people say about themselves does not matter; people will say anything. Look at what they have done; deeds do not lie. You must also apply this logic to yourself. In looking back at a defeat, you must identify the things you could have done differently. It is your own bad strategies, not the unfair opponent, that are to blame for your failures. You are responsible for the good and bad in your life. As a corollary to this, look at everything other people do as a strategic maneuver, an attempt to gain victory. People who accuse you of being unfair, for example, who try to make you feel guilty, who talk about justice and morality, are trying to gain an advantage on the chessboard.

Depend on your own arms. In the search for success in life, people tend to rely on things that seem simple and easy or that have worked before. This could mean accumulating wealth, resources, a large number of allies, or the latest technology and the advantage it brings. This is being materialistic and mechanical. But true strategy is psychological—a matter of intelligence, not material force. Everything in life can be taken away from you and generally will be at some point. Your wealth vanishes, the latest gadgetry suddenly becomes passé, your allies desert you. But if your mind is armed with the art of war, there is no power that can take that away. In the middle of a crisis, your mind will find its way to the right solution. Having superior strategies at your fingertips will give your maneuvers irresistible force. As Sun-tzu says, “Being unconquerable lies with yourself.”

Worship Athena, not Ares. In the mythology of ancient Greece, the cleverest immortal of them all was the goddess Metis. To prevent her from outwitting and destroying him, Zeus married her, then swallowed her whole, hoping to incorporate her wisdom in the process. But Metis was pregnant with Zeus’s child, the goddess Athena, who was subsequently born from his forehead. As befitting her lineage, she was blessed with the craftiness of Metis and the warrior mentality of Zeus. She was deemed by the Greeks to be the goddess of strategic warfare, her favorite mortal and acolyte being the crafty Odysseus. Ares was the god of war in its direct and brutal form. The Greeks despised Ares and worshipped Athena, who always fought with the utmost intelligence and subtlety. Your interest in war is not the violence, the brutality, the waste of lives and resources, but the rationality and pragmatism it forces on us and the ideal of winning without bloodshed. The Ares figures of the world are actually quite stupid and easily misled. Using the wisdom of Athena, your goal is to turn the violence and aggression of such types against them, making their brutality the cause of their downfall. Like Athena, you are always one step ahead, making your moves more indirect. Your goal is to blend philosophy and war, wisdom and battle, into an unbeatable blend.

And Athena, whose eyes were as grey as owls: “Diomedes, son of Tydeus . . . You don’t have to fear Ares or any other Of the immortals. Look who is here beside you. Drive your horses directly at Ares And when you’re in range, strike. Don’t be in awe of Ares. He’s nothing but A shifty lout . . .” . . . And when Diomedes thrust next, She drove his spear home to the pit Of Ares’ belly, where the kilt-piece covered it. . . . [Ares] quickly scaled the heights of Olympus, Sat down sulking beside Cronion Zeus, Showed him the immortal blood oozing From his wound, and whined these winged words: “Father Zeus, doesn’t it infuriate you To see this violence? We gods Get the worst of it from each other Whenever we try to help out men . . .” And Zeus, from under thunderhead brows: “Shifty lout. Don’t sit here by me and whine. You’re the most loathsome god on Olympus. You actually like fighting and war. You take after your hardheaded mother, Hera. I can barely control her either. . . . Be that as it may, I cannot tolerate you’re being in pain . . .” And he called Paieon to doctor his wound . . . Then back to the palace of great Zeus Came Argive Hera and Athena the Protector, Having stopped brutal Ares from butchering men.

Elevate yourself above the battlefield. In war, strategy is the art of commanding the entire military operation. Tactics, on the other hand, is the skill of forming up the army for battle itself and dealing with the immediate needs of the battlefield. Most of us in life are tacticians, not strategists. We become so enmeshed in the conflicts we face that we can think only of how to get what we want in the battle we are currently facing. To think strategically is difficult and unnatural. You may imagine you are being strategic, but in all likelihood you are merely being tactical. To have the power that only strategy can bring, you must be able to elevate yourself above the battlefield, to focus on your long-term objectives, to craft an entire campaign, to get out of the reactive mode that so many battles in life lock you into. Keeping your overall goals in mind, it becomes much easier to decide when to fight and when to walk away. That makes the tactical decisions of daily life much simpler and more rational. Tactical people are heavy and stuck in the ground; strategists are light on their feet and can see far and wide.

Spiritualize your warfare. Every day you face battles—that is the reality for all creatures in their struggle to survive. But the greatest battle of all is with yourself—your weaknesses, your emotions, your lack of resolution in seeing things through to the end. You must declare unceasing war on yourself. As a warrior in life, you welcome combat and conflict as ways to prove yourself, to better your skills, to gain courage, confidence, and experience. Instead of repressing your doubts and fears, you must face them down, do battle with them. You want more chal-xx lenges, and you invite more war. You are forging the warrior’s spirit, and only constant practice will lead you there.

The 33 Strategies of War is a distillation of the timeless wisdom contained in the lessons and principles of warfare. The book is designed to arm you with practical knowledge that will give you endless options and advantages in dealing with the elusive warriors that attack you in daily battle.

Each chapter is a strategy aimed at solving a particular problem that you will often encounter. Such problems include fighting with an unmotivated army behind you; wasting energy by battling on too many fronts; feeling overwhelmed by friction, the discrepancy between plans and reality; getting into situations you cannot get out of. You can read the chapters that apply to the particular problem of the moment. Better still, you can read all of the strategies, absorb them, allowing them to become part of your mental arsenal. Even when you are trying to avoid a war, not fight one, many of these strategies are worth knowing for defensive purposes and for making yourself aware of what the other side might be up to. In any event, they are not intended as doctrine or formulas to be repeated but as aids to judgment in the heat of battle, seeds that will take root in you and help you think for yourself, developing the latent strategist within.

Against war it can be said: it makes the victor stupid, the defeated malicious. In favour of war: through producing these two effects it barbarizes and therefore makes more natural; it is the winter or hibernation time of culture, mankind emerges from it stronger for good and evil.

The strategies themselves are culled from the writings and practices of the greatest generals in history (Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Shaka Zulu, William Techumseh Sherman, Erwin Rommel, Vo Nguyen Giap) as well as the greatest strategists (Sun-tzu, Miyamoto Musashi, Carl von Clausewitz, Ardant du Picq, T. E. Lawrence, Colonel John Boyd). They range from the basic strategies of classical warfare to the dirty, unconventional strategies of modern times. The book is divided into five parts: self-directed war (how to prepare your mind and spirit for battle); organizational war (how to structure and motivate your army); defensive war; offensive war; and unconventional (dirty) war. Each chapter is illustrated with historical examples, not only from warfare itself but from politics (Margaret Thatcher), culture (Alfred Hitchcock), sports (Muhammad Ali), business (John D. Rockefeller), showing the intimate connection between the military and the social. These strategies can be applied to struggles of every scale: organized warfare, business battles, the politics of a group, even personal relationships.

Without war human beings stagnate in comfort and affluence and lose the capacity for great thoughts and feelings, they become cynical and subside into barbarism.

Finally, strategy is an art that requires not only a different way of thinking but an entirely different approach to life itself. Too often there is a chasm between our ideas and knowledge on the one hand and our actual experience on the other. We absorb trivia and information that takes up mental space but gets us nowhere. We read books that divert us but have little relevance to our daily lives. We have lofty ideas that we do not put into practice. We also have many rich experiences that we do not analyze enough, that do not inspire us with ideas, whose lessons we ignore. Strategy requires a constant contact between the two realms. It is practical knowledge of the highest form. Events in life mean nothing if you do not reflect on them in a deep way, and ideas from books are pointless if they have no application to life as you live it. In strategy all of life is a game that you are playing. This game is exciting but also requires deep and serious attention. The stakes are so high. What you know must translate into action, and action must translate into knowledge. In this way strategy becomes a lifelong challenge and the source of constant pleasure in surmounting difficulties and solving problems.

Nature has made up her mind that what cannot defend itself shall not be defended.

In this world, where the game is played with loaded dice, a man must have a temper of iron, with armor proof to the blows o fate, and weapons to make his way against men. Life is one long battle; we have to fight at every step; and Voltaire very rightly says that if we succeed, it is at the point of the sword, and that we die with the weapon in our hand.
—Arthur Schopenhauer, Counsels and Maxims, 1851


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