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January Books 2) The Art of War

2) The Art of War, by Sun Tzu (Gutenberg, .co.uk, .com)

I've had this on my Palm Pilot for years, and never got around to reading it; which is absurd because it's very short - just over a hundred screen clicks, and so can't be even thirty pages in hard copy.

It's a series of aphorisms from two and a half millennia ago about how to win wars: in summary, by having a better idea of what you are doing, and preparing your own troops accordingly, than your opponent. The advice is sufficiently general that I'm not surprised to see it quoted in management handbooks, and I guess also in advice to thrusting young Wall Street brokers too.

Two points slightly jumped out at me. The first was the suggestion that in the event of prolonged war, the people will object: "three-tenths of their income will be dissipated; while government expenses for broken chariots, worn-out horses, breast-plates and helmets, bows and arrows, spears and shields, protective mantles, draught-oxen and heavy wagons, will amount to four-tenths of its total revenue." The US military budget of $470 billion is not quite as big, less than 20% of the total federal budget (though comfortably over 20% of income), but of course governments as a whole did a lot less in Sun Tzu's day.

The second was his interesting justification for the gathering of intelligence. I am fascinated by the flow of informations in international politics, but Sun Tzu's expression of why this is important as practically a moral imperative seemd to me unique: "to remain in ignorance of the enemy's condition simply because one grudges the outlay of a hundred ounces of silver is the height of stupidity. One who acts thus is no leader of men, no present help to his cause, no master of victory. Thus, what enables the wise commander to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge. Now this foreknowledge 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." I wonder who he thought he was arguing against, and what kind of thing he had in mind?

Top UnSuggestion for this book: Mr. Maybe, by Jane Green - a chicklit romance, I think.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 4th, 2007 09:56 pm (UTC)
I've always loved Sun Tzu when I've seen him quoted, but have never managed to actually get through either of the translations I've got. It does grate that statements of the obvious still get ignored by policy makers the world over.

I think though he's talking about a tax rate of 30% just for the war, not 30% of govt income, might be wrong. It does sound about right that wars cost a lot more, proportionately, in pre-industrial societies.
Jan. 4th, 2007 10:00 pm (UTC)
also smaller countries
iirc this was still when China was a bunch of little kingdoms; if you have a huge empire, you can spread the burden around a lot more and make up for the cost with resources from other provinces.

The Art of War and the Tao Teh Ching harmonize very well, btw.
Jan. 4th, 2007 09:58 pm (UTC)
given that he rants about
people who rely on astrologers, entrail readers oracles etc for planning their military operations, I suspect that the equivalent of Fred Kagan and the PNACcers were around in China 2500 years ago, too. (These days he'd probably rant about people who plan their political campaigns based on infallible promises of victory derived from spreadsheets and Powerpoint™ presentations...)
Jan. 5th, 2007 05:33 am (UTC)
Re: given that he rants about
Of course, even astrology is not that far away...
Jan. 4th, 2007 11:06 pm (UTC)
Have you looked at the UnSuggestions for Mr. Maybe?

On a casual perusal, it seems chicklit and knitting seem to be the opposites of (ummmm) everything. I would, however, prefer not to draw any conclusions.
Jan. 5th, 2007 05:34 am (UTC)
Hmm, yes, I've read all five of the top UnSuggestions!

For me it's chicklit, knitting and the collected works of evangelical Christian writer John Piper!
Jan. 5th, 2007 05:51 am (UTC)
I used to teach for one of the US's great (and by great I mean soul crushing) Correctional Facilities. The State Pens Maximum Security Prison library couldn't keep this one on the shelf. I think its popularity was tied to its being The Book Of Hip Hop Stars. Considering the context, the book seemed kind of... well, I guess the word I want is depressing. Machiavelli never looked so sinister.

Oddly, the college program also had about a million copies of Mitch Albom's _Tuedays With Morrie_. I would like to know what University professor thought that would be a good book to teach to a bunch of Class I felons.

Taken together, these two books formed an unholy alliance, IMHO. Creepy and sappy together, and neither of particularly good quality.
Jan. 5th, 2007 11:04 am (UTC)
I've got Sun Tzu and Mr Maybe. I sense corruption in the state of LibraryThing.
Jan. 5th, 2007 11:16 am (UTC)
Not at all - just means your reading tastes are weirdly broad-minded!
Jan. 5th, 2007 11:22 am (UTC)
...also you haven't added either of them to your LibraryThing catalogue, so no wonder the poor system is confused.
Jan. 5th, 2007 12:49 pm (UTC)
Longtime fan of Sun Tzu ... but have generally avoided the quotations - they're too fashionable, and too Michael Douglas at that.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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