Category Archives: War

The Philosophy of Victory – Machiavelli and Sun Tzu

Two great books, two timeless texts, two manuals on the differences between victory and defeat, success and failure. These two texts, I believe, cannot be read separately. I myself finished them both this December and found them to be everything I imagined them to be.

A short background: Machiavelli was a Renaissance court employee who bore witness to the daily affairs and politics of Europe’s leaders. He saw the way they handled themselves both in war and in peace and observed the traits which ended up leading to their success. While being a nice guy himself, he came to the conclusion that to succeed as a leader (or Prince), one has to be ruthless, conniving, bribe-happy and, most importantly, rule by terror, as opposed to love. Sun Tzu was a famous Chinese general who seemed to win every battle he was involved in. He collected and wrote an anthology of texts explaining the art of war, and how careful planning is to go into every battle. He outlined how and when to attack, when to retreat, how to deceive one’s opponent and how to ensure victory every time.

Why it’s important today if these two men lived 400 and 2600 years ago: The lessons learned from these texts extend to canvass far more than just the art of ruling a kingdom or fighting a battle. They are manuals of management for any environment, from managing a restaurant, to running a family, to building a corporate giant.

It goes without saying that there’s so much win in these two books that successfully applying either of them can ensure that your life will be one big victory pie. But it’s not that simple.

Lessons from each book which I thought were interesting:

The very first thing Sun Tzu said: “The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death,  a road to either safety or ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

The very first thing on the agenda is to assert a huge contradiction to the attitude which dominates western thought. When in a state of war, you cannot ignore the uncomfortable things. War is itself a brutal affair. One cannot worry about how to treat the prisoners when the war has not been won yet, or ignore all of the possible dirty tricks one’s enemy may attempt, simply because that wouldn’t be fair. When in a state of war – in business, or in actual war – you cannot choose to ignore certain details in the hope that your enemy will also ignore them. If you do not choose to consider every possible betrayal and low move, those will be the things that surely lead to your demise. If you do not actively take those options into your strategy, then you will be disadvantaged throughout the fight. This is a rule that is ruthlessly applied to the corporate environment, but in everyday ‘moralistic’ life, people choose to ignore this fact, and pretend life is good, virtuous and easy. Unthinkable acts are just that: unthinkable. That’s all well and good if you’re a simple citizen, but if you want to play the big game and if you want to win, Sun Tzu says that you should, at some point, come to the realisation that going all out is the only rule. Failure to go all out will result in failure across the board.

Machiavelli likes to go on about the best possible way to ensure that your rule is long-lived and successful after the initial victory, rather than just looking at how to defeat the enemy’s army, which is why I think his philosophy complements that of Sun Tzu very well. The most intriguing lesson he brought forward was the effectiveness of two opposing methods of maintaining control over one’s kingdom: terror and love. Terror implies ensuring that your subordinates know that double-crossing you or under-performing at their jobs means harsh punishment, while love implies debauchery and a benevolent rule which benefits them, and thus results in an obligation to you. The problem that surfaces with the method of love is that when things get tough, and you are no longer able to supply your subordinates with a lavish lifestyle or keep low taxes, they will not be so loyal and will quickly get used to the idea of treachery, while a rule of terror will ensure their submission and loyalty no matter the situation.

A man is only as good as the books he reads. So read these books.

I’ll be writing again soon, I hope. Stay tuned/connected.

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Extract from ‘War of the Element’

This was one of my favourite moments to write. It depicts the first naval battle to ever occur in a hundred years of war. I was inspired by the concept of the ‘risks were too great, and the potential gain too small’, which was mirrored in WW1 when the world’s souped up navies only actually participated in one major naval battle in a five year war. Compared to WW2, where half the damn war took place at sea, and dozens of ships went down at a time and were simply rebuilt.

Well, here’s the piece. It describes Vorith’s newly selected war council, as permitted by the democratic leaders of the Inner System. One of them makes it onto this council for the merit of being a veteran and a politician. The rest are inept at being wartime leaders, and Vorith knows that. Ignis is not really involved in the broader strategic thoughts on the war. However, his task is such that he needs to know what’s going on, and thus receives a seat on the council.

—–

The Quasar fired the first shell of the battle. Over three million fleet personnel thought briefly of their families, their parents, their lovers, or their children. The sound rang through the halls of the Inner System flagship, signalling the beginning of the second most decisive battle in history, while others saw the shell hurtling through space with ballistics detection. Space warfare was counter-intuitive. While thousands of tonnes of explosives were being fired in bizarre proportions and speeds, silence reigned in the void, only disturbed minutes after the battle had truly begun as the first of the missiles penetrated an escort ship’s hull, rending the left side of it and tearing the life from its interior.

The sun shone coldly on the scene. Its weak rays bombarded the frozen bodies suspended in space. Some were punted out of the way by the lumbering ships, travelling at only several hundred kilometres an hour. It was dreadfully slow in the vastness of space. From deep within the confines of The Quasar, Vorith received reports and plotted his next moves. With the help of a hand-selected council, he had successfully maintained a powerful grip on the situation. General Shellet was his new right-hand man. Not only had he proven his worth as an able soldier, but his prowess as a man between the political and military spectrum in the last few months had revealed him to be an asset like no other.

Other members of Vorith’s war council included the first-man of The Quasar (simply because the captain was far too busy commanding his own vessel), the Captain of The Nebulous Spirit (The Inner System’s prototype stealth-ship), as well as Lucas, the only political leader to be invited into Vorith’s war council. Four other generals were included too, though Vorith had a sour gut-feeling when it came to them. They didn’t seem to care much about anything, and had what was commonly called ‘tunnel vision’. However, Vorith couldn’t hope to command the entire military unquestionably unless he had orders coming down from every high-level leader.

Finally, at the end of the table sat Ignis. The heat that radiated from him appeared intense, but really settled into an ambient warmth. Nothing he touched burned.

In a cacophony of silence, the ships played out their roles, zapping warheads in mid-space and firing their own back at the enemy. Ship after ship was destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in a second, and a million more in another. The fight continued for a week, a week of constant tension, of knowing that one’s life depended on the whims of chance. Slowly, by process of blunt attrition and slow strategic manoeuvres, the Outer System fleet was whittled down. It was comparable to a week-long game of chess, with thousands of pieces on the board, but enough time to ensure that each one was in its most advantageous position. Vorith had never played this kind of game before. It was the largest naval battle in history, but he trusted his instinct and the strategic advice from his council, and it seemed to be working.

—–

Needless to say,

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Dystopia (And Why it still exists)

You’ve heard of utopia – a place where everyone is prosperous and lives freely. Unicorns roam the streets and humans don’t murder, steal or cheat. The streets are clean and the wars are only a distant memory, a legend of an imperfect era.

Well, surprisingly, nobody really cares to think about this place anymore, especially in the last hundred years. Perhaps those two world-encompassing conflicts and the subsequent threat of total nuclear destruction slapped people out of their trances and the smell of reality came rushing back.

No, the hot topic of post-modern thought and literature is now focused upon utopia’s rebellious, infinitely more interesting cousin, DYSTOPIA. It is a world where fire rains down from the heavens, food is rare enough to solicit ambush and murder, women are raped, men are slaughtered, children are worked to death, and war and destruction are constant companions. Disease ravages the countryside. Smog canvasses the city. Fascist groups are jostling for power at the expense of the impoverished population. There is only one thing to which everyone clings: hope.

What can I say? I suppose humanity just loves a challenge.

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Remember that awesome movie series that you watched far too many times? No? That was just me then? Okay.

Needless to say, Hollywood has had a field day with the concept of dystopia, where the unsung hero to defies the odds to bring some semblance of hope back to humanity. It’s a refreshing turn from the traditional “Hero kills every bad guy in a big explosion and miraculously, none of the good guys die” scenario.

However, I want to explore the fact that our world can still be described as dystopic.

Let’s first establish that Utopia is ridiculous. It is impossible on every level, to such a degree that no living philosopher that I know of believes in its possibility. It seems they all just gave up on it. Dystopia, on the other hand, is very real and easily applicable to large periods of human history. I’ve already described the futuristic, Sci-Fi version of dystopia. Now, let me describe the industrial revolution and then WW1 in England, and see what you make of it:

London is a seething mess, growing rapidly without an end in sight. The growing urban class is far too large and unemployment soars. Most young women resort to prostitution to make enough to survive. Their unwanted children are either aborted or grow up alone in the streets of London. They will probably end up either criminals or chimney-sweeps and will die of lung-disease within a few years. Alternatively, they are recruited to work in crammed coal mines for 18 hours of the day, where they will either die also of lung disease from the poor ventilation or be crushed if the mines collapse. Riots are common, but so are the brutal retaliations by the government, which seeks to repress the population for as long as possible to minimise labour costs and keep profits high. The skyline of London is filled with factory chimney smoke. There is no regulation.  They produce uncontrolled amounts of poisonous waste that they dump in rivers. On many nights, ash rains down on London from the smoke released by these factories, colouring the snow a dark, murky grey. And just when these appalling conditions seem to have an end in sight, and the government takes notice of the horrible conditions of its country, a war with Germany seems imminent. The entire world is pulled into this conflict, which revolves purely around the multiple empires jostling for power over their colonies. What was first thought to be a three week affair turns into a five year nightmare. Leaders of the world don’t have a clue how to deal with it, and their attempts to prevent it from ever happening again will eventually lead to yet another, unimaginably worse war.

WW1

^^ So, does that look kind of dystopic to you? ^^ It happened less than 100 years ago.

Finally, the war is over. Six million men have died, mostly from gangrene and sitting in cold, waterlogged trenches where the tea freezes if you don’t drink it in 15 minutes and rats the size of cats steal your meagre rations. They come back home to England. Many of them have amputated limbs or have lost their eyesight to gas attacks. Others shake uncontrollably from shell-shock.

The authorities vow to make things better. They improve living conditions and assign more power to unions. Workers are allowed to protest and women are enfranchised. The world seems to be getting better. But don’t be fooled. All they did was assign the hard work to other countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, where the population is treated as sub-human, and worked to death just as the people of England were only a few decades ago. But you don’t know about it. You buy cheap steel and fruits imported from other countries and believe life is good. You can afford to buy a refrigerator, a motor car, a tennis racquet.

Don’t be fooled. For every person who lives a life of comfort, there are probably about 3 or 4 others who barely survive.

Now, here comes the difficult part to stomach. We like to give to charities, play our part in making the world a better place, try to help those less fortunate. Those are all familiar phrases which inspire good in us. And by all means, continue. The poor populations of third world countries could certainly benefit from this small, if somewhat inadequate leakage of resources back to their origins. However, a cold fact which we do not (read that as: ‘don’t want to’) acknowledge is that those people we see in dire need of water, food and shelter are in those situations because we live consumer lifestyles, because we use more water to bathe once than they do to live for a week. We eat more, drink more, consume more electricity and use more resources of every kind to fuel our lives.

Did you know that there is enough fresh water on Earth to sustain all 7 billion of us with surplus? Indeed, there is. There is also enough food, enough fuel, enough electricity and enough living space. But a small fraction of the world consumes almost all of those resources. That small fraction is you and me. The consumers, they call us. The elite, the prosperous, but most importantly, the lucky.

We live in this reality. We don’t bother to acknowledge it, and probably never will. We will give 10% of our salary to a charity and forget about it, but we will not live on a ration of water and food, use carpooling extensively, live ascetic, humble lifestyles so that others can do the same and think it a luxury. It’s quite sad, really. I feel guilty.

Here is the reason I condone it (at least I’m not a hypocrite), and still possess a smartphone (among many other consumer products) which I know was produced in a sweatshop where people work 24 hour shifts for terrible pay and try to kill themselves on a regular basis.

If we were to do what I previously mentioned and distribute resources evenly so everyone could be fed, it would also halt technological progress, which would be worse, because even if we did use our resources in moderation, if we didn’t have aggressive capitalism to develop technologies and find news ways to make our resource consumption more efficient, we’d eventually run out of something and the world would be plunged into the same economic chaos that the USSR experienced in the 80’s, and then this would happen:

Chernobyl

So tell me, are we indeed living in a permanent dystopia? Because nothing’s really changed in the last 200 years. There is an elite class that lives comfortably with plenty (that would be us) and the vast majority of the world which lives in appalling conditions and is essentially enslaved to cheaply produce goods for us (the rest of the world).

Perhaps we’ll one day stumble on a submissive alien race so we can outsource our labour to them and finally experience prosperity for all humans. Would you be down with that? Then for every happy, prosperous human, there would be ten aliens somewhere working to death to produce our stuff.

Please share your thoughts in the comments. I want to hear your opinion.

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