Sun Tzu was a military strategist and philosopher who was alive in the 6th Century BC. His context was that China had been fighting wars, inside its borders, almost continuously for one thousand years. His strategies outlined how a leader could win a war with the least amount of damage to both his army and even his enemies, and do it swiftly. Essentially he was not someone who glorified war or the victors of a war. He was someone who understood war and the horrors that it brings. He was someone who sought to avoid it all costs, but he knew if the time came to fight he could do it decisively, elegantly and quickly.
His philosophy was outlined in the Art of War, which is now a 2,500 year old treatise. This book is set out like a collection of proverbs which give insight into how a war, or more importantly, the preparations for war are organised. One of his most important quotes is,”If you want peace, prepare for war.” It is a philosophy that should coloury our thinking and help us to apply its message in our particular situation.
There are those that say war is stupid and hope that it will just go away by sticking your head in the sand. Unfortunately there are those who wish to take advantage of this and exploit people’s apparent weakness. This is why you need to be prepared.
Thomas Hobbes was a 17th Century philosopher in England and he said that, “The condition of man is….a condition of war of everyone against everyone.” Although I do not accept this entirely, Hobbes was a pessimist who lived through the civil wars in England, Scotland and Ireland, it is a useful maxim in avoiding being taken advantage of either deliberately or by misunderstanding.
Since Sun Tzu’s philosophies are more about political manoeuvring, then they can easily being be applied to many areas of your life. There could be a personal conflict dealing with an illness, lack of confidence or an addiction. There could a conflict in your environment, in a relationship or between two organisations. Ultimately this could mean war in the traditional sense.
There are a number of useful rules of thumb dealing with conflict. He starts with the five constant factors; the moral law, heaven, earth, the Commander and method and discipline. He considers the terrain, and this could be real or metaphorical. He considers the enemy and how their personality would react. He considers travelling and how to take advantage of supplies, preferably by stealing the enemies. But above all he considers everything as a whole and prepares the best strategy.
In relationships this strategy can lead to the potential of rejection. But this can come about after a failure of communication, or when one person is expected to submit to the other. In such a case that person is left with the choice of submitting or rejecting. Essentially Sun Tzu sees conflict as the resolution of differences when politics breaks down.
Traditionally in England, people look to the Second World War as the obvious example of a conflict. Often military strategists would look to Clausewitz on War as the leading philosophy. That basically stated that war is won by the destruction of the enemy’s ability to fight on the battlefield. Now the military look to Sun Tzu more often, as there are rarely any actual battlefields anymore. War is fought on television, the internet, in homes, shops, families and in civilian areas.
People talk about WW2 as an example of a just war. This is usually said by people who were not in it or any other war. Some historians regard WW2 as a continuation of WW1 and there is some validity in this. The allies barely won WW1. The Germans ceased to have the ability to fight, and they were asked to lay down their weapons and walk home. Officially they had lost, but there was a lot of doubt as to why the war was fought in the first place. 20 years later it started again and this time the Germans were more dangerous. In the end the unconditional surrender and the revelation of the Nazi death-camps finally made the German people realise that they had followed an evil man in Hitler.
In 1964 a German historian called Fritz Fisher discovered documents pertaining to the Schlieffen plan which was to conquer Belgium and Northern France. He also discovered the top Generals knew about it. This might suggest that both World Wars were started due a desire for German supremacy. This is a belief that was part of German culture, Wagner is a good example of one who promoted it. Saying you are better than your neighbours may start off as harmless enough but left unchecked could start conflict. To defeat the Nazi’s the allies had to defeat the philosophy of the German supremacists, otherwise they would come back.
War is not about glory, political advantage, gaining greater wealth, lands and titles. It is not something that should be viewed on someone’s camera phone. It is hell, it is death, it is futile, and it is desperate and despairing. It rips communities, families and people apart, both physically and emotionally.
If you get involved in conflict then you need to find a brilliant strategy to end it. Sun Tzu said, “The Supreme excellence of a general is not winning 100 victories in 100 battles. That is subduing your enemy without fighting.”
For many life is constant struggle and maybe that struggle is what life is about. When you struggle, think about how you do it. Maybe you can win, but if you don’t do it properly and in a way that minimises casualties, either real or metaphorical, then your enemy may come back to haunt you directly or through those close to him that have been inspired by hatred and revenge.
We have enough to deal with without fighting each other. We do not need pride, jealousy, ignorance, lack or forgiveness or lack of communication spoiling our lives or those of our loved ones.
Sun Tzu said that fighting a few is the same as fighting many. It is just a matter of organisation. Whether you have a personal struggle or if you a world leader with an almighty arsenal at your fingertips, learn his philosophy.
Fight with love, confidence, humility, patience, ruthlessness and when victorious with mercy.