Monday, October 24, 2022

Modern Problems Ancient Solutions



 I almost named my first book modern problems to ancient solutions. I’ve also mentioned before that I find classical Chinese theory some of the most thorough that I’ve seen outside of maybe Clausewitz. It is all the more amazing because in some cases these theories were expressed thousands of years ago. I was reading a new book Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory by James Dubik. I’ve got a book coming out on just war, and there are so many other books on the subject I want to keep abreast as much as I can. The book itself was a bit of a dud.[1] But the important part was that the book brought up important ideas that were addressed a long time ago, hence the title of this post.

    One of the dominant themes of Reconsidered is that a large reason for having a moral strategy determined by high level leaders is to make sure the soldier’s executing it are not dying in vain for it. President Lincoln considered this idea in the Gettysburg Address. Dubik said the soldiers should know that commanders care about soldiers (p. 52). And on page 99 that soldiers are expected to risk their lives, but know their lives are not thrown away, wasted in missions “without achieving something that would give their sacrifices meaning.”

    That sounds nice but isn’t new. Numerous classical Chinese authors, (between 400 and 200 BC) commented on the connection between goals and methods. One of the reasons the great military theorist Sunzi advised that the pinnacle of victory is winning without a fight, was to avoid needless casualties when they swarm over city walls like ants.[2]

    The purported descendant of Sunzi, Sun Bin, said simply that when commander “employs them like earth and grass,” they won’t respect or follow him.[3] One of the leading Confucians, Mencius attacked the leaders who treat ministers like grass.[4] In both cases they referred to the clumps of dirt and grass that were often cast aside without a thought by shoveling day laborers. These examples focused more on battlefield leadership. But they shared high level responsibility of modern civilian leaders and high-level military strategists. 

     The next comparison from Dubik’s book was between the idea about civil control of the military. The founders were concerned about an Oliver Cromwell type figure which is why they required military funding on a yearly basis done by the House. After World War II the civilians in the government passed the National Security Act as a further safeguard. In this case, Dubik said that militaries strong enough to protect were often strong enough to overthrow the government (57).

    This was a classic Chinese dilemma. The generals of the Southern Jin dynasty of the mid-5th century AD could often sweep down the Yangtze River and overthrow their civilian leaders. The An Lushan rebellion (755 AD) started in the periphery because of a powerful general gained power while protecting the frontier. And the final defection of the Lu Wende, inspired by civilian officials fearful of growing power, doomed the defeat of the Southern Song in the 13th century to the powerful Mongol invasion.

    To solve this, Chinese leaders often had what was called Tiger Tallies, which were two halves of a totem that needed to be combined by the civilian and martial leader, or provincial official and representative from the central government before the provincial military leader could muster the military.

    On top of this, there were various ceremonies that reinforced the need to remove a general from his command and source of power before meeting civilian officials. The historical background for one of the seven military classics, Methods of Sima, included this:[5]

[After taking command and hearing news of the enemy’s withdraw] thereupon [the general] pursued and attacked the [enemy], subsequently retaking all the territory within the borders of the old fief, returning with the soldiers. Before [the general] reached the state capital he disbanded the units, released them from military constraints, swore a covenant, and thereafter entered the city. Duke Ching (547-490BC) and the high officials greeted him in the suburbs, rewarding the troops and completing the rites, only afterward returning to rest.

    The footnote explains that removal of military constraints consists of the loyalty required of soldiers to their commander. This has obvious implications and recalls Caesar crossing the Rubicon as the most famous example of a military commander using the army for political purposes. I also noted how there was both a ceremony, implied ritual, before Amalickiah could enter the capital and meet the queen ( Alma 47:33).

    Just  like military officials shouldn’t use their military power to intimidate civilian officials or seize power,  there are multiple examples of how the military commander should not face interference in the field from officials in the court with their often out of date and faulty information. Dubik wrote about the example of President Johnson who brow beat and demeaned his generals to the point that dissuaded the kind of sustained discussion and debate needed for good high-level policy (61,95).

    The military theorist Tai Kong explained it well here:

After the General has received his mandate, he bows and responds to the ruler: ‘I have heard that a country cannot follow the commands of another state’s government, while an army [in the field] cannot follow central government control. Someone of two minds cannot properly serve his ruler; someone in doubt cannot respond to the enemy. I have already received my mandate and taken sole control of the awesome power of the fu and yueh axes [symbols of authority similar to the tiger tally discussed above]. I do not dare return alive. I would like to request that you condescend to grant complete and sole command to me. If you do not permit it, I dare not accept the post of general.’ The king then grants it, and the general formally takes his leave and departs.[6] 

    But the Tai Kong only discussed the general being free from meddling. Johnson (and other poor modern leaders) denigrated their advisers. The classical Chinese military theorist Wuzi discussed this danger as well. In my book about classical Chinese thought, I described the danger that theorists described as being the smartest man in the room:

[The general Wuzi] attended a meeting in court where the ruler was often dismissive of his ministers...After the meeting he expressed his concern to the ruler by sharing the story about the King of Chu and the value of ruler receiving wisdom from ministers: I have heard it said there are no lack of Sages in the world and no shortage of Worthies in a state. One who can get them to be his teachers will be a king, while one who has them as his friends can become a hegemon. Now I am not talented, yet none of my ministers can even equal me in ability…This is what the King of Chu found troublesome, yet you are pleased by it. I therefore dare to be fearful.[7]

    As usual, Wuzi seems to bridge the divide between various camps to produce a sound and practical synthesis. In contrast to legalists he is a military official that seems supportive of the ministerial class, but not so much so like Confucians. He supported the basic concept that a ruler should learn from his advisers in order to create the best strategy which doesn’t needlessly sacrifice his soldier’s lives. Wuzi simply argued that a ruler can be far more powerful by listening to his ministers and side stepped the advice of Taoist rivals about being unknowable.

    Supporting a sustained debate to achieve good strategy is offered by Dubik as a much-needed reassessment but he was simply repeating good ideas elucidated thousands of years ago. This good debate was formed, by what he said, was generals that possessed a “broad understanding.” This term was immediately explained to mean an analytic mind that can see coherence amid fog [a possibly Clausewitz term][8] and listen to extended discourse (101).

    This is an exhortation about military leaders could penetrate the bureaucracy. The writings of Guanzi, often seen as the prototype of a good Confucian minister also gave parameters for penetrating fog, but his “broader approach” suggested moving beyond than super weapons or a larger number of soldiers. I chose to include hit here because, Guanzi’s use of the term is broader than the ability of keen generals to offer good policy advice:

The art of conducting warfare consists… of acquiring a broad knowledge of the realm and an understanding of strategy- all to an unrivalled degree… It is impossible for [the ruler] to hope to bring order to the realm if his material resources do not excel those of the rest of the realm. It is [also] impossible even if he excels in material resources, but fails to excel in [the skill of] his artisans, or if he excels in [the skill] of artisans, fails in weaponry. [Likewise] it is impossible even if he excels in weaponry, but fails in [the quality of] his knights, or if he excels in [the quality of] his knights, fails in his instructions. It remains impossible even if he excels in his instructions, but fails to do so in training, or if he excels in training, but fails in terms of having a broad knowledge of the realm, or excelling in terms of broad knowledge, fails in his understanding of strategy….[9]

    The good ideas of the past being so applicable to modern problems is the major reason why I would rather read older books for their wisdom and avoid being so quick to abandon or ignore those texts in favor of modern ideas. One of the most enjoyable parts of being a historian is reading the wise words of an ancient scholar and being impressed by their keen intellect and wisdom. It is the conceit of every modern age to think that they alone have solved all the world’s problems. Yet they only do so by abandoning the past. Such reasoning has resulted in the reign of terror, massacres in the great leap forward, and the folly of pacificism overriding just war theories. I hope I’ve provided even a small part of their wisdom and I hope I’ve inspired you to read them more.

    Thanks for reading. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below, or buy one of my books linked in the top left. (If you liked this piece, you might enjoy Beyond Sunzi: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Statecraft.)


[1] It discussed the moral burden resting on politicians and top generals involved in creating a winning strategy. But it focused a great deal on bureaucracy which was fairly typical for a top general trying to offer something new.

[2] Sunzi, in The Seven Military Classics, Ralph Sawyer trans., (Basic Books, 1993), 161.

[3] Ralph Sawyer trans., Sun Bin’s Military Methods, (New York: Westview Press, 1995),200.

[4] Mencius: A New Translation Arranged and Annotated For the General Reader, W.A.C.H. Dobson trans., University of Toronto Press, 1963), 16.

[5] The Methods of Sima, in Seven Classics, 114.

[6] Six Secret Teachings of Tai Kong, The Seven Classics, 64.

[7] Wuzi, Seven Classics, 210.

[8] Eugenia C. Kiesling (2001). "On War Without the Fog" (PDF). Military Review. October 2001.

[9] Guanzi: Political, Economic and Philosophic Essays Vol I, Alan Rickett trans., (Princeton University Press, 1985,) 132.

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