Thursday, December 15, 2022

Sunzi and the Moral Low Ground


    Whenever I'm not working and have some free time I like to read. I love to engage ideas and usually I engage enough to make a post out of it. In this case I couldn't make it to page 3 of this book (The Choice of War: Iraq and the Just War Tradition) before I found a howler. This author claims that Sunzi "laid great stress on moral aspects of war" as proof the author cites the claim of Sunzi (using an old translation), “to win without fighting.”

    I was so ready to pounce on this incorrect statement I reminded myself of the Office character Dwight Schrute yelling “false.” Sunzi's admonition wasn't out of some moral, pacifistic desire to avoid war. But an amoral desire to avoid costly conflict. His amoral teachings were one reason why Confucians really didn’t like him. His desire to avoid battle was somewhat similar to the legalists in worrying about the productivity of the soon to be conquered province. Dead men don’t pay taxes, burnt farms can’t supply soldiers, and thus the cost of men and material spent in even a victorious battle was astounding and the legalists wanted to avoid costly battle for that reason.

    Sunzi did advise the invading army to seek profit as a way to entice the enemy into battle,[1] (or hopeless prebattle position), and take provisions from invaded territory to lower the cost of war. But these measures were mostly applied to lowering the cost of the invading army. He didn’t talk about ways to incorporate the province and quickly it make it a profitable part of the empire. For example, one of the lesser-known writers of the Seven Military Classics said of the conquered territory: “do not destroy material profits nor agricultural seasons, be magnanimous towards his government officials, stabilize people’s occupations, and provide relief for the impoverished.”[2]  

    Notice the last line that seems in almost direct contradiction of Sunzi. It said to provide relief to the impoverished, while Sunzi advised armies to literally plunder them. The treatment of the people is a huge factor that distinguishes Sunzi from others. My book had three chapters on this subject because it was visited so often and in so many variations by classical Chinese theorists. But outside of a perfunctory statement about winning the people, Sunzi’s writing often relied on pure calculation, force, profit, and throwing soldiers into places which they cannot fleet to stimulate the greatest effort.

    His first line is that warfare is the greatest affair of state, which ignores the second part quoted by most Confucians about protecting the altars of the ancestors.[3] As one writer said, “When a state loses its priorities, the altars of soil and grain will be wronged.” [4] Sunzi instead spoke mostly about tactical positional advantage (designed to produce victory without battle) and not about the Mandate of Heaven, righteousness, or benevolence. He discussed calculations in the temple, but only to assess the prospects of victory, not to pray or invoke Heaven's favor.

    Sunzi's theories were criticized by thee Confucian Xunzi as tactics for a bandit army and day laborers, or like stirring boiling water with a finger.[5] Even Wuzi, a fellow military writer often lumped in with Sunzi thought bandit armies that pursued profits were a weakness that could be exploited. He said that armies based on rewards ‘’scatter and individually” engage in combat, and when enticed with profit “will [greedily] abandon their generals to pursue it.”[6]

    Sunzi’s statement about avoiding the loss of life was not a moral high ground. But the results of base temporal concerns like profit and greed. It was disheartening to read such a major mistake so early in the book, and in print which means it got by an editor. But quoting Sunzi is an easy way to spice up a piece and few people know better so everyone from editors, to readers, and generals just go with it. I’ve seen bad quotes and interpretations from the financial review a Master’s thesis, and even General Petraeus. His terse writing and simple profundity lend itself to a wide variety of interpretations. But when compared to dozens of other classical writers a reader can better understand his theories and eliminate the bad interpretations such as Sunzi having some kind of moral objection to slaughter.

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[1] “Thus what [motivates men] to slay the enemy is anger; what [stimulates them] to seize profits from the enemy is material goods.” And, “With profit [the general] moves them” Ralph Sawyer trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China: Sunzi (Westview Press, 1993), 160, 165.

[2] Sawyer, Wei Liaozi, 273.

[3] Sawyer, Tai Kong, 64-65.

[4] Five Lost Classics: Tao, Huanglao, and YingYang in Han China, Robin Yates trans., New York City, Ballantine Books, 1997.

[5] Basic Writings of Xunzi, Burton Watson trans., (Columbia University Press, 1963,) 64.

[6] Sawyer, Wuzi, 210.