Sun Tzu, the Art of War, and the Art of Politics

Sun Tzu, Author of The Art of War.( Credit: (Public Domain), Wikipedia/Beijing Palace Museum Press)

When I was a young Second Lieutenant, in my first assignment, I had a small office I shared with my platoon sergeant. One of the few personal items I had in my office, aside from a copious ashtray for the cigars I used in self-defense against my chain-smoking platoon sergeant, was a poster of Murphy's Laws of Combat. Today, that poster is still in my office, as many of Murphy's bits of wisdom have great application to civilian life; gems like "tracers work both ways" have more civilian application than one might think.

That applies in other areas as well. What advises the conduct of war may be used for any other activity involving conflict, including politics. While Murphy has much to teach us today, there is another author whose work also lends us insight into today's political situation, even if he was writing on war in China over 2,500 years ago. His name was Sun Tzu, and his most famous work was "The Art of War."

Sun Tzu, for those who may not be familiar with him, was a Chinese general, philosopher, strategist, and author who lived in China during the Eastern Zhou period of Imperial China. Sun Tzu was born in 544 BC and died in 496 BC, not having made it to his 50th birthday, which was not that unusual in those times. He did, however, leave us with many valuable insights as to the nature of conflict and how to achieve victory. So, let's look at a few of his more famous nuggets of wisdom and apply them to the political situation here in the United States today.

Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.

This is what I was taught as a young Army officer: Hit the enemy where he does not expect it; fight on the ground of your choosing, not his; always hold the initiative and make the enemy react to you, not the other way around. Donald Trump is, wittingly or unwittingly, doing just this. His rallies on what should be safe Democratic ground are beginning to yield dividends.

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If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.

This arises from the need to hold the initiative at all times, to make the enemy reactive, not proactive. Again, wittingly or not, the Trump campaign seems to be doing just this — or, at least, their actions are presenting the Biden campaign with the need to defend what they saw as safe ground in places like New Hampshire. Democrats have historically always been well-funded, but Trump's rise in the polls has the Biden campaign and their surrogates careening all over the map to try to stave off their losing ground.

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There are instances Sun Tzu opined on, though, that present difficulties for both candidates.

It is the unemotional, reserved, calm, detached warrior who wins, not the hothead seeking vengeance and not the ambitious seeker of fortune.

Neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump is "unemotional, reserved, calm, detached." Both are prone to be short-tempered. While Trump claims "success is the best revenge," there is certainly an aspect of redemption in his quest to Grover Cleveland himself into a non-consecutive second term. But consider what Trump has been doing since last week's debate; he has, as our colleague Sister Toldjah brilliantly points out, remaining uncharacteristically quiet on the topic and letting the Biden people hang themselves.

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And, finally:

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.

Hiding your intentions from the enemy is paramount.

We don't yet know what the Trump campaign has planned for after the convention and, perhaps more critically, after the traditional post-Labor Day start of the final stage of the race. There is another debate scheduled in September, and if Joe Biden is there representing the Democrats, we could well be looking at a repeat of the last debate — a disaster. But it's not at all clear that Joe Biden will be on that stage.

If the Trump campaign is serious about winning this thing, though, they will have plots and plans, backup plans, and backup plans for the backup plans. We won't know what will happen until it happens — and if the Trump people have their assimilated malodorous solid residue of the digestive process all co-located, they will be springing things on the Biden campaign right and left, forcing them to react rather than acting — and I wouldn't rule out an October Surprise of some sort.

Sun Tzu was prescient. He understood war and, what's more, he understood people and the nature of conflict. His work still merits consideration today, two and a half millennia after he wrote it. I read Sun Tzu as a young soldier, and I still consider his words today as a pundit trying to keep my finger on the pulse of the affairs of the world. If you have not yet read "The Art of War," I recommend it. It yields insights that are far out of proportion to its word count.


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