Monday, July 20, 2015

National Review fail of the day: I'll take ancient generals for $250, Alex.

Updated 7/21/2015

The Battle of Boju, 506 B.C.E., in which Sunzi, alas, probably did not take part, although you never know. Via Snipview.
Michael Auslin for the National Review:
The future may consider it a tragedy of unimaginable proportions that the president did not take time to read Thucydides before sending his negotiators off to Vienna. Over 2,400 years ago, the master historian stripped away false hopes such as those embraced by Obama with a clarity that has never been surpassed. In the very first speech of Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War appears the following admonition:
“Concessions to adversaries only end in self-reproach, and the more strictly they are avoided the greater will be the chance of security.” (I:1.34)
It is a bitter truth in an anarchic world.
Can I just ask how many battles old Thucydides won? Far as I can find out from the usual sources, he had one mission in his career as a general, to relieve allies at Amphipolis in Thrace (a half-day sail from his home island of Thasos) from a Spartan attack, and got there too late, after the Amphopolitans had already surrendered. The Spartan general, Brasidas, had made a deal with them—he'd offered "concessions to adversaries"—and they gratefully gave in.

Thucydides got exiled, although the defeat probably wasn't really his fault (nevertheless, he did violate the celebrated strategic principle of Woody Allen—80% of life is showing up), and spent the rest of the war badmouthing Athens, his own country, and his personal political enemies, in a hatchet job based on anonymous sources, and complaining that they didn't know how to fight, as if he'd had any experience of it himself. But really, who are you going to believe, him or Brasidas (who died as bravely as possible at the head of his troops in a battle where he was one of only seven Spartans killed while the Athenians lost 600)?

Or how about the Spring and Autumn general Sunzi (whom you may know better in the older spelling "Sun Tzu"), roughly a contemporary of Thucydides—he died in 496 B.C.E., the Athenian historian just about a century later—said (according to the Records of the Grand Historian Sima Qian) to have personally tested out all the theories proposed in his famous Art of War.

His precepts, as quoted in even-the-liberal Forbes magazine, suggest a different approach:

  • A leader leads by example, not by force.
  • You have to believe in yourself.
  • Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.
  • If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
  • The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
  • It's Obama, amirite? Leading from behind, as the Republicans say, none too modest but not afraid to look weak when the strategic situation suggests it, trolling the enemy with a possibly unseemly glee (I guess that applies more to politics than killing), seeking to divide them, and above all preferring a peaceful victory to one that requires fighting? I'm not even kidding, people, this is the best commander-in-chief ever, and the Iran agreement proves it.

    Update 7/21: When I used the headline "National Review fail of the day" it was not with the attention of disrespecting Kevin Williamson's calling Bernie Sanders a Nazi, which deserves points for guts and rank dishonesty. But then isn't Kevin kind of hors concours?

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