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Sarcasm in the Art of War? Sun Tzu got jokes

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November 1, 2023
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Often touted as a must read treatise on leadership and discipline, The Art of War was written by the Chinese General Sun Tzu between 475 and 221 B.C. 

Many portions of this guide to warfare still exist within military doctrines around the world, to include one for one correlations that infantry leaders learn today. While these precepts hold up despite the passage of thousands of years, some seem to even the average layman to be… fairly common sense.

However, the more I read the ancient Chinese wisdom, the more a thought occurs to me… What if the common statements are sarcasm?

Follow me here, because it starts to make uncanny sense. How often have you watched the aforementioned command or leadership make what is obvious to anyone as an exceptionally stupid error? Did you ever consider telling that command to pull their heads free of their posterior?

Perhaps General Sun Tzu felt the same.

Even being in a high position in the military doesn’t insulate you from the politics of the military, or of the governments that control them. For an American today that is certainly true, but typically this sort of offense would earn a relatively mild punishment. In Tzu’s day, being executed by the Emperor is not off the table. What is a brilliant strategist to do? Maybe the answer is being sarcastic to the point of the absurd.

“Be where your enemy is not.”

I imagine there being several commanders by a campfire, complaining that they can’t seem to catch a break. The enemy doesn’t seem to fall for their feints, and their forces are often routed. How then to set up an ambush, or link up with reinforcements? The military equivalent of “I can’t make them speed, Captain.”

General Tzu walks by, calmly says “have you tried hiding?” 

“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak.”

Find me a Lance Corporal who doesn’t intrinsically understand this concept, and I will show you a young Lieutenant who will miss the forest for the proverbial trees. Basing an attack on how it will look to higher is always a bad plan, but that doesn’t make it uncommon.

“Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.”

More a comment on discipline than anything else, this quote speaks to making sure you have prepared for combat before the combat. Training and equipment are better done before the enemy is breathing down your neck.

For one of the largest armies on the planet, that seems like a very first week of training thing to say… Unless a field commander wasn’t taking his preparedness seriously.

There are many more examples, and I could always be wrong. I would still recommend giving the book a thorough read, as it does contain interesting perspectives. The more I read with this lens on, though, the more I wonder… And the more I laugh and shake my head.

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