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Strategy 12: Lose Battles but Win the War (The 33 Strategies of War)

Grand Strategy

Readiness is everything. Resolution is indissolubly bound up with caution. If an individual is careful and keeps his wits about him, he need not become excited or alarmed. If he is watchful at all times, even before danger is present, he is armed when danger approaches and need not be afraid. The superior man is on his guard against what is not yet in sight and on the alert for what is not yet within hearing; therefore he dwells in the midst of difficulties as though they did not exist…. If reason triumphs, the passions withdraw of themselves.

THE I CHING, CHINA, CIRCA EIGHTH CENTURY B.C.

Everyone is a strategist angling for power, trying to promote their interests, often at your expense. Your daily battles with them make you lose sight of what really matters: victory.

Grand strategy is the art of looking beyond the battle. It requires that you focus on your ultimate goal and plot to reach it. Instead of reacting emotionally to people, you take control, and make your actions more dimensional, subtle, and effective. Let others get caught up in the twists and turns of the battle, relishing their little victories. With a grand strategy, you will have last laugh.

THE FOX AND THE MONKEY ELECTED KING

The monkey, having danced in an assembly of the animals and earned their approval, was elected by them to be king. The fox was jealous. So, seeing a piece of meat one day in a snare, he led the monkey to it, saying that he had found a treasure. But rather than take it for himself, he had kept guard over it, as its possession was surely a prerogative of royalty. The fox then urged him to take it.

The monkey approached it, taking no care, and was caught in the trap. When he accused the fox of luring him into a trap, the fox replied: “Monkey, you want to reign over all the animals, but look what a fool you are!” It is thus that those who throw themselves into an enterprise without sufficient thought not only fail, but even become a laughing stock.

FABLES, AESOP, SIXTH CENTURY B.C.

The Persian and Greek enmity long predated Alexander, and now the new war that would take place between the divided Greeks and Persians in around 300 B.C would extend to Egypt, across the Phoenicia and Asia minor. Alexander the Great led the Greeks into many successive victories against the Persians in the beginning. but did not follow his early success with premature invasions.

Alexander’s strategy was to avoid direct confrontation with the enemy if the circumstances did not favor him. He knew he was destined for greatness, and he planned thoughtfully and carefully. He did not over-commit his troops to avoid stretching his forces too thin. When everyone thought he would strike, he waited patiently.

He worked on weakening the Persian empire by degrading their most important components. He attacked their ports in Egypt and Phoenicia, making the Persian navy useless.

He managed to unite the Greeks in war in the beginning, and gradually built his empire, step by step. And when the decisive battle finally took place between the Greeks and the Persians, Alexander had already managed to greatly weaken the Persians, and ensured easy victory. Many people thought of Alexander the Great as a god, since his strategies ran counter to their expectations. They only understood his moves in retrospect, this greatly enhanced his image as a god among men. Alexander’s strength was in playing the long game. There were many temptations that he had to resist along the way. Had his timing been off, had he aggressed in the wrong places at the wrong time against a powerful Persian army led by Darius, he may have been defeated.

But Alexander carefully bid his time, and waited for the right opportunity to strike, he was not sucked in by sub-standard opportunities. He spent his time building influence across the region, keeping the best of Persian rule, while removing their inhumane policies. News spread of his benevolence, and his dominion over the rest of the empire was made much easier. He managed to win in the end, because he focused on winning the war, and not winning any specific battle.

Epistemologically speaking, the source of all erroneous views on war lies in idealist and mechanistic tendencies…. People with such tendencies are subjective and one-sided in their approach to problems. They indulge in groundless and purely subjective talk, basing themselves upon a single aspect or temporary manifestation [and] magnify it with similar subjectivity into the whole of the problem…. Only by opposing idealistic and mechanistic tendencies and taking an objective all-sided view in making a study of war can we draw correct conclusions on the question of war.

SELECTED MILITARY WRITINGS, MAO TSE-TUNG, 1893-1976

It is tempting to want to fight every battle that presents itself to you. You will not want to forego these opportunities as they may not come again. Your friends may want to draw you into their fight, or your enemies may challenge you, but you must never be reactive. Instead, fight on your own terms. Know when to say “no” and understand how to work strategically.

Forget about what the conventional wisdom says about what you should do. Your life is your own and should not be dictated by the laws and limitations of others. Chart your own path by understanding your own destiny, and then spend your time building your vision. This will require misdirection and cleverness. Your enemies will not understand you, they will try to pull you down to their conventional frameworks, and pressure you to conform. This is when you must mislead them. Disguise your actions, never reveal the full extent of your plans, and you will always keep them off balance, unable to predict your next move.

-During the journey we commonly forget its goal. Almost every profession is chosen and commenced as a means to an end but continued as an end in itself. Forgetting our objectives is the most frequent of all acts of stupidity.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, 1844-1900

But be careful, do not let your victories make you complacent. If you feel yourself too superior to others, you will lose sense of reality, like many of the great commanders in history such as Napoleon and Julius Caesar. You must constantly be grounded in reality, and you must be balanced in the way you approach your own war. Be too thoughtful, and you lose an important edge. Action can only come from an animalistic impulse. You must learn how to balance emotion and reason, and make use of both. Do not let your reason suspend you in a state of paralysis, and do not let your emotions push you to fight in the wrong battles.

There is, however, much difference between the East and the West in cultural heritages, in values, and in ways of thinking. In the Eastern way of thinking, one starts with the whole, takes everything as a whole and proceeds with a comprehensive and intuitive synthesization [combinaton] . In the Western way of thinking, however, one starts with the parts, takes a complex matter into component parts and then deals with them one by one, with an emphasis on logical analysis. Accordingly, Western traditional military thought advocates a direct military approach with a stress on the use of armed forces.

THE STRATEGIC ADVANTAGE: SUN ZI & WESTERN APPROACHES TO WAR, CAO SHAN, ED., 1997

Read The 33 Strategies of War

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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