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Why Sun Tzu would vote No

This little piece comes late in the day. You have been bombarded with earnest entreaties from both sides of the debate. There are no more facts to convey, no new concepts to express. We stand on the brink of perpetual war with government, and so I have looked for objective inspiration from a master of warfare.
Sun Tzu (also known as Sun Zi, Sun Wu, Changqing; China, 544-496 BC,) is unarguably one of the greatest strategists of all time, whose masterpiece The Art of War was bedside reading for Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh and continues to be a set text for the CIA and the US Marine Corps, a width of appeal that perhaps not even J K Rowling’s irritating wizard can claim. On the downside, Sun Tzu is not (I’ve checked) an elected member of the CBA Exec, but despite that he might still have something useful to say.
The key to his success, and to his longevity in world culture, is pragmatism. Not an attractive word, too often misused as an antonym for idealism, better described as recognising the true pivot point between desire and reality. Sun Tzu was a master strategist not because he fought countless battles and won, but because he chose his battles with immense care; he never let his aspirations paralyse his powers of analysis.
The Art of War has something to say about every aspect of our present position:
• On not rushing in: The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.
• On knowing yourself and your enemy: If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but do not know your enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
• On picking your fights: To win one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
• On selfless leadership: The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his people, is [a good leader] (the original reads ‘is the jewel of the kingdom’, but that seems a bit much).
• On the cost of war: He who wishes to fight must first count the cost. If victory is long in coming, the men’s weapons will become dull and their ardour will be dampened. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. If the campaign is protracted, your resources will not be equal to the strain. When your weapons are dulled, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. And then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.

Of course, Sun Tzu never had to confront dual contracts. So, if he could advise us across the centuries, what would he say? It’s pretty clear that his advice would not include any of the following:
Set a series of wholly unrealistic goals; do not take time to plan – planning is the hallmark of cowardice; the great leader is not careful – he is carefree;
• Declare war on someone, ideally your enemy – do not wait to see if he really is your enemy; denounce as treason any efforts to understand his intentions;
• Reject all offers of engagement – they must be a trick (and if they are not, you will never find out);
• Proclaim the existence of a divine and eternal unity with your allies – suppress honest analysis of the limitations of your relationship;
• Disparage the views expressed by your leaders and mock their work on your behalf – in this way you can help to undermine their efforts, however great or small you judge their chances of success to be;
• Then remove your leaders (all of them) – act quickly before they can consolidate progress – condemn all progress as failure;
• Choose new leaders – who is shouting loudest?
• Double check that your enemy has recently received an unprecedented strengthened mandate in a general election – massively increased public support can only weaken him;
• Confirm that your enemy is many times stronger than you in every sense and is prepared for your attack – only a fight against insurmountable odds will be truly glorious for those few who survive;
• Make sure that your enemy has absolute control over all the financial resources that you need to sustain your fight – love of the criminal justice system will feed and shelter your youngest supporters;
• When you send your troops ashore to begin the fight, disembark the youngest and most vulnerable first – what better end for them than to die quickly but bravely, memorialised on social media forever (or at least until August);
• A good general looks after his men – be sure to check in and see how many are left when you return from your holiday;
• Burn all their boats – for all time.

Sun Tzu would probably have such a general executed, but happily we live in milder times. If Sun Tzu himself had written such words, his book would have been buried with him.
He would probably conclude that, at present, we do not know ourselves (what is it that we wish to achieve by fighting now? What is it that our solicitor allies wish to achieve? Are they the same thing?). He would conclude also that we do not yet know our enemy (what can we achieve by engagement with our new Lord Chancellor? Who is he, and what does he mean for us? Is he, yet, our enemy?). He might also consider that our present leaders are good leaders, who spend an appropriate amount of time calculating in the temple, spend no time coveting fame, and wish only to do good service for their people. Look carefully: from what source did such contempt for them spring? Who does such contempt serve?
Lastly, he might conclude that there still remains a prospect of winning a victory for the criminal bar, without a battle which will exhaust our strength and which will, certainly, expend all the treasure of our most junior members. He might admire the ardour of those who wish the war to commence immediately, but would consider much of it to be unbridled, unfocussed and, on any view, an avoidable waste of young careers. ‘Tactics without strategy are merely the noise before defeat’. He would keep his forces on stand-by, but vote ‘no’.

Tom Payne


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