Sunday Sun Tzu: Introduction

I’m starting a feature here as I iron out a posting schedule and fire up in earnest. Bear with me as I hammer it into shape.

This will be an analysis and commentary on the Art of War from the perspective of a gamer, veteran, and sometime philosopher. I am using three translations at the moment:
The first is the Sonshi (a Japanese translation of a very early date), which preserves more of the original commentaries, but is very, very hard for me to read.
Second is Lionel Giles’ solid but somewhat archaic translation from 1910; he eliminates most of the commentary for readability.
Finally, I’m using Gen. Samuel Griffith’s frequently unduly free translation of 1963. That’s a vicious insult in interpreting/translating circles, but justified here: the General rearranges large sections of the book to fit his own notions, and frequently attacks commentators for their “incomplete” understanding, while rendering many clearly idiomatic passages* literally and vice versa. He does, however, preserve more commentary than Giles, and all his changes are indicated in the excellent footnotes. Griffith also has a very readable style.

*For instance, ignoring the common usage of “one thousand” in both Japanese and Chinese to mean “A great many” and niggling over the exact distance one thousand Li covers in the footnotes.

There will also be annotations and quotes from other relevant works: when I’ve exhausted the man from Ch’i, I’ve got quite a library to pull from for other discussions. I’m sure someone else has done this, but like any interpretation there’s always new and personal ground to cover…

So, on to our first quotation.

Griffith: Chapter II, verses 4-9 (he splits the first verse of the chapter)

When the army engages in protracted campaigns, the resources of the state will not suffice. When your weapons are dulled and your ardor dampened, your strength exhausted and treasure spent, neighboring rulers will take advantage of your distress to act. And even though you have wise counsellors, none will be able to lay good plans for the future. For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefitted. Thus, those unable to understand the dangers inherent in employing troops are equally unable to understand the advantageous ways of doing so. Those adept in war do not require a second levy of conscripts nor more than one provisioning^1.

1:(From Griffith’s commentary:) [The commentators indulge in lengthy discussions as to the number of provisionings. What is written is, “they do not need three”. That is, they require.. one when they depart and a second when they come back.. Following Cao Cao.. ‘they do not require to be again provisioned.’..]

Giles: Chapter II, verses 3-8

Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue. Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays^1. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on. The skillful soldier does not raise a second levy, neither are his supply-wagons loaded more than twice.

(from Giles’ own commentary in the 1910 edition) 1: [This concise and difficult sentence is not well explained by any of the commentators. Ts`ao Kung, Li Ch`uan, Meng Shih, Tu Yu, Tu Mu and Mei Yao-ch`en have notes to the effect that a general, though naturally stupid, may nevertheless conquer through sheer force of rapidity. Ho Shih says: “Haste may be stupid, but at any rate it saves expenditure of energy and treasure; protracted operations may be very clever, but they bring calamity in their train.” ..[Sun Tzu says] something much more guarded, namely that, while speed may sometimes be injudicious, tardiness can never be anything but foolish, if only because it means impoverishment to the nation…]

Heavy-duty logistics questions? For the first analysis? Why not!
There are several good points in here for both the dungeon crawlers and the wargamers out there.
First: The longer you dick around in a situation, and therefore the more rolls you make, the more likely it is that something shitty will happen to you. Don’t be a dumbass, charging around overstretched, but the only thing “resting for the night” every time your wizards’ spells are exhausted does for you is waste time, light, and food.
When you run out of food, of HP, of oil and rope, that’s when kobolds and 0-level human bandits stop being nuisances and start coming for your scalps.
As a wargamer: if you sit around constantly, never attacking and always playing the safe game, you’re going to get sloppy. You’ll miss the chance to attack when you should, or chose keeping to cover over hammering the unit going for a critical objective.
Second: You have to remember that you’re bleeding resources every second you’re in a dungeon or the wilderness. Get your shit done and go home, or you’ll waste all your money on boring things like arrows and food and torches instead of the true motivation of an adventurer [image slightly nsfw]1286939396890Third: Remember that fighting isn’t always wise – or profitable. You’re risking your life and your bottom line every time you draw steel: make damned sure you know what you have to gain, because it’s pretty obvious what you have to lose. For those of you who actually have “sacred” honor, of course, losing it far worse than just dying – but you can lose that honor in a fight just as easily as you can defend or gain it, and often preserve it without risking a shanking.

Good planning isn’t just about getting out alive. The best plan is one where you get in and get out with what you came for.  If you need to reload on henchmen and horses every time you come back to town, what little there is left to buy is going to skyrocket in price (see also ch. II, verse 11/12). You’re not going to be getting the bravest and best in the city if every man who follows you dies – you’ll be lucky to recruit the hopeless alkie beggars before long. Even the Chaotic/Evil thieves that normally volunteer to go along (and rip you off) will take one look at your people and go, “not worth the blade-venom”.
Wargamers: it doesn’t matter if you seize the objective quickly if your force isn’t enough to hold it, because you’re just going to have to keep reinforcing it. Every reinforcement you divert wastes not just units (and by extension, the points you buy them with), but time. As a general on the tabletop, that’s your most limited resource

An interpretation that both of the G’s ignore here is “Stop throwing good money after bad”. If you’re losing a struggle, look at what the best outcome could be for you. Weigh it against what you have to lose. If you can’t really “win” anymore, lose as fast and gently as you can.. There are things you can’t unsay and shit you can’t undo, but you can recover from an easy loss and go back in later.

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