In The Art of War, Sun Tzu offers some very relevant advice on retreating.

Paraphrased, he states that when attacking an enemy, you should leave them a way to retreat.  This has two advantages – if planned right, you can set up an ambush on the retreat path.  However, if you can’t do that, it’s best to allow them some means of escape, lest the enemy, knowing they must either fight or die, rise to heroic actions and do serious damage.

Similarly, if your army is hemmed in with no mean of retreat, let your soldiers know this, so that they might rise to heroic actions and perhaps even pull off a win.

It seems to me these principles have relevance to several current battles in the “culture wars.”

36 thoughts on “Relevance?

  1. Did Sun Tzu offer any advice on negotiating conditions of surrender as opposed to going down in a blaze of glory? It seems to me that was what the church’s recent press conference was all about: trying to negotiate a cease-fire which would entail concessions to both anti-descrimination legislation, and certain religious freedoms. Not that the negotiation will ultimately work fairly and to our benefit, but somehow it didn’t seem the church was interested in doubling down against those “who don’t share our covenant obligations” once it was clear the outcome was decided.

  2. He didn’t talk about surrender much, but did say the best fight was one where the enemy surrendered before fighting even started. I think the culture wars are well beyond that point.

  3. I should add, same-sex marriage was not on my mind when I wrote the post, but I can see why the discussion might go there pretty easily.

    I’ve just been reading Sun Tzu’s art of war in a few different translations (all of them with commentary), and felt like they applied to several controversies I’ve seen pop up lately. These particular principles seemed particularity applicable, as a certain segment of the far left seems to have declared a scorched earth, take no prisoners mentality.

  4. This is very interesting Ivan, thanks for the intriguing post! What you described is fatal terrain. Some Chinese commanders sought to instill greater discipline and vigor in their troops by deliberately positioning their forces with their backs to a river and no escape. I wrote about a possible example of it in the BoM here:

    To answer Nate’s question. I don’t remember anything specifically about surrender compared to complete defeat in his writings. He taught the pinnacle of victory is to win without a battle. So a skilled commander would realize the conditions for victory, and configure his army so when they attack its as though a torrent of water had just been unleashed from a damn or a bolt from a crossbow.

    In Chinese history however, there was definitely a band wagon effect where commanders surrendered en masse. Leaders could justify this because they had an obligation to protect their troops and because the Mandate of Heaven was really with the general who was winning. As a result, unlike Western Europe that remained fragmented, a victorious commander would often receive mass defections to his army and unify the country again. This happened as late as Jiang Jieshi’s Northern Expedition in 1927 where he was suddenly joined by 27 armies of Northern warlords that sensed which way the wind was blowing.

    I don’t know which parts of the culture war to which you’re referring Ivan. I would be interested in seeing specifics in how you think that would work in practice. I love theory, but its in the practice that the rubber meets the road. Its even tougher to take ancient military theory and apply to modern culture wars (though its not impossible). Advising everybody to turn it up to 11 because their backs are against the war seems like it will incite trolls, cause more doxing, and more yelling past each other. Part of leading a successful military force is proper training. The example from Sunzi might be a good way to inspire an army of knowledgeable partisans who can adroitly maneuver on the field of internet message (battle) boards. But discipline is hard and the more likely result is a pitchforked armed mob. To answer your question then, no I don’t think its relevant but I’m willing to see a series of posts that describe your case. (Especially if means I can talk more about Chinese theory!! Its very rare that I get to talk about my specialty.)

  5. I was never much into war as metaphor in the gospel, preferring to emphasize Christ’s “my kingdom is not of this world, if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.”

    But reading a bunch of Jung of late, I’m coming around to see the warrior archetype is an important aspect of human identity, and religious identity, where it embodies the Old Testament ethos of Jehovah, god of war, as well as Christ’s identity as the Millennial avenger trampling his enemies. The point for me now is to try to understand how we balance the warrior archetype, which is destructive with other creative or compromising archetypes. Don’t know how that fits with Ivan’s culture wars, but it is true that they are indeed “war,” and that they are evoking these universal archetypes on both sides.

  6. If I may attempt to read Ivan Wolfe’s mind here a bit, I think he is referring to the fact that “traditionalists” are currently losing the battle on several issues, not just gay marriage. And the “non-traditionalist” side, instead of calling for a truce, is pressing its advantage in a way that may end with the traditionalist side “fighting to the death.” When you fight to the death, sometimes you can pull off a surprising victory.

    As a traditionalist myself, these times are indeed grim. But I have faith that, if I follow the prophets and keep myself optimistic, things will turn out OK in the end. That faith has carried me through some already tough times in my life. So, the pattern for me and my family is: do the things the prophets ask you to do and keep a sunny, upbeat attitude, and you will be OK.

  7. Thanks Morgan D! I like it when someone with more knowledge than me chimes in. I started reading the Art of War because it’s one of those “classics” (and I see why), and I decided to track down a couple of different translations, just to get a better feel for what various meanings might be. Thanks for the knowledgeable commentary.

    I prefer to throw out general principles and then see where people take them, so while I did have a few specific issues in mind, some of them are fairly narrow and limited to a small group, even if their has been spillover in the larger culture.

    So, for example, the current “Sad Puppies” fiasco over the Hugo awards (one of the major awards in science fiction).
    Here are a few links that cover it, though I can’t find a good, single link that covers the whole thing:

    There has been, however, a clearly coordinated media blitz on the anti-SP side, with outright lies and distortions being repeated in several media outlets, from NPR to Slate, Salon, Popular Science, and dozens of other news sites (many of them with articles appearing at the same time with the same talking points). It’s pretty clear, at this point, that the “conservative” (an odd term, considering some of the “Sad Puppies” are anything but) side has been surrounded with nowhere to go. The complete media dominance has made it so they have no choice but to fight to the death (metaphorically speaking).

    But that’s somewhat inside baseball for SF fandom (though two of the main SP torch bearers – Larry Correia and Brad Torgeson – are Mormon), and it’s not the only issue on my mind.

    I wanted a somewhat larger, more broadly applicable discussion, but I would also like to see where it goes in general. So far, the comments have been pretty good.

  8. I agree with Morgan. The relevance here is questionable. Encouraging heroism is one thing, but it doing at the cost of positioning those one disagrees with as “enemies” in need of “attack” and “ambush,” not to mention encouraging a mob mentality, leads me to believe there are better ways of framing the problem.

    Sunzi, furthermore, isn’t terribly interested in morality. He’s a strategist that can be employed by either side of the “war.” If you’re insistent on seeing disagreement through the lens of war, you’re better off at least going with a kind of just war theory. Read Xunzi’s chapter on warfare if you’d like to explore this from a Chinese perspective.

  9. From ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ to ‘We are as the Armies of Helaman’ There is a long tradition of martial hymns. Many of the key Book of Mormon prophets were also military leaders and Him we call the Prince of Peace said that his disciples should sell a garment to buy a sword (Luke 22:36). Yet I am awed by those Lamanites who let themselves be slaughtered rather than use swords against their brothers. When it comes to culture wars, they are as ancient as Satan and were likely the essence of the War in Heaven. As we encounter those who attack and belittle our religion and would put our backs to the wall, we can either turn away and refuse to engage or we can prayerfully face up to them. Both are righteous options. We cannot be destroyed unless we surrender. With the martyrdom of Christians in the middle east and increased challenges to fundamental Christian beliefs in Western culture we should acknowledge that the time has come to gird up our loins.

  10. Smallaxe:The problem isn’t so much on “my side” – which, as the church’s recent actions on civil rights legislation shows, is willing to negotiate in some areas. It’s that certain segments of the left, as Damon Linker states in the link above, really just want to utterly destroy the enemy.

    I see it in the Sad Puppies debacle – the left wing side (for the most part, there are exceptions, such as George RR Martin, who is very fair minded) isn’t content with mere victory; they want to destroy the lives and reputations of the SPs.

    It just seems to me that, at the very least, they should realize it’s a bad idea to push the (conservative) “enemy” into a position where no real retreat (or surrender) is possible. Of course, they’re playing more out of Rules for Radicals rather than the Art of War.

  11. I’m sometimes inclined to agree with Adam Greenwood, who likes to say that the battle was always going to be lost, but the war is certain to be won.

  12. We had the privilege of hearing from a Holocaust survivor at work today. Margit Morawetz [Meissner] was living in Czechoslovakia in 1932 when her father (whose job had taken the Jewish family to Prague) died of an embolism. In 1938 she and her mother “escaped” to Paris, only to be caught in the mess when Germany took control of France in 1940. Margit herself was never in a “concentration camp” but her mother was, and the fact that she was dislocated (her family spread to Canada, the United States, and Australia) along with a series of multiple narrow escapes, including incarceration in a normal jail (while Spanish authorities tried to turn her over to German representatives), qualify her as a holocaust survivor.

    At any rate, she concluded her comments saying that one thing she greatly mourns in our modern age is the unwillingness of so many to consider opposing viewpoints and thereby be able to reach compromise. She also went on to tell a room full of military officers and civilians who build military systems that she is a pacifist who mourns the need for militaries.

    There are some points, however, on which compromise isn’t reasonable. For example, the LDS Church asserts that it embodies the restoration of God’s Church and the powers required to perform saving ordinances. While it is possible to be “nicer” regarding this position, it isn’t something on which compromise is legitimate.

    Historical truth is another area where compromise isn’t reasonable. The history of the Holocaust is one of those areas where it isn’t reasonable to compromise. We can’t claim that maybe the neo-Nazi’s have some truth and survivors have some truth, so we’ll agree to publish a middle position (that is inconsistent with documented history) that somehow satisfies both camps.

    When it comes to marriage, there is a fundamental disagreement about why marriage is a protected category and the subject of such societal celebration. Yet here I see room for discussion and compromise.

    Lao Tzu, like Machiavelli, was talking about how to win, within the context of limited mortality. When we expand the field of consideration to eternity, with the understanding that we all know each other from all eternity and love one another from eternity, discussion and compromise (or even surrender, thinking of the Lamanites who refused to fight) might be seen as defeat in mortality, but in some cases may be the only path to eternal victory.

  13. In all honesty I hadn’t even heard of Small Puppies until you mentioned them; but yes, the left can employ martial (and ugly) rhetoric. So can the right, and I’m not sure we can say which is worse. I think we can choose, however, how we view the conflict, and I’m not sure the frame of war is the best frame to choose (even when others insist on choosing it). That said, I agree that an unwillingness to compromise can have bad effects, even unintended bad effects for the side making such demands.

  14. “I agree that an unwillingness to compromise can have bad effects, even unintended bad effects for the side making such demands.”

    And on that, we agree.

    I also agree the frame of war is not always the best frame, but sometimes it’s the appropriate frame. However, we (and I include myself) are too often willing to jump to the war frame when discussing disagreements.

  15. Neither destroying nor surrendering in the manufactured Culture Wars, why don’t we follow the admonition of Christ and bake for them two?

    This isn’t the same as those converted Lamanites who knelt down to be slaughtered rather than take up arms but it at least takes Christ seriously that “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt 5:9) and “if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also” (Luke 6:29) and “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matt. 5:41).

  16. Trond,

    How do you feel about Christ using a whip to drive the money changers from the temple rather than just giving them more money to change?

    Perhaps blanket statements on what Christ’s admonitions are should be looked at in the context in which they were given?

  17. The money changers were grinding the face of the poor by robbing them through false exchange rates (Jews travelling to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the temple at holy days needed to buy sacrificial animals there but had to exchange their own currencies for temple currency in order to do so). I don’t see the comparison between this situation of corruption and abuse of the poor and turning the other cheek in the politically manufactured culture wars of the late twentieth century.

    If we’re an army (see many martial songs cited by a commenter above) then we’re to be an odd one — an army that turns the other cheek and bakes two cakes for our “enemies” (if we absolutely have to call people who were born gay and want to live fulfilled lives enemies).

  18. Trond –

    there’s too much straw manning in your argument, since no one here is saying “people who were born gay and want to live fulfilled lives” are enemies.

    However, I would call trying to deprive people of their jobs and livelihood, for the fault of actually believing what the church teachers, something akin to a battle. I’m not sure how “liv[ing] a fulfilled life” equals = “getting someone fired or having their business go bankrupt.”

  19. I don’t consider the actions of the Lamanites who laid down their lives as surrender. The Christians of today who lay down their lives instead of renouncing Christ are in a similar situation. Years ago I saw a movie that depicted Nero stalking through a stadium floor filled with the bodies of Christian martyrs. He screamed with frustration: ‘They’re all smiling!’

  20. We Christians are on the offensive in the Culture Wars. We are at war because we are making war upon the surrounding culture.

  21. Trond,

    It appears to me that your arguments are still without context. As Pat rightly pointed out, the Ammonites that laid down for the slaughter were not trying to meet the ideal of a “peacemaker” as you indicate. They had decided that because of their much bloodshed that they would not shed blood again, even in the best of causes left their souls be yet again in jeopardy.

    Remember, it is these very same “peacemakers” that send 2000 of their sons off to brutal war just a few years later. Clearly, they were not opposed to people literally fighting for what they saw as right.

    Once the war has crossed the initial defensive lines, all attempts to push back are an offensive action, even though war was made initially upon them. Christians may be on the offensive, but it is definitely on the defensive side of the line.

    The moneychangers certainly had a negative effect upon their society. Such negative affects need not only be monetary in nature.

  22. “Christians may be on the offensive, but it is definitely on the defensive side of the line.”

    How so? Have Christians been prevented from teaching their adherents not to enter into gay marriages? No. But Christians aren’t defending on this issue, we’re attacking and have been attacking for the entire course of this cultural conflict. We have been actively campaigning (e.g. Prop. 8) to make it so that gay people who do not share our beliefs must live according to them anyway. We have been employing the power of the state against them on this issue. Courts have stepped in to curb the tyranny of the majority that we have initiated on this issue and defend minorities from being forced to live according to our own religious beliefs that they don’t share.

    As to gamergate, I have no idea if Christians are only on the offensive because they are defending against a breach of their lines. Ivan would have to answer that one.

  23. Trond,
    It has been my personal experience that I am far more in defensive or non-confrontational than attacking mode. For example, recently a member of my family made very disparaging remarks about Joseph Smith on Facebook and I was impressed that faithful members of my family replied without heat. I simply chose not to reply. Sometimes simply living my religion such as refraining from worldly entertainment on Sunday or refraining from alcohol at parties are greeted with accusations of ‘pushing religion’. Is building a fortress the same as making war?

  24. Trond, 15 years ago, 95 percent of politicians, including most progressives, thought that “gay rights” did not include the “right” to marriage. Your claims that Christians are “making war” against people shows you have very little knowledge of history. Is a Mormon who votes against pot legalization “making war” against people who smoke pot? Err, no, he is making a decision on a public policy issue. Personally, I am in favor of pot legalization, but it is not “making war” on pot smokers to say you are against pot legalization, not is it “making war” on the small minority of people with same-sex attraction who say they want to be married to oppose that from a public policy perspective.

    So, when using war metaphors, I guess it is important to make distinctions between peacefully voting for something and making personalized campaigns to ruin the careers and livelihoods of the people with whom you disagree. Voting yes on Prop 8 is not “making war” on other people. Trying to get people fired who supported the Prop 8 campaign (as happened with the chairman of Mozilla) IS making war on other people. So, Trond, if you are concerned about victims you may want to look around at who the real victims of the culture wars have been so far.

  25. “Is building a fortress making war?” It could be argued that Prop. 8 was building a fortress rather than making war, as gay marriage advocates were still a minority at the time. But at a certain point, the minority changed to the majority. Then it looked like the church was trying to impose their minority morality on the majority, rather than trying to protect the majority morality from attack by the minority.

    In any case, the church’s view is now the minority view, and it has stopped all offensive action, stressing that we must learn to coexist with those of differing views. It still wants to protect its own religious freedom and the freedom of other minorities from the onslaught of liberal wrath, but this must be done through negotiation, not through battle. The battle is over.

  26. Nate: One battle is over yes, but not the war, unfortunately.

    What it seems right now is the church is playing defense and trying to carve out a space where it can exist and keep it’s views without being exiled from society. However, it seems clear there is at least one part of the “other side” that won’t be content with that. Whether some sort of peace/truce can be negotiated or not is still up in the air.

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