Thought for the Week: The art of war

Roger Hill reflects on The Art of War in the 'Thought for the Week'

I have been studying the great classic text The Art of War by Sun Tzu, written in the fifth century BC. It is a text of such subtlety, such understanding of human nature, and, it must be said – of such deviousness – that it makes Niccolò Machiavelli look almost innocent. It is still studied at Sandhurst, Westpoint and other leading military academies.

But note, early in the text this treatise on how to conduct a war gives the warning: ‘There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited’. Later in the text it says: ‘To subdue the enemy without fighting is the pinnacle of skill.’

I am probably rare among Quakers in having been a military conscript, spending nearly two years engaged in the terrible activity of jungle warfare. I can assure you that there was no benefit for either side in that. Not surprisingly, on my discharge I turned pacifist, totally shunning anything to do with guns or even fireworks. But I often ask myself if my pacifism is solidly 100 per cent. If I was really up against it wouldn’t I defend my family by whatever means was at hand?

So, I have to ask the question: is there in each of us a germ of aggression, of bellicosity perhaps hidden away out of sight in the darker recesses of our beings? The Confucian philosopher Xunzi (313-238 BC) taught that humans are essentially evil and need to be restrained by law and ritual. We have to be particularly careful about passive aggression, with its anger and contempt hidden behind a smile.

Like many fathers I tried to keep my son away from military games when he was small; it was a hopeless attempt, of course. He picked up a stick and pretended it was a gun in the same way that all his friends did; but he is firmly a pacifist now, so perhaps my efforts were not wholly in vain.

I once visited the beautiful church at Cerne Abbas in Dorset. The memorial book for those who had been killed in action was open at the page commemorating the recent death in Afghanistan of a territorial army sergeant. His widow, the mother of his two small children, had written: ‘He died doing what he loved best. The last thing he would have wanted was to have missed the action.’

One of my nephews is a director of an insurance company in the City of London. He recently gave me his card. I was amused to read above the contact details of the firm his name and his job title: ‘James xxxx, Head of War’.

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