Saturday, March 3, 2012

On the Attack

In one scene in the film Patton, the American general sits atop the escarpment along the Kasserine Pass, positive that the German mastermind Rommel will bring his armored divisions that way. Sure enough, a dust column appears among the rocks, and then the American officers watch as Rommel’s Panzer tanks come around a bend and into view. Patton puts down his binoculars and shouts, “Rommel, you glorious bastard, I know what you’re doing! I read your book!” That line displays a beautiful, intriguing combination of admiration and contempt. General Patton recognized Rommel’s brilliance and learned much from his treatise, but at the same time he saw in that moment at Kasserine Pass Rommel’s foolishness in sharing his tactical theories with the world before the big war.

Over the last month, I’ve read two classic books on strategy: Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Aristotle’s Topics. Both talk about war and attacks – Sun Tzu literally and Aristotle figuratively. Each makes it clear that his only goal is victory – Sun Tzu in the field and Aristotle in the debate arena. I have to wonder: if Rommel caused trouble for himself by publishing his wisdom on strategy, did Aristotle or Sun Tzu ever regret writing down their plans for everyone to read?

The books agree in even more specific details, too. Both authors explain that the successful strategist must be practiced in the basics. Aristotle recommends that the student of dialectic have a ready stock of arguments for common universal propositions, whereas Sun Tzu’s book is all based around memorization of the four keys to success, the five faults, the nine types of terrain, and so on. Also, both authors instruct their readers on knowing when to concede. Sun Tzu advises letting the enemy into rough terrain that prevents easy egress, while Aristotle recommends that a debater concede any point that isn’t relevant to his side.

One interesting parallel deals with deception. According to Sun Tzu, the whole art of war rests on deception: the feinting movement is the attack, and the frontal movement is the feint – unless your opponent understands the principle in which case the frontal feint may become the surprise attack! Aristotle, too, emphasizes the importance of obfuscation: never make your points in order, argue both sides of a question for a while so your opponent doesn’t know which side you will end up on, and be sure to include some arguments that don’t matter to your case all.

The authors agree that the greatest key to success is to know one’s enemy. Know what he knows. Know what he expects. Avoid or concede to his strengths, and attack his weaknesses. And if your he’s as smart as Patton, don’t tell him your strategy.

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