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Winning words

The supreme aim of war is to win without fighting at all, according to the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu, whose writings on conflict have been translated for modern readers, as Dan Carrier reports

30 April, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, in Japan

IT was scratched out on bamboo strips more than 2,400 years ago by a man who we know very little about – yet the writings of Sun Tzu have echoed down the centuries as a comprehensive guide on how to win conflicts.

Acknowledged as the greatest book on military strategy ever written, The Art of War has been used time and again by successful generals – yet it remains little known in the West.

Gospel Oak-based author Keiran Proffer has written a guide to the book, reorganising chapters and making sense of vague trans­la­tions so the tome is more accessible.

“In spite of it being translated more than 100 years ago, it is still largely unread in English,” he writes.

And while it may sound like a book best left tucked away in a world where conflicts are all too prevalent, Keiran explains its opening premise is it is best not to fight at all – that finding non violent solutions to political issues is by far the best approach. If conflict is embarked on, it is already a partial defeat. But, as he reveals, if you are about to launch an attack, there are clear rules to follow that will limit any bloodshed.

“Sun Tzu says war is a grave matter that will cause destruction,” Keiran states. “He says do not take it lightly, and always avoid fighting where you can. If you are going to do it, do it as quickly as possible. Fight a short war – but the supreme aim must be to win without fighting at all.”

Keiran worked in computing in the late 1960s before becoming a Carmelite friar, joining an Oxford order. He studied for six years to be a priest before deciding to return to computer work.

“As a programmer my job was, in a way, to make order out of chaos,” he says, which is what he has done with Sun Tzu’s writings.

Although always interested in strategy and military history, he discovered Sun Tzu by accident. Around 10 years ago, he was browsing the shelves of Belsize Library when he spotted a translation.

Keiran Proffer has reorganised Sun Tzu’s words

“I thought ‘this looks interesting’,” he recalls. “I read sci-fiction, fantasy, religion and phil­os­ophy too. I thought it was full of common sense and wisdom. It aligned with the teachings I had heard as a Carmelite – they say signs of a happy spirit are wisdom, counsel and understanding.”

And as Keiran explains, there is still mystery surrounding who Sun Tzu was.

“There are two things we do know – he was alive 2,500 years ago, and he wrote The Art of War. That is all we know for certain,” he adds. “His life has been lost in the mist of time, but we can assume he must have been some kind of military leader and perhaps a counsel to a king.”

The bamboo material used also affects how his words are laid out today.

“There is a limit to what you can get onto one,” says Keiran.

“They would weave them together to make the equivalent of a book, but it was just jottings. It is not easy to read. It requires careful study. You sometimes have to read a passage several times to understand the message. I saw all the translations had the same faults – they were in some degree of order but seemed to wander off the point a lot, and there was repetition. I thought it was time some one put it into some kind of order, so I started doing so as a hobby.”

As global conflict shows no sign of abating, Sun Tzu’s words would make even the most bloodthirsty politician pause for thought.

“He was someone who saw war as a waste of life, and that there were disasters awaiting those who went on unplanned combat,” he adds. “The aristocracy ran the army and most were highly incompetent. Sun Tzu seems to recognise this, and offers advice.”

Sun Tzu starts by saying anyone starting war must know exactly what they going to do.

“It will cause the death of many people,” Sun Tzu states. “It will lead to the survival or destruction of cities and countries. It must never be entered into lightly, nor should you allow yourself to be drawn into it…”

He backs up Sun Tzu’s instructions by citing modern examples. It is, as Keiran points out, simple advice but one so often ignored.

“America slid into the Vietnam War, Britain was drawn in to World War One, to say nothing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Somebody in these cases should have asked ‘what are we getting into, and how do we get out of it?’”

Sun Tzu’s basic ideas range from how to ensure troops are disciplined and equipped through to making best use of ground and climate. He says any war must be backed by “the will of the people” and if it isn’t, then don’t attack.

And as his book shows – he applies some of the teachings to well known conflicts to show how generals got it horribly wrong – Sun Tzu is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it.

“The book is well known in China, and was used by Chairman Mao in his fight against Chiang Kai-Shek,” adds Keiran. “Mao used it widely, as did Ho Chi Minh in the Vietnam war. The Chinese often use it as a basis for strategies today.”

Keiran says its tenets can be applied elsewhere.

“My book is aimed at the general reader,” he says. “You can take the lessons into other spheres. The fact is, it is about using common sense.”

A simple enough point, but one that history shows is often been shunted aside by politicians seeking to fulfil their own immediate needs rather than what is best in the long term.

The Revised Art of War: Sun Tzu’s Art of War revised for the 21st Century. With an intro­duction and commentary by Keiran Proffer, available online.

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