Monday, August 10, 2009

An alternate approach to military discipline

When the Good People are willing to discuss war at all, they tend to favor documents like Field Manual 3-24, which scarcely ever mentions what are now delicately known as ‘kinetic operations’. Looking further back, they positively adore Sun Tzu, whose 2500-year-old Art of War is full of mystic advice for armies to ‘flow like water’ and ‘attack the vacuous’. So it comes as comic relief to read the old public-domain translation by Lionel Giles, who begins his book with an anecdote about Sun Tzu and the King of Wu.

The king had read The Art of War and wanted to put Master Sun's theories to the test. Could he perhaps drill women? Certainly, said the master. So the king brought out 180 of his court ladies. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies and put one of the king’s favorite concubines at the head of each. He then explained the elements of military drill: left face, right face, about face.

The words of command having been thus explained, he set up the halberds and battle-axes in order to begin the drill. Then, to the sound of drums, he gave the order "Right turn." But the girls only burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said: "If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame."

So he started drilling them again, and this time gave the order "Left turn," whereupon the girls once more burst into fits of laughter. Sun Tzu: "If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders ARE clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers."

So saying, he ordered the leaders of the two companies to be beheaded.
Naturally, the king was upset at the notion of losing his favorite concubines, so he ordered the test to be stopped.
Sun Tzu replied: "Having once received His Majesty's commission to be the general of his forces, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept."

Accordingly, he had the two leaders beheaded, and straightway installed the pair next in order as leaders in their place. When this had been done, the drum was sounded for the drill once more; and the girls went through all the evolutions, turning to the right or to the left, marching ahead or wheeling back, kneeling or standing, with perfect accuracy and precision, not venturing to utter a sound.
The king sulked for a bit, but in the end he came around and appointed Sun Tzu commander of his armies, with the expected great success. And that is how things were done in the days before David Petraeus and FM 3-24. Blue skies! – Dan Ford

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