In Chinese history, in the replacement of dynasties, the ruthless have always won and the benevolent have always failed.General Chi Haotian
The great strategist of ancient China, Sun Tzu, offered “sage” advice to military commanders. Central to his teaching was the art of deception. Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception.” He wrote of holding “out baits to entice the enemy,” feigning disorder and crushing him. Thus, Sun Tzu may be described as the sage of misdirection, a military trickster, and a master of cunning.
According to scholars of the Denma Translation Group, Sun Tzu’s emphasis on deception stands “outside the bounds of conventional morality.” Here we find no moralizing, no concept of honor, and no chivalry. Everything is about victory. Sun Tzu believed in trusting the self-interest of those you intend to manipulate. If you know what they want, you can make use of them. Sun Tzu warned against open aggression. If you commit open aggression, you give your game away. The idea is to minimize resistance at every opportunity, employing treachery if necessary.
The Denma scholars noted, the sage commander “is not a conventional model citizen. He is willing to do whatever is required to bring about victory, including many things that might not normally be considered acceptable acts for a sage. He uses spies, deceives and throws his troops into death ground. He holds no standard of behavior save what will bring the genuine victory….” The sage commander, they continue, “acts without care for others’ opinions of his methods….”
“In fact,” the Denma scholars stated, “one cannot be sure that any activity is outside the sage commander’s arsenal of behavior when victory is at stake. He determines all his actions in relation to the objective of taking the whole.” This is no modest object. No weapon is ruled out. No method is too foul. “As the text tells us,” noted the Denma scholars, a general may “set fire to people (chapter 12) and even kill the enemy general if necessary to attain victory without bringing his or the enemy’s troops into the danger of a full battle.”
What is the boundary of these outrageous actions? “What distinguishes them from the brutal, self-centered actions of the tryrant?” The justification for the ruthlessness of the sage commander – according to Sun Tzu – is that “He seeks only to preserve the people.” Thus, like our modern communists, he is a “humanitarian,” a hero of the little people, and a savior.
Another important Chinese political thinker and strategist was Han Fei-tzu, the leading philosopher of China’s legalist school. According to Professor Wing-tsit Chan, “The legalist school was the most radical of all ancient Chinese schools. It rejected the moral standards of [the] Confucianists … in favor of power.” The only authority the legalists recognized was that of a powerful ruler. They sought to use strict laws to control the population, employing a system of rewards and punishments. “According to their theory, aggression, war, and regimentation would be used without hesitation so long as they contributed to the power of the ruler,” Wing-tsit noted. “It is not surprising that they were instrumental in setting up the dictatorship of Ch’in, in unifying China in 221 B.C., and in instituting the tightest regimentation of life and thought in Chinese history.”
The first emperor of unified China was a tyrant who greatly admired Han Fei-tzu and was, in his reign, guided by legalist scholars. Although Han Fei-tzu was forced to drink poison by jealous colleagues, his writings formed the foundation of the Ch’in emperor’s brutal regime. After a reign of fifteen years, which included the burning of books and violence against the people, the first Ch’in emperor fell. Although the legalist school died out, its precepts have nonetheless been frequently revived in support of despotism (for which Han’s precepts are ideally suited).
Chinese modernists and communists have sometimes praised legalism for its opposition to mysticism and the “vain platitudes” of morality. Han Fei-tzu was the great synthesizer of legalism. His writing style was almost sarcastic in its wit. Accepting that people are bad by nature, Han wrote, “If we had to depend on an arrow being absolutely straight by nature, there would be no arrow in a hundred generations.” Han did not believe in kindness, since “it is the affectionate mother who has spoiled sons.” People can be molded to obedience by what he called “awe-inspiring power.” An enlightened ruler, he said, “does not value people who are naturally good….”
The conclusion may be drawn, in terms of grand strategic choices, that the Chinese people are unfortunate in having sages who make Machiavelli look like a saint by comparison. The strategic ideas of Sun Tzu and the “political object” of Han Fei-tzu continue to influence the thinking of modern Chinese rulers. The founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, said: “Every communist must grasp the truth. Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Mao also said, “The seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution. This Marxist-Leninist principle of revolution holds good universally, for China and all other countries.”
Mao’s words belong to the spirit of Sun Tzu and Han Fei-tzu, and to that ruthless approach underscored by General Chi Haotian (in his secret speech on killing 200 million Americans with biological weapons). There is a continuing theme in the history of Chinese grand strategic thought. It is the idea that strategy and morality should have nothing to do with one another. The goal of the strategist is victory at all costs. Morality has no place in politics and war. Ruthlessness always wins. Therefore, morality is of no account. If winning requires wickedness, then wickedness it shall be – and the wicked shall prevail. We should not be surprised to find this idea reflected in Chinese history.
Turning from Chinese military thought and policy, toward European military thought, we find something different. Wicked rulers exist in Western history, to be sure. Men are not angels and, as Jacob Burckardt once said, “Power is evil.” Therefore, said the sages of the West, power must be limited. Lord Acton famously wrote that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” He was encapsulating one of the central precepts of Europe’s ancient political science (see Polybius’s history and Cicero’s Republic). Here we find ideas of liberty. Here is a political tradition built on notions of self-limitation and political accountability.
This extraordinary heritage is supported by the moral training of armed men; that is, the persons who wage war and thereby maintain order in society. Henry Hallam’s three volume history, Europe During the Middle Ages, tells us that “the best school of moral discipline which the middle ages afforded was the institution of chivalry.” Hallam goes on to say that even the most skeptical modern writers have to admit the “decisive influence” of chivalry on “human improvement.” Hallam wrote, “The more deeply it is considered, the more we shall become sensible of its importance.” Hallam said three “powerful spirits” have, throughout history, moved the “moral sentiments and energies of mankind.” These three spirits, listed in order, are: Liberty, religion, and honor. According to Hallam, “It was the principal business of chivalry to animate and cherish the last of these three.”
Is it possible to bring warfare into closer alignment with moral teachings? Hallam claimed that the institution of chivalry preserved an “exquisite sense of honor.” As far back as the reign of Charlemagne, noted Hallam, “we find a military distinction that appears in fact as well as name, to have given birth” to chivalry. Hallam tells us that “Certain feudal tenants … were bound to serve on horseback, equipped with a coat of mail. These were called Caballarii, from which the world of chevaliers is an obvious corruption.” The mounted warrior was the premier warrior of that age. “We may … observe that these distinctive advantages above ordinary combatants were probably the sources of that remarkable valor and that keen thirst for glory, which became the essential attributes of a knightly character,” wrote Hallam.
The knight was a warrior who sought moral excellence. “The soul of chivalry was individual honor,” noted Hallam, and honor is strict adherence to what is right. “This solitary and independent spirit of chivalry, dwelling, as it were, upon a rock, and disdaining injustice or falsehood from a consciousness of internal dignity, without any calculation of their consequences, is not unlike what we sometimes read of Arabian chiefs or the North American Indians. These nations, so widely remote from each other, seem to partake of that moral energy, which, among European nations … was excited by the spirit of chivalry. But the most beautiful picture that was ever portrayed of this character is the Achilles of Homer, the representative of chivalry in its most general form, with all its sincerity and unyielding rectitude, all its courtesies and munificence.”
Chivalry encouraged men to be heroes. It was transformative. Thomas Carlyle, in his book, On Heroes and Hero Worship, underscored the importance of sincerity and honor to heroism. He further pointed out the importance of heroism to mankind. Providence, he said, used heroes to move history toward the good. Without heroes, he added, the human race would amount to nothing. The hero upholds truth and truthfulness, honor and justice. Such ideals were once deeply ingrained in the Western mind.
According to Hallam, chivalry was mixed with Christianity in the course of the Crusades. In the twelfth century, respect for women became part of the code. As Hallam Explained, “A great respect for the female sex had always been a remarkable characteristic of the northern nations. The German women were high-spirited and virtuous; qualities which might be causes or consequences of the veneration with which they were regarded.” Hallam added, “The love of God and the ladies was enjoined as a single duty. He who was faithful and true to his mistress was held sure of salvation in the theology of castles though not of cloisters.”
Chivalry, said Hallam, elevated the moral standard of Europe. It imbued the man of force – the man of war – with a moral vision and a beautiful code of conduct. “Breach of faith,” noted Hallam, “and especially of express promise, was held a disgrace that no valor could redeem.” Hallam calls this “one of the most striking changes produced by chivalry.” The honorable warrior, therefore, saw treachery as “the usual vice of savage as well as corrupt nations.” According to Hallam, “A knight was unfit to remain a member of the order if he violated his faith” or was ill-acquainted with courtesy. Here we find, for the first time in history, a code of military conduct for the humane treatment of prisoners, generosity toward the weak, and “an active sense of justice.”
Today, of course, chivalry is almost completely dead. It was Edmund Burke, during the French Revolution, who composed a funeral oration for chivalry in his commentary on the rabble’s mistreatment of Marie Antoinette (the Queen of France): “I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. – But the age of chivalry is gone. – that of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold the generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”
Burke believed that Europe owned much of its grandeur to chivalry. He warned, “ If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great. It is this which has given its character to modern Europe. It is this which has distinguished it under all its forms of government, and distinguished it to its advantage, from the states of Asia….”
China and India (in Burke’s time) had sunk into corruption and degradation. Islam had collapsed in on itself. Even now, the rotten shabbiness and corrupt expediency of Chinese politics, with its criminal leaders and labor camps, tells us of a world without effective traditions of chivalry, without the imposition of moral limitations on those in power. And now, the same course awaits the West as it “Chinafies.” As our moral traditions are forgotten, as we mock chivalry in favor of political correctness, the same terrible fate will overcome Europe and America; for civilization is, at its foundation, a moral proposition.
Consider where we have arrived. We labor under the weight of the Chinese pandemic, with Beijing’s cretinous minion in the White House. What would we give now for a little honor in high places? Burke’s words point to all the elements needed for our civilization’s renewal. Here is the very ground of grand strategy. Before one can even have a strategy at all, one must have real men – not masses, not bureaucratic nonentities, not lying politicians, not pregnant women warriors (advanced now, as an ideal, by Biden).
Burke’s words have lost none of their relevance. The revolution he opposed has morphed, has evolved, into something larger and more wicked than before. This revolution is underway here, in the United States. It is near its completion, in fact. Consider how Burke’s words apply to us, when he said: “But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of the moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”
General Chi Haotian said, in his infamous speech of twenty years ago, “death is the engine that moves history forward.” How Chi’s words contrast with those of Burke! It is the contrast of two political traditions. One is Chinese, the other is European. Some will say, that to oppose China, we must become like them. We must adopt a revolutionary or Asian model and put away our old-fashioned Eureopean ideas. “On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy,” wrote Burke, “which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern, which each individual may find in them, from his own private speculations, or … his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections…. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied…. There ought to be a system in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country our country ought to be lovely.”
This is why grand strategy must look beyond strategy, toward ultimate ends. In suggesting this, I am not seeking a world of moral perfection. I am only asking for a return to older principles. Those who seek a world of perfection are actually dangerous. They are the legalists of ancient China and the communists of modern China. To build a perfect world is the ready excuse of those pursuing power for power’s sake. Burke warned against the ruthless pursuit of power in politics. Power, he said, “will survive the shock in which manners and opinions perish; and it will find other and worse means for support.” This is exactly what happened in China. If we abandon honor and religion and liberty for the sake of power, Burke warned, “plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation, and that long roll of grim and bloody maxims, which form the political code of all power, not standing on its own honor,” will find honor extinct in the minds of men. Then we would have no compass by which to govern ourselves. We would not know which port to steer for. What good would any strategy do us, then?
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Links and Notes
Sun Tzu, as translated by the Denma Translation Group with three essays, The Art of War (Boston: Shambhala Library, 2002), p. 68, p. 108-109.
Wing-tsit Chan, translator and compiler, A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).
Mao Tsetung, Quotations From Chairman Mao (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1972), p. 61.
Henry Hallam, Europe During the Middle Ages (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1880), Vol III, p. 368-379.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (penguin, 1973), p. 170 – 172.