David A. Majd-Faridi
Sun Tzu’s writing in The Art of War is a brilliant product of years of experience of combat and leading armies with the purpose to bring forward the hard and important lessons that have been learned on the battlefield. While reading excerpts from a few of the chapters provided to us, it is clear what the over-arching philosophy being portrayed: In order to be a competent leader of troops, each and every action you take must be evaluated critically to ensure that advantage and strategic gains are achieved. Each section of thought that is described runs down how to approach situations or issues so that a leader can execute proper wisdom in these areas. Compared to the Naval Academy, where presumably leaders of great magnitude are trained, we find a different philosophy emphasized. Instead the Academy has a tendency to discourage strategic thinking or effective tactical advantage, throw caution to the wind, and ignore concepts of moderation.
One of the most stunning points of wisdom I saw in this text is this concept of knowing not just how to fight, but when to fight. Sun Tzu says that “ultimate excellence does not lie in winning every battle but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting” (Tzu, Chapter 3). This is then extrapolated into these scenarios of varying situations of differing force sizes and capability, and what general should be the action of the officer. While this is extremely effective, we are not exposed to this outside of the box thinking here at the Academy. My theory is because it is simply too hard to train intuition on unique and dynamic environments on a mass scale like 4,000 midshipmen. Basically it is easier for leadership here to confine midshipmen into a small tight box of actions and thoughts to better control the outcome. The result is a significant drop in creative and strategic thought in respect of leadership.
Continue to support this concept of each action must be deliberate for strategic advantage, Tzu touches on words of caution when contemplating entering the fog of war, which he calls “the fray”. Tzu says the following:
Order your men to carry their armor and make forced march, day and night, without halting, march thirty miles at double speed for some gain, and you will lose all your commanders. The most vigorous men will be in the vanguard; the weakest in the rear. One in ten will arrive.
His message here is simple, you cannot simply drive the body of your force into the ground for the idea of gaining advantage, because you will ultimately fail with only about 10% of your force ready for engagement anyways. This almost inversely is applied here at the Naval Academy, as not only do we have a saying “Expect to Win!”, but also the goal of the leadership and staff here seems to be to push midshipmen to the point of failure by means of excessive overloading. While there is value to hard training and attempting to force people to grow their limitations, the result is a body of future of leaders that gain bad habits of over working and unrealistic expectations of themselves or potentially those they will lead. The principle of employing your command in accordance to its capabilities is not adequately communicated to these young impressionable leaders.
While Sun Tzu’s writing on warfare and general leadership is only one way of approaching this concept of troop movements and officer proficiency, I do believe that we are missing too many components that could benefit the Academy in a lot of ways. I have seen a lot of unmet potential around the Brigade of Midshipmen that could get tapped into if there were more than just the main “beat-down” driving force that we see in bulk today. As individual leaders developing our own leadership styles, it would benefit not only ourselves, but the nation as a whole, if we began to observe some of these principles and find ways to integrate them into our culture here. Being aggressive but not reckless is how wars are won, and how leaders demonstrate the strongest combat leadership.
Bonus quote: “The most important six-inches on the battlefield is between your ears.” –Gen. Mattis, USMC (ret)
Work cited: Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Trans. John Minford. London: Penguin, 2009.
Word count: 631 plus 102 in quotes.