Sunday, 24 June 2012

Who is the Most Old-School?????!

Part one. The Ends and Means

   Sun Tzu      or.....         Carl von Clausewitz? 


How can you even compare Carl and Sun? One won't use ten words if a hundred will do, the other gives his battle plan in the form of a five bar poem.

When I was reading Carl I had to go over each page three times to make sense of it. With Sun it was like dripping honey from a jar. It happens so quickly you look down and touch your chin, assuming you spilled something.

Carl is so complex, and said so much, that anything I say about him here will be so abstracted that it may as well be a lie.

And Sun has walked two and a half thousand years to see us. Even his first western translation is 200 years old. How much do we really think we can understand from this man?

The biggest difference everyone mentions is these two parts.

First Sun,

'.. For this reason attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the true pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence'

Now Carl,

'…. the destruction of the enemy's armed force appears therefore, always as the superior and more effectual means to which all others must give way'

At first glance, Carl sounds stupid. Winning without risk is always smarter in Old School play. You do not fight to be fighting (4th Ed), you fight for the prize. If the fight destroys the prize the fight is meaningless. But then..

'…. It follows therefore that the destruction of the enemy's military force is the foundation-stone of all action in war, the great support of all combinations, which rest upon it like the arch upon its abutments. All action, therefore, takes place on the supposition that if the solution by force of arms which lies at its foundation should be realised, it will be a favourable one. The decision by arms, is, for all operations in war, great or small, what cash payment is to bill transactions.'

Carl talks for a long, long time about the numerous other ways you can get what you want in war. Manoeuvrings, passive resistance, trickery, attacking the enemy's alliances, political action. But in his view, if you take those paths, and the enemy does not but attacks to destroy your forces, and if you are equal, they win.

Scheming can always be short-circuited by violence.

A game of old school D&D is not about combat , but combat is the core from which all other actions spring. The potential for violence shapes everything. The old-school player plans to avoid it, but, deep in their hearts, they don't truly believe they will.

Carl wins this round. He is the most old-school. So far.


  1. This is really interesting. I am currently working my way through modern rhetoricians, but I might have to try Clauswitz after the summer ends. I don't think I have the noos to try Burke and Carl at the same time.

    What do you think of Sun Tzu in general?

    "totally gay - totally awesome" This isn't going to segue into Sun Tzu-von Clauswitz slash fiction is it? Because though I would totally read that, I would probably hate myself a little after.

    1. I actually googled Sun Tzu/Clausewitz slash fic after I read your comment and, to my surprise, couldn’t find any. You just broke an internet law, you imagined something and the internet has not already made porn of it. Congratulations.

      'Totally Gay - Totally Awesome' is just a tag I use when describing guys being buddies in an evanescent or exciting way. I think I first used it as a post title after some friends and I had a spontaneous three-way-high-five during a game.

      Sun Tzu is interesting. Probably the thing that jumps out at you mist is that he thinks you can really know things, that you can really be sure of something and that if you have the true knowledge then you will win. Which is strange because he is obsessed with deception, and if he is then the generals he was facing off against must also have been. Which means that there must have been a high risk of being trapped in a kind of hall-of-mirrors meta-strategy, with everyone kind of dicking around trying to persuade each other of stuff.

      The other thing is that he seems to be playing a game. Or at least he seems to be fighting for the same things, against the same kind of people, with a significant distance (social or otherwise) between him and the people doing the fighting. I wonder, if you had put him across from a revolutionary army, and told him that they weren't fighting for land or booty or anything like that, but to fundamentally change the social structure of the people they conquered, what would he have thought?

      And there is no chaos in his work. Everything is explainable, failure flows only from ignorance. It's hard to tell how wise that is.

    2. You inspired me to go through the Art of War again, and you're definitely right about his certainty. It became really clear when he said if a general is aloof and avoids conflict, he is necessarily wants the other side to initiate. It seems like a follower of Sun Tzu would be easy to manipulate.

      Maybe even though the Art of War is basically a list of prescriptions, Sun Tzu is really trying to impart a way of thinking about war and fighting. I dunno.

      What you said about true knowledge makes this feel almost Confucian. Like, the idea that if you are virtuous, order will just sort of coalesce around you.