For those who wish to seek it, precious knowledge can be found in many different places. The secrets of history, warfare, personality, leadership, good, evil, life, love and many other things can usually be located by diligent seekers. But it is one thing to know something: and it is quite another to put that knowledge into practice. Why is this? There are many reasons.
First, it is not always clear exactly what is the correct lesson to be learned. Every man brings his own experience and worldview to the table; and what one man may think is a “lesson” or “conclusion,” another man may believe is a distraction. Second, even if we have found the right answer, a hundred obstacles may prevent us from implementing actionable knowledge. We may be crippled by pride. We may not want to go through the discomfort of change. We may deceive ourselves into believing that we don’t need the remedy. We may be deflected in our purposes by others. There could be a hundred reasons. Delusion is the enemy of precision, as we have noted here before.
I’ve been listen to a long audiobook recently, John Toland’s The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire. Even though the story is a familiar one, it is always good to hear different authors’ opinions on history. It never gets old. What is amazing to me was just how deliberately blind the Japanese high command was in making the decision to launch their country into war against the United States. I understand how the world looked from Tokyo at the time; Toland does a wonderful job in laying out all the motivations and rationales of the major actors in the drama. And yet, even when all this is said and done, it just doesn’t make sense. How could the decision-makers ever think that they could defeat a country with the economic resources of the United States? Did they really see the United States as the functional equivalent of czarist Russia in 1905? The answers hinge on hubris, delusion, and willful blindness. There is plenty of it to go around. Every major power has fallen victim to these impulses, the United States included.
The opinions of another author help to put all of this in perspective. I was re-reading Samuel Griffith’s wonderful translation of Sun Szu’s Art of War last week. Griffith was a US Marine officer in the Second World War who fought the Japanese at Guadalcanal; and with his knowledge of Chinese, he was well-qualified to have opinions on these subjects. One of the appendices to his translation has a special section on Sun Tzu’s influence in Japanese military thought. Writing in the mid-1960s, he tells us:
Chinese classics (including the martial canon) were [in Japan in olden days] taught by masters fortunate enough to possess copies. These were extremely rare and their contents as jealously guarded as secret weapons. Only qualified initiates were permitted access to the esoteric knowledge which assured victory in battle…
Over one hundred separate editions of Sun Tzu have been published in Japan, including one devoted to the application of his principles of war to commerce! Additionally, many special studies have been made. Of these, one written by Lieutenant-General Muto Akira (tried and executed as a war criminal) was composed while he was a student and instructor at the Imperial Staff College before the Pacific War…Thus in Japan the teachings of the ancient master were considered relevant to modern war, as they were also in China.
The Japanese made many mistakes in China [during World War II]; the most penetrating analysis of their military shortcomings was made by Mao Tse-Tung in 1938:
…[A]s a result of the underestimation of China’s strength and of the internal conflicts among Japanese militarists, the enemy’s military command has made many mistakes, such as its piecemeal reinforcement, its lack so strategic coordination, its dispersion of the main forces at certain times, its failure to utilize certain opportunities for military action, its failure to wipe our the forces it has encircled, etc…
Griffith then specifically addresses the Japanese failure to apply the principles advocated by Sun Tzu, nothing that the Japanese were not the only people suffering from collective delusion:
If Americans had remembered that the Japanese strike first and declare war later, Pearl Harbor, the best example recent history affords of total strategic surprise, might never have happened. The Japanese relied on the supposition that the Americans, generally immune to the lessons afforded by historical experience, would be heedless, lax, and unprepared. So it turned out to be.
But Pearl Harbor produced no more than a momentary military advantage; it was in fact a tactical rather than a strategical victory, and an expensive one into the bargain, for it spontaneously crystallized the will of the American people to defeat the Japanese at all costs. Such reckless action, taken without due regard to probably consequences, indicates that the Japanese had not reflected as profoundly as they might have on Sun Tzu’s strictures relating to the fundamental importance of morale in war…
But both the Americans and their British allies learned important lessons from [their] early defeats and developed successful methods of combating Japanese tactics. This flexibility was evident in the South and South-west Pacific, in the Arakan, in the Naga Hills, in Stilwell’s Burma campaign, and in the British advance from the Chindwin to Rangoon. During these operations the Japanese showed themselves to be obstinate fighters, but unable to cope with the unorthodox methods their opponents used against them.
And then Griffith comes to his final, devastating verdict. It is a stark, brutally honest one:
Thus it appears that in spite of devoted study, the Japanese understanding of Sun Tzu was no better than superficial. In the most profound sense, they knew neither their enemies nor themselves; their calculations in the councils had not been made objectively. And they had forgotten, too, the wise words of [the Chinese philosopher] Mencius: “And so it is certain that a small country cannot contend with a great, that few cannot contend with the many; that the weak cannot contend with the strong.”
What Griffith is saying, in other words, is that even though the Japanese military thought it knew the precepts contained in Sun Tzu, when push actually came to shove, so to speak, they were unable to implement the ideas in any effective way. They recklessly plunged themselves into a war that should have been seen as unwinnable. But this is what happens when men and nations delude themselves: it is hubris talking to us again, and for this there is always a price to be paid. The Japanese are hardly alone as an example of this sort of thing. One wonders, for example, if the current government of North Korea has actually thought through the course of action it is currently embarked on.
As always, time will tell. Our point here is to remember that knowledge is not enough: we must actually use the knowledge we learn, and to temper that knowledge with humility, discipline, and good judgment.
Learn more about balance and judgment in my translation of Stoic Paradoxes: