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An insightful new translation of the timeless ‘Art of War’

The most electric war plan in semi-recent American literature appears in “A Run Through the Jungle,” a story by the much-missed Thom Jones. Here is…

The most electric war plan in semi-recent American literature appears in “A Run Through the Jungle,” a story by the much-missed Thom Jones. Here is that plan in its entirety: “Infiltrate Hanoi, grab Uncle Ho by the goatee, pull off his face and make a clean escape.” Because warfare is rarely so simple, books of strategy are consulted.

The most venerable of these, alongside “On War” (1832), by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, is Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” written some 2,500 years ago. There have been many translations of “The Art of War,” and a new one, by Michael Nylan, will not be the last. It’s a book that seems perpetually useful because it’s a work of philosophy as much as tactics. Doves and hawks (even vultures) can approach it for meaning. The book suggests that the real art of war is not to have to go to war.

I’ve read Sun Tzu several times, in different translations. I’m not sure why I return to it: It’s short, it’s a classic, it’s there. The book’s lessons in deception seem not to stick with me. In my mind, I’m the least devious person in the world, my motives there for all to see. But that is what a devious person would say, isn’t it?

Nylan is a professor of early Chinese at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author of several well-regarded scholarly works. Her translation is the first in any modern language by a female scholar. (Her first name is no tactical feint, but if it were she would have Sun Tzu’s admiration.)

Sun Tzu’s more recent admirers include Tony Soprano and Bill Belichick. How much they have memorized of “The Art of War,” as opposed to merely name-checking it, is uncertain. A high name can be a fig leaf for low deeds. “You always pull out Swift,” Philip Roth said about satire, “when you’re doing something disgusting.”

Sun Tzu is a favorite of Steve Bannon’s, Nylan reminds us. Sebastian Gorka had a license plate that read “Art War.” Nylan gives us former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s contextualizing words about the book:

“You’ve got to know Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz, of course. The Army was always big on Clausewitz, the Prussian; the Navy on Alfred Thayer Mahan, the American; and the Air Force on Giulio Douhet, the Italian. But the Marine Corps has always been more Eastern-oriented. I am much more comfortable with Sun Tzu and his approach to warfare.”

Nylan suggests Mattis put Sun Tzu’s lessons to imperfect use while maneuvering in Donald Trump’s White House. Nylan further reminds us in her introduction that after Nancy Pelosi defied Trump’s demands for billions for a border wall, a congressional colleague, James Clyburn of South Carolina, referred to her as the Sun Tzu of our day.

This book gets off to an uncertain start. Nylan’s introduction is logy. A typical sentence: “Whenever we innovate, or whenever irregular, unpredictable or unprecedented situations arise, as they do so often in modern life, we take the plunge, whether we welcome it or not, trying to find our way to a constructive outcome.” Sun Tzu says armies should avoid salt marshes. Nylan leads her unwitting readers into them.

Nylan’s translation of “The Art of War,” however, is marvelously pointy and plainspoken. Each sentence is a struck match. Her version of one well-known section begins:

Warfare is the art of deception.

So when you can, feign incapacity,

And when deploying troops, appear to have no such plans.

When close, seem to them to be far away, and when far away, seem near.

Sun Tzu’s admirers seek to apply his lessons in everyday life. More than once, I have heard the “seem to be far away” admonition applied to flatulence. Nylan continues:

If the enemy commander is avid for advantage, use it to lure him in;

If he is volatile, seize upon that;

If he is solid, prepare well for battle;

If he is strong, evade him.

If he is angry, rile him.

If he is unpresuming, feed his arrogance.

Nylan ran her successive drafts past “an international group of scholars drawn from multiple disciplines,” including a former military officer and a poet, she writes in her introduction. Like the wisest commanders, she sought criticism and synthesized the best of it. Her translation is insightful and alert.

The language in “The Art of War” is vivid, and Nylan finds a tone to capture it. If a commander “decides to send his troops scrambling up the walls like ants, he will see one-third of his men die, and he will still fail to take the city.” Men should be sent into battle “with the force of rolling logs and boulders.” A great leader “acts like a man who kicks away the ladder once he has climbed to a great height.”

There is a lot we do not know about “The Art of War.” It is most likely a composite text, rather than the work of one author. The legendary general in the book, Sun Wu, may not have existed.

This is a book that, in chapters as small and neat as Nespresso pods, admires achievements in corpse-making. But Sun Tzu writes: “Winning a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the best possible outcome. Best is to subdue the enemy’s troops without ever engaging them on the battlefield.”

Source: The New York Times

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