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Book Barrier

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Post time 2018-10-3 20:35:54 | Show all posts |Read mode
     I have been studying strategy for more than 20 years. I always had a doubt in mind. What is the effect of "knowledge" to ageneral? Although we "normally" and "intuitively" think that a general with rich knowledge is certainly better than a general with less knowledge. What is the actual effect for the knowledge to a general’s mind?
    Zhao Kuo(note 1) in the Warring States Period of China was a good counterexample of this. Zhao Kuo left a bad reputation in history because of the idiom "fight on paper". The ability to "fight on paper" and “overwhelming others in oral debate" means he should be with good knowledge. But unfortunately this "knowledge" can't win the war. And he lost his campaign in a terrible and bad way. What a sad!
    On such inference, military officers and generals and scholars do not need to study hard. Choosing a general does not require people who is glib and with good military knowledge. Why not just decide the general by roll a dice!
   This is not a special case only in China. In ancient Greece, the generals of Athens were elected by citizens. In a general election campaign, the winner was not the warriors who had credits or the hero in battle. Instead, the winner was a successful businessman. One of the losers couldn't understand why the citizens of Athens elected a businessman without any military experience to be a "general". He complained to Socrates. After Socrates pondered, he replied with a bit of sympathy and regrettably: "A person who succeeds in business may have the best leadership qualities to win the war." The literature records of this story are few. We can't interference it more. But by the results, we can guess that the Athenians should think a general who might win the victory is not relying on his accumulated military knowledge or experience. The victory of a war may rely on the knowledge or experience in other fields.
  In modern era, such ridiculous things do not happen again. The promotion of military personnel in the peace time will basically on his knowledge, experience, merits, talents, and even his seniority. However, the above historical examples seem to support the fact that "military knowledge is useless." I am not advocating “the uselessness of military knowledge”, but this doubt has always kept in my mind. I have read many books for decades, but I could not find the answer, I always feel weird in my heart, but what is wrong, I did not have answer?
    A few days ago, I finally figured out. There was a huge gap between "knowledge" and "practical application" in the military or strategy field. I used to think that "strategy" is a Methodology - the "method" to defeat the enemy. I realize that it is not difficult to “learn method”. Or it is not difficult to "understand" strategy. But the first difficulty to apply strategy into the real world is to "discriminate" or "understand" the differences between the realistic environment and "book knowledge." The "Generals" need to cross the "book barrier" first. The general’s knowledge from book may bring him both with "knowledge" and "confidence." But these may also bring him into a trap with "overconfidence." Especially, military man was encouraged to the spirit of "brave" and "not afraid of death" which made a general possible with the tendency "reckless thinking and brave". In history, there are many generals without carefully thinking to distinguish the differences between real world and book case. And to be defeated and earned a bad reputation.
     A book can only reveal very little information compare to realistic world. The book reveals the information less than 1% of real world, I think. In 1991 Desert Storm, if we read the autobiography of General Swarzkov, and we even read more books on this war. The amount of information we absorbed is far less than that of Schwartz. In other words, we can't fully understand the realistic world’s decision-making only by the books. I think we can only learn the rationality and the logic about this judgment described in the book. However, the realistic environment at that time must be different from the "future" world you possible meet. The case you learned in the book must be different with the case in future even if you think they are almost the same. It means it is not easy to apply a book theory directly into the realistic future event.
     Throughout the human history, there are innumerable battles. Suppose you are very smart and study very hard. No matter how much history battles you learned. You must keep in mind that the book case must be different from real world case. The lesson of Zhao Kuo of the Warring States Period in China is a very obvious example. He fell into the trap of "winning pursuit". The result was he was surrounded by Qin's army. In another word, you should remember that the information you get from book is far less than real world. Although the book may convey some knowledge to you, but you must aware that the real world situation is different from the book case no matter how similar you feel. If you can't distinguish them very carefully, the enemy may get you into the trap.
    The people always have a common concept about the “book”. The book teaches you, and you should “use” it. If you are studying the language, physics and chemistry, and mathematics textbooks at the elementary or high schools stage, these "knowledge" is highly applicable in real world. However, if it is a university-level social science discipline, the practicality will be worse than pure science knowledge. Most people will not think about this or understand such issue. If you don't know this, it doesn't matter. However, in the strategic area, the consequences are completely different than pure science discipline. If your country is defeated by enemy, what a serious thing it is!
    The Age of Enlightenment in the 19th century was an era of military knowledge burst. Thanks to Jomini and Clausewitz, they wrote several military classics and became the necessary read list to every student in military field. Jomini hope to create the theory of military. But his book  make younger generations become a blur reader as time evolution. (Clausewitz believes that it is impossible to create an all-encompassing theoretical method of defeating the enemy. However, a large part of his book is still explaining the military method at his age. It means that he did not clearly figure out. What is the effect of "knowledge" to a general? He still "hope" readers can “learn” the military skill at his age and apply them to the “future”.)
    Suppose you learned  “War of art” of Jomini, you should know that his book advocates the principle of "quantity. The "quantity" advantage is the key to win the war. But as technology evolution, we know it will depend on what circumstance you are facing with. Book is difficult to teach you to distinguish very detailed difference. Suppose you are leading an indigenous war (knife is the weapon for both sides), then the "quantity" factor may be the key to your war. But in 1991, if you lead the Iraqi army, you only have the quantity advantage. All other advantages are on the US army side. Your decision-making situation is completely different from Jomini’s age. "Quantity advantage" may be worthless for you. But if you lead the 1965 North Vietnamese army, the US army had technology advantages.  "Quantity advantage" may not the key to win the war, but "quantity sacrifice" in exchange for the enemy "running out of patience". It possible become the key. By different situation, the "quantity" advantage can have very different consideration. Can book tell you these differences? I did not read any book to explain it so detailed.  I think it is impossible for any author to write a strategic book in this way.
    The "quantity" factor can be considered in a variety of ways, depending on you very careful to identify the details. “Strategy is an art” is an old saying. I want to modify this saying to "Strategic application is an art”. The knowledge from book cannot simply apply to "strategic applications" without serious consideration.
    Understanding this "book barrier" may be one of the prerequisites for all military researchers. When I write this article, I remembered that I had read a sentence in the book of Niuxianzhong. A sentence is wrote "strategic learning is not difficult, but its application is ever-changing." I can't remember the source. It possible be quoted from someone's words. Unfortunately, there is no more explanation in this sentence. If you learned strategy and feel the strategy is too illusory, I think it would be helpful to re-recognize this "book barrier".
   The history knowledge could help a general by two ways. The first is history knowledge may be used when he meet a similar situation (fighting with the enemy). The second is when he get some absurd orders, you can use the appropriate historical case to argue it. For example: In General Swarzkov’s autobiography, on page 557(traditional chinese version), describes General Swarzkov’s opposition to Defense Minister Cheney’s plan. The plan wants to attack the western Iraq (far than he planned). He took the operation garden market in World War II as an example, and opposed Cheney's "Western Hike" plan, indicating that the plan is too ambitious, deeply into enemy’s territory and not easy to supply assault troop, and so on.
   In this autobiography, how much"useful" knowledge can a reader use in future? No one knows, because you don’t know if you can meet similar situation in the future. This knowledge can only be memorized, but you don't know when can you use it in future. For example, General Swarzkov’s autobiography illustrates the conflict between American culture and Arab culture. For a reader, such knowledge or experience maybe have a substantial help. But maybe you never meet a similar situation whole your life. In strategic research, we only can use a very illusory term "strategic literacy" (
戰略素養)to express the knowledge of a general. But a general with high strategic literacy can win the war? Frankly, no one knows. We can only expect a general with high strategic literacy can increase his chances of winning.

                                                       2018.09.29 S.T. Tao

note 1:
In the China Warring States Period, the State of Zhao had a famous general called Zhao She, whose son, Zhao Kuo, was very fond of reading books on military and discussing strategy. He could recite military story,and when discussing warfare he spoke so clearly and logically that his father was not his match. When the State of Qin attacked the State of Zhao, the ruler of Zhao ordered Zhao Kuo to lead 400,000 men to resist the attack. But since Zhao Kuo had no practical experience of battle, he was defeated and lost his life.
Later,people used this idiom to describe those who are good only at theorizing, and lack practical experience.
more details reference to

note 2:
please reference to

note 3:

"戰略素養" is a chinese wording, "strategic literacy" is the phrase I use.
If you have appropriate English translation, please notify me by Private Messages短消息.


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