At one point in the movie The Godfather, the character Michael Corleone says, “Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer.” The basis for this is often attributed to Sun Tzu even though there is no published source to confirm this. Nonetheless, Sun Tzu* is quoted as having something remarkably similar in The Art of War: “He who knows his opponent and knows himself will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”
The meaning is the need to understand the enemy. The quotation continues: “He who knows not his opponent but knows himself will win one and lose one. He who knows neither his opponent nor himself will surely be imperiled in every battle.” In looking over what passes for statecraft in the West these days, it sometimes seems that we do not know even ourselves.
UNDERSTANDING OURSELVES IS NOT ENOUGH
In an earlier essay, I was critical of the West’s failures in Asian foreign policy. I attributed this to ignorance. If we are to get into the enemy’s head, to deduce what he might be contemplating with regard to us, we need to understand his context before we can begin to understand his thinking. History provides a great deal of that needed context, and knowing his culture will provide even more.
To compare the two, what Clausewitz covers is the physicality of war, while Sun Tzu expounds on understanding the enemy
Many U.S. military people read the masterpiece On War by Carl von Clausewitz. If they digest it thoroughly – it is a very dense book – they come away with an unparalleled understanding of Western warfare. Sun Tzu, however, adds to that in ways that are incomparable by explaining the need to comprehend the enemy’s thinking. To compare the two, what Clausewitz covers is the physicality of war, while Sun Tzu expounds on understanding the enemy. Below, I provide examples of how the West and its allies fail in this.
FAILURES IN ‘GETTING’ THE ENEMY
First, the United States must shoulder much of the blame for the divided peninsula that is Korea today. It was the U.S. that did not understand the importance of that strategic piece of geography and the role it had played from ancient times through the early part of the twentieth century. Korea was excluded from America’s sphere of concern, and when Imperial Japan formally “annexed” it in 1910, scant attention was paid to that overt act of aggression.
Again in 1945, the Western allies were little aware of long-standing Soviet intentions in the Far East. Consequently and despite growing awareness of the coming Cold War, the Allies cavalierly parceled out Korea at the conclusion of World War II. The portion of the Korean Peninsula above the 38th parallel was ceded to the Soviets, without regard for what that would soon mean.
Another more recent example – one in which this writer has personal experience – is the sensitivity of North Korea to foreign aircraft and vessels operating off its east coast. The U.S. Air Force had been made well-aware of Pyongyang’s touchiness in April 1965 when an RB-47 reconnaissance aircraft flying a mission more than 50 nautical miles off the east coast of North Korea was severely shot up by the North’s MiG fighters.
The U.S. Navy somehow missed that lesson – not once but twice. The first time was in January 1968 when it sent the reconnaissance ship Pueblo to just outside 12 nautical miles off the North Korean port of Wonsan. The Navy’s belief was that Pyongyang would not attack a U.S. ship in international waters. In case some readers have forgotten the history of that, one U.S. sailor was killed when the North’s patrol vessels captured and then towed it to Wonsan harbor. Its crew was held for 11 months, and we have yet to get our ship back.
Then 15 months later in April 1969, the U.S. Navy flew an unarmed reconnaissance EC-121 off the east coast of North Korea through the same general airspace in which the Air Force RB-47 had been attacked four years earlier. All 31 crewmembers – some of whom I had met and for whom I had prepared mission materials – perished. It is difficult to explain what the Navy was thinking.
LACK OF UNDERSTANDING CONTINUES TODAY
Such things are what happen when the enemy is not understood. It bespeaks an ignorance that borders upon the criminal, for history does indeed matter. But what, you might ask, does this have to do with understanding a dictator’s mind? It is rather simple, because if we can’t even remember the events that happened almost yesterday by Asian reckoning, we will certainly flounder when it comes to understanding the larger picture today.
Contrary to what one U.S. lawmaker – and U.S. presidential candidate! – recently claimed, Kim Jong Un is not a “crazy nutcase.” Kim knows Sun Tzu and the U.S. lawmaker does not. No doubt that Kim perceives things differently than Westerners – but that ought to be no surprise, given his personal history and his cultural environment. He also thinks differently, but that does not mean that he has lost his senses.
Our opponents, however, apparently do not have this limitation, for they have a deeper understanding of the U.S. than the U.S. has of them
It would seem that many Western politicians are either unable – or they willfully refuse – to consider looking at world events through the eyes of their enemies. Our opponents, however, apparently do not have this limitation, for they have a deeper understanding of the U.S. than the U.S. has of them. Worse, their abilities to negotiate and parse words to their advantage appear to be superior to the faculties of the West.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EAST AND WEST
Let me provide an introductory example of how Westerners and Asians perceive things and think differently. In the West – and particularly in the U.S. – being different is seen as good, just being individualistic, as it were. In Asia, however, there is a saying that, “It is the nail that sticks up that gets hammered,” meaning that being unique, drawing attention to oneself, is not desirable. This maxim is relatively benign. However, the analects of Sun Tzu are anything but anodyne, and we ignore them at our own peril.
The underlying principle of Sun Tzu is that war is based on deception. More specifically, it is imperative to do what the enemy least expects. To quote again, “Therefore he who is good at devising unconventional tactics has a repertoire that is an unlimited as heaven and earth, as inexhaustible as the rivers and streams.” That describes North Korea almost perfectly. We ought to keep this in mind when dealing with or thinking about Pyongyang, a radically different – but not irrational – country.
*Note to readers: Sun Tzu’s (alternately spelled as Sun Zi) collection of reflections on how to deal with the enemy, is now thought to have been written by more than one person – hence, the reference is to the compilation and not to an individual. While there are several well-known translations of this work, the one from which I have taken these quotations is the 2007 interpretation by Victor H. Mair that is published by Columbia University Press.
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Featured Image: Know your enemy by Celestine Chua on 2013-10-23 22:43:31