Book Review: Unorthodox Strategies For The Everyday Warrior

Unorthodox Strategies For The Everyday Warrior: Ancient Wisdom For The Modern Competitor, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer

Ralph Sawyer is a noted translator of Chinese texts, so much so that I have encountered his works multiple times in my studies as well as in my personal reading. For example, Sawyer is a well-known translator of one of the best versions of Sun Tzu’s Art of War on the market, and also translated the six military classics, among other works that I have not been able to read yet. His translation of the six military classics, which includes the well known Art of War, and other, less well known texts like the Six Secret Teachings [1]. This particular work is within the general genre of classical Chinese military history texts that are being translated with his commentary, as it was a book with 100 paired unorthodox strategies for students wishing to pass the military portion of the famous and grueling Chinese examination system. This provenance is unusual, as many Chinese literati disparaged military matters in a fashion not unlike our own academic elite, while seeking socialist policies that made it impossible to protect the realm from enemies and that led to ruinous bribes for peace to foreign barbarians, and occasionally even the collapse of the empire as a whole, making this work, which summarizes much of the wisdom of the canonical Chinese military texts along with specific references from the Shang/Chou through the T’ang periods.

In terms of its material, most of the examples chosen are strong, though some of them are a bit weak, and some of the same examples are viewed from a variety of perspectives and different elements of the story. In almost 300 pages, there exist a wide variety of patterns that arise over and over again and that demonstrate the immense cynicism of Chinese military thought. Chinese military thinkers sought to avoid regular patterns and choose a complicated tactical formlessness that made their behavior impossible for enemies to predict, while taking advantage of every opportunity to be unconventional and seize the opportunities provided by disorder and a lack of attentiveness, as well as favorable opportunities for sneak attacks. Each of the lessons has the same structure. First there is a topic, like “guest” or “host,” two aspects of a pair, or “snow” or “doubt” or “initiative,” to give other examples. Then, there is a citation of a particular principle for that topic about a paragraph or so in length. After this comes a historical example, almost always, of at least some length, even if it is usually abridged from an even longer historical account that often makes the example particularly appropriate when the reader knows the larger context being referred to. After this comes the author’s commentary, which gives context, especially to point out what is said by the Chinese classics as well as the long-lost classic work by Sun Pin that sounds like it would be a worthy read as well.

There is a lot of worth to a book like this, even though it is not likely to be a very popular read except among those who have a particular taste in non-Western military history, which is the academic context where I am most familiar with Sawyer’s translations as a whole. In Chinese culture, this work demonstrated the official seriousness of military matters to the civil bureaucracy of China, especially as the work makes it clear that even military thinkers viewed military affairs as inauspicious, but necessary. Yet this recognition of the undesirability of warfare did not in any way seem to ameliorate the condition of people caught in the grip of warfare. Instead, the dishonor that often came to military affairs because it was brusque and egalitarian and valued competence more than procedure and ceremony largely meant that military leaders did what they wanted, from ignoring the often clueless emperors and bureaucratic elites who served their states to engaging in brutal warfare, including devious strategems that included plying rulers with alcohol and pretty women to make them dissolute and sowing discord between able generals and officials and their rulers so that good advice would not be taken. It is also of interest that over and over again the various unorthodox strategies counsel generals to give opportunities to brave but low-ranking people to prove loyalties, and urge rulers to promote those who are recognized as talented and virtuous.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: Unorthodox Strategies For The Everyday Warrior

  1. Pingback: Cold Hands, Warm Heart | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Grand Strategy Of The Byzantine Empire | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Mastering The Art Of War | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Non-Book Review: China’s Quest For Great Power | Edge Induced Cohesion

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