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Sun Tzu as an unsympathetic character

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Last February, I wrote of the many beneficial non-violent lessons from the Art of War by Sun Tzu.

Recently, I read the following story about Sun Tzu in Samuel Griffith’s Art of War translation from Ssu-Ma Ch’ien’s Shih Chi/Historical Records‘ biographical account of Sun Tzu:

As Griffith translates the account, Ho-lu, the king of Wu, hired Sun Tzu to conduct an experiment in the movement of troops, using a few hundred women, some or all of whom were the king’s concubines. After explaining and ordering the women to face right, the women “roared with laughter.” Sun Tzu responded: “‘If regulations are not clear and orders are thoroughly explained, it is the commander’s fault.'” Sun Tzu then repeated and explained the order the same number of times to face right , and the women again broke into laughter.

Sun Tzu responded that when the commander’s instructions and commands “‘have been made clear, and are not carried out in accordance with military law, it is a crime on the part of the officers.’ Then he ordered that the commanders of the right and left ranks be beheaded.”

The king rushed over a message that he did not want the executions of his concubines.  Sun Tzu replied: “‘Your servant has already receved your appointment as Commander and when the commander is at the head of the army he need not accept all the sovereign’s orders.'” On Sun Tzu’s orders, the women were executed, and he had no further problems commanding the remaining women.

Perhaps the foregoing account is of questionable reliability, seeing that the account’s author asserted that Sun Tzu wrote the Art of War in the sixth century B.C.E., when Griffith estimates the authorship to have been two centuries later, and speaks of questions about whether a group of authors wrote the Art of War, with Sun Tzu having possibly been fictitious.

In any event, either time period of the authorship of the Art of War would have followed the birth of Buddha Shakyamuni (apparently 624 B.C.E.), and might have made Sun Tzu familiar with Lao Tzu and Confucius, who were contemporaries living in the sixth century B.C.E. (if Lao Tzu was in fact a real person).

The foregoing story of Sun Tzu and the executions shows a cold-blooded man, no matter the era, particularly seeing that he was conducting a mere experiment rather than dealing with actual troops for actual battle. The story also highlights the dangerous things that people often do when they decide that the person who has contracted with or hired them has thus given them carte blanche to use any means to reach the goals for which they were hired, regardless of the lack of humanity involved in such means.

Additionally, although fire may have been a common weapon in the days that Art of War was written , it still is stomach-turning to read the Art of War’s twelfth chapter, on using fire to burn opponents in combat: “There are five methods of attacking with fire. The first is to burn personnel; the second, to burn stores; the third, to burn equipment; the fourth, to burn arsenals; and the fifth, to use incendiary missiles.”