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Esotericism and Strategic Doctrine in China

The prologue in Heaven of this topic took place in France, in the last flash of the profound and integral scientific philosophy of a Europe that, years later, Benedetto Croce called “civil”.

In fact, pending the First World War, Henri Bergson, the brilliant and powerful philosopher of the élan vital(vital impetus or force), besides being the first great theorist to seriously study Einstein’s theory of relativity, developed some new concepts on war and politics that it would be useful to currently revise.

As President of the Comité France-Amerique, which was very active during the First World War, Bergson believed that, at the time, power did no longer lie in the simple possession of the territory, but in the control of the “vital points of communication” in the various countries at war, not at war and in the whole globe.

Hence, he overcame the difference between belligerent and neutral countries, as well as between viable countries and non-viable areas, which is still a very topical issue.

The de-territorialization of war is now complete, given that China, like the USA and, to a lesser extent, the European countries, focus on Network-centric Warfare.

In any case, there is no direct link between territory and control.

From this viewpoint, and only in this sense, something completely new happened in France and in the USA, during the first global war clash, a new phenomenon that, as the historian Arno Mayer said, put an end to the long line of the Ancien Règime: at the dawn of the First World War, for the very first time, the world domination became materially possible.

Therefore, from that time on, it was possible to exploit the opposing populations without having to deport them. Another novelty that Bergson did not neglect at all.

Hence, according to the philosopher of the creative evolution, the United States that entered the war in 1917 brought the “supplement of force” which was necessary to close the allied strategic equation, i.e. support from the Sea and from the Sky.

In current terms, this means the coverage of all the control points that allows – when you control many of them – to end war operations and declare the Winner.

According to a sapiential mythology that manifested itself also at the end of the Second World War, the Atlantic sea was the symbolic and strategic factor that took away the “terrestrial miasmas” of central Europe – as Bergson put it. That recreated a “new collective imagination” of peoples, which is another very topical issue in contemporary strategic thinking.

It was no longer linked to the land to conquer, but to the series of intangible points to control.

Wars were also waged to reconstruct deep symbols or to “bring the new gods to others”, as Bergson said, by recalling Theseus’ bones or Sophia’s cult typical of Themistocles.

The Greeks who colonized Southern Italy brought their gods, before starting to economically exploit the coast, while the Italic peoples in the South fled to the mountains, bringing their idols and hiding them in forests.

Furthermore, in his war treatises of the time, the French philosopher outlined a substantial difference between the “force that is used” and the “force that is not used”. It is a particularly topical issue.

This is a very “Chinese” concept: the force that is used puts you on display and makes you be noticed. It makes you immediately be considered in the enemies’ calculations and it becomes a probable foothold for their direct reaction against your moves.

The “Force that is not used”, instead, is always invisible, hence incalculable and, above all, always moral, even when it regards the deployment of forces: what is not used immediately in the fight is what is really used in the end, because it is only what allows duration – just to use a philosophical concept typical of Bergson.

The winners are those who last one minute longer than their opponents – hence the winners are those who wisely dose and measure out their still unused forces, by hiding them.

This is another classic theme of the Chinese strategic thinking: “cross the sea without the emperor’s knowledge”, the First Stratagem of the classic Thirty-Six Stratagems of the Chinese art of war, means, in essence, that Yin, the art of deception, is already all inside Yang, the art of action.

There is no clear separation between the two moments, between the force we are obliged to use and the force which remains covert.

“Create something from nothing” is another Stratagem and this is about creating the illusion that something does not exist or that something exists – but it is the same thing.

War is waged and made mainly in the mind of our opponent, which is exactly what is moving against us “under the sky”.

Those who see only the Visible Force see nothing. They only see pieces of a chessboard without knowing the rules, which are always the Tao, the invisible that adapts to every moment, remaining always the same because it always changes.

Another Stratagem is “decorate the tree with false blossoms” i.e. make important what is worth little, thus reversing the order of apparent values, just as a magician could do.

Finally, the last Stratagem we need here is “inflict injury on yourself to win the enemy’s trust”, another traditional criterion that is aimed at fighting not only against some material forces, but also against the mental image that the enemy creates and possesses of us. This is exactly what we must really fight, besides the visible forces (that “are used”, as Bergson would say), but especially those that are not used, which always remain covert and hence move the visible.

The moral force cannot certainly be seen, but it is the one that really counts since, to some extents, it can make up for the other forces and it is the force that really makes us win.

After all, in Bergson’s mind, his creative evolution is properly a vis a tergo(a force behind).

All powers are a force according the French Jewish philosopher, who dared to put on David’s yellow star and go outside, just before dying, while the SS were combing Paris in search of Jews to be sent to extermination camps.

But the Force and the vital impulse itself are always finite and limited. It is a Force that does not last, precisely because it cannot help showing itself and being used.

Let us now analyse in depth the issue of the sapiential philosophy of war in China, which is also currently in place and operating in the planning of the post-modern war of IT Networks and Nodes.

The Chinese sapiential philosophy, which is timeless, maintains scientific and rational effects that still last. They can be observed in many fields ranging from management to finance, from cultural and influential operations to political negotiations and diplomacy.

In Chapter 11 of the fundamental text, “The Science of Military Strategy”, regarding the management of the Chinese war of the future, we can read about Tai-Kung, the proverbial lucky and skilful Chief of the Chinese tradition of “warring States”.

The example of the successful leader is an essential lesson to be learnt: it is the ability of the strategic commander, as well as his shrewdness and far-sightedness,which are at the core of the troops’ morale and cohesion. Not the other way around.

Mao Zedong, however, maintained the same in his Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla Warfare: in that type of warfare command should absolutely be centralized at top management and fully decentralized in campaigns and battles.

The Centre is the Force that is not used, the one that never fades away because it is essentially spiritual.

The Force that is not used lies in the centre, while the one that is used lives at the visible edges of the forces’ field.

Hence Sun Tzu’s traditional criterion: commanding many soldiers is exactly the same as giving orders to a very few. It is a problem of troop division and specialization.

The leader is worth as much as and even more than all troops – an unusual, but very clear doctrine in a Communist country like present China.

Hence,when the current Chinese doctrine speaks about “hi-tech local wars”, the post-Maoist theory of the 21st century echoes  SunTzu’s.

In other words, it is maintained that – in China’s modern and old doctrine -the Chinese victory is s “precise application of violence”. It should also be recalled that, in Clausewitzian thought, Victory is a vague and voluntaristic concept, considering that, for the winner, it is a matter of “placing the enemy under his own will”, an evident Kantian echo of the Prussian military.

If it is a matter of Force that is used, everything must be visible and clear. Powerful, immediate and concentrated in one point. Like the Thunderbolt, the sapiential symbol of war.

Will, however, is not used and does not fade away in a single act of war.

Sun Tzu’s tradition is still evident in the current Chinese doctrine, where – again with reference to peripheral hi-tech wars – it is stated that “nodes must be attacked to destroy the entire network”. Not all nodes, but those that are needed to permanently block the Network. The “territory” is not necessary. What is needed is the victory over the minimum number of points, which are necessary to block the flows on the Network.

A minimax problem, as mathematicians would say.

However, this is something we have already seen in Bergson, albeit expressed in other words.

Hence total destruction, which is carried out through a sufficient and limited destruction of nodes to protect one’s own Force, while eliminating the Force that the enemy is using.

In this way -immediately afterwards -we obtain political, psychological and organizational effects, which lead to a complete and uncontrollable pressure on the enemy’s mind and spirit – which is the real goal of Chinese war, from Sun Tzu to current times.

Therefore, the enemy’s destruction and annihilation is the real aim of the clash, when this is objectively possible. This applies to both Mao Zedong and Sun Tzu, as well as China’s contemporary strategic doctrine.

Obviously, for Sun Tzu, victory was not so much the physical annihilation of the enemy, but rather the destruction of his plans and strategies. One must win by possibly not fighting any battle.

The logical principle, however, is the same: if we destroy the enemy’s plans and strategies, we really destroy him in the core of the Force he does not use and hence we deprive him of any political and military identity.

Still today, however, in the current Chinese military doctrine, priority is given to victory by stratagems rather than to victory connected with a direct and evident clash, with a Force that is used.

Nevertheless, in the reality of the network and hyper-technological clash of current wars, China’s strategic issue is the use of “limited force” to reach the goal traditionally stemming from the use of a fully deployed Force.

The Void for the Full, the Little that becomes Everything, the little Force that becomes absolute. Basically, an act of magic.

This is the reason why, nowadays, Chinese strategists do not much discuss “mass war” and “long-term war”, i.e. Maoist themes which are no longer conceivable in a scenario of hi-tech local wars.

According to China’s current strategic thinking, however, future wars will also be “people’s wars”.

The future “people’s war” will not be a Long March outside the enemy’s most natural and strongest lines of resistance, but a new mass war that will be fought in peripheral strategic lines, far from the State centre and from the Commander’s physical presence.

The “people’s war” is currently understood as the full mobilization not of all Chinese people, but of the civilian and military people who live and work directly at the junctions of the “network war”.

Furthermore, if the (present) and future technological wars  always cost too much and cannot become long-lasting wars even for the great capitalist and Western countries, the future will be characterized by quick battles and even faster decisions, which will sometimes be supported by Artificial Intelligence and Big Data technologies.

Therefore we have here a synthesis of Mao Zedong’s military thought, which aimed at an extensive but targeted use of Force, and of Sun Tzu’s thought which, instead, aimed at a minimum, quick and specific use of Force.

The two criteria are only apparently opposed: in hi-tech warfare we must use the targeted and economically rational attack, but such attack must be “Maoist”, i.e. it must strike hard and always use – in one way or another – the “people’s war”.

It is always the crowds who are directly interested in Victory.

The people are, however, the most widespread, useful and effective military resource.

There is no populist myth, however, in Sun Tzu’s and Mao Zedong’s doctrines.

Still today, however, the current doctrines of the Chinese Chief of Staff underline some classic criteria of Sun Tzu: the minimal but powerful use of Force to acquire strategic objectives, as well as the need to precisely predict the effects of an action or a battle.

They also emphasize the importance of the tactical and strategic initiative, although with a typically Maoist approach on the concentration of forces which must be deployed in a cost-effective,  careful and powerful way, but only in one point, or can also be staggered over time, but always with a predefined and clear objective.

Once again a pretence of Maoist “long-lasting war”.

With a view to correlating Sun Tzu and Mao, but in the new configuration of the Network-centric warfare, we can note that, in the Chinese texts, the “strategic initiative” is still defined as “freedom of action of a player” that, in Bergson’s thought, is the Force that is not used.

Nowadays, China’s military decision-making is also defined as the possibility of obtaining a strategic initiative by reaching superiority both in materials and, above all, in the psychology of one’s own and of the enemy’s troops.

It is not a matter of “own will imposing itself on the enemy” – as Von Clausewitz maintained – but of a model of action on minds and hearts that becomes the real aim of war, without the psychological inaccuracies of traditional Western philosophy.

We here return to Tradition, a word that is much deeper than Western “philosophy”, as taught to us by Giorgio Colli, who believed that the Greek Wisdom was mostly the dawn of thought, which later no longer reproduced itself with the same strength, even in the traditional Greek philosophy.

After Heraclitus’ lightning, the slow discussion, which began and ended often without leading to immediate and complete enlightenment.

In chapter 6 of Sun Tzu’s “Vacuity and Substance”, it is maintained that if we can concentrate our forces when the enemy is fragmented, we must do so when we ourselves are”shapeless”, i.e. we are the Tao that adapt – like water – to the immediate reality of the Full and the Void.

This is another idea that can be found in Mao Zedong’s thinking: “the strategic initiative is nothing imaginary, but it is completely concrete and material”.

It is always active and real. The leader only needs to take the initiative and regard it in the reality of military movements and the creation of a great Theater of Shadows, namely psywar, which is never a corollary of the action on the ground, but the essence of strategic planning.

In the Chinese tradition and contemporary theory of “unlimited” war, the strategic thinking is essentially political, economic, geo-economic and financial will and – only finally -strictly military will.

Giancarlo Elia Valori