MIAMI — Move over, Machiavelli.
The current bible of play-to-win strategists is no longer that 16th-Century Italian author's "The Prince," but the much older writings of the Chinese military tactician Sun Tzu, assembled as "The Art of War."
Sun Tzu's writings finally reached the Western world in the late 18th Century and were reputedly followed by the Soviet Red Army, the Japanese military, Vietnamese guerrilla leader Ho Chi Minh and Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung.
The works drew little attention in the United States until recent years, but have been become increasingly popular. For example:
Republican Party Chairman Lee Atwater, perhaps the most hard-nosed political strategist of this decade, is a devotee who reads "The Art of War" before every campaign.
Eastern Airlines machinists union leader Charles E. Bryan, one of the airline industry's most powerful and most controversial labor heads this decade, hands out copies of the Sun Tzu text to all his organization's general chairmen.
In director Oliver Stone's movie "Wall Street," Oscar-winning actor Michael Douglas' "greed is good" character, Gordon Gekko, advises his protege: "Read Sun Tzu, 'The Art of War.' 'Every battle is won before it's fought.' Think about it."
Stone, in Los Angeles finishing "Born on the Fourth of July," about the life of Vietnam War double-amputee Ron Kovic and his anti-war crusade, said that although "The Art of War" isn't yet widely read on Wall Street, it was appropriate to the thinking of Gekko, "ruthless, yet accurate." As did Sun Tzu, Gekko emphasized the importance of information and the use of spies.
Atwater, who recently read "The Art of War" for the 20th-plus time on a flight from Washington to San Francisco, calls the book "the most succinct strategy document ever written."
'You Can Relate'
"Everything in it you can relate to my profession, you can relate to the campaign," Atwater says. "Every time I read it, I am reminded of something very important."
Some scholars consider "The Art of War" common sense put on paper and don't quite understand its current popularity.
"It was always around and I personally find it to be a collection of little aphorisms," says June Dreyer, a University of Miami professor of political science and a student of Chinese military history. "For example, he says: 'Know your enemy and know yourself.' I think every ghetto kid in Chicago is thinking that before he gets into a fight."
Dreyer suspects that one of the reasons the book is so popular is that "there's a certain panache to quoting an ancient Chinese author."
Sun Tzu's emphasis on the aspects of psychology, information-gathering, deception, planning and limiting casualties are applied to many cases by his students. History, they point out, is full of examples of how leaders failed to follow the basic rules of Sun Tzu.
James Clavell, the author and screenplay writer who has studied Chinese and Japanese military thought, wrote in a foreword to one of the English translations:
"I truly believe that if our military and political leaders in recent times had studied this work of genius, Vietnam could not have happened as it happened.
"We would not have lost the war in Korea (we lost because we did not achieve victory), the Bay of Pigs could not have occurred; the hostage fiasco in Iran would not have come to pass; the British Empire would not have been dismembered, and in all probability, World Wars I and II would have been avoided--certainly they would not have been waged as they were waged, and the millions of youths obliterated unnecessarily and stupidly by monsters calling themselves generals would have lived out their lives."
Little is known about the personal background of Sun Tzu, an adviser and general for Chinese warlords. Scholars have differed on when he wrote his guide to warfare, with some saying the 7th Century BC and others saying the 3rd Century. And some have argued that he never existed at all and that "The Art of War" is a compilation.
Sun Tzu wrote that "moral law"--belief in the cause and in the leaders--is crucial to victory, as is command discipline. The object is not to devastate the enemy, but to win with as little actual engagement as possible, he wrote.
Among his teachings:
"To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."
"All warfare is based on deception."
"In war, numbers alone confer no advantage. Do not advance relying on sheer military power."
"While we have heard of blundering swiftness in war, we have not yet seen a clever operation that was prolonged."
"War is a matter of vital importance to the state . . . It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied."
"If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."
A desire to know his foe led Bryan, the union leader, to "The Art of War" some 10 years ago.