The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene

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The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene

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Category: Home and Family
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A book that recommends living one's life according to a "life is war" metaphor and draws from extensive library of military and political sources to illustrate the successful strategies for winning, this is an ultimately immoral book, and one that preaches a vision of human nature and society that's not only pessimistic but narrow and limiting. Possibly worth borrowing to read for the strategy analysis, though.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 416 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861979780

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If there is an intellectual godfather to The 33 Strategies of War, it's certainly, and by the author's own - if implicit - admittance, Machiavelli and his famous works on the mechanics of gaining and maintaining power. As Machiavelli extended the amoral approach concentrating on efficiency and self-interest benefiting results from the realm of war to the area of politics, so a few hundred years later Robert Greene proposes an extension from military and political conflict to any conflict that one might encounter in life.

Claiming that self interest is the paramount (in fact, it seems, the only) human motivation, that we live in a fiercely competitive times and that conflict is discouraged or denied, Greene steps in this defined gap with his Machiavelli-modelled manual that attempts to show the rules of successful strategy in 33 chapters covering everything from finding yourself an enemy to managing and motivating your army to defence and counterattack to using moral high ground as a weapon to guerrilla warfare and the most successful techniques of deception and misinformation.

Each chapter contains an extensive selection of historical anecdotes, concerning mostly military and political campaigns of the past, but occasionally covering the world of art, film and sport. Each story is followed by an explanation and interpretation and finalised with a Eastern-style symbolic 'image' and a inspirational quote.

The selection Greene makes is wide ranging and I found his anecdotes interesting and illuminating, be it from the battlefield or politics. Strangely, for some reason he doesn't use business examples: possibly with an idea that most of his readers would apply his advice to business environment, he leaves them to work things out, which might provoke them into thinking for themselves. In reality, The 33 Strategies of War is as much a pep talk selling particular philosophy as a book offering concrete advice, and the main points of the philosophy are drummed into the reader at every opportunity.

As a book to read rather than use, The 33 Strategies of War impresses with its research, though Greene's somehow heavy pen doesn't make for a particularly exhilarating read. The additional material quoted directly from source suffers from the problem of being printed in red, and in tiny font which makes it virtually unreadable unless under a strong source of light and thus a waste of a lot of effort. Overall, though, as a work of historical research on winning strategies it would be worth reading, informative and quite enjoyable.

As a work of advice, obviously and not at all surprisingly, The 33 Strategies of War is thoroughly amoral. Any half decent strategy manual must, almost by definition, concentrate on the efficiently achieved results to be of any use. Tools, and these include fighting strategies, are just that - tools. It's up to those who use them to select the ones that are acceptable to them, using criteria ranging from efficiency to morality to elegance.

But The 33 Strategies of War goes beyond that: it's not only a-moral, it's self consciously, not to say brazenly, immoral. Morality is repeatedly seen and presented as just another tool ( it's important to appear just and present your case as a moral crusade), and numerous times a reader encounters a warning that worrying about fairness or justice is likely to put them at disadvantage. Greene's choice of examples is almost entirely dictated by criteria of efficiency at obtaining a desired result. Almost, but not entirely. Apart from Margaret Thatcher, who is, admittedly, a smaller scale villain in the grand scheme of history, he did not use any of the iconic monsters of 20th century in his examples: neither Hitler nor Stalin figure, at least explicitly, as heroes in stories depicting the most efficient strategies. I do wonder why, actually: the occupying German forces perfected the strategy of employing a seemingly irrationally random terror (e.g. during a mass arrest picking people from one side of the road and leaving the other side alone) that Greene presents via an Amerindian warrior society; while Goebels' mastery of the art of manipulation and persuasion is well known.

But apart from encouraging and advocating cynical self interest, The 33 Strategies of War is also an exposé of a particularl vision of social life: the life is warmetaphor.

I don't want to deny or repress conflict. I think that the current growing culture of insipid tolerance and anything-goes under the banner of celebrating diversity and preventing not only overt aggression but any form of expression that might be offensive to anybody is at best counterproductive and at worst destructive for society. I don't believe that all fighting is caused by misunderstanding and that there is no real conflict of interests or no causes worth fighting for.

However, framing all conflict in terms of war - a distinctly Clausevitzian war, war fought to victory, war that is an extension of politics as much as politics are a form of war - is a narrow view indeed. There are many metaphors that can be applied to what we do on this planet: a game, a trial, and adventure, an exploration, a show, a dance even. Greene's stress on constant application of the war metaphor, repeated use of the battles of daily life expression, his insistence that the metaphor is an actual, realistic, objective description reflecting the truth of human nature and social relationships is limiting, constrained and fundamentally depressing.

And finally, the Machiavellian styling shows its ridiculousness when one starts to contemplate the intended audience of The 33 Strategies of War. It's a mass-market paperback and a contrast between Greene's sources and the applications that most of its users might have for the advice is not hard to imagine. There is something rather adolescent there, what with frequent references to 'living the life of a warrior' and 'your army', it all reminded me of a Land Rover ad which shows a car at a lonely Andean ridge, ogled by a senior purchasing assistant who's going to drive it round the M25.

If used as an advisory, The 33 Strategies of War won't be applied to winning wars, insurgencies or presidential campaigns - where, however amoral its approach, it might be argued that the stakes are high enough to use at least some of them. It will be pored over by those who are fighting over a couple of grand annual bonus, who are bidding for the supply of paperclips to the parking warden licensing authority, who want to get into the knickers of the leggy temp before Kev from Accounts, who scheme to have their design for the organisational chart replace the one of Babs'.

Machiavelli for the 21st Century indeed.

Many thanks to Profile books for sending this illuminating volume.

John Keegan's A History of Warfare has an excellent case against the viability of the Clausewitzian notion of war as an extension of politics in the modern world, while presenting a fascinating if personal vision of history of human fighting. Frontline shows a fascinating story of people who reported war rather than fought it, while probably applying more than one of strategies Greene advocates for his readers in a rather more appropriate set of circumstances. And Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 gives an clear and honest account of one instance of real warfare fought with only the end result in mind.

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Jill said:

Well, frankly, self help books all seem to me to be about helping yourself at the expense of everyone else, so I might actually like this one - at least it's honest!

Nicholas Morris said:

Touché. Jill