Avoiding Useless Victories

As I continue my education in the game of Go I have been grappling with a concept that is a struggle for many. Go has two means by which the opponent is defeated. One is to surround and capture enemy stones which are then considered “dead”. The other is to create territory that the opponent cannot invade. At the end of the game each player counts points based on the size of territory as well as the number of enemy stones captured. There is is a strong temptation to fixate on destroying a group of enemy stones when you think you’ve got them on the run. The problem? Even when it does work you have probably lost numerous opportunities to build territory. It seems obvious when you stop to think about it; if you control the bulk of territory then the opponent has nowhere to place their stones and so destroying them becomes irrelevant. When opposing stones are in contact and trying to vie for position it is called fighting. The more your placement of stones makes it impossible for the opponent to “live” in an area of the board, the less fighting is necessary.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this understanding found in the Chinese game of Go is echoed in the Taoist sensibilities of Sun Tzu.

“Attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

  • Sun Tzu, Chapter 3, Sawyer Translation

“Thus in military campaigns I have heard of awkward speed but have never seen any skill in lengthy campaigns. No country has ever benefited from protracted warfare.”

  • Sun Tzu, Chapter 2, Sawyer Translation.

We expect the study of strategy and of martial pursuits to teach ways of fighting. Fighting, however, is inevitably a nasty, unpredictable, exhausting affair. In the martial art I study we are taught that once opponents are in close (grappling distance) you need to either do something very decisive, very quickly or get out of there. Why? As in Go, the longer you engage in long contact fights the greater the potential for a mistake. As the old saying goes, tired is stupid. If you zig when you should have zaged, miss one important stone on a convoluted board then bad things happen. Even if you win you may take some serious damage along the way. What we don’t always expect from strategy is that the best lessons are those that make it possible to avoid Pyrrhic victories.

The Greeks understood this. A central message of the Homeric epics is that the conquest of Troy was not such a smashing success once the smoke had cleared. That war dragged on for far too long and left survivors on both sides spent and disillusioned. In recent years some authors like Caroline Alexander have tried to suggest that therefore the Iliad is the West’s first anti-war statement. I strongly disagree. That is a projection of modern sensibilities (and current politics) onto an ancient ethos I am not convinced she and others really grasped (or it didn’t fit their agenda). If the Trojan War had been a swift, decisive and well conceived campaign then the Agathoi would have faced their opponents, Arete would have been displayed, some loot and trophies would have been earned and the surviving victors would have gone home quite happy. There would have been no hand-wringing about the injustice and futility of it all.  It was year upon year away from home with enormous casualties from disease and battle that caused discontent and left men scarred and bitter. The Homeric Greek worldview did not see war as inherently wrong. It saw a badly conducted war as stupid and sorrowful. There is a difference.

Unfortunately, the Greeks that went to Troy either did not recognize that the excursion was a bad idea or they were not able to do anything about it. Odysseus clearly had his misgivings. He tried to pretend he had become mentally ill in order to avoid going (not the last time that ploy has been attempted). Odysseus, however, was one of the few of the Homeric heroes that possessed the skill of seeing the whole board and knew a rotten deal when he saw one. It is he who finally realized a game changing strategy was needed to end the stalemate. It is worth noting that when Agamemnon returns home from the war he walks into an ambush and is murdered by his unfaithful wife and her new lover. When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca he too faces usurpers but he is successful in thwarting their plans. Both men were caught too long in one corner of the board while losing territory elsewhere. Odysseus was a skillful enough strategist to still achieve something worthwhile and remain whole.

As I keep learning how to live the idea of Agathos in the here and now all of this makes me question where I seek victories that aren’t worth seeking? What is really a display of Arete and what is just vanity? Where do I grasp after things that make me miss what will really serve me well? I am not trying to conquer some foreign city state but what business goals will cost more than the apparent gain? Today during a discussion an individual in my industry said something both incorrect and irritating. I could have spent time and energy going on in great detail why he had no idea what he was talking about. In the meantime, despite temporary satisfaction I might well have come across badly to other prospective business contacts. I might have killed some stones but lost the chance for territory. Its a good lesson in mindfulness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: