Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Reading :: The Art of War (Machiavelli)

Originally posted: Wed, 10 Nov 2004 21:08:17

The Art of War

by Niccolo Machiavelli

Although it shares its title with Sun Tzu's famous book (reviewed elsewhere on this site), Machiavelli's The Art of War is a very different piece. Where Tzu's work is essentially a collection of maxims mostly regarding strategy, Machiavelli's book covers everything from recruiting to arming to formations, strategems, principles, punishments, espionage, and even the question of what sorts of martial music should be played. Machiavelli is as in love with ancient Rome as ever, so he draws liberally from the Roman and Greek traditions -- both in his martial recommendations and in his writing style.

The genre of the book interests me. Whereas The Prince is sort of a handbook and Discourses is more like a treatise underpinned by historical study, The Art of War is written in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue is not very dialogic, though: one interlocutor speaks at length about war, while the others lob occasional softball questions at him. In practice, these questions really get in the way of the discussion.

The discussion itself is rather interesting on a number of levels. I'm mostly interested in how Machiavelli influenced actor-network theory at this point, so I was busy looking for parallels with the study of scientific knowledge. (You may remember that Latour's Science in Action makes extensive use of the war metaphor and he has been sharply criticized for it.) So my reading tended toward strategy and metaphor. With that in mind, I noticed some interesting things about the book.

First, Machiavelli draws on some of the same themes and advice he forwards in Discourses. Princes should not have absolute power, and should be kept away from professional soldiers, who have a vested interest in war (p.19). Professional warriors are a bad idea in general, because overspecialization results in corruption (p.23). Rather, the citizenry should provide soldiers that form a militia (like the Reserves): they should support themselves in their own trades most of the time, gathering periodically for drills and being ready for longer campaigns while avoiding a huge drain on the country's resources. Above all, the citizenry should remain armed because in that way they can remain free (p.30).

The problem with this arrangement is expertise, since in avoiding overspecialization, the militia also misses out on intense pathways for developing expertise. Machiavelli suggests that older members of the army must provide guidance and expertise to the younger ones (p.27). This arrangement, Machiavelli thinks, provides flexibility as well as depth of experience and depth of bench. In fact, this combination is a big theme for Machiavelli: in conscription, in training, in arranging formations (pp.84-86), he always attempts to balance expertise and flexibility. This is of a piece with his advice here and elsewhere, which frequently boils down to "it depends." Indeed, the book's advice is frequently undercut by his admission that conditions have a great deal to do with the success of various measures; it becomes clear that this military advice is largely useful for those who already have deep experience with these matters. Consequently, as with the Discourses, The Art of War is full of interesting advice and fascinating anecdotes whose application is often unclear.

I said a moment ago that I read The Art of War primarily to shed more light on actor-network theory. I found it to be not so illuminating as Machiavelli's other two books, but still interesting. The emphasis on contingency leads naturally to flexibility, which sheds some light on how Latour and others seem to see actor-networks; the discussion of allies, alliances, and strategies seems familiar enough; but I wasn't able to pull out concrete parallels. Still, I enjoyed the book quite a bit -- which is not something I expected to say about a book on military strategy. >

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