The 33 Strategies of War: Review

Warfare isn’t a brutal activity that exists in a vacuum. It stems from the human mind and all the emotions that swirl in it. Wars are fought by people, won by people, and lost by people. Don’t assume that the strategies of war are separate from ordinary experience. Warfare is the application of human thought and action in an extraordinary setting. So it makes sense to learn from the best strategists and use their wisdom to solve your conflicts, doesn’t it?

That’s what The 33 Strategies of War, by Robert Greene is all about.

The 33 Strategies of War Review
Robert Greene outdoes himself again in another masterpiece.

The Six Rules

  1. Look at things as they are, not as your emotions color them.
  2. Judge people by their actions.
  3. Depend on your own arms (meaning that you should depend on your mind, not other things that can be taken away).
  4. Worship Athena, not Ares (focus on pragmatism and results, not fighting).
  5. Elevate yourself above the battlefield (think strategically, not tactically).
  6. Spiritualize your warfare (you must do battle with your own weaknesses and emotions).

Types of Warfare

Robert Greene organizes the book into five different sections dealing with the types of warfare:

  1. Self-directed warfare (the most important section)
  2. Organizational (team) warfare
  3. Defensive warfare
  4. Offensive warfare
  5. Unconventional (dirty) warfare

Each section contains its own strategies, outlined from proven results not only on famous battlefields, but in everyday scuffles. How Alfred Hitchcock outmaneuvered meddling producers to retain a godlike control of his films is a tale told as well as well as how the Russians destroyed Napoleon’s army by refusing to engage it at every turn.

The Most Important Strategy

Conflict is above all a test of ourselves. How do we meet this trial? Do we whither in the face of conflict, which we instinctively try to avoid, and grow panicky, or do we meet it with aggression and energy? The careers of the best strategists in history were very different, but Robert Greene is careful to point out in The 33 Strategies of War that they all shared this trait, which he calls “presence of mind.” They handled conflict with a spirited energy and a clarity of vision over the entire war, from the strategic down to the tactical level. Men like Alexander the Great and Ulysses S. Grant were notable examples Robert Greene points to.

Robert Greene shows us how a typically “calm” person handles conflict in the story of Admiral Hyde during the Napoleonic Wars:

When the Admiralty put its faith in Sir Hyde, it made a classical military error: it entrusted the waging of a war to a man who was careful and methodical. Such men may seem calm, even strong, in times of peace, but their self-control often hides weakness: the reason they think things through so carefully is that they are terrified of making a mistake and of what that might mean for them and their career. This doesn’t come out until they are tested in battle: suddenly they cannot make a decision. They see problems everywhere and defeat in the smallest setback. They hang back not out of patience but out of fear. Often these moments of hesitation spell their doom.

Admiral Nelson, by contrast:

The moment he entered battle, he ratcheted up his aggressive impulses. Where other sea lords worried about casualties, the wind, changes in the enemy’s formation, he concentrated on his plan. Before battle no one strategized or studied his opponent more thoroughly. (That knowledge helped Nelson to sense when the enemy was ready to crumble.) But once the engagement began, hesitation and carefulness were dropped.

Robert Greene says that Nelson in effect detached himself from the emotional swirl and focused only on his actions. He goes on to further define presence of mind as:

The ability to detach yourself from all that, to see the whole battlefield, the whole picture, with clarity. All great generals have this quality. And what gives you that mental distance is preparation, mastering the details beforehand. Let people think your Buddha-like detachment comes from some mysterious source. The less they understand you the better.

To build presence of mind, The 33 Strategies of War gives you six steps:

  1. Expose yourself to conflict.
  2. Be self-reliant.
  3. Suffer fools gladly.
  4. Crowd out feelings of panic by focusing on simple tasks.
  5. Unintimidate yourself.
  6. Develop your fingertip feel.

Robert Greene explores each in detail, but it would be too much for me to leave here in a post requiring brevity.

On a related note, The 33 Strategies of War has an entire chapter dedicated to reminding you not to fight the last war. That messes with your presence of mind because you’ll be too caught up in strategies that aren’t feasible anymore or feeling miserable when thinking about your own mistakes.

The 33 Strategies of War tells you it’s time to move on.

Why Should You Read The 33 Strategies of War?

Aside from its invaluable early chapters on self-directed warfare, the book is filled to the brim with chapters on organization, assembling useful associates, sowing chaos into the ranks of your enemies, keeping your team’s morale high, and so on. The chapters on individual strategies are often filled with detailed lists. The chapter on morale is particularly insightful for aspiring master persuaders. One insight on motivating your subordinates, coming from Hannibal, serves as a good preview of what to expect:

Hannibal was a master motivator of a rare kind. Where others would harangue their soldiers with speeches, he knew that to depend on words was to be in a sorry state: words only hit the surface of a soldier, and a leader must grab his men’s hearts, make their blood boil, get into their minds, alter their moods. Hannibal reached his soldiers’ emotions indirectly, by relaxing them, calming them, taking them outside their problems and getting them to bond. Only then did he hit them with a speech that brought home their precarious reality and swayed their emotions.

Hannibal Barca elephants

You can always depend on Robert Greene to provide these kinds of subtle psychological insights in his books, and The 33 Strategies of War is perhaps his best.

If you want to increase your skills in persuasion, learn how to clear your head and tackle conflict, or simply to read interesting stories about interesting people, this is a book that’s hard to go wrong with.

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