Why I Study War (And Why You Should, Too)

Starbucks Lido

Blogging on the BlackBerry

0921 hrs.

In the midst of a discussion about business in China, a friend of mine and I had reached that point in the conversation where the talk was either on the verge of becoming profound or it was about to descend into arcana.

The discourse paused for a moment while the waitress brought our drinks. There was a relaxed pause as we each caught our mental breath.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you a question for a long time,” he said. “Why do you read so much about war?”

Yes, why?

It was one of those questions that slams your brain into a hard left turn, not just because it was a hefty change in the direction of the conversation, but because it cut right into me. With all the books, blogs, papers, webcasts, magazine and newspaper articles on China, business, marketing, strategy, and communications out there, what the hell am I doing studying military science, military history, and international security?

I gave a flippant answer: “I enjoy it,” and quickly returned to the previous topic. But there is more to it than just the recreational value.
Truth is, after three decades studying the martial sciences and two decades in business, I have discovered that not only does “studying war” enrich the development of business leaders, but also that a lot of businesspeople and companies desperately need a mental dose of modern military thinking.

Swords into pruning hooks

Let’s address the question of morality first, as I am painfully aware that many people equate the study of war with the dangerous propigation of man’s warlike instinct.

What is gained from the study of a subject depends entirely on the intent of the student. You can study anthrax with a view to using it to kill others, or you can study it so as to develop a cure, or to eliminate it and other infectuous diseases. In the same way, you can study war to help you plan an insurrection, organize a terrorist network, or invade a country. You can also study war to end an insurgency and what drives it, or defend a country from external threats.

Or you can study war as I do: to gain insights that can be intelligently applied in more peaceful endeavors. In fact, I think studying studying war is a moral imperative, even if the very idea of killing people and breaking things nauseates you – especially if killing people and breaking things nauseates you.

War’s immense cost to mankind in blood and treasure through history is staggering. For us to waste any opportunity to derive whatever benefit possible that can be derived from that experience is unconscionable. A moral person may recoil from the ravages of war, yet acknowledge that we are ethically bound to extract from its study any lessons, innovations, models, or giudance that can be put to peaceful, productice, positive use.

Business and war

Of all fields that martial endeavors have influenced, perhaps the most compelling – and controversial – is how it influences business.

Drawing equivalence between war and business is an imperfect comparison at best. You may not buy the idea that “business is the moral equivalent of war,” but like war business is fundamentally conflict and competition between groups for tangible ends. War is usually kinetic (the military’s way of saying that it involves killing people and breaking things), and business is rarely kinetic, but there are enough parallels that key lessons can be shared between the two fields.

War and commerce are both conducted in the face of great uncertainty where the participants usually have a lot – or everything – at stake. Freedom of action is restricted – or enabled – by a series of factors outside the control of the individual. Time is insufficient, resources limited, and stress is high. The cost of failure, while not quite as severe in business as combat, is nonetheless high and very real.

Creating the business strategos

The first and most obvious way a study of war can enrich a business mind is in strategy, or, more specifically, helping a businessperson become a strategist – or at least a strategic thinker. In no field is strategy as important – nor the strategic art as well understood – than in the military, and the warrior-scholars (no, that is not an oxymoron) of history have added more good thinking to the field than all of the business thinkers put together.

For example, you probably know people who have read (or who have claimed to read) Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Long before Michael Douglas quoted Lao Sun while playing Gordon Gecko in the film “Wall Street,” businessmen were tapping the ancient wisdom to inform their thinking. (Just a thought – anyone who actually did read Sun Tzu and took it to heart would never be caught quoting him. Why, after all let your opponent know how you think?)

The point is that Sun Tzu – a military scientist, after all – probably wrote the capstone text in business strategy, yet he was never even thinking about business. The reason his thinking is accepted in commerce is because generations of businesspeople had the foresight to recognize that good thinking, regardless of its origin, is what you need to succeed in business.

But wait…there’s more…

So why stop at strategy? (For that matter, I wonder why most businesspeople go no further into the martial realm than Sun Tzu for their strategy, but that’s a subject for another post.) There are a host of other areas where the military experience can enrich business thinking.

Take marketing, for example. Jay Conrad Levinson has made a career taking the simple ideas of guerrilla warfare – fighting larger rivals with unlimited resources when you have almost none – and applying them to marketing. Less known (for now) but equally wise Mike Smock has taken the theories of Sun Tzu and strategic visionary John Boyd and incorporated them into his Attack Marketing approach.

Just as marketing can benefit from a little martial thinking, so can consulting, managing global and dispersed enterprises, communications (internal and external), event management, and a host of specialty areas like medicine, telecommunications, and network theory.

There are entire spheres of business operations where the armed forces – especially those of the west – continue to match if not lead enterprise in the development of new thinking and approaches. Logistics and supply chain management, recruiting, training, intelligence, staff functions, career management, and creating and optimizing teams are areas where business owes much to the constant developments in these fields being driven by the armed forces.

Still not convinced?

You may be thinking “hey, aren’t military types the thick-headed dudes we saw in ROTC who went into the armed forces because they couldn’t get into grad school?” While I can’t speak for your experience, understand that it’s easy to be opinionated when your opinions aren’t going to get people killed. The looming specter of death, defeat, and dishonor can turn a rigid thinker into an open-minded scholar awfully quickly.

Warriors become thinkers by necessity, not by preference. It is fair to say that the United States Marine Corps, for example, is a superb example of The Learning Organization. (Does your company produce a recommended professional reading list that covers each level of the organization? No? The Marines do, and the program has been so effective that all of the rest of the US armed services have picked up the practice.)

Even if you don’t buy the whole business-war parallel, I urge you to pick up the book The Medici Effect. Frans Johansson describes how incorporating ideas from fields unrelated to your own with issues in your own area are a tested and accessible path to innovation. The application of, say, a new history of the Battle of Midway to your day-to-day work may seem counterintuitive, but I’m 100 pages into the book and I’ve gained insights into Japanese institutional dynamics that for me opened a whole new vista on Asian management. That’s “The Medici Effect” at work.

All the help we can get

Globalization and the tempo it forces on us has made doing business insanely complex. You especially feel this in China, where the pace is brutal and the conditions in constant flux. Against that context, and particularly as we pause at the edge of what look to be even harder times ahead, we are foolish to ignore any rich vein of insights and approaches to difficult problems.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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