We shall fight them at the water cooler

MARK STEYN March 20 2006

We shall fight them at the water cooler

MARK STEYN March 20 2006

We shall fight them at the water cooler

'Bloody battle' strategies are for daily life. God forbid we use them in bloody battles.



I was in the bookstore the other day and in the big display at the front they had something called The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene. Sounded just my bag. There’s a lot of war about at the moment—Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Iran any day now, North Korea a couple of months down the road—and an armchair warrior can always use a new strategy hither and yon.

So I got home and settled down to discover how Sun Tzu and Clausewitz would have approached the Sunni Triangle or Kim Jong II. And I pulled out the book and read:

“From the bloody battles of history, strategies for winning the subtle social game of everyday life.”

That’s right. It’s not about the lessons the bloody battles of history have for the bloody battles of today, but about the lessons the bloody battles of history have for that scheming bitch in Accounts who’s after that promotion you want. Let’s say you’re around the water cooler with Darlene from Accounts and the boss comes up and says, “How’s it going?” Now imagine the boss is the town of Jena in October 1806. Clearly you want to be Napoleon, not the Prince Hohenlohe guy, right? You could open with a routine conversational response like, “Pretty good. Yourself?”, but that’s as conventional and unimaginative and dangerously obsolescent as the Prussian formations that day. Instead," you want to box Darlene into the predictable response mode, while you leap ahead, bold and daring, like the French marksmen firing on the run from the rooftops. So you say to the boss, “Your hair looks fabulous. Is that a new styling gel?”

Well, anyway, I think that’s how it’s meant to work. I mean, look, I know I was in a bit of a hurry in the store and that you can’t book a judge by his cover, as Ted Kennedy said

after Samuel Alito’s opening statement before the judiciary committee. But the jacket of The 33 Strategies of War is stark red lettering on a grey background, no pictures. It looks like a book about war—not a book about what the Roman consul Sempronius’s experience against Hannibal has to teach you about negotiating a tricky meeting at the PTA.

That’s not to say Mr. Greene isn’t full of good sense. As he writes, “At the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, every last American fighting the Mexican army died—but they died heroically, refusing to surrender. The battle became a rallying cry—‘Remember the Alamo!’—and an inspired American force under Sam Houston finally defeated the Mexicans for good.” True, true, and Greene’s advice on “planting the seeds of future victory in present defeat” undoubtedly has applications in social and business life, although, as he’s careful to add (possibly for liability reasons), “you do not have to experience physical martyrdom.”

But there’s something perplexing—if not downright unhealthy—about a book on the lessons of war for everything but war at a time when we are, er, at war. Even Canada: that ain’t peacekeeping in Kandahar. Yet The 33 Strategies of War is about how to be a metaphorical Duke of Wellington rather than an actual one. In that sense, for all the stuff about Xenopho^frand Artaxerxes, the historical era it sgéms most redolent of is the mhqties—th/ lost age when the great geo-

political questions all seemed settled, and public debate dwindled down into micropolitics, and paradoxically the less there was at stake the butcher the rhetoric. In 1996, when Bill Clinton was running for re-election on a pledge to give soccer moms a tax credit toward mandatory federal bicycling helmets or whatever it was, he was invariably introduced by Democratic warm-up acts as a man of “undaunted courage” and “bravery.” In Battle Creek, Mich., a local worthy told us with a straight face that “This president is tough. Battle-tested,” even though Mr. Clinton was famously un-battle-tested. But it was all of a piece with the militarization of public discourse encapsulated in the title of the Clinton campaign documentary: The War Room. War! Heugh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing but peddling feminized I-feelyour-pain it’s-about-the-future-of-all-children political pap.

At the very end of the era, our own Clausewitz, the Chrétien attack-dog Warren Kinsella, produced a book called Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics. I wrote at the time that the macho swagger of the first half of the title was somewhat undermined by the geographical qualification, and that was before some faint-heart at Random House decided to place the word “ass” in whited-out letters on the jacket. Very sotto voce. It reminded me of a time I passed a little old lady who was zipping along at 45 miles an hour on a deserted I-91 in Vermont. As I pulled alongside she

flipped me the finger but discreetly, under the sleeve of her other arm, so that her fellow l’il ol’ lady sitting in the passenger seat wouldn’t see. That was Mr. Kinsella’s book cover: Kicking Liquid Paper in Canadian Politics. He sent me an indignant email over my passing reference, complete with un-whited-out epithet. And to be honest I sympathized. It wasn’t his fault that the official publication date of his book was also the first day of the new era: September 11 2001.

That afternoon in London, as the twin towers were crumbling in New York, Jo Moore, a British civil servant, watched the TV and fired off an email to her fellow spinmeisters in the Department of Transport: “It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want

Possibly 'liability reasons' explain the caveat: 'You do not have to experience physical martyrdom'

to bury.” At the time, this, ah, infelicitous formulation seemed the most explicit collision between the old world and the new—between the Clintonian interlude in which an effete focus-grouped politics had been bulked up with the rhetorical steroids of primal conflict, and the new jihad, in which all the martial metaphors were newly literal once more. But it’s interesting how reluctant we are to give up on them as conversational flourishes. Two years ago, the American columnist Robert Novak quoted “one senior official of a coalition partner” calling for the firing of Donald Rumsfeld on the grounds that “there must be a neck cut, and there is only one neck of choice.” At more or less that exact moment in Iraq, Nick Berg’s captors were cutting off his head—or, rather, feverishly hacking it off while raving “AllahuAkbarr

When the British hostage Ken Bigley met the same fate, his brother Paul complained that Tony Blair had “blood on his hands.” This seemed an especially unworthy accusation when anyone with an Internet connection could see the relevant snuff video with

Mr. Bigley’s blood on the hands of his killers. Indeed, the key difference between the participants in this conflict is that on one side clichés about “blood on his hands” and “calls for the defence secretary’s head” are just that, and on the other they’re for real.

When Warren Kinsella bragged in his book that he was the Dominion’s all-time No. 1 record gold medallist at “kicking the living shit out of the other guy,” I took him at his word. I assumed he was kicking the living shit out of everyone in the interests of building a kinder gentler socialized health care utopia, though it seems unlikely to do anything to shorten the waiting lists. But by this year’s election the problem for the Grits was that they didn’t seem to be good at anything but kicking the living shit out of you in an ever more desperate attempt to keep their government expense accounts.

If a general talked like that, he’d be courtmartialled as an obvious psycho. That’s the curious feature of this militarized language: we’re willing to apply strategies from “the bloody battles of history” to “the subtle social game of everyday life,” but the one area where we’re not supposed to apply them is bloody battles. Reading through Robert Greene’s recommendations—“The DeathGround Strategy,” “The Blitzkrieg Strategy,” “The Annihilation Strategy”—you can’t help feeling they’d be rather exhausting applied to seeing off your rival at the hair salon, but might come in handy with, say, thejanjaweed militia in Sudan. Yet that’s not the way the hyperpower wages war in the 21st century: he goes in with one hand tied behind his back; if the bad guys hole up in a mosque, whoa, don’t blow out the windows, it’s culturally insensitive. Many of America’s problems in Iraq these last three years derive from an unwillingness to kill enough of the enemy in March and April 2003. Or as a British colonel summed up the strategy: “We don’t want to go in and rattle all their tea cups.”

Oddly enough there’s no “Unrattled Tea Cup Strategy” in Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War. Thus, the bizarre situation in which we

find ourselves: the “Death-Ground Strategy” is useful advice for your next tea party, but the tea cup strategy is supposed to deal with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Maybe it’s time to switch manuals. M