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The Art of War is another of Four In Hand Entertainment Group's shows which are best classified as history-for-the-uneducated-masses. The graphics are generally good (which is not always typical for shows of this type), although their applicability and quality decline as the show progresses. The accompanying photographs and video actually match the subjects which they illustrate (which is definitely not typical for such shows). Unfortunately, the show uses decidedly second rate experts.
Where the show fails the most, is in the writing. As with all similar shows, it has a point, and manipulates history to support that point, right; wrong, or not too inaccurate enough to be disbelieved. The heart of the problem with the script is; either the writers did not understand what the experts told them when preparing the script; or the "experts" weren't very good in their attempts to apply Sun Tsu's principles. Listening to the experts' comments, there seems to be at least as much of the latter as the former.
A number of Sun Tsu's principles are presented sequentially. After each is introduced, it is typically followed by a CGI/re-enacted demonstration of how Sun Tsu used this in war. Then, a more modern (19th or 20th century) example is examined, showing how the principle was followed or violated.
The show claims that Sun Tsu's principles of military strategy are universal; but it fails to point out that attempting to apply the principles to any one specific situation before the fact, is, at best, extremely difficult (which is why professional military officers are employed). However, it is fairly easy to sit back and criticize the historic decisions after the fact (which is how many military historians, like those on the show, make part of their livings).
Each of the individual segments of the show could have its multiple faults addressed in detail, but two examples will be used here to save space.
First, is the concept of "death ground". A principle of Sun Tsu is to put you troops on "death ground" and they will have no fear. According to the show, that is what was done at the D-Day landings. The first problem with this, is that the position of Allied troops on the beaches of D-Day was not consistent with what Sun Tsu describes. It might look like it to someone who does not know the more detailed history of the planning for D-Day (i.e., the targeted viewer), but the troops were not on sun Tsu's "death ground", and were not motivated by the desperation and the lack of retreat which Sun Tsu's strategy invokes. A second problem is that Sun Tsu's principle can only be discerned in a battle selectively after the fact. The idea is to place troops in a position from which there is no retreat in order to inspire them to courageous combat. If such troops are victorious, the experts rush to point out how Sun Tsu's concept works so well. If such troops are defeated, experts rush to point out what a fool the commander was, to place his army in a position from which they could not retreat. The real lesson from this segment of the show? Critics show how a commander violated Sun Tsu's concepts; professionals learn Sun Tsu, but deal with reality as it confronts them.
Second, is the critique of General Lee's actions prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. The expert claimed that Lee violated one of Sun Tsu's principles by letting operational developments override strategic goals. So, once the movements of the Union army became known, Lee gathered his troops around Cashtown and Gettysburg. It seems like an obvious failure by the general who lost the battle. But, the commentator later criticizes Lee for failing to react to developments in the field, directly contradicting their own expert. Further, had Lee not gathered his army, he would have been criticized by the same expert for failing to concentrate his force in the face of the enemy, especially a larger enemy force. It is easy to criticize the actions of a general in the field and to pick which of Sun Tsu's principles were violated when one has 20-20 hindsight. This applies to each of the segments of the show.
Unfortunately, each of the segments addressing one of Sun Tsu's principles contains the same set of problems; questionable selection of examples, questionable interpretations of the principles, and the application of 20-20 hindsight without regard to what generals knew at the time.
Is The Art of War worth watching? Yes. But do so with a clear understanding that it has a specific and restricted point of view, and it is at best, only an extremely limited starting point for understanding Sun Tsu's military concepts. If it gets someone started on further study, then it has accomplished something good. If someone watches it and things they now know something useful, they are fooling themselves.
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