Know Thy Enemy

The modern Western penchant for trusting in the equal rationality of all is strategic folly. Aeschylus understood this well.

Good strategy requires a sound understanding of one’s rivals. A rival in any walk of life is, in a sense, an interlocutor. To engage him effectively in debate one must understand his speech and reasoning patterns. Without that knowledge, conversation is at best pointless, at worst self-defeating. So it is in strategy. It is futile to engage in competition with a rival power without having at least an inkling about his thoughts, fears, and desires.

The modern Western penchant for trusting in the equal rationality of all suggests otherwise. According to this conceit, there is no reason to plumb the nature of an enemy’s thinking because it is no different in essence from one’s own. But this is wrong. A rival’s response to one’s strategy is not predictable as a simply rational and universal reaction that can be generalized and grasped with relative ease. Rival states or groups respond to similar actions in different ways based on their culture, worldview, history, and the proclivities of their leaders. Good strategy, as Bernard Brodie once put it, “presupposes good anthropology and good sociology.”

One of the earliest examples we have of “good anthropology”—or rather, of being able to put oneself in the mind of the enemy—is in a 5th-century BCE Greek tragedy, The Persians, written by Aeschylus. (The translation used here is from the 2008 Loeb edition.) This drama recounts the moment when the Persian…

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