Translated by Greg Johnson
Current events sometimes offer striking examples of the unforeseen. Last spring, we were all shocked by images of one of the great and powerful looking despondent, his wrists shackled, having suddenly fallen from his perch of impunity. By means of the media, spectators felt that they were following much more than a single news event. In a second, one of the princes of our age, by the unforeseen revelation of a sordid escapade, was brought down to earth, and with him the hopes of an arrogant coterie.
We could conclude from this that the unexpected is king, not only in petty politics, but also in history. Suddenly, human weakness triumphed over power. But on other occasions, the acting power can find instruments to bring down an obstacle condensed in a person, as the colored revolutions of our time show. We know that history is the realm of the unexpected.
War offers brutal demonstrations. It is surprising enough that in Europe a serious reflection on the subject had to wait until shortly after the Napoleonic adventure. Then Clausewitz reported that Europe had failed to ponder war. Paradoxically, he said, Europe failed insofar as she always wanted to predict and model war. She wanted to understand it in reference to a “model” that one never encounters in reality. The distinctive mark of war, he says, it is that its reality never coincides with the “model.” This is often said of the French Army, but it also goes for the others. In 1914, France prepared for the war of 1870, and in 1940, for that of 1914. . . . The Americans have not done differently. In Iraq and in Afghanistan, they wished to avoid the errors of Vietnam, but things turned out differently.
Ultimately, one awaits a great political or military strategist, if not a “stroke of genius” which consists in leaving aside all models, to seize the “decisive factors” in flight, to trust his sense of smell and his perspicacity, which the Ancients called metis, of which Ulysses, in the Odyssey is the very incarnation.
Unlike Europeans, the ancient Chinese had developed a true understanding of war at the time of the Warring States in the 5th and 4th centuries before our era. China was then divided into rival principalities that made continual war in order to restore, to their advantage, the unity of the Empire. At this point in time, the treatises of Sun Tzu and various others were written, of which one finds no equivalent in Europe, aside from the patience and wiles of Ulysses revealed in the Odyssey.
Ulysses did not model in advance a plan of survival or victory. But, with an innate talent, he observed situations, saw how they evolved and could be turned to his profit, then reacted like lightning (to blind the Cyclops Polyphemus or to neutralize the sorceress Circe), but sometimes also arming himself with patience (“patience, my heart”), during his long captivity with Calypso or in preparing his revenge after his return to Ithaca.
To detect the “decisive” factors means being able to await the occasion, the turn of “fortune.” As in bridge or poker, there are times when it is necessary to “pass” for lack of “play.” In the Odyssey, this strategic concept is constantly present. Ulysses is unfailingly patient in awaiting the favorable moment. Then, he strikes like lightning (the liquidation of the “suitors”).
But the very notion of metis (cunning, wile) disappeared from Greek thought and even from the language in the classical era with the rise of philosophical reasoning (Plato). The notion of the Platonic essences, by disqualifying the empirical method in favor of abstract construction, founded an enduring era of modeling. This became the strength but also the weakness of Europe.
What to do when “fortune” is concealed, when the “decisive” factor is absent? One can, of course, in a very European way, hurl oneself into futile but heroic action. Indeed, there are moments when one must know when to withdraw oneself and wait for the situation to change. And it always changes. It was, for example, a political strategy used by De Gaulle. During his “crossing of the desert,” for lack of “play” in the Chinese sense of the word, he wrote his War Memoirs. It was a way of waiting and preparing for the future.