Saturday, July 18, 2009

Back From Mount Knowledge

It would be an understatement to say that, during my trp to Tahoe last week, I took Mr. Gosney's advice to "...just sit and read to occupy [my] time." As soon as we arrived at our cabin for our 5 day trip my little brother, Joe, came down with asthmatic bronchitis. While asthmatic bronchitis is not a serious illness it did the job of bringing on the doctor's orders for Joe, and consequently my entire family, to "stay inactive for about 5 days." As strange, and possibly sadistic as it sounds, my brother's illness was a tremendous blessing for me in that it allowed me to accomplish my reading goals for the week. For five days of our trip I left not the cabin only three times. Needless to say that this inactivity gave me ample time for reading. In fact I probably spent about 10 hours everyday reading. This past week I finished The Peloppenesian War, The Art of War, Genghis Khan and Democracy in America. Now it is possible that whatever illness my brother had has rubbed off on me and impaired my judgement but as dreadful as this "vacation" sounds, I have probably enjoyed this week more than most any other that comes to mind. I was so immersed in these truly amazing and insightful texts that I can feel that my perspective of the world changed indefinately along with my view of what the future will bring. In my isolated cabin I felt almost like a monk gone to meditate and study on some secluded mountaintop. Now, on my return from this mountain of knowledge, I feel extremely different about almost everything I look at. Its like being an athlete that is in the "zone." Because I was not distracted whatsoever, these books spoke to me in ways that the others had not. I was even able to finish books in one sitting which truly gives you the full affect of a work. I have learned life lessons from these readings that I probably never would have learned if I had not taken this break from daily life.

For example, during my reading of The Peloppenesian War, I was appalled by the amount of battles each side lost due to insignificant and petty matters such as pride or selfishness. This pettiness is shown in the battle for Sicily when the leading Athenian general, Nicias, did not retreat from the supposedly inferior Syracusans in a battle which he had obviously lost. Instead of retreating and gaining strength to fight his main enemies, the Spartans, Nicias asked for a redoubling of forces to fight for the Syracusan lost cause. This error lost the Athenians about one tenth of their overall military power and eventually spelled defeat for their empire. One can see that this arrogant strategy has been repeated throughout history in battles such as those for Afghanistan by the Soviets and for Vietnam by the Americans. I learned through this text that one should always keep their eye on their ultimate goal and not let petty feelings such as pride get in their way of achieving them.

In contrast to Nicias' tactics, the tactics emphasized in The Art of War and Genghis Khan were those that compelled being dynamic in conflict. This enlightened strategy compels its user to be dynamic and assess every situation thoroughly in order to find the best course of action. It also emphasizes that one must do whatever it takes to acheive victory. This startegy is enlightened because it recognizes that in some cases the best battle strategy is to retreat. These two books, The Art of War and Genghis Khan, coincide on many aspects. In many cases I would see something what was suggested in The Art of War being executed by Genghis Khan and his followers. Both emphasized this dynamic startegy and convinced me that this tactic, along with innovative skills, is a combination for succes in any battle wether it be military based or an everyday conflict with another individual. While learning these strategies I began to wonder wether the Athenians, if they had access to these Taoist texts, would have been able to succeed in their efforts to defeat the Peloppenesians. And similarly if the Americans or the Soviets, had they acknowledged these teachings, would have been able to avoid the disasters at Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Next, I learned why the United States was able to push through its disaster at Vietnam and become the hegemonic state it is today, as opposed to the Soviets who now cease to exist. The answer lies in the superiority of democracy in America. During my reading of the book, Democracy in America, I learned from an nineteenth century outsider, Alexis de Tocqueville, what the pros and cons of the young democratic United States were. However, it is erroneous to use the word "were" when in fact so many of his observations remain applicable today. It seems that during my reading of each of his 765 pages (including the epic intro) I found myself nodding my head and saying to myself, "Wow, I've noticed that." He illustrates in depth that the United States is able to prosper through turmoil, such a great military disasters, becuase of the will of its people and the equal mindset they have in subjects such as "self interest well understood." This mindset is one where its followers understand that it is in their own self interest to see their peers and their nation succeed. Thus, they work hard to increase not only their own prosperity, but that of their neighbor, their state, and their nation as well. This, along with a strong governmental and administrative sysytem, has carried the United States spirit and prosperity through troubles as glaring as terrorist attacks, great depressions, and both civil and world wars. I believe this sentiment of servitude through hard work and collaboration absolutely necessary for us to prosper through the hardships we face today. Fortunately, it is easy to see evidence that this sentiment has lived on. I can see this evidence just in our school district in the many people that put countless hours into programs such as the Ivy League Connection and the Youth Comission, both from which I myself have benefitted greatly, that work to see others succeed and prosper. It is because of evidence as concrete as this that I am confident that our nation can stay on the track its been on for over 200 hundred years and push through the hardships at hand.

I learned an immense amount from all four of these books. I learned that they do not only belong only in the private libraries of seasoned warhawks and government leaders, but can be used as insightful handbooks on how to lead a person's everyday life. Whether in an argument that one should simply retreat from, in a place where you realize you are going to need some humililty and innovation in order to succeed, or just conlicting with your owb thoughts on how to best live your life as a regular American, the pricipals taught through these books can apply to the inevitable and very real conflicts that we encounter every day. I hope to one day be able to apply these pricipals fully in my own decision and conflicts and to have a positive influence on others with my enlightened actions.

Whew! Sorry for the length of that post. I read a lot in this last week and had no computer to vent my ideas until now. Thanks to all of you who stuck with me and read this whole post out of your own curiousity, and sorry to those who were compelled to complete the task. I hope it was at least partially enjoyable.

As I said before I feel like an athlete in the zone and I think I am about as ready as I can be for New Haven. I am extremely excited and want to thank everyone who worked hard to put us on our way.

Thanks again. Hope everyone is doing well.

1 comment:

  1. Matt,

    I’m sure you showed plenty of compassion for your brother and his ailments but you need to thank him as well for helping to facilitate your attempts to catch up on your reading.
    Study war a little more, Matt, and you’ll see example after example of battles that were fought over some of the stupidest things. Or, worse yet, using tactics from a bygone era. Tale a cursory look at some of battles of WWI to see prime examples of this. Literally millions of lives were lost in the Battle of the Sommes in northern France and the Battle of Gallipoli in the Dardenelles where, between the two, more than two million lives were lost because of pride and antiquated thinking. [Think cavalry vs. tanks and full frontal assaults vs. machine guns.]
    Historians for years to come will be writing about US/Vietnam and USSR/Afghanistan. Both of the superpowers tried to fight these wars as though they were classic wars with organized armies and large scale battles when, in reality, you had classic armies fighting against guerrilla wars where you never could differentiate between friends and foes.
    Just curious: since Democracy in America was written in 1835, just which “great military disasters” might de Tocqueville have been referring to? The US had only fought one formal war up to that time (the War of 1812). There had been numerous battles against the Native Americans but few of those could be classified as major battles of any sort. My point here is that there really wasn’t enough of a history of “great military disasters” to think there was a pattern.