The Importance of Knowing Ourselves . Lessons of History


If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Sun. Tsu

This quote by is often seen but rarely applied except in a cosmetic manner. It would seem that  the first, and perhaps primary problem, is that we go to war, as do most nations do, not knowing themselves.Generally over estimating ons self is the primary problem.

Thousands of  American  bureaucrats and “experts” make a  nice living analyzing and writing about the minds of our potential enemies. Not very many are defining our own  character. Unfortunately  our modern history indicates we have not done  well assessing ourselves or the enemy, especially trying to pry into the minds of the Asians, in particular the Middle Easterners. Their logic seems so mysterious and hard to decipher. The “inscrutable” Asians, for example,  the Japanese, totally baffled our analysts prior to WWII. Some of the US  analyses were stereotypical and in some cases  laughably  ridiculous:  A few examples; Japanese pilots are poor because they mostly wear glasses and lack individualism. They are a people who excel collectively but not individually.   The Japanese could not produce quality equipment…etc. etc. The fact of the matter is that the Japanese Zero and their pilots outclassed anything we could put in the air until after two years of the war. The saying among our pilots early in the war was…”if you are out alone and you meet a Japanese Zero, run because you are outnumbered.”  While our submariners  were cursing our ineffective torpedos, the Japanese torpedos were the best produced in the war ( the Long Lane e). Usually in relation to these assessments based on national character the first issue surfaced is racism. But as usual it is a catchall word to cover a multitude of sins and rarely addresses issues. Racism has been pummeled into meaningless platitudes in the labyrinth of ideology and politics.

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1939: World War II. Mitsubishi “Zero”, Japanese fighter. One of the best and most versatile fighter of WWII

We often read or hear about American beating their chests asking for forgiveness for “systemic  racism”..the proverbial “ugly American”  to the point  of ad nauseam. But in fact  we are no worse and probably better  as a society than most. The Japanese considered us as inferior people, a people of merchants not warriors.  As one Japanese planner, Colonel Tsuji Masanobu wrote, “our candid ideas at the time were that Americans were merchants and would not  fight long in an unprofitable war.” They believed the  all the bad news emanating from our news media presenting Americans as a divided  weak selfish society of individuals. Many  of the top Japanese leaders were admirers of fascism and the superior race theories of the Nazis. Nor was the Japanese just certain of their superiority to the Europeans, but also to other Asians, especially the Chinese who were considered untermenschen ( sub human). In fact at the end of the war, the Japanese turned over many thousands of  European prisoners ( brutalized but still alive),  but despite capturing many thousands of Chinese soldiers only 79 were left to turn over.

Politician and general Hideki Togo was convinced that Japanese racial and spiritual superiority could neutralize America’s material superiority. Japan was neither the first nor the last of America’s enemies to stress the superiority of the human element of war and to underestimate the resolve of Americans at war. The Japanese were fully aware of their industrial weakness vis-à-vis the United States; they had long believed, however, that the unique qualities of their race, includ- ing a superior national will, discipline, and warfight- ing prowess, could defeat the strong but soft Ameri- cans. “The Japanese regarded us as a decadent nation in which pacifism and isolationism practically ruled the policy of our government,”

From my time in Korea and Vietnam I saw the unfortunate fate of children from Black American fathers. They were not adoptable. From my years in the Middle East I saw a  level of racism in the Islamic Arab society  beyond  anything I saw in my childhood in the South. Blackness in the Arab society is equated with their history as slaves… genealogy not color. But color does matter.  Mohammed Naguib, the first president of Egypt after the abdication of King Farouk had a Sudanese mother, and this was a point against him. The dark complexion of Sadat did not go over well the parents of his wife to be ….. As one Egyptian writer observed in a rare moment of candor, an Obama could never be president of Egypt.


Our embroilment in Korea and Vietnam was railed against  by the experts as contrary to the rule of never getting involved in a land war in Asia…a prime reason , according to these experts,  was that  human life is not valued in the Asian mentality and their thought processes are too difficult to ascertain. Some assumed they could, but these gurus failed miserably or in some cases were simply not listened to. Of course the “whiz kids and “best and brightest” took on prosecuting the Vietnam war, confident that we would not fall into the trap of the arrogant French…but of course we did. As frequently referred to by the historians we viewed the Vietnamese in a mirror image of ourselves. The “experts” believed that we could bomb the Vietnamese  into submission based on the belief that  their pain threshold would be the same as ours….or what the experts, not really understanding their own people, assumed ours would be.  No doubt this also depicts the US elitist view of the common Americans..the “deplorables”  of recent usage. The mirror image of this is thatI have found that especially we tend to evaluate the culture of Middle Easterners as presented by their elite many of whom  were educated in the West. They have a foot in both societies and are comfortable in neither.

ROOSEVELT had very little respect for the “Japs” as he called them. Despite Pearl Harbor and the Philippines the majority of the US war effort went to the European theatre


We have not done well in fighting insurgencies in the last few decades- an understatement to be sure-  which was encapsulated by Colonel Harry Summers in telling my class at JFKSWCS that the American soldier is culturally incapable of fighting a counterinsurgency war. Brigadier General  Zeb Bradford, as a student as the Army War College wrote that the search and destroy method of warfare was needed because “US army is inherently ill-suited for producing substantial numbers of soldiers capable counter- guerrilla  warfare.” Although that is not a popular view in this era of trendy counter-insurgent warfare he was, and is, right. Our society “conditioned to a high standard of living” produces few of the guerrilla mentality to fight that sort of war. This was starkly proven in the Iraqi war in which we initially fought a conventional Iraqi forces and routed them but when it turned into an insurgency we were at a loss. We were able to contain the insurgence when we, convinced ( with the help of Islamist /Ba’thi malfeasance ) the Sunni  tribes  to turn against them. In Afghanistan, we initially  quickly overcame the Taliban but as it evolved into  became an insurgency  the same problems appeared for the same reason.

We did not understand the Afghan enemy or what we imagined were our Afghan friends. Despite the counterinsurgency manual (FM 3-24) written ostensibly for troops, but more useful as a PHD thesis, hundreds of  admonitions of ” gotta do better” in cultural studies,   many years of endless amounts of articles, treatises, books, ….We were still far in the deficit on “getting inside the decision making cycle.” I am an agnostic that we ever can, nor can they in ours. We all fight within our cultural conditioning.

It is typical however that we  believe we are so flexible we can attune ourselves to the opponents method of warfare.  For instance in the Wavel Room below.. On the web as the collection of British contemporary military thinking..

Wargaming the enemies wargaming.

This maxim sounds easy, but it is difficult to do. Notwithstanding, it is the surest way to visit the enemy’s mind and think as the he thinks in order to outthink him. Obviously, ‘intellectually challenging’ best describes this aphorism. Think how the enemy thinks about how you think is complicated by its very nature because the maxim asks for a suspension of reality and to think like the opponent. The requirement is—enter his mind and think like he thinks you think.

Bin Laden thought very little of the American national character….buying into the philosophy of Sayyid Qutb, that America is” unjust, criminal and tyrannical..”.. and weak as well!

You rarely know what your wife if thinking  let alone some  far off alien from a totally different cultural environment. It’s probably a nice intellectual exercise and of value if one has interpreted historical examples correctly  (also a difficult call) but unless you have immersed in that culture,  having lived in it,  it is a rather fatuous  exercise.

Dr.Jerrold Post a CIA analyst did very good analysis of the Saddam’s character an d personality. But it seems it was not of very much help in the prosecution of the war.

How many war  games have the army developed featuring a counter-insurgency war? I played in many but never one in which the enemy were insurgents. It is one reason the military leadership always prefers conventional war enemies, Russians, Chinese, etc.

How do you wargame against militias?

What I would suggest is that our military intellectuals orient more on how we think, our culture, our way of war, what we do well…….. and less well. What is possible for us in what kind of war, the environment to be fought in, the will of the leadership, and the understanding among our troops of why we are fighting. Of course we will seldom choose when and where we will fight but in that case at least  insure that the leadership does not lie about the progress of the war or the difficulties involved. In fact rather than try to fight their kind of war, i.e. insurgency, on their terms, force them to fight on  our terms. If you have a suggestion on that please notify DOD.

Have a great 2022…InshaAllah



About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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