Are You Man Enough?

The Virtues That Make A True General

by Tom Byku Potocki

A number of essays have been written recently on Sun Tzu's BingFa ("Soldier's Methodolody," usually rendered in English as "Art of War") in connection with the hobby of Diplomacy. Invariably the authors zeroed in on the practical advice of technical nature.

This is not surprising. We live in a technical age that values specific skills far more than general qualities of the spirit. We are far more concerned with the proper response to F LON-ECH than with the issues of our own innate abilities and those of our enemies. We read and write articles which discuss ad infinitum various openings and counter-openings. In this case, should we support or attack? In that case, should we convoy or support? The gunboat game, with its total absence of press, is the ultimate achievement of this kind of thinking: "Never mind the interaction of personalities, never mind the individual qualities of the general involved. Let's see what the orders are and divine truth from there." True to this spirit, countless statistical analyses are made to find the powers that win (or lose) most frequently, the frequency of various openings, and the like.

We are of course wrong.

Because the game of Diplomacy is a game reflecting above all the personalities of the players, the technical analysis, of the sort most useful in chess, is of limited use in this game. In chess to ask: "what is the correct response to the opening Nf5?" is to ask a wise question. The game is played sequentially, there are only two players, objectives are unambiguous, only one player can win the game and therefore the other must lose. Personalities do not count for much. And it is always possible to calculate the one move that is the best out of the universe of possibilities. Given enough computing power, it is always possible to calculate the list of moves that will draw the game.

Not so in Diplomacy. To begin with, goals vary: some players prefer to win gloriously or die trying, others will take survival and a draw instead of the risks involved in a solo attempt, and still others become consumed with the need for revege, and like it that way. Secondly, no player is powerful enough in the first three to five game-years to be able to fool-proof draw the game: the game uses simultaneous moves by many players and almost any one of them can do something detrimental to any other at any time. Third, personalities, something well beyond the pale of exact computing, account for almost everything in the game.

And it is personalities, of course, which make for the most interesting aspect of the game.

This is what makes Sun Tzu's little book so germane to the topic of the game of Diplomacy. Yes, he does give practical advice ("choose your ground carefully," "treat your troops well but not too well," etc.). He is not above noticing that knowing your openings and being able to choose wisely between a support and a convoy is important. But above all he focuses on the personal qualities of the generals involved in the conflict: what the Chinese called juei, and what the Romans called virtue. (Interestingly, the Latin word virtu also means "manhood"; does this mean that "virtue" may also be rendered as -- to now switch to Spanish -- cajones?). Sun Tzu recognizes that given equal skill levels, the virtuous (ballsy?) man will win.

Here's a little table I have made based on all the references to the general's character in Sun Tzu's work. It lists the virtues and the corresponding vices.

courage cowardice
consideration/etiquette pride
humility pride
balanced personality imbalanced personality
result-orientation humanity
wisdom untempered greed

I will take a few minutes to discuss each of these characteristics.


Sun Tzu places this at the very top of the list. In his day, when generals had to brave slings and arrows, it made a lot of sense to put this quality there. But this quality is also needed in drawing rooms, conference rooms, and at the diplomatic table. In order to win the game we have to be prepared to run risks. Not wild, stupid risks: we do not need to be reckless and without fear. Our courage must be tempered by a healthy dose of fear (I will come back to this later). But no matter how tempered it should be, it still must be the successful player's single greatest quality at the Diplomacy board.

We need courage for at least these purposes:

  1. In order not to despair when faced with superior forces bent on our destruction. When this happens, this is when we need our faculties the most; and to keep a clear head in such circumstances we need courage: "a certain insensitivity in the face of danger," as Joseph Conrad calls it.
  2. To be able to stare down an opponent; sooner or later somebody blinks and plays a defensive rather than offensive hand; once your opponent does this, if you are playing courageously, he is doomed. This is strictly a test of courage; a game of chicken.
  3. To be able to take a small hit in order to enginneer a diplomatic breakthrough.
  4. To make a statement of public policy (as in "I am going to attack Russia now") when we are still in the running for the solo. (I am not talking about the, "I will attack Russia now" announcements which begin revenge-motivated exit-rampages. Those are not acts of courage, but mere dressing of suicidal cowardice).
  5. To be able to offer a just and equitable peace to a defeated enemy when we need him now as a friend; grand gestures to our former enemies require more courage than most would think.
  6. To forego an easy gain and allow another to build when that is required. To allow our ally to get ahead of us when that is to our advantage.
  7. To negotiate truthfully. Men perceived as courageous are believed when they threaten and believed when they spurn a threat. To be able to pull off a non, a la Charles de Gaulle, we must be seen as willing to stand behind our words with all our faculties.
  8. To fight on to the bitter end.

These are all uses of courage. There are more. At the Diplomacy table there are no slings and arrows, but courage is still the essential and basic virtue of a warrior.


The Chinese have one word for both qualities. In the West we distinguish them: the former includes our "true feelings" whereas the latter is merely an outward expression with or without the said feelings. The Chinese do not distinguish between these two qualities, in the observation, correct in my opinion, that if your etiquette is great people will think you considerate -- and that is all that matters.

One way or another, these two, and especially etiquette, are important. In Diplomacy no player can win by the force of arms alone. Even in the final stages of the game we usually need somebody's help to win. Sometimes it may even be someone we have just stabbed or defeated. Therefore, it is exceedingly important to be courteous. When you stab, apologize for it. It means nothing, and everybody knows it, but it sure is a nice thing to do. When you get stabbed, tell your attacker that you are angry, but that you do not think them worthless humanoids. When engaged in a war, try sending sportsmanlike messages: "we are now enemies, of course, but in real life we are friends and comrades." You need their goodwill: you never know when it will come in handy. You can only keep it by being courteous, so smile even as you turn the blade in the wound or as you feel it turn inside you.


This virtue stops you from thinking too highly of yourself. Never underestimate your enemies, never overestimate your skills, and never allow yourself to grow complacent. Reinforce alliances constantly, bury your defeated enemies repeatedly. Check and recheck. The man who works the hardest, wins. The man who is never convinced of his own superiority or his predetermined success is the one who works hardest -- and he who works hardest is usually the one who wins, too.

Humility is important in another way: it is an essential tool for keeping our personality in balance. (See below).

Balanced Personality

Sun Tzu lists critical faults of generals:

There are [several] dangerous faults that may affect a general: (1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction; (2) cowardice, which leads to capture; (3) a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults; (4) a delicacy of honor which is sensitive to shame.

Note that all these qualities are qualified. "Sense of honor" is not bad. It is the delicate sense of honor which is bad, not because of the honor, but because of its delicacy. It is this delicacy that allows an honorable general to be easily offended. A delicate honor may lead a player to break off all diplomatic contact with his enemy whern the first insult is hurled at him. Because this closes whole realms of possibilities, such as an unexpected peace, it is a dangerous development and can only be brought about by being too delicate. A delicate honor may make a player feel that it is incumbent upon him to seek revenge for a lie or a stab. Nothing can be further from the truth: revenge is bad business and nobody makes money in it. Yet only one whose sense of honor is not overdelicate can avoid these traps. When you are insulted, rejoin with self-deprecating comments; agree in humorous prose with your tormentor to show that your sense of honor is not so delicate that it cannot survive the little stuff. You will be surprised how much higher you will stand in the eyes of your enemy, even if he is completely and unalterably devoted to seeing to your elimination. And the higher esteem you can give yourself in his eyes, the better position you are in. The enemy succeeds if he damages your sense of honor, for then you can be made to appear to all other players rash, easily offended, and given to emotionalism.

A hasty temper is bad, not because temper is bad (good generals use anger -- theirs and their enemies -- to get at their objectives), but because of its hastiness. That hastiness could lead us to decisions of war and peace before all pros and cons have been properly weighted. Anger could drive us to say something we will later regret. Sun Tzu is not saying: "do not be angry;" rather, he is saying: "do not be angry in a hasty manner."

As temper is only bad in excess, the same is true of fear. And cowardice is nothing but excessive fear. Fear in itself is good because it checks recklessness. Recklessness is bad because it is excessive daring. Daring (courage), tempered by healthy fear, is one ingredient that wins many wars. (It is important to avoid the foolhardy assumption that daring in itself wins wars).

There are other personality traits that when strong and healthy are good and constructive but in excessive amounts are detrimental, and most are not mentioned by Sun Tzu. So how do we know them and understand them? How does one develop a balanced personality? The answer is: through humililty. Through constant application of sober self-analysis and the careful weighing of one's actions through the hard lense of humility. Be humble and you shall see yourself starkly. See yourself starkly or be killed.

Result-Orientation vs. Humanity

Humanity, or charity, is, as Sun Tzu states repeatedly, a fatal flaw in a ganeral. A true general, he says, does not love the people, because it makes him weak. For example, if the local population must be pillaged or uprooted in order to achieve certain war objectives, the general will have no qualms doing just that. A true general takes very good care of his army, but he does not love it. He takes care of his army, because he needs a good fighting tool. But when the time comes to sacrifice his men's lives for the sake of a well-executed obfuscation, he will sacrifice them without as much as batting an eye and he will send them to their deaths in a useless charge toward an objective he does not even care to take. A true general is not without human feelings, but he does not let such feelings rule him. This may not be in line with your idea of virtue. But if it is not, then what are you doing playing this game? Diplomacy is not a nice game, and if you have not noticed this until now, you should. If you are racked with guilt after taking an ally's home center, when you know that there is no way to succeed without doing so, you can be sure that your guilt is not the quality of a successful general. Play dispassionately and single-mindedly toward your objectives, or you risk not achieving them.


Wisdom is a virtue in any man, but a true general especially. The way Sun Tzu uses this word, wei, indicates that his concern is not with philisophical perceptions but with action. Wisdom, in short, as he defines it, is the ability to perceive the important from the unimportant. To see the true goals from the mickey-mouse goals. Instead of explaining, I will illustrate:

I have recently had the pleasure of substituting for a few turns for Thaddeo Negro, a.k.a. Thaddeus Black, as England, in a game played on the Academy server. Before leaving, Thaddeo left me exquisite instructions. He was a five-center England in alliance with a ten-center Germany and he was fighting with four of those five units in the Mediterraenean to capture Tunis. He ordered me to pursue Tunis even though Germany was about to get more builds. When I questioned his strategy he explained simply:

When you play England, Tunis is often your eighteenth center, and Tunis can be hard to win when you reach seventeen. Therefore, I am going to lock in Tunis now and worry about all the SC's in-between later.

Thaddeo went on to win the game. Not because he locked in Tunis early, which he did, but because he eliminated early his greatest and most dangerous opponent: Italy. By throwing all his resources at the man who was his single most dangerous opponent and the most exerienced player in the game, Edwin Turnage (Italy), Thaddeo was able to get help from Turkey and Germany, and thus to defeat Edwin still in the middle game, long before his solo bid. Thereby, Thaddeo avoided a grand finale confrontation against Edwin. Such a final confrontation against Edwin could have been difficult and dicey. But having defeated Edwin early, Thaddeo made sure that in the grand finale he faced the other, less experienced players, and those who could not stop him from taking the centers he considered most difficult to acquire in an end-game solo-grab as England.

Thaddeo had clearly seen, years in advance, his most important objectives and his most important enemy. Now, that is wisdom.

All I intended to do in this essay is to turn the discussion away from the technical aspects of the game and towards the central -- human -- element of it. The essay is by no means a throrough discussion of all qualities that make a successful general, and may contain major omissions or errors. Nor is the essay a full analysis of Sun Tzu's ideas of what makes a great general. All I wanted to do is to recommend to all of you generals out there, to practice your virtue and to use the sharp tool of humility to shine a stark light on your own qualities, to see those qualities with wide-open eyes, and to see what needs to be corrected. We all need to improve our tactics, always. But what we really need to do is to practice virtue, and to thus improve our gameplay by improving our selves.

Tom Potocki
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