What the Battle of Red Cliff tells us about NS

Faisal Wali

Zhouyu, Red Cliff (2008)

Zhou Yu, Red Cliff (2008)

One of the epic movies that I have enjoyed most despite not having a chinese background is Red Cliff. Relying on the English subtitles, I watched with relish the plot unfold as protagonists and antagonists clashed with each other over the two instalments in leading to the finale.

One scene, which I found memorable, was the part when soldiers from General Gan Xing’s company stole a peasant’s water buffalo. Since the rice field where the buffalo was stolen was muddy, the thieves could be easily identified with their muddy shoes. The punishment for theft was death sentence.

Zhou Yu, the overall commander in charge, ordered men from Gan Xing’s company to run through the exercise grounds, where one of the obstacles involved crossing a muddy ditch. Everyone from Gan Xing’s company ended up with muddy shoes and the culprits could no longer be identified. Gan Xing knelt down in front of the peasant and asked for his forgiveness for not training his men properly, which resulted in the theft.

His men from his company followed his lead in kneeling down to ask for forgiveness, followed by the rest of the soldiers at the parade square. Zhou Yu declared that he did not drag out the culprits responsible for stealing the buffalo because he believed in second chances and a need for unity. He also acknowledged the lack of supplies was the main reason for the looting and requested Lu Su to use his wealth to top up the military’s supplies.

Because of the movie, I became interested in the historical Battle of Red Cliff and did some research. It was true that Cao Cao had numerical superiority to the tune of 800,000 men over the combined forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan (commanded by Zhou Yu). Zhou Yu commanded 30,000 men in the alliance with Liu Bei. However, the outcome of the battle was a defeat for Cao Cao.

Post-mortem analysis yielded several factors for Cao Cao’s eventual defeat. One was that Cao’s army was ill-suited for a naval warfare because his force comprised mainly of infantry and cavalry. His men were also fatigued after a long campaign and were ravaged by diseases, which people in the south (where Sun Quan’s kingdom is located) were immune to.

A third significant factor was that the morale of Cao’s troops was questionable as a sizable portion was those who surrendered to him but were incorporated into his military. Their morale was also sapped by the prolonged southern campaign. In contrast, Zhou Yu’s men though very much inferior in number size were highly motivated.

It was even said that Zhou Yu personally inspected his troops despite being injured by an arrow and gave them words of encouragement. This boosted the morale of his men.

A valuable lesson we can learn from analysing the events of the battle is that numerical superiority does not always lead to victory. Cao Cao operated on that premise and thought he could crush the combined forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan with sheer numbers, but he was wrong.

Although troop morale was just one of the factors leading to Cao Cao’s loss, it was nevertheless an important factor. What it showed us was that a smaller, highly motivated fighting force could just be as effective.

Reflecting on the lessons and applying them to our current system of National Service (NS), it is worth deliberating over creating a smaller size, professional army rather than having NS conscripts. To begin, giving up 2 years or 2 and a half years (during my time) during the prime of one’s life is a prospect which not everyone is looking forward to.

That involves giving up and foregoing dreams or ambitions and even relationships. Some will come off better and cope with this situation well, while others do not adjust well and end up with low morale.

In recent times, growing resentment over the government’s open-door policy in allowing foreigners to compete with locals on the job market will without a shadow of doubt affect NS men’s morale and motivation.

Because NS impacts our careers and working lives, it will exert an effect on NS men’s morale. What is the effect on the morale of an NS man who received harsh statements from his boss who is unhappy over the fact that he had to report for in-camp training (ICT)? Not high, I suppose.

“Why are we doing NS to protect foreigners who compete with us for jobs?” is the typical sentiment. ICT for reservists is perceived as unnecessarily disruption with implications for employment and career progression prospects. So is the requirement to attend remedial training sessions due to failure to pass the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT). Our foreign counterparts have no such obligations. I had to do ICT and IPPT until I was posted to work overseas.

The most obvious observation I had of men’s morale came during periods when we had to go for training exercises. The eve of the exercise coincided with the highest rate of “reporting sick”. Maybe, that was an example of a negative placebo effect!

Even for those so-called fighting fit ones, they will just do the bare minimum, whenever there is time to slack, they will slack. The reason for their attitude? They will tell you what they think in four words “serve and f*** off”.

Another issue affecting morale of NS men is that of equity. Seeing others getting better treatment when one is suffering under tough training is actually sapping for the morale. The principle of fairness is more or less universal. Better treatment of a group of NS men compared to another group will create resentment within the ranks due to perceived unfairness and will negatively affect morale.

There was a furore over a debate on the White Horse issue involving former member of parliament Mr Cedric Foo when he was quizzed on the subject by Mr Steve Chia, who was a non-constituency member of parliament. A white horse is alleged to be an NS man who is well-connected or related to an elite, and as such, will supposingly receive less harsh training as compared with a normal NS man, both of which with similar medical status.

This is why there are calls for a smaller, but professional military comprised of regular men and women. A smaller, highly motivated force can just be as potent. There is after all no advantage of being a numerically superior force comprised of troops with low morale or are less motivated to serve, like the surrendered troops in Cao Cao’s offensive force.

The term “operational readiness” that our military brass uses seems to give an impression of our readiness to mobilise, and if need be, enter the theatre of conflict. However, going by the lessons from the Battle of Red Cliff, a quintessential part of this “operational readiness” equation is troop morale and motivation.

As they say, if we approach any battle, contest or competition with a low morale and motivation, the battle is as good as lost. All the pomp and fanfare about mobilising with the latest military equipments and weapons will come to naught if the troops come in with a low morale and motivation.

Therefore, operational readiness is both military hardware, and heartware. To be operationally ready is not only about mobilising with 100% attendance and full equipments, it is also about possessing the morale and motivation to enter the battle.

And this level of operational readiness is better achieved with a smaller, professional and regular force rather than a larger force comprising of conscripts and NS men. Given the current climate, there is without a doubt issues such as competition with foreigners without NS obligations, foregoing ambitions and relationships, etc that will affect morale and motivation.

Zhuge Liang described Cao Cao’s troops as “a powerful arrow that cannot penetrate a silk cloth at the end of its flight” in reference to the long campaigns they have to fight and their increasing exhaustion. I would like to borrow the same bow and arrow analogy from Zhuge Liang.

A military force devoid of morale and motivation is like an archer who does not even have the strength to pull the arrow backwards against the bowstring (pulling the arrow backwards against the bowstring stretches it and on release, the stored energy releases the arrow). The arrow is never shot.

The battle is lost even before any shot is made. We will do much better with a smaller, more motivated military force with a higher morale and motivation instead. Zhou Yu had a smaller size force of this stature and in combination with Liu Bei managed to kick the living daylights out of Cao Cao. The rest they say is history.

Photo courtesy of IMDB