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Victor V. Gurbo published an essay here at The New Leaf Journal on July 23, 2021, titled Stop Saying Bob Dylan Can’t Sing. Victor made a compelling case that Mr. Dylan is a talented singer, focusing especially on his ability to convey the complex themes and emotions of his lyrics with his voice. However, I had one thought when considering where Victor began his argument from. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu advised princes to avoid battles unless said battles were necessary. In the event that a pitched battle was necessary, Sun-Tzu advised princes to carefully ensure that they and their men had an advantageous position compared to the enemy.

Regardless of the merits of Victor’s “Bob Dylan can really sing!” argument, I fear that he may have run afoul of Sun-Tzu’s learned guidance from the sixth century B.C.

Let me tell you a story.

Sun-Tzu In My High School Chess Club

I mentioned once in an earlier article that I was part of my high school’s casual chess club. The story in that post came from my first year in high school. The following story comes from my third. I was still in a chess club, although the chess club was different than it was in the first year (e.g., after school instead of an elective).

The teacher who nominally ran our chess club – Mr. A – also played chess. On one sunny day in the classroom, he wanted to play a game against me. There was a chess board set up on a desk. One chair was at the front of the desk (facing it correctly) while the other chair sat directly across the desk from it, facing the rear of the desk.

My teacher decisively sat on the chair facing the rear of the desk. I, without any thought, took the other chair – sitting in front of the desk.

Little did I know that I was about to learn a powerful life lesson. This is the kind of lesson that teachers teach and students remember for the rest of their lives.

Mr. A pointed, at me, laughed, and said:

Haha! You failed Sun-Tzu. You’re facing the Sun.

“Mr. A”

Whoa.

It strikes me as just as profound today as it was when I first heard it.

By simply choosing his seat first, my teacher had proven himself a fine practitioner of the art of war. There I was, facing the Sun, squinting at the chess board, while he was enjoying the warm Sun on his back while looking into the shade.

I failed indeed.

(For the record, I do not remember who won that particular game.)

(For the record, I am aware that Sun Tzu’s Sun advice was more nuanced than what I described in the anecdote.)

Did Victor V. Gurbo Fail Sun-Tzu?

Victor was not in chess club. He was, that year, senior editor of the high school newspaper (he had mellowed slightly after his tyrannical outburst at the end of the previous school year). To the best of my knowledge, he does not play much chess. It is a shame. By not playing chess that year, he lost the chance to learn the art of war from Mr. A. Without the benefit of that time-honored wisdom, I fear that he wrote his Dylan-singing argument from a disadvantageous position.

Sun Tzu wrote: “All armies prefer high ground to low.”

Victor V. Gurbo began his argument with the proposition that “Bob Dylan is capable of singing!”

Is this the low ground or the high ground?

Illustration by Nicholas A. Ferrell of his view that Victor V. Gurbo took the low ground in his battle to defend Bob Dylan's singing ability
My illustration of Victor’s chosen position for his just war in defense of Bob Dylan’s voice – created in Kolour Paint. Did I make a mistake my going into writing instead of visual arts?

I think this is the low ground. Victor began his argument by fighting over a very basic premise – “Bob Dylan does not have a frog in his throat.” He was essentially arguing with the “Blob Dylan” graffiti artist in Bushwick, Brooklyn – who I helped make famous here at The New Leaf Journal – on the ground of the graffiti artist’s choosing.

What would the high ground have been? Perhaps Victor could have began his argument by stating that he was making the case that Bob Dylan is, in his own way and in the context of his own art, a talented singer.

Instead, Victor set up camp in the marsh created by Dylan detractors and Dylan fans who misread his article based on the headline, and prepared to charge the hill to face the legions of spitball-tossing-scoffers.

As I read the beginning of his argument, separate from finding Victor’s points salient and well-reasoned, I could not help but think of Mr. A pointing at me and laughing at me (not with me) about how I “failed Sun Tzu.”

Helping Victor Master The Art of War

I am sure that Victor will have many more powerful Bob Dylan essays and arguments in the future. Since he did not have the benefit of learning Sun Tzu in our 11th grade chess club, I will take the opportunity to pass the lessons that I gleaned while he was preparing for the school play in our drama club (he was in a few clubs). Think not only about how you want to press the offensive, but whence and how you begin the offensive.