In the seventh hexagram, we are shown the image of the all-important groundwater that remains mostly hidden yet is always stored within the earth. When applied to society, this image means that power and strength—the potential for military might—exists just beneath the surface in even a strictly civilian population. Furthermore, the laws of the universe dictate that this potential energy must be harnessed and regulated by a very strong leader.
The leader we are talking about in this particular circumstance is not the king or otherwise the executive over the entire country, but a good army general who has both the approval of the king and the real authority to maintain order among the troops. Imagine living in a society with no standing army. The very thought of it seems impossible, but up until a couple hundred years ago, this was normal. Whenever a threat or attack presented itself and necessitated war, all of the people—rich and poor alike—would band together to fight it. When the war was over, the army would disband and everyone would go back to whatever they were doing before. There is great energy represented by the potential of a people to transform itself suddenly (and temporarily) into a fighting force, and some leader must be there to direct it, for the greater good of all.
We’re not talking about a despotic whip-cracker in this instance, though. This is a leader who, so long as he has the confidence and blessing of his king, captures people’s affections and inspires their loyalty and enthusiasm quite naturally. We are promised that the troops willingly follow a generous general and that, overall, people who live under such a benign yet strong hand will grow strong and prosperous. More specifically, however, the lines give us a bit of insight as to what can be expected and what must be remembered.
If war does indeed come upon the people and they must be marshaled, everything must be done correctly right at the beginning, or there is zero chance of success, simple as that. The average folks don’t deserve a catastrophe and they didn’t seek this war, so the general has a supreme responsibility to provide the right kind of guidance from the start. The best way for the general to win the favor of all the troops is to be one of them, to fight with them and eat with them and sleep with them. Such humble behavior, loved by all people (who are often, in fact, tricked by its imitation), is also the way for the general to retain and bolster his favor with the king, who will also admire it.
Be warned—the right person needs to be in charge. If someone takes power from the general or assumes the command position before the general can get there, the only outcome can be disaster. In the same way, if the masses attempt to assert control by a form of mob rule, the only outcome can be disaster. This is as important a warning for the leader, who needs to make sure he is present when needed, as it is for the broader number of troops, who need to accept chain of command as necessary to order and discipline and therefore success.
It’s been said before, but bears saying again—if it is obvious that the enemy can’t be defeated, there is no shame in strategic and orderly retreat. It’s not cowardice, it’s wisdom, but this subtlety is often lost on the troops if they are not governed by discipline and the gentle hand of a benevolent leader. Where the rank and file wish to rush into combat to prove bravery and stout-heartedness, the general must restrain them and lead the withdrawal until such time as successful attack is possible. At the same time, if the enemy suddenly invades, war is upon us. It’s time for the people to viciously fight and mete out punishment towards a deserving foe. Even in this circumstance, however, the general must not see it as time to “release the Kraken,” as it were. If the bloodletting of defense turns into an all-out melee, it won’t matter if victory is achieved on the battlefield. The damage done to the population will still be permanent and the society will have lost as a result.
I mean, it is rarely considered that this is one of the main reasons a strong, calm, and disciplined officer corps, right up to the generals, is needed. Even in victory, there must be restraint and order. This is especially true when dangerous or otherwise undeserving individuals and factions contributed to the winning of the war. It is the general who must ensure, when rewards are being handed out and victory spoils divided, that such people are properly handled, paid with any money that they deserve but never given any power or land. Only a general has the kind of steady hand needed to make this determination and to do so without making anyone angry enough to split the populace into a civil war.
There is an interesting statement contained within this hexagram regarding the role of the government alongside a healthy economy, one that doesn’t easily fit in with either the “liberal” or “conservative” arguments of our modern political discourse. Via a “humane government,” we are told that the government’s primary responsibility is always going to be improving the economic conditions of its people, something that creates an “invisible bond between government and people.” Economic strength, along with that bond of nature, are what is required to be strong militarily. Without those things, wars are practically begging to be lost.
At the end of the day, though, as we already know, wars are last resorts. They bring death and pestilence and fire and desolation. They must always be avoided when such a thing is possible. If the war is, however, necessary, people need to have it explained to them in a simple and honest manner. Without an understandable aim for which to strive, their hearts will remain unconvinced in the cause and they are much more likely to lose the war. The other side of such a clearly defined aim is that the people won’t overstep it in such a way that inflicts damage upon the society or prevents the society from returning to peaceful existence at the end of the war. Only the presence of a benevolent, strong, and disciplined general can ensure the people are guided down this narrow path of success.