This weekend I saw Hidden Figures, the movie about three black women pioneers at NASA during the Cold War’s space race. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which was that rare combination of substance meets box office success. I’m a better person for having seen it. I’ve been thinking of how the women in the movie embodied Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
The film is about Katherine G. Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury. The film is also about Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe.
The enemy to the U.S. space program was Russia. But the enemy for these women in the 1960s was segregation and all of the bondage and ugliness that accompanied it.
Let’s look at some of the ways Sun Tzu’s Art of War played out in the movie.
They moved the enemy.
Those skilled in warfare move the enemy, and are not moved by the enemy.
Fundamental to Sun Tzu’s battlefield strategy is the directive to stay ahead of the enemy and move him, rather than be moved by him. Johnson, Spencer and Jackson moved the enemy. While they were subject to the injustices of the enemy and often forced to move where directed, they ultimately rose above the limitations put on them and moved the enemy. Jackson moved the enemy and pivoted the fate of future generations when she became the first black female engineer at NASA, petitioning the court to allow her to attend a segregated night physics program she needed to move upward at NASA.
Vaughan moved the enemy and showed a classic example of adaptation worthy of Sun Tzu’s praise. With the advent of machine computers, human “computers” (as they called the people who did the calculations before modern day computers) became obsolete. So Vaughan took it upon herself to prepare for this sea change by teaching herself and her staff the programming language FORTRAN. She went on to lead programming for the Analysis and Computation Division.
While the central character of the movie was the brilliant Katherine G. Johnson, I was struck by the Vaughan’s foresight in teaching herself this new programming language so she and others would not become obsolete, but essential to the future of the agency. She moved with the reality of the battle landscape and was in position to seize advantages and opportunities.
Now, the laws of military operations are like water. The tendency of water is to flow from heights to lowlands. The law of successful operations is to avoid the enemy’s strength and strike his weaknesses. Water changes its course in accordance with the contours of the land. The soldier works out his victory in accordance with the situation of the enemy.
Water just is. It’s fluid and evasive. To fight against the new mega computer would have been a fait accompli.
Seizing advantage from disadvantage
If, on the other hand, in the midst of difficulties we are always ready to seize an advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune.
Sun Tzu writes repeatedly of the strategic advantage that can come from disadvantage—for the physically and mentally prepared. When opportunity surfaced, these women were ready to seize it. They weren’t passive, but acted dynamically and with the spirit Sun Tzu describes:
If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.
Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.
By taking the night classes and taking advantage of other opportunities, Jackson created an opportunity where there did not appear to be one to become an engineer.
While the enemy did not consider these women to be their own soldiers, the enemy unwittingly and unintentionally did them a favor.
Throw them into a perilous situation and they will survive; put them in desperate ground and they will live. For when the army is placed in such a situation, it can snatch victory from defeat.
This passage, too, rings true:
In a desperate situation, they fear nothing; when there is no way out, they stand firm. Deep in a hostile land they are bound together. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard.
Johnson, Spencer and Jackson had no way out but to stand firm and overcome adversity. Deep in a hostile land that was their very own, they were bound together. As Sun Tzu said, they had no choice but to fight hard and be victorious.
There are some some of the ways these extraordinary and heroic women embodied Sun Tzu’s general to gain a strategic advantage. Maybe if the U.S. had not squandered time, energy and resources to enforce segregation—in addition to refusing to honor the humanity of so many—we would have beat the Russians into space. Maybe the Cold War would have cost the world fewer lives, tears, fears and dollars. When will we learn how much division of any of us hurts all of us?