Solving Long RC Passages

In this article we will take a look at solving really long RC passages. Long passages are no longer in vogue in CAT as the passages have tended to be shorter in the online avatar of the test.  However, with the instructions in the mock stating that a reading comprehension passage may contain 6 questions, there is a possibility of a long passage showing up in the exam (details about the official mock here). Hence, it is important to get accustomed to solving such passages.

Steps to solve:

The following is a time-tested way to solve such passages. In fact, this approach works for every type of passage appearing in CAT. Try it out and see if it works for you.

Step 1: Read each paragraph of the passage at a comfortable speed. Don’t try to speed read or skip words (unless they are examples used to explain a concept). There is enough time during the CAT exam to work through the passage comfortably. In fact, speed reading decreases comprehension and works negatively because you have to read the passage again to understand the bits you didn’t comprehend. Don’t try and memorize each and every part of the passage. Just try and understand the essence of the point being conveyed by the author.

Step 2: Summarize the content of each paragraph in less than 10 words. Try to identify the main points in the paragraph and write them down in your own words/codes.

Step 3: Once you have finished reading the entire passage, read the points that you have written down. Ideally, doing so will help you recollect the entire passage.

Step 4: Answer the questions by eliminating the wrong options.

While writing down the points may seem a waste of time, it in fact helps you comprehend the passage faster and better. In fact, writing down the important things has the dual advantage of ensuring that your concentration doesn’t slip.

Let’s try solving an actual reading comprehension from CAT using this method. Here is an exceptionally long passage (~1400 words) from CAT 1999. We will summarize each paragraph as we read through the passage.

Passage 

The persistent patterns in the way nations fight reflect their cultural and historical traditions and deeply-rooted attitudes that collectively make up their strategic culture. These patterns provide insights that go beyond what can be learnt just by comparing armaments and divisions. In the Vietnam War, the strategic tradition of the United States called for forcing the enemy to fight a massed battle in an open area, where superior American weapons would prevail. The United States was trying to re-fight Second World War in the jungles of South-east Asia, against an enemy with no intention of doing so.

Summary of Paragraph 1: way nation fight -> strategic culture. Beyond arms. E.g. – vietnam

 Some British historians describe the Asian way of war as one of indirect attacks, avoiding frontal attacks meant to overpower an opponent. This traces back to Asian history and geography: the great distances and harsh terrain have often made it difficult to execute the sort of open field clashes allowed by the flat terrain and relatively compact size of Europe. A very different strategic tradition arose in Asia.

Summary of Paragraph 2: British historians – Asians avoid frontal attacks. Due to hist. & geog.

 The bow and arrow were metaphors for an Eastern way of war. By its nature, the arrow is an indirect weapon. Fired from a distance of hundreds of yards, it does not necessitate immediate physical contact with the enemy. Thus, it can be fired from hidden positions. When fired from behind a ridge, the barrage seems to come out of nowhere, taking the enemy by surprise. The tradition of this kind of fighting is captured in the classical strategic writing of the East. The 2,000 years worth of Chinese writings on war constitutes the most subtle writing on the subject in any language. Not until Clausewitz, did the West produce a strategic theorist to match the sophistication of Sun-tzu, whose Art of War was written 2,300 years earlier.

Summary of Paragraph 3: Arrow – indirect weapon. China writing > west. Clausewitz vs. Sun-tzu.

In Sun-tzu and other Chinese writings, the highest achievement of arms is to defeat an adversary without fighting. He wrote: “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.” Actual combat is just one among many means towards the goal of subduing an adversary. War contains too many surprises to be a first resort. It can lead to ruinous losses, as has been seen time and again. It can have the unwanted effect of inspiring heroic efforts in an enemy, as the United States learned in Vietnam, and as the Japanese found out after Pearl Harbour.

Summary of Paragraph 4: Chinese- defeat enemy without fighting. War -> surprises.

Aware of the uncertainties of a military campaign, Sun-tzu advocated war only after the most thorough preparations. Even then, it should be quick and clean. Ideally, the army is just an instrument to deal the final blow to an enemy already weakened by isolation, poor morale, and disunity. Ever since Sun-tzu, the Chinese have been seen as masters of subtlety who take measured actions to manipulate an adversary without his knowledge. The dividing line between war and peace can be obscure. Low level violence often is the backdrop to a larger strategic campaign. The unwitting victim, focused on the day-to-day events, never realizes what’s happening to him until it’s too late. History holds many examples. The Viet Cong lured French and US infantry deep into the jungle, weakening their morale over several years. The mobile army of the United States was designed to fight on the plains of Europe, where it could quickly move unhindered from one spot to the next. The jungle did more than make quick movement impossible; broken down into smaller units and scattered in isolated bases, US forces were deprived of the feeling of support and protection that ordinarily comes from being part of a big army.

Summary of Paragraph 5: Sun-tzu – war only after prep. E.g. viet cong vs us army -> jungle – isolation.

 The isolation of US troops in Vietnam was not just a logistical detail, something that could be overcome by, for instance, bringing in reinforcements by helicopter. In a big army reinforcements are readily available. It was Napoleon who realized the extraordinary effects on morale that come from being part of a larger formation. Just the knowledge of it lowers the soldier’s fear and increases his aggressiveness. In the jungle and on isolated bases, this feeling was removed. The thick vegetation slowed down the reinforcements and made it difficult to find stranded units. Soldiers felt they were on their own.

Summary of Paragraph 6: Idea of isolation in Vietnam – origins from Napolean

More important, by altering the way the war was fought, the Viet Cong stripped the United States of its belief in the inevitability of victory, as it had done to the French before them. Morale was high when these armies first went to Vietnam. Only after many years of debilitating and demoralizing fighting did Hanoi launch its decisive attacks, at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and against Saigon in 1975. It should be recalled that in the final push to victory the North Vietnamese abandoned their jungle guerrilla tactics completely, committing their entire army of twenty divisions to pushing the South Vietnamese into collapse. This final battle, with the enemy’s army all in one place, was the one that the United States had desperately wanted to fight in 1965. When it did come out into the open in 1975, Washington had already withdrawn its forces and there was no possibility of re-intervention.

Summary of Paragraph 7: Viet cong stripped morale. Final battle in open – US withdrew beforehand.

The Japanese early in Second World War used a modern form of the indirect attack, one that relied on stealth and surprise for its effects. At Pearl Harbour, in the Philippines, and in South-east Asia, stealth and surprise were attained by sailing under radio silence so that the navy’s movements could not be tracked, Moving troops aboard ships into South-east Asia made it appear that the Japanese army was also ’invisible’. Attacks against Hawaii and Singapore seemed, to the American and British defenders, to come from nowhere. In Indonesia and the Philippines the Japanese attack was even faster than the German blitz against France in the West.

Summary of Paragraph 8: Japanese silent attacks

The greatest military surprises in American history have all been in Asia. Surely, there is something going on here beyond the purely technical difficulties of detecting enemy movements. Pearl Harbour, the Chinese intervention in Korea, and the Tet offensive in Vietnam all came out of a tradition of surprise and stealth. US technical intelligence — the location of enemy units and their movements — was greatly improved after each surprise, but with no noticeable improvement in the American ability to foresee or prepare what would happen next. There is a cultural divide here, not just a technical one. Even when it was possible to track an army with intelligence satellites, as when Iraq invaded Kuwait or when Syria and Egypt attacked Israel, surprise was achieved. The United States was stunned by Iraq’s attack on Kuwait even though it had satellite pictures of Iraqi troops massing at the border.

Summary of Paragraph 9: US difficulty in foreseeing enemy surprises. E.g. Iraq

The exception that proves the point that cultural differences obscure the West’s understanding of Asian behaviour was the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. This was fully anticipated and understood in advance. There was no surprise because the United States understood Moscow’s world view and thinking. It could anticipate Soviet action almost as well as the Soviets themselves, because the Soviet Union was really a western country.

Summary of Paragraph 10: Exception: US understood Moscow’s thinking.

The difference between the eastern and the western way of war is striking. The West’s great strategic writer, Clausewitz, linked war to politics, as did Sun-tzu. Both were opponents of militarism, of turning war over to the generals. But there, all similarity ends. Clausewitz wrote that the way to achieve a larger political purpose is through destruction of the enemy’s army. After observing Napoleon conquer Europe by smashing enemy armies to bits, Clausewitz made his famous remark in On War (1932) that combat is the continuation of politics by violent means. Morale and unity are important, but they should be harnessed for the ultimate battle. If the eastern way of war is embodied by the stealthy archer, the metaphorical western counterpart is the swordsman charging forward, seeking a decisive showdown, eager to administer the blow that will obliterate the enemy once and for all. In this view, war proceeds along a fixed course and occupies a finite extent of time, like a play in three acts with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end, the final scene, decides the issue for good.

Summary of Paragraph 11: Differences between Clausewitz and Sun-tzu. Archer vs swordsman

When things don’t work out quite this way, the western military mind feels tremendous frustration. Sun- tzu’s great disciples, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, are respected in Asia for their clever use of indirection and deception to achieve an advantage over stronger adversaries. But in the West their approach is seen as underhanded and devious. To the American strategic mind, the Viet Cong guerilla did not fight fairly. They should have come out into the open and fought like men, instead of hiding in the jungle and sneaking around like a cat in the night.

Summary of Paragraph 12: US thinking Asian strategy devious. Viet cong should have fought in open.

 

Phew! Finally, we are done reading the passage. Let’s look at the summary:

Summary of Paragraph 1: way nation fight -> strategic culture. Beyond arms. Egs – vietnam

Summary of Paragraph 2: british historians – Asians avoid frontal attacks. Due to hist. & geog.

Summary of Paragraph 3: Arrow – indirect weapon. China writing > west. Clausewitz vs. sun-tzu.

Summary of Paragraph 4: chinese- defeat enemy without fighting. War -> surprises.

Summary of Paragraph 5: sun-tzu – war only after prep. E.g. viet cong vs us army -> jungle – isolation.

Summary of Paragraph 6: Idea of isolation in Vietnam – origins from Napolean

Summary of Paragraph 7: viet cong stripped morale. Final battle in open – US withdrew beforehand.

Summary of Paragraph 8: Japanese silent attacks

Summary of Paragraph 9: US difficulty in foreseeing enemy surprises. Eg. Iraq

Summary of Paragraph 10: Exception: US understood Moscow’s thinking.

Summary of Paragraph 11: Differences between Clausewitz and Sun-tzu. Archer vs swordsman

Summary of Paragraph 12: US thinking Asian strategy devious. Viet cong should have fought in open.

 

Once I go through the above points, I can recollect the exact way the passage flows. Additionally, I now have a placeholder for the important points. In case there is a specific detail asked, I can go to that paragraph immediately and search for the answer. Note that when you start doing this, the points which you make may be different to the ones I have shown above. This is completely fine. The important thing is to ensure that you understand the passage when you read your points.

 

Having summarized the passage, let’s solve the questions asked in the exam.

Q.1. According to the author, the main reason for the US losing the Vietnam War was

a.   the Vietnamese understood the local terrain better.

b.  the lack of support for the war from the American people.

c.   the failure of the US to mobilize its military strength.

d.  their inability to fight a war on terms other than those they understood well.

Answer: The answer is clearly evident from reading the passage (paragraph 6 and 9).  It has been repeatedly mentioned that the failure was due to the inability of the US to fight in the jungles of Vietnam and hence on terms other than the ones they understood well. Hence option d is the answer.

 

Q.2. Which of the following statements does not describe the ‘Asian’ way of war?

a.   Indirect attacks without frontal attacks.

b.  The swordsman charging forward to obliterate the enemy once and for all.

c.   Manipulation of an adversary without his knowledge.

d.  Subduing an enemy without fighting.

Answer: The passage talks about how the Asian way is to subdue an enemy without fighting and other similar aspects. The point about the swordsman is described in paragraph 11 but it refers to a western way of war. Hence option b is the answer.

 

Q.3. Which of the following is not one of Sun-tzu’s ideas?

a.   Actual combat is the principal means of subduing an adversary.

b.  War should be undertaken only after thorough preparation.

c.   War is linked to politics.

d.  War should not be left to the generals alone.

Answer: From the summary, it is clear that Sun-tzu’s ideas are in paragraphs 4, 5 and 11. Choices b, c and d are clearly mentioned in paragraphs 5 and 11. Hence option a is the answer.

 

Q.4. The difference in the concepts of war of Clausewitz and Sun-tzu is best characterized by

a.   Clausewitz’s support for militarism as against Sun-tzu’s opposition to it.

b.  their relative degrees of sophistication.

c.   their attitude to guerilla warfare.

d.  their differing conceptions of the structure, time and sequence of a war.

 

Answer: The answer is again in paragraphs 5 and 11. The eastern way was the stealthy archer whereas the western way was the swordsman charging forward. Hence, they differed on structure. The eastern way was a long drawn out approach whereas the western way was occupied a finite extent of time. Hence, they differed on time. The western way was to play a war in three parts whereas in the eastern way there was no such thing. Hence, they differed on sequence. Clearly option d is the answer.

 

Q.5. To the Americans, the approach of the Viet Cong seemed devious because

a.   the Viet Cong did not fight like men out in the open.

b.  the Viet Cong allied with America’s enemies.

c.   the Viet Cong took strategic advice from Mao Zedong.

d.  the Viet Cong used bows and arrows rather than conventional weapons.

Answer: This is clearly obvious from our summary of paragraph 12. To the Americans, the approach of Viet Cong seemed devious because the Viet Cong did not fight like men out in the open. Hence, option a is the answer.

 

Q.6. According to the author, the greatest military surprises in American history have been in Asia because

a.   the Americans failed to implement their military strategies many miles away from their own country.

b.  the Americans were unable to use their technologies like intelligence satellites effectively to detect enemy movements.

c.   the Americans failed to understand the Asian culture of war that was based on stealth and surprise.

d.  Clausewitz is inferior to Sun-tzu.

Answer: It’s clear from our summary that the answer lies in paragraph 9. The answer lies in the statement ‘There is a cultural divide here, not just a technical one.’ Hence option c is the answer.

 

Parting Thoughts

1. This may seem to be a time consuming method. However, it helps you pinpoint the precise location of a particular idea in the passage, helping you save time in searching for it.

2. This works not only for long passages but for all other passages also. In fact, as mentioned earlier, writing down will help you concentrate better than simply reading the passage and forgetting the contents by the time you finish reading.

3. Try this method out for a few passages and see if it helps you. In case it doesn’t you could always go back to your earlier approach of solving RCs.

 

 

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