Book Review of The Art of War by Sun Tzu

This Book Review of The Art of War by Sun Tzu is brought to you from Evan Clayton from the Titans of Investing.

Genre: Humanities
Author: Sun Tzu
Title: The Art of War (Buy the Book)

Summary

Perhaps the greatest warfare novel written, The Art of War, is believed to have been written by Chinese military official, Sun Tzu, around 500 B.C. However, historians continue to debate the authority of the book as well as the very existence of Sun Tzu himself. The novel, a relic of Chinese history, was only recently introduced to Western culture when it was translated first into French and later English in the 20th century.

Regardless of how the book came to be, The Art of War has fascinated great military minds and common men through its short proverbial literature. Sun Tzu’s book makes for a compelling and philosophical read, as its narrative is designed to provide counsel regarding internal traits related to the General, as well as external strategies and decisions made by the General in order to achieve victory over the enemy.

In addition to the commentary surrounding the qualities of the ideal General, Sun Tzu alludes to the crucial role the General plays in the State. He calls him the “the arbiter of the people’s fate, the man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or in peril.

Thus, the duty and responsibility of the General is not simply to win battles, but he determines the outcome of the State’s destiny with his every decision. The importance of his role is not to be taken lightly.

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The proverbs from the Art of War can be grouped into two main categories:

  1. Characteristics and traits of the great General
  2. Keys to achieving victory in warfare

Under the description of the great General, Sun Tzu stresses the following critical qualities necessary to become successful: Awareness of Situations and Natural Surroundings, Awareness of Self and Enemy, and the specific traits of Cleverness and Wisdom.

With regard to Awareness of Situations and Natural Environment, Sun Tzu introduces the five constant factors that should be considered when observing the conditions and landscape of the field of war. These constants are:

  1. The Moral Law: that which causes people to be in complete accord with the ruler so they will follow their ruler regardless of their circumstances, undismayed by any danger
  2. Heaven: signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons; all things beyond human control and manipulation
  3. Earth: distances, great and small, danger and security, open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death
  4. The Commander: the General who stands for virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and sternness
  5. Method and Discipline: marshaling of the army in proper subdivisions, rank, as well as maintenance of roads for supply and military expenditures – practical considerations

Sun Tzu believes these are the five criteria whereby the great General groups his thoughts and observations with respect to the field of battle, leading him to intentionally develop strategies and tactics for the upcoming war. All decisions in warfare should be made with careful regard and consideration to each of these factors. It is interesting to note these constants are a combination of both physical and mental characteristics, contrary to the popular misconception that warfare is merely a physical match of strength and firepower.

In light of the quality of Awareness of Self and Enemy, Sun Tzu lists seven questions the General should consider when making comparisons between his own force and the enemy. Sun Tzu states victory or defeat can be predetermined by the answers to these seven considerations.

These questions of comparison compel the General to develop an in-depth understanding of the force at his command, as well as the enemy army.

  1. Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral Law?
  2. Which of the two generals has the most ability?
  3. With whom lies the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth?
  4. On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?
  5. Which army is stronger?
  6. On which side are officers and men more highly trained?
  7. In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?

“Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”– Sun Tzu

Arguably one of the most famous quotes regarding military tactics, ‘All warfare is based on deception’ highlights the significance of cleverness and cunning necessary for success.

Although these qualities would be ideal throughout the army ranks, it is of vital importance for the General to possess these attributes, but to also nurture and develop these skills in the army at large. Sun Tzu encourages the General to pretend to be weak so that the enemy may grow arrogant.

The true mark of a clever General is that he imposes his will on the enemy but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him. This strategy is the height of cleverness and a sure road to victory. In concurrence with the appearance of weakness, holding out traps with which to entice the enemy and feigning disorder and lack of unity is promoted.

“Scheme so as to discover his plans and likelihood of their success. Rouse him and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.” – Sun Tzu

Before elaborating on the paths to attain victory, Sun Tzu defines true victory which is to capture the enemy’s country whole and intact, not to shatter and destroy the enemy’s army and country.

“…supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” – Sun Tzu

The reason for this is that the enemy’s troops and supplies can be used to support the conquering army, augmenting one’s own strength. In addition to the capturing of the enemy, the ‘supreme excellence’ is to break the enemy without engaging in warfare.

This proverb also emphasizes the significance of cleverness and wisdom in accomplishing victory through means outside of direct military encounters. The General’s purpose should be to attain victory, not wage lengthy and costly campaigns, out of personal spite or revenge.

Sun Tzu states the highest form of leadership is to first subvert the enemy’s plans and schemes; the second alternative is to prevent unity of the enemy’s forces; the next best option is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst plan of action of all is to lay siege to walled cities.

Sun Tzu states there are five essentials to victory:

  1. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight
  2. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces
  3. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks
  4. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared
  5. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign

“Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” – Sun Tzu

INTRODUCTION

The Art of War is perhaps the most influential manual concerning the ancient tactics of warfare ever written. Historians continue to debate whether the classic was written by a Chinese military official named Sun Tzu or if Sun Tzu even existed.

Those who refute his existence argue that, had such a brilliant military mind really lived, more would have been recorded regarding his background and conquests in Chinese history. Historians who claim Sun Tzu did exist believe he was in the service of the King Ho-lu of Wu, one of the ancient Chinese kingdoms, but very little is known about his military exploits outside of The Art of War.

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Some historians think Sun Tzu did not, in fact, rise to the rank of general in the Chinese military due to the lack of historical evidence of his existence, and the opinion that such talented individuals usually do not rise above certain military ranks due to their genius. The reason such individuals would often not rise above this rank was that the emperor would feel threatened by their power and cunning.

Other historians believe The Art of War was written by a collection of other individuals within the military around approximately the same time Sun Tzu may have lived; while additional scholars think he was one of these contributors.

The military manual is believed to have been written around 500 B.C, a time known as The Warring States Period in China, when the kingdoms of Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, and Zhao were repeatedly in conflict with each other for control of the land.

Throughout this historical period, there were many advancements, including the shift from predominately chariot armies to organized armies consisting of primarily infantry and some cavalry, as well as the development of great literary works that became the basis for Chinese religious and social beliefs in the following years.

The main philosophical schools of thought at the time were Taoism and Confucianism, although the philosophy of Legalism was the central governing body under which the Qin Emperors ruled.

Although the book garnered great respect in Eastern traditions, its introduction into Western cultures occurred in 1782, when a Jesuit missionary, Father Amiot, translated the book into French.

However, the first English translation is less than one hundred years old and became widely known when Captain E.F. Calthrop published his version in 1905. Since then, various translators and historians (most notably James Clavell in 1983) have updated the translation, resulting in a more comprehensive version, which is read extensively today.

The proverbs from The Art of War can be grouped into two main categories:

  1. The characteristics and traits of the great General, and
  2. The keys to achieving victory in warfare. Sun Tzu’s book makes for a compelling and philosophical read, as its narrative is designed to provide counsel regarding internal traits related to the General, as well as external strategies and decisions made by the General in order to achieve victory over the enemy. In the book, Sun Tzu continuously references the “General” as the quintessential military leader and describes the attributes and leadership skills that he should possess.

THE TRAITS OF THE GREAT GENERAL

“The natural formation of the country is the soldier’s best ally; but a power of estimating the adversary, of controlling the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating difficulties, dangers, and distances, constitutes the test of a great general. He who knows these things, and in fighting puts his knowledge into practice, will win his battles. He who knows them not, nor practices them, will surely be defeated.” – Sun Tzu

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu describes the role and importance of the General alluding to him as “the arbiter of the people’s fate, the man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or in peril.”

The General is the “bulwark of the State; if the bulwark is complete at all points, the State will be strong; if the bulwark is defective, the State will be weak.”

The business of the General is to “be quiet and thus ensure secrecy; upright and just, and thus maintain order”; and to “muster his host and bring it into danger.” Sun Tzu’s description of a great General and his leadership traits spans the entire length of The Art of War and is a recurring theme in his proverbs regarding warfare strategies.

The main traits of the successful General can be grouped into the following categories: Awareness of Situations and Natural Surroundings, Awareness of Self and Enemy, and the specific traits of Cleverness and Wisdom.

AWARENESS OF SITUATIONS AND NATURAL SURROUNDINGS

The Art of War begins with perhaps one of the most recognizable phrases written regarding warfare: “The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” Beginning with this statement, Sun Tzu outlines the purpose and rationale behind heeding his wise words.

The book immediately introduces the five constant factors that should be considered when observing the conditions and situations of the field of war. These constants are:

  1. The Moral Law: that which causes people to be in complete accord with their ruler so they will follow their ruler regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger
  2. Heaven: signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons – all things beyond human control and manipulation
  3. Earth: distances, great and small, danger and security, open ground and narrow passes; the odds of life and death
  4. The Commander: the general who stands for virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and sternness
  5. Method and Discipline: marshaling of the army in proper subdivisions, rank, as well as maintenance of roads for supply and military expenditures – practical considerations

Sun Tzu believes these are the five criteria whereby great generals group their thoughts and observations with respect to the field of battle leading them to intentionally develop strategies and tactics for the upcoming war.

All decisions in warfare should be made with careful regard and consideration to each of these factors. It is interesting to note these constants are a combination of both physical and mental characteristics, which is contrary to the popular misconception that warfare is merely a physical match of strength and firepower.

Along with these criteria, Sun Tzu elaborates extensively on the physical conditions present on the field of battle and how those dictate strategy.

These are conditions governed by Heaven and Earth and are beyond the control of the General. They are factors that cannot be changed – they can only be adapted and twisted to the General’s advantage.

Examples of these physical situations created by Earth include the nine varieties of ‘ground,’ and situations to be recognized and utilized by the great General:

  1. Dispersive Ground: ground which is considered as fighting in one’s own territory – ‘home turf’
  2. Facile Ground: situation in which an army has penetrated into hostile territory but not to a great distance
  3. Contentious Ground: ground in which possession imports great advantage to either side
  4. Open Ground: where each side has the liberty of movement
  5. Intersecting Highways: ground which forms the key to three contiguous states so that he who occupies it first has most of the Empire at his command
  6. Serious Ground: a situation in which an army has penetrated into the heart of a hostile country leaving a number of fortified cities in its rear
  7. Difficult Ground: ground which is difficult to traverse: mountain forests, rugged land, and marshes
  8. Hemmed in Ground: ground reached through narrow gorges so that a small number of the enemy would suffice to crush a large body of men
  9. Desperate Ground: ground in which an army can only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay

Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of the geography/topography and physical conditions that play a factor in the method of determining the proper manner in which to conduct the battle by stating: “how to make the best of both strong and weak-that is a question involving the proper use of ground.”

Thus, the skillful General must observe the natural surroundings upon surveying the field of battle, and his duty is to develop a battle strategy based upon these factors that will be advantageous to his army.

While an understanding of the situation and natural landscape is of great importance to the General in preparing tactics, he must “be able to turn his knowledge to practical account” as Sun Tzu stresses in the development of the steps in his military method.

The order of Sun Tzu’s military methods proceeds in chronological order as follows: Measurement, Estimation of Quantity, Calculation, Balancing of Chances, and finally Victory. Each of these dimensions of warfare builds upon the preceding one making Measurement, which consists of observations based upon the Earth element of the five constants mentioned earlier, the base on which Victory is built.

Thus, the gravity of making observations regarding nature and situational advantages cannot be overstated because everything else critical to warfare is built on the basis of an understanding of the natural environment.

AWARENESS OF SELF AND ENEMY

“Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”– Sun Tzu

In this proverb, Sun Tzu places great value on the knowledge and awareness the General must possess with respect to understanding his army and the enemy. It is interesting to note that Sun Tzu does not mention the outcome of warfare if the General knows the enemy but not himself.

With respect to the opening passage, Sun Tzu lists seven questions the General should consider when making comparisons between his own force and the enemy. Sun Tzu states victory or defeat can be predetermined by the answers to these seven considerations. These questions of comparison compel the General to develop an in-depth understanding of the force at his command, as well as the enemy army.

  1. Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral Law?
  2. Which of the two generals has the most ability?
  3. With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth?
  4. On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?
  5. Which army is stronger?
  6. On which side are officers and men more highly trained?
  7. In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?

On the topic of awareness of his own army, Sun Tzu advises the General on the treatment of his soldiers.

He encourages the General not to punish his troops before they have grown attached or acquainted with him or else they will not prove submissive – a trait of critical importance in warfare and which emphasizes a personal relationship with his troops.

However, the General should also enforce the punishments upon his soldiers once they have grown attached or they will become undisciplined in battle. Sun Tzu believes soldiers should be treated in the first instance with humanity but still kept under control through iron discipline – earning the General the respect and command of his men.

Also, Sun Tzu commands the General to “regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.” Therefore, the task of the General is to walk the fine line between treating his soldiers with kindness and mercy, while commanding their respect and obedience to his orders in war.

It is up to the General’s discernment when to respond with encouraging words or punishment when soldiers are out of line. These behaviors strengthen the Moral Law that unites and connects the bonds the General has with his forces.

Sun Tzu concludes the treatment of soldiers with this statement: “If, however, you are indulgent but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children; they are useless for any practical purpose.”

In addition to the knowledge and handling of his soldiers, there are six calamities to which an army can be exposed for which the General is primarily responsible. These consequences are the result of the General not being in tune with, and unaware of, the temperament and situations within his own army. The six calamities are:

  1. Flight: occurs when, other conditions being equal, one force is hurled against another ten times its size
  2. Insubordination: occurs when the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak
  3. Collapse: occurs when the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak
  4. Ruin: occurs when the higher officers are angry and insubordinate and, upon meeting the enemy, wage war on their own account disregarding the General’s commands
  5. Utter Disorganization: occurs when the General is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct, and the ranks are formed in a haphazard manner
  6. Rout: occurs when the General is unable to estimate the enemy’s strength, allows an inferior force to engage a larger one, and neglects to place his skilled veteran warriors in the front rank

By highlighting the catastrophic effects of war, Sun Tzu underlines the General’s need to know the inner workings and well-being of his army and the effect his organizational structure has upon his officers and soldiers.

Sun Tzu also states three conditions the General must consider when ordering his men to attack: whether his army is in condition to fight, whether the enemy is open to attack, and whether the nature of the ground makes battle practical.

If only two of these conditions are fulfilled, then the General will only have achieved a partial victory. However, if all three conditions have been observed as true, victory can most certainly be achieved. The great General must be in tune with knowledge of himself, the enemy, and the natural ground and circumstances upon which the battle will be fought.

“Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” – Sun Tzu

Along with proverbs specific to his own army, Sun Tzu also presents the General with advice specific to the enemy and their strategies: what enemy movements entail and how the manner in which the enemy moves tips their hand to reveal their strategies and objectives.

For example, the effect of enemy troops on the natural environment may cause the sudden flight of birds in the air, the rising of dust in different types of columns and heights based on troop movement and strength, and the movement of trees in forests and grass – the successful General should be alert to these natural signs.

The General is tasked with being observant of the manner in which these varying natural occurrences reveal enemy troop movement, marches, strategies, and ambushes. This task blends the different traits of the successful General: awareness of natural surroundings and situations as well as knowledge of the enemy.

The clever General does not attack the enemy when their spirit is keen but waits for them to appear sluggish and disheartened – this is called the art of studying moods.

Therefore, the brilliant and successful General is able to observe and decipher the body language of the enemy, whether they are primed for warfare or fight out of obligation and fear. This ability to accurately evaluate an enemy will shape the General’s strategy and the subsequent methods of warfare that are chosen in order to conquer the enemy.

CLEVERNESS AND WISDOM

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” – Sun Tzu

Arguably one of the most famous quotes regarding military tactics, “All warfare is based on deception” highlights the significance of cleverness and cunning necessary for success. Although these qualities would be ideal throughout the army ranks, it is of vital importance for the General to possess these attributes, but to also nurture and develop these skills in the army at large.

Sun Tzu likens the skillful and clever General to the Shuai-Jan, a snake found in the Chung mountains of China.

It is debatable whether the Shuai-Jan snake is a mythical or real creature, but the significance of the metaphor still stands. The Shuai-Jan snake is able to recognize and respond to various scenarios thrown at it: strike at its head, and it will attack with its tail; strike at its tail, and it will attack with its head; strike at its middle and it will attack with both head and tail.

By comparing the General and his army to a living creature capable of such maneuvers, Sun Tzu highlights the importance of unity and adaptability to different situations. It is also worth noting that the head of the snake is the primary means of attacking, while the tail acts as its less deadly form of striking.

With any army, the front force that is attacking is stronger, but the back must still be capable of lashing out if the proper circumstances arise. Thus, the General should lead with his strength, or the head of the snake, while able to still strike with his rear forces or the tail of the snake.

In addition to the Shuai–Jan snake, Sun Tzu implores the General to “at first, exhibit the coyness of a maiden, until the enemy gives you an opening; afterwards emulate the rapidity of a running hare, and it will be too late for the enemy to oppose you.”

Once again, similes are used to highlight the manner in which to act and strike the enemy.

Before the battle begins, Sun Tzu utilizes the metaphor of a maiden for the General to disguise his strengths and appear weak before the enemy. Thus, the enemy will advance and attack seeking victory over a seemingly feeble opponent, which is the time when the army should strike with the speed and quickness of a hare with the intention of catching the enemy off-guard and unaware.

Besides the metaphor of the maiden and the hare, Sun Tzu encourages the General to pretend to be weak so that the enemy may grow arrogant. The true mark of the clever General is that he imposes his will on the enemy but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.

This strategy is the height of cleverness and a sure road to victory. In concurrence with the appearance of weakness, holding out traps with which to entice the enemy and feigning disorder and lack of unity is promoted.

In this manner, the enemy will take notice of apparent weakness and chaos – beginning the attack with arrogance and sure victory in sight, unaware of the real might and power of the General’s forces. “Scheme so as to discover his plans and likelihood of their success. Rouse him and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.” – Sun Tzu

Along with cleverness and deception, the great General must develop wisdom so that when battle arrives, he is thoroughly prepared and may be able to decide upon the best route to victory. A crucial part of wisdom is forethought and preparation heading into the battle.

A wise man is prepared for any and all situations.

Sun Tzu encourages the General to think and plan before taking action: “thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat; how much more no calculation at all!” Based on this point, Sun Tzu can forecast who will win or lose based on the amount of preparation and forethought by the opposing forces.

With respect to wisdom, Sun Tzu lists five dangerous faults which may affect the General; these are described as ‘besetting sins,’ which can be ruinous to warfare:

  1. Recklessness, which leads to destruction
  2. Cowardice, which leads to capture
  3. Hasty Temper, which can be provoked by insults
  4. Delicacy of Honor, which is sensitivity to shame
  5. Over-Solicitude for his Men, which exposes him to worry and trouble

Overall, these five possible mistakes can be grouped together under the category of wisdom: for a wise man is not reckless, but exudes courage, is not easily angered, and glorifies honor and his men, but not to a fault.

When loss is imminent, and the army is routed, the cause for defeat will surely be revealed in one of these ‘besetting sins.’ Sun Tzu extols these virtues as subjects of necessary meditation. Therefore, the wise General, being aware of these faults, studies their importance and is alert to them in his preparations.

“Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.” – Sun Tzu

KEYS TO VICTORY

“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” – Sun Tzu

Before elaborating on the paths to attain victory, the definition of true victory is described by Sun Tzu.

The best way to achieve victory is to capture the enemy’s country whole and intact, and not to shatter and destroy the enemy’s army and country. The reason for this is that the enemy’s troops and supplies can be used to support the conquering army, augmenting one’s own strength.

In addition to the capturing of the enemy, the ‘supreme excellence’ is to break the enemy without engaging in warfare. This proverb also emphasizes the significance of cleverness and wisdom in accomplishing victory through means outside of direct military encounters.

The General’s purpose should be to attain victory, not wage lengthy and costly campaigns out of personal spite or revenge.

Sun Tzu states the highest form of leadership is to first impede the enemy’s plans and schemes. The second alternative is to prevent unity of the enemy’s forces. The next option is to attack the enemy’s army in the field. The worst plan of action of all is to lay siege to walled cities.

In a siege, Sun Tzu compares the General’s troops to ‘swarming ants’ in an assault, with the result of the battle being a possible loss of one-third of his forces. Therefore, the wise General uses means outside of all-out warfare to pursue victory, then employs his army in an assault if necessary. Engaging in a lengthy campaign against a heavily fortified enemy is strongly discouraged.

Along with advice on the type of warfare to be utilized, Sun Tzu declares the effectiveness of a quick victory.

For if the war is long in nature, then the men’s weapons will grow dull and their spirit will be broken. In addition to the physical toll, a prolonged campaign affects troops, diminishes the resources of the nation, strains the economy and people back home grow discouraged.

The troops are disheartened; spirits are dampened, and the treasury is spent. The General must then be wary of other chieftains rebelling and taking advantage of the dire situation.

If this occurs, Sun Tzu says “then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.” The clever and successful General wages a quick campaign with the intent of breaking the enemy’s spirit in order to achieve victory with minimal loss of life.

“In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.” – Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu states there are five essentials to victory:

  1. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight
  2. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces
  3. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks
  4. He will win who, himself prepared, waits to take the enemy unprepared
  5. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign

The first three essentials for victory allude to the General’s knowledge of himself and the enemy as well as of the situation and nature surrounding the field of war.

The fourth precept stresses the importance of wisdom and preparation necessary for war so that victory can be attained through quick and decisive military action. The last proverb for victory does not fit in as well with the others, but the lesson is important nonetheless: the General should not be micromanaged by his superiors or the sovereign, who is not as aware of the military situation as the General or may have other lesser motives.

Sun Tzu touches on the relationship between the sovereign and the General later in The Art of War when he says there are “commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.”

The basic point is that the one who is most familiar with the situation and aware of what is going on should be making the critical decisions, and not an emperor far away in a distant palace. However, this does not give the General the authority to disregard every decision by the emperor, but rather to act on his own accord in the heat of battle where politics have no place.

“The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.” – Sun Tzu

Not all military tactics are based on offensive maneuvers – there are also defensive strategies designed to thwart an enemy’s assault. Specifically, Sun Tzu encourages a strong defense, one that will not allow defeat before any offensive tactics are deployed.

In this case, the army’s defense acts as a hedge against the possibility of failure by the army’s offensive assaults. Sun Tzu believes there are opportunities for victory when one takes advantage of the enemy’s mistakes, thereby ensuring their defeat.

The first priority of the General then is to make certain the defenses can hold against defeat and then wait for the enemy to give him the path through which victory can be attained. Sun Tzu states “the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.”

This statement directly contradicts common perceptions about warfare mentality, in that the initial objective of the General should be about not suffering defeat rather than winning. However, this strategy will change over time and is based on the movements made by the enemy and if those actions provide an opportunity for victory.

Additionally, the General must be able to adapt his tactics throughout the course of the battle – a static battle plan is futile against the changing status of war. Sun Tzu again uses nature as an analogy, when he states that, similar to water, an army should be changing its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows.

Water has the ability to change its form and course upon a moment’s notice when it encounters different terrain and natural surfaces.

So, an army should be fluid to the circumstances surrounding it, which is a duty the General must master in order to be successful.

“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldiers work out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” Military tactics should also be similar to water in its course of action in that, as water flows from high ground to low ground, it is also better strategically to strike from high places to lower places.

Sun Tzu states “he who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.” This skill is not common to the average man and is a mark of a wise and clever General with years of experience and superb leadership skills.

Sun Tzu also uses three metaphors to emphasize the need for altering tactics based on the particular situation.

He states that, while there are only five musical notes, these notes give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. There are only five primary colors, yet, in combination, they produce more hues and mixes than can ever be seen.

Lastly, there are not more than five cardinal tastes, but these senses yield more flavors than can ever be tasted. These metaphors highlight how warfare, though simple in its base state, is of a very complex nature through the combination of different tactics.

According to Sun Tzu, there are only two methods of attack – the direct and indirect. The direct method, although not explicitly defined, is used for joining the battle, and indirect methods are necessary for securing victory.

Sun Tzu compares the use of indirect tactics to the rising and setting of the sun and moon in that when one ends, the other rises to take its place; the sun sets only to rise again the next day. These two means of attack give rise to an endless number of tactical maneuvers. The direct and indirect methods are similar to moving in a circle since it never ends – the number of combinations between these two methods is inexhaustible.

CONCLUSION

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, one of the most significant military books ever written, describes in great length the qualities and manners in which the notable General can achieve victory. Before the war has even begun, the General must possess an understanding and awareness of the environment surrounding the battlefield so as to prepare and develop strategies conducive to the circumstances.

In addition to knowledge of the ‘playing field,’ the General must be in tune with his army and know its strengths and weaknesses; the same can be said of the enemy forces. Knowledge of these three factors and how they affect warfare are essential in the making of the General.

While these previous factors are critical to the understanding of the battle-field, it is essential that the General develops clever and wise schemes based on this knowledge. If the General then uses his knowledge in a practical manner and deploys brilliant tactics conducive to rapid strikes with fluid tactics, victory will surely be his.

“Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter.” — Winston Churchill

“There are but two powers in the world, the sword, and the mind. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the mind.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. Sun Tzu encourages the use of spies and other deceptive military methods, which translated to modern day, may appear illegal or immoral. Is Sun Tzu’s strategy, in this regard, still relevant? The United States still employs spies who live and work according to the phrase “all warfare is based on deception.” In what way can you use ‘deception’ to your advantage in a corporate setting?
  2. Do you believe in Sun Tzu’s method of treating his army with love, such as his ‘sons’ while instilling them with discipline (“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons and they will stand by you even unto death”)? If so, how do you balance these two so as not to appear weak or overbearing?
  3. Do you believe you hold the qualities and traits outlined above that Sun Tzu deemed necessary for a great General to possess?
  4. Do you treat business as war?
  5. Do you believe it is possible to achieve ‘victory’ over an enemy in modern business? If so, what does this ‘victory’ look like for you and your company? Do you believe Sun Tzu’s tactics will assist you in this ‘victory’?
  6. Sun Tzu states “too frequent rewards indicate that the General is at the end of his resources; too frequent punishments that he is in acute distress.” Is this true in a corporate setting?
HookedtoBooks.com would like to thank the Titans of Investing for allowing us to publish this content.  Titans is a student organization founded by Britt Harris. Learn more about the organization and the man behind it by clicking either of these links.

Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books.  We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.

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