Book Review: Sun Tzu's Art of War

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The legendary figure known as Sun Tzu was a master military strategist and general during the 6th century BC. Sun Tzu lived during a period of martial evolution and massive warfare. During this period most of China was fragmented and violent. Feudal leaders and kings all vied for control. In The Art of War this period is known as the Warring States. Sun Tzu arose as a brilliant general under the command of leader Wu. After a string of skillful victories he began to share his wisdom orally. His subjects were forced to memorize and tediously write the text onto bamboo strips. Though Sun Tzu lived during the age of Confucius his words reflect a Taoist philosophy that called for compassion, humility, and moderation. He had an appreciated of human life regardless of allegiance, “He seeks only to preserve the people” (Sun Tzu 46). Taoist values are very evident throughout as he refers to many of his strategic rules as Taos.

Philosophical in its expression, the word Tao could simply refer to path in a superficial sense. This is the beauty of the wisdom of Sun Tzu; his words are poetic yet blunt and his teachings leave much room for subjective interpretation. This wisdom would become elemental to reform in ancient China and earn him the title of the supreme model of strategic thinking.

The end of the Warring States transformed every aspect of China to new strata. The populous of this new China, desperate in their search, referred to texts from Confucius and other great thinkers to establish order and morality in the earthly realm. Likewise many military thinkers gathered and to create manuals that would better connect the general to the state. Today out of the few remaining texts Sun Tzu stands above the rest.

The basic message Sun Tzu presents are methods of conquering without aggression. He claims this is possible with advantageous forms such as terrain, knowledge (of oneself and the enemy), and deception. He divides his text into thirteen chapters: Appraisals, Doing Battle, Strategy of Attack, Shih [momentary advantage], The Solid and the Empty, The Army Contending, The Nine Transformations, Moving the Army, Forms of Earth, The Nine Grounds, Attack by Fire, and Employing Spies. Examining the text closer, it is further divides his wisdom into many short, reflective statements and poetic metaphors. The language employed is of a natural order that reflects his spiritual-like relationship with the battlefield and earth alike. One can see in this exert from chapter nine Sun Tzu’s connection with nature:Many trees move.

He is approaching.

Many obstacles in thick grass.

He is misleading us.

Birds rise up.

He is concealing himself.

Animals are startled.

He is launching a total assault.

(Sun Tzu 38)This is but one parallel passage with natural imagery in the context of war. The impact of Sun Tzu’s words will influence leaders of both civic and military realms for millennia to come.

According to contemporary accounts of Sun Tzu’s words they were intended to guide the general in the art and subtleties of warfare. Used in a contemporary context his book can be directed to any sort of leader either in civic, economic, or political affairs. Regardless of the audience anyone can find wisdom in Sun Tzu’s unique Taoist-like perspective. He viewed the world whole, comprised of a multitude of shifting interrelated components. This is not only a way of seeing but also a way of acting. He teaches victory in favorable of war. The continuation of war only leads to a drain of the states resources and unnecessary death and destruction. Swift victory was his aim, and the means of achieving this victory was the lesson to be learned. Although the teachings are strong, one must remember Sun Tzu gave his wisdom orally. Thus text that is known as The Art of War today is a second hand record from this ancient oral tradition. Consequently some of Sun Tzu’s intentions may be that of others or lost in the eons. Nevertheless with what exists today the message is clear; war (or any obstacle for that matter) can be over come with the knowledgeable application of skill.

Sun Tzu’s original thirteen chapters address various issues covering the exploitation strategic advantage, maneuvering in various battle situations, and to the importance of deception. Each chapter’s individual theme is evident and as a whole provides leaders the knowledge of attaining victory with as little direct conflict as possible. In the first chapter Appraisals, Sun Tzu underlines the importance of the military in society with the following:The military is a great matter of the state.

It is the ground of death and life,The Tao of survival or extinction.

One cannot but examine it.

(Sun Tzu 3)Essentially he states that one must consider that survival as a nation is relative to the power of the forces that protect it. The power of the military is based on five principles: Tao, heaven, earth [terrain], general, and method [logistics]. To be victorious on the field of battle Sun Tzu states:The military is a Tao of deception—… Attack where he is unprepared.

Emerge where he does not expect it.

(Sun Tzu 5)The use of deception on the battlefield is a practice of adaptability in a dynamic space. Sun Tzu equates the military with its ability to handle the ever changing, unpredictable nature of the battlefield and the fleeting opportunities to employ deception.

Understanding and applying all five of these principles is critical to victory, but without a knowledgeable and skilled leader who can employ all five principles into shih (momentary advantage) then defeat is a near certainty.

The economics of victory and defeat are the primary lessons in the second chapter, “Doing Battle”. To raise an army one must understand all costs involved. The initial expense involved with soldiers and weapons can be great, though small expenses over a prolonged period can cause economic harm to the state and likewise to the effectiveness of the army. “… There has never been a military prolonging that has brought advantage to the state” (Sun Tzu 8). Long wars are expensive and strain the effectiveness of the army. Smaller, lesser forces can defeat you in this state. To avoid this disadvantage great skill must be applied in the rationing of food and supplies and when possible take from the enemy to sustain your force.

In chapter 3, “Strategy of Attack” the definition of a force’s strength lay in its unity rather than its numbers. Sun Tzu displays his sense of humanity and wisdom with this statement:Taking a state whole is superior.

Destroying it is inferior to this.

Taking an army whole is superior.

Destroying it is inferior to this.

…. Taking a squad whole is superior.

Destroying it is inferior to this.

(Sun Tzu 11)If it is possible to capture the enemy regardless of scale it more desirable than unnecessary death and destruction. Diplomacy is also a promoted as a skillful practice in battle. Winning battles is not a sign of military skill, Sun Tzu states:Therefore, one hundred victories in one hundredbattles is not the most skillful.

Subduing the other’s military without battle is themost skillful.

(Sun Tzu 11)Unnecessary destruction is again counterproductive; stopping an opposing force without any violence should be sought. Knowledge is power. Knowledge of when to attack, assess one’s own force, relations with the ruler and morale make up the Tao of knowing victory. As well as external applications of knowledge, knowing oneself and the enemy is equally important. In “Form”, the shortest chapter discusses ways a solider should find strength in existing defensive positions and avoid vulnerable advances. This logic also applies to the force in a larger sense: When weak defend; When strong attack. Observing, weighing, measuring, and counting one’s forces one will find the true weight; Victory is just a matter of arranging the balance of dominance to your favor – this is essentially Form.

The study of Shih or energy is to create advantages that make the scale or proportion of battle irrelevant. Ordering a force into smaller units allows the general more control and creates a chain of command. Sun Tzu compares this organization as such:Ordering the many is like ordering the fewIt is division and counting.

Fighting the many is like fighting the few.

It is form and name.

(Sun Tzu 19)With this formation and structure an advantage has been created. The circle serves as a metaphorical device to illustrate strategy is neither black nor white, but rather a continuous cycle of ever-changing and endless variance of the orthodox and extraordinary. This device is also used to compare individual cowardice and bravery. They both exist within the circle, but it is the general to evoke the proper emotion by manipulating form, shih, and the environment. According to “The Solid and the Empty” it is crucial to not have a fixed form but rather be adaptive to any situation that may occur -- either terrain or enemy. Quick judgments with no hesitation are needed to respond to such obstacles. At times remaining static is advantageous. It allows strengthening of forces while enemy must divide its forces losing unity and strength. One can dictate the time, place, and manner of battle by starting from afar and thus forcing the enemy to prepare against you.

“The Army Contending”, has a converse message to last chapter. Rather than exploiting the weaknesses of the enemy, one must deal with the dangers of direct attack forced upon them. Sun Tzu suggests gather forces, encamp, and create obstacles for the enemy. If one’s forces are overextend an advance then logistical reach is lost. The importance of intelligence gathering from all sources is highlighted in this situation. When one becomes the invader Taoist beliefs of compassion and humility are means of distributing plunder. Sharing the goods of the enemy with the common infantrymen will gain one loyalty. The use of sensual manipulation through flags, drums, and bells is a way of uniting people through public opinion or battlefield morale was stated by Sun Tzu:In day battle use more flags and pennants.

In night battle use more drums and bells.

Drums and bells, flags and pennantsare the means by which one unifiesthe ears and eyes of a people(Sun Tzu 30)Again Sun Tzu applies moderation and compassion in terms of defeated enemies. One is not to block a soldier’s return home as victory is achieved and pursuit would lead to unnecessary destruction. At times not acting is skillful.

In “The Nine Transformations” the need for flexible responses and how to respond to dynamic situations successfully are explained through a series of rules. The five ground rules instruct the general what response is appropriate for the ground they tread. They range from battling in the “death ground” to strategizing in the “enclosed ground”. Knowing these rules can make a great general, but without the ability to adapt to complex situations make him powerless. Focus on oneself is an important component of this chapter as well. It applies to generals who must assess their ability to overcome obstacles to the common solider who must focus on his preparation for an enemy attack rather than the timing of said attack. Five dangers are also outlined for leaders to be weary in the battlefield. They can be the downfall of a battle or the careful use of one can bring victory. “Moving the Army”, describes what one must do when entering enemy territory and evaluate the intentions of others. In hostile land one must be defensively aware of all natural signs. The converse is also true; use the environment for signs of approaching enemy and seize the opportunity. On the evaluation of intentions of others Sun Tzu warns be weary of contradiction and observe the enemy for signs of fatigue.

In chapter 10, “Forms of the Earth”, Sun Tzu discusses six unique, unchangeable forms of terrain along with the advantages and disadvantages offered by each. He stresses the importance of reaching the high ground and understanding all six forms to gain strategic advantage. In the Tao of Battle, Sun Tzu states that at times defiance of one’s ruler is appropriate. If victory is attainable but the ruler does not approve the general must attack. The inverse is true as well. The values of the general are outlined detailing effective and ineffective qualities. The idea of the “half victory” describes not only the importance of knowledge of oneself and others, but also the ground and environment in which the battle occurs. With only one of these skills then half victory is the outcome. Total victory is a product of the implementation of both skills.

“The Nine Grounds”, outlines appropriate action within nine different forms of enemy territory. Troop movement in hostile lands is extremely vital:If quick, I surviveIf not quick, I am lostThis is “death”(Sun Tzu 50)Mobility and speed are extremely vital or else one may face disadvantageous battle. Chapter 12, “Attack by Fire”, discusses the importance of using fire on the battlefield to destroy or distract your enemy. He shows five targets of attack, environments of attack, and the appropriate responses to each situation. The final chapter, “Employing Spies”, focuses on the five sources of intelligence and how to manage and evaluate their value. The theme of deception of the basis of the military from the opening line is echoed in the final passage:Only if the enlightened ruler and wise generalcan use people of superior knowledge asspies will they surely achieve great merit.

These are essentials of the military. …(Sun Tzu 66)The Art of War was no doubt effective in its objective and reach. It meant to share enlightened and wise ways of battle with those who waged war. Gauging its effectiveness based the text’s proliferation through the millennia and the globe – its purpose was achieved with immense success. In military academies stretching from ancient China to modern West Point require The Art of War to be read. It is understandable that in a contemporary context his words are still read. Sun Tzu refers to foreknowledge which can be equated to modern military intelligence. His principles of intelligence hold much validity today:The army one wishes to strike, the walled cityone wishes to attack and the person onewishes to kill --One must first know the family name and givenname of the defending general, his intimates,the steward, the gatekeeper and attendants.

(Sun Tzu 65)Intelligence is proportional to the level of attack that a military is going to attack. For instance, on May 7th, 1999 during the NATO efforts in the Balkans a B-2 stealth bomber unloaded its payload on building that was believed to be a Yugoslav federal building. Unfortunately the target turned out to be the Chinese embassy; the attack killed three and injured 10. The consequence of this bad intelligence further strained US-Chinese relations and caused collateral damage (McNeilly 67). Though intelligence gathering in the Information Age has made to act of foreknowledge remote, the importance of on ground intimate intelligence gathering is still vital. This example is one of a singular attack, but on the scale of invasion and war the same error can occur. During the Nazi’s Blitzkrieg campaign through the Low Countries principles from various portions of The Art of War were employed to attain victory. In, “The Solid and the Empty”, Sun Tzu stresses dictating your enemy’s movements by either their weakness or deception:And so the skilled general forms others yet iswithout form.

Hence I am concentrated and the enemy isdivided.

I am concentrated and thus one.

The enemy is divided and thus one-tenth.

This is using one-tenth to strike one.

(Sun Tzu 26)The Nazi’s gained strength and advantage by deploying an initial deceptive attack in the north -- where it was expected by the allies. When German forces began cutting communication lines and taking bridges the allies mobilized its forces to defend. This allowed the main attack to occur further south through the Ardennes. The French thought they terrain would stop any sizable force from advancing through this line, consequently old men and bad equipment comprised the defense in this area. The Nazi’s were able to move Panzer divisions and the bulk of their invading force quickly through this gap with amazing speed. Within one week they had reached the English Channel. The Allies were still in the WWI mindset where battles were slow taking months rather than days (McNeilly 101). The strengths of The Art of War lay in its many modern applications in both peace and war.

The weaknesses of The Art of War are varied and question its validity. The first major issue is that the original words of Sun Tzu were transmitted orally and thus may not be accurate to what he intended. Second as it was third parties who recorded Sun Tzu, many annotations were made. Those who contributed to this lineage continued the underlying message of taking in the whole, but it becomes apparent with variations in style and the insertion of seemly topically unrelated material in some chapters that the integrity of the original message had been corrupted. Annotation after annotation led to a staggering six-fold increase to the original thirteen chapters. The language used by Sun Tzu lead to many rough translations and misinterpretations. Many parts were written in rhyme that makes little sense in English. Some words did not translate well and skewed meaning of the original. Though these weaknesses exist, one can learn to see the pattern of the message and overcome the language issue.

The book’s approach is somewhat biased as it was a book from a brilliant general addressed to other generals. The message was meant to be seen through eyes of a leader. Sun Tzu seems to give little credit to the individual soldier in turning the tide of war. He even stated that the general was the one who could dictate the line between bravery and cowardice. Overlooking these interpretive faults, the actual text regarding military philosophy is quite unbiased and universal.

Conflict is an inevitable part of life. Sun Tzu’s universal message of resolving conflict is one that can speak to any audience. The philosophy and strategy of war runs parallel to that of life. Outside the military specialized copies are made for business management, conflict resolution, self-help, political leadership, and many other facets of life.

The interconnected, globalized world that exists today cannot be more different than the fragmented, chaotic society that existed during the time of Sun Tzu. Even with this contrast in mind his message holds equal power in both worlds. Conflict resolution is that of basic human knowledge. Encounters with such problems occur daily, and with the application of The Art of War one will be more skillful in the essential skill and wisdom of nonaggression. A personal connection can forged through an understanding of the underlying message and mix of one’s mind. This begins dissolution of what seemed to be foreign knowledge to that of one’s natural way of thought and action. One’s personal actions are an expression of the surroundings and conditions that exist. This is the ground for practicing the art of war.

Works CitedMcNeilly, Mark. Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2003.

Tzu, Sun. The Art of War The Denma Translation (Shambhala Library). Boston: Shambhala, 2002.