Sun Tzu and the Art of War

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The Art of War

The Art of War is one of the most influential strategy books ever written. China’s early historians claimed that it was written before 512 BC by a mysterious military mastermind called Sun Tzu (Master Sun). Sun Tzu may or may not have existed, and if he did exist he may or may not have been the author of the text; the oldest copy ever discovered is from the second century BC. The “Thirteen Chapters” of the Art of War are brief and to-the-point – in fact, parts of the original text may have been lost. But in any case, these Thirteen Chapters have been studied for more than two thousand years as the cornerstone of military thinking in China (and Japan).

Sun Tzu’s Thirteen Chapters repeatedly emphasise that wars should be a last resort; that battle should be sought only when victory is certain; that a general must have mastery over the full circumstances of a campaign, and the implications of these circumstances for his advantage and disadvantage; and that deceiving the enemy and putting them on the back foot by any means possible are critically important. This philosophy underpins the whole text, which you can read here. Below, I’ve summarised The Art of War’s key points.

Art of War text
A copy of The Art of War – in bamboo, as the original would have been

The Thirteen Chapters

One: Planning

Generals must be aware of all the factors and variables in a prospective war, and which sides hold which advantages – and they should plan accordingly, deceiving the enemy wherever possible.

Two: Going to War

War is extremely expensive, so it should be kept short – and supplies stolen from the enemy are very valuable.

Three: Strategies of Attack

Winning without fighting is the best outcome: war should be a last resort, if no other ruses are left open to the general. The general’s job is to protect the nation – and he should avoid the meddling of an ignorant ruler.

Four: Disposition

First, one must be certain of not being defeated; then one must be certain of victory; and only then must a general do battle. If there is drama and glory in the battle, that means the outcome was uncertain: the best generals will win no fame because their victories are easy, fought only when the outcome was already secure.

Chinese states
Chinese states soon after The Art of War was apparently written

Five: Momentum

The irresistible force of a well-trained army will be able to carry out its simple yet infinitely-flexible manoeuvres, and if timed perfectly it will be unstoppable.

Six: The Weak and the Strong

The general should aim to constantly unsettle and upset his enemy, taking them by surprise and forcing them to respond on the general’s terms. Part of being unpredictable is being flexible, and this means having an army that has no brittle deployments – or even deployments that can be discerned at all.

Seven: Deployment

The challenges of deploying one’s forces include making sure one keeps one’s men together, appearing and disappearing at will, and knowing when not to strike the enemy.

Eight: Variables

Be aware of dangerous factors in the terrain – and be ready not to follow a ruler’s orders if they conflict with this. A general must also avoid dangerous character flaws in himself.

First Emperor
China’s First Emperor, who united China 300 years after Sun Tzu

Nine: On the March

A series of practical tips on how to treat various kinds of terrain, and how to interpret clues from the enemy to reveal their intentions and state of mind. The importance of enforcing discipline.

Ten: Terrain

Terrain is a crucial factor that must always be taken into account. It is also important to know one’s men, and the dangers of their misbehaviour that might arise from the general’s failings.

Eleven: The Nine Situations

This describes situations that may arise in enemy territory, and how to handle them. The text also emphasises that the general must give no choice to his soldiers, and no hope that retreat will save them, to ensure absolute discipline in the face of these challenges. The men – just like one’s enemies – must be kept in the dark about the general’s true plans.

Twelve: Incendiary Attacks

Fire is a powerful weapon when used correctly. Yet fire, like war, is destructive: a reminder that battle must never be undertaken lightly.

Thirteen: Espionage

Effective use of the different kinds of spy bring invaluable insights and can avoid costly wars. As such, spies should be treasured.

Terracotta Warrior
One of the First Emperor’s famous Terracotta Warriors

Also on Randall Writing: Summary of Three Kingdoms, China’s classic military novel

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