Book review on Art of War – Sun Tzu

The object of war is peace, and the art of war is peace without fighting.  Sun Tzu says, “The reason the enlightened ruler and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they strike is foreknowledge.” The basic thesis of The Art of War is to try to overcome the enemy by wisdom, not force alone. Foreknowledge, in essence, means to know the situation of the enemy and of yourself before the way starts, just as Sun Tzu wrote in the chapter entitled “Offensive Strategy”; know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.  When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal.  If ignorant both of the enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.

Sun Tzu’s Art of War was written by Sun Tzu, the most famous military scientist and one of the ablest commanders in ancient China.  The exact dates of his birth and death are not known, but he lived around 500 B.C.; therefore, he was a contemporary of Confucius.  According to Shi Ji; The Biography of Wu Zixu, Sun Tzu and his book of thirteen chapters on the art of way were recommended by General Qu Zixu to He Lu, the sovereign of the kingdom of Wu.  Recognizing that Sun Tzu was very good at military affairs, He Lu appointed Sun Tzu a general in the kingdom.

The Art of War, written approximately 2,400 to 2,500 years ago, is the earliest and most complete book on the strategy of war available in China.  Current books related to Sun Tzu are somewhat different from what appears on the bamboo slips, the original Sun Tzu’s Art of War, that were excavated from the Yingue Mountains.

Sun Tzu’s work of universal rules on guiding and commanding wars include;

  1. It is a profound exposition of factors leading to victory and to defeat, and stresses the importance of calculations (the final military decisions before a way).
  2. It stresses the relationship between war and such factors as politics, economics, diplomacy, astronomy and geography.  A commander is required to judge the hour, size up the situation and anticipate the enemy’s decisions before launching or directing a way.  He should never act rashly.
  3. It emphasizes defeating one’s enemy by strategic considerations, not by force.
  4. It expresses the belief that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence” in a way.  That is to say, we should use comprehensive means – including political, diplomatic, and technical resources instead of purely military means – to subdue the enemy.
  5. It maintains that in a war one should adroitly guide military action and bring one’s initiative into full play so as to lure the enemy onto the road to defeat.
  6. It stresses that a commander must try his best to “bring the enemy to the battlefield and not to be brought there by him (the enemy)” whether in a strategic or tactical sense.  The commander should, in any case, contend for the initiative, without which one is likely to be defeated or even annihilated.
  7. It also stresses the importance of employing troops flexibly, according to the position and conditions of your enemy and yourself, and of topography.
  8. It attaches great importance to “knowing your enemy and yourself” if you want to win a way.  In present-day language, it means one must be realistic and practical and be certain about all situations before making the final decision to fight.  Subjective assumption and rash action surely lead to defeat.
  9. It advocated that employing troops must be unpredictable to the enemy and catch him by surprise.  It stresses that when you attack, you must use overwhelming superiority, like a fierce tiger jumping upon a sheep, and when you want to end a battle, end it as suddenly as a flash of lightning.

Every known military has studied its content over the decades; movie after movie refers to Sun Tzu (start listening for it); the principles apply to modern business as well of military.  Modern business leaders have given credit to the tactics and goals to shape their companies and have thereby shaped the world.

This book in its original form has been and continues to be my favorite resource for strategic planning and is admittedly hard to read.  The best of the translations in my opinion would be Sun Tzu’s Art of War – General Tao Hanzhang – translated by Yuan Shibing.