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What can we learn from Sun Tzu’s Art of War?

I recently re-read Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Most of us don’t have that much use for instructions on “the 5 ways to attack enemy encampments with fire”, “proper placement of chariots” or the nitty-gritty of river warfare but the book’s advice on strategy is so famous it’s become a cliche. Here are my notes, organized by what I felt to be the biggest takeaway principles/subjects:

“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. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.
  • Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
  • It is through the dispositions of an army that its condition may be discovered. Conceal your dispositions, and your condition will remain secret, which leads to victory, show your dispositions, and your condition will become patent, which leads to defeat.
  • The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.
  • The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points.
  • If our force happens to be superior to the enemy’s, weakness may be simulated in order to lure him on; but if inferior, he must be led to believe that we are strong, in order that he may keep off. In fact, all the enemy’s movements should be determined by the signs that we choose to give him.
  • Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, [Chang Yu says this is done, "By concealing the disposition of his troops, covering up his tracks, and taking unremitting precautions."] but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy. 4. Hence the saying: One may KNOW how to conquer without being able to DO it. 5. Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.

“Rapidity is the essence of war”

  • Rapidity is the essence of war:
  • Chang Yu says: “So long as victory can be attained, stupid haste is preferable to clever dilatoriness.” Now Sun Tzu says nothing whatever, except possibly by implication, about ill-considered haste being better than ingenious but lengthy operations. What he does say is something much more guarded, namely that, while speed may sometimes be injudicious, tardiness can never be anything but foolish — if only because it means impoverishment to the nation.

“An army without spies is like a man without ears or eyes.”

  • Knowledge of the spirit-world is to be obtained by divination; information in natural science may be sought by inductive reasoning; the laws of the universe can be verified by mathematical calculation: but the dispositions of an enemy are ascertainable through spies and spies alone.
  • Unless you are kept informed of the enemy’s condition, and are ready to strike at the right moment, a war may drag on for years. The only way to get this information is to employ spies, and it is impossible to obtain trustworthy spies unless they are properly paid for their services. But it is surely false economy to grudge a comparatively trifling amount for this purpose, when every day that the war lasts eats up an incalculably greater sum. This grievous burden falls on the shoulders of the poor, and hence Sun Tzu concludes that to neglect the use of spies is nothing less than a crime against humanity.
  • “Worthy men who have been degraded from office, criminals who have undergone punishment; also, favorite concubines who are greedy for gold, men who are aggrieved at being in subordinate positions, or who have been passed over in the distribution of posts, others who are anxious that their side should be defeated in order that they may have a chance of displaying their ability and talents, fickle turncoats who always want to have a foot in each boat. Officials of these several kinds,” he continues, “should be secretly approached and bound to one’s interests by means of rich presents. In this way you will be able to find out the state of affairs in the enemy’s country, ascertain the plans that are being formed against you, and moreover disturb the harmony and create a breach between the sovereign and his ministers.”

Preparation is everything.

  • 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. …”Knowing the enemy enables you to take the offensive, knowing yourself enables you to stand on the defensive.” He adds: “Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of an attack.” It would be hard to find a better epitome of the root-principle of war.
  • He who wishes to fight must first count the cost.
  • A small difference in numbers is often more than counterbalanced by superior energy and discipline.
  • By applying the art of war, it is possible with a lesser force to defeat a greater, and vice versa. The secret lies in an eye for locality, and in not letting the right moment slip. Thus Wu Tzu says: ‘With a superior force, make for easy ground; with an inferior one, make for difficult ground.’”
  • Wang Hsi remarks that the good general can “secure success by modifying his tactics to meet those of the enemy.”] 1. Sun Tzu said: The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. 2. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

“Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

  • Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
  • Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.
  • Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole Empire says, “Well done!” [True excellence being, as Tu Mu says: "To plan secretly, to move surreptitiously, to foil the enemy's intentions and balk his schemes, so that at last the day may be won without shedding a drop of blood."
  • "One who seeks to conquer by sheer strength, clever though he may be at winning pitched battles, is also liable on occasion to be vanquished; whereas he who can look into the future and discern conditions that are not yet manifest, will never make a blunder and therefore invariably win."] Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated. 14. Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.
  • One mark of a great soldier is that he fight on his own terms or fights not at all.

How to lead:

  • He wore the same clothes and ate the same food as the meanest of his soldiers, refused to have either a horse to ride or a mat to sleep on, carried his own surplus rations wrapped in a parcel, and shared every hardship with his men.
  • Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.
  • We cannot enter into alliance with neighboring princes until we are acquainted with their designs. We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country–its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps. We shall be unable to turn natural advantages to account unless we make use of local guides.
  • The axiom, that war is based on deception, does not apply only to deception of the enemy. You must deceive even your own soldiers. Make them follow you, but without letting them know why.
  • It is the business of a general to be quiet and thus ensure secrecy; upright and just, and thus maintain order. He must be able to mystify his officers and men by false reports and appearances, [Literally, "to deceive their eyes and ears."] and thus keep them in total ignorance. [Ts`ao Kung gives us one of his excellent apophthegms: "The troops must not be allowed to share your schemes in the beginning; they may only rejoice with you over their happy outcome." "To mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy," is one of the first principles in war, as had been frequently pointed out. But how about the other process--the mystification of one's own men? Those who may think that Sun Tzu is over-emphatic on this point would do well to read Col. Henderson's remarks on Stonewall Jackson's Valley campaign: "The infinite pains," he says, "with which Jackson sought to conceal, even from his most trusted staff officers, his movements, his intentions, and his thoughts, a commander less thorough would have pronounced useless"--etc.
  • When the outlook is bright, bring it before their eyes; but tell them nothing when the situation is gloomy.

Dealing with the enemy

  • Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.
  • Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected. An army may march great distances without distress, if it marches through country where the enemy is not. Ts`ao Kung sums up very well: "Emerge from the void, strike at vulnerable points, shun places that are defended, attack in unexpected quarters."
  • It is a principle of war not to pursue desperate men and not to press a retreating host.
  • When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. [This does not mean that the enemy is to be allowed to escape. The object, as Tu Mu puts it, is "to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair." Tu Mu adds pleasantly: "After that, you may crush him."] Do not press a desperate foe too hard.
  • If your adversary has burned his boats and destroyed his cooking-pots, and is ready to stake all on the issue of a battle, he must not be pushed to extremities.
  • If I wish to extricate myself from a dangerous position, I must consider not only the enemy’s ability to injure me, but also my own ability to gain an advantage over the enemy. If in my counsels these two considerations are properly blended, I shall succeed in liberating myself….
  • Humble words and increased preparations are signs that the enemy is about to advance.

If you found this interesting you might want to check out the book for yourself.

If the psychology of war and strategy interests you, other related classics you should check out are Clausewitz’s On War and The Prince.

One final note: a lot of people think the strategy suggestions in Sun Tzu’s Art of War should be applied to most situations of conflict. I don’t believe this is the case. While the advice Sun Tzu gives is invaluable, the events most of us deal with are better resolved with the tools of negotiation than war. Confusing the two can be a bad idea and negatively affect any resolution. Something to think about.

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About Eric Barker