Sun Tzu: The Art of War of the Great General
In the fifth century, about the same time as the life of Confucius, a man named Sun Wu was born. In the way of Chinese names, Wu was his given name, Sun his family name, and then later he was given the title, Tzu. He came from a family of experts on the weapons for war. At that time a family, or clan, owned information. Knowledge passed down through generations, father to son. Sun Tzu would have taken the knowledge from his clan and expanded on it with Taoism and his own observations. Sun Tzu was an adviser to the king of the state of Wu, Ho Lu, eventually becoming his general. Using psychology, deceit, strategy, and diplomacy, Sun Tzu developed his treaties of war.
The book begins with the laying of plans for war. Sun Tzu stresses that a well thought out, and well-laid plan for war, can mean the difference between life and death. The five main factors to always be taken into account are; moral law, heaven, earth, the commander, and method and discipline. The moral law means that no matter how crazy the order may seem, a good soldier will follow orders, trusting in his leader implicitly. His morality as a soldier of courage would keep him from becoming dismayed. He would face dangers with complete faith and strength. Fearless. Heaven means to always keep in mind the weather and the time of day. When is the best time of day for maneuvers? How will rain and cold affect the conflict? What about the heat of the day? Will the soldiers drop from heat exhaustion? How will the weather effect weapons? As in World War I, the users of mustard gas learned quickly the dangers of shifting winds.
Earth means to take into account distances, danger, and safety, whether a pass is narrow or if the battle is to be fought on open ground. Sun Tzu stresses this could easily mean the difference between life and death. How far will your troops need to travel before engaging in combat? Will they have time to rest, or will they have to engage in conflict with weariness as a weakness before they even lift a weapon? Are there overpasses that can possess a trap? Where can the enemy hide? Where could the ambush come from? Are there trees to provide cover for the enemy? As the settlers found out when trying to tame the American frontier, there can be dangers hiding behind the trees in the forest. When the battle is to be fought on an open field, where will you find cover? How will you be able to fight from a safe distance? What kind of weapons will you need to employ? The idea battle is fought with fewer casualties on your own side of the conflict. Losing men that are used as shields, or “cannon fodder” as they became known during the American Civil War, is not acceptable in a sense of manpower count, and is also detrimental to the morale of the troops. They quickly lose faith in their commanders.
The commander should be the epitome of wisdom and courage. His orders should be completely trusted. He should be strict, yet fair. Benevolent and sincere. As a leader, he should inspire respect. His troops follow him without question. It is a heavy mantle he wears and he must not falter. This is why a good commander listens to his counselors, taking into account their advice whenever he is making a decision on a battle. Throughout history, there are many instances of commanders losing their focus during battle. They can become cruel, forgetting the enemy is also human, as did General Sherman when he marched across Georgia, burning homes along the way. Most of the people he left homeless were women and children. How could his men respect his decisions when they were ordered to commit acts of cruelty?
When Sun Tzu counseled on the importance of method and discipline, he stressed the importance of organization in an army. Separating them into workable troops. The Romans used groups of ten. Each group of ten had a leader, ten groups of ten had another leader, and ten groups of ten groups had another leader. In today’s armies, this is delineated with different ranks, such as in the United States Air Force; Airmen, Airmen First Class, Sargent, and it’s various degrees, up to Chief Master Sargent. Then the officers take over as their leaders, starting with the lieutenant and going up to Generals and it’s increasing stars. In the United States, there have been very few men to reach the highest military rank of five-star general, they would include General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who parlayed his rank into the presidency for the United States in 1953.
Another sign of the Romans learning these same lessons is the many roads that were laid throughout Europe as they made plans for conquering. The saying, “all roads lead to Rome” is because of this. The Romans laid their roads with thoughts of the width of a chariot ridden by their commanders, and then the laying of railroads followed this same plan. Roman armies were engineers when not in battle. Hadrian’s Wall was built in the United Kingdom during this time as a deterrent from the Picts and it still stands. That is what good planning can provide; lasting strength.
Knowing the human brain has better retention when information is given in groups and lists, Sun Tzu’s book is in groups and lists. In his first chapter, “Laying Plans”, Sun Tzu says that he can forecast the victory of a defeat of a battle by considering just seven points.
- Which of the two kings has the full support of their troops, the Moral Law?
- Which general is the most capable?
- Which side has the best advantage with the weather and terrain, Heaven, and Earth?
- Which side has the most discipline and enforces it consistently?
- Which army is the largest and strongest? Throughout history, this hasn’t always determined the victor, but more times than not, it has.
- Which side of the conflict has better training for their soldiers and officers? And, last, but not least,
- Which side has the greatest constancy of reward and punishment?
Using all the points made by Sun Tzu are important in warfare, as is the art of deception. Sun Tzu pushes the importance of deception in war. Appear to have a smaller army, appear to be unprepared. Lure the enemy into a false sense of victory, then attack with discipline and greater power. Hit him when he is unprepared, after determining, through the use of spies this is so. Washington crossed the Delaware River to take the Hessian forces hired by the British on a cold Christmas night in 1776. His victory was complete with only the loss of 4 soldiers. The Hessian’s were completely unprepared due to Christmas festivities and underestimating the American army.
In the second chapter of his book, Sun Tzu points out the financial costs of war, especially if it lasts for a long length of time. As the American Civil War. One of the main reasons for the loss by the Confederate Army was the costs. They didn’t plan ahead for the war lasting very long. The war completely bankrupted the Confederate states.
So many of the battles being fought on Confederate soil was also cost restraining. Sun Tzu asserts a victorious army brings very little provisions and feeds off the enemy. The Union Army took livestock, used supplies and crops, then destroyed the rest. Throughout history this has proven effective for invading forces, but, didn’t help the British forces during the American Revolutionary War. Therefore, Sun Tzu continues to point out that wars should be fought quickly. But, his most important point is that a leader must always keep in the front of his mind that the lives of all his people and the peace of his nation are in his hands. He must handle with extreme care. Attack by stratagem is Sun Tzu’s advice in his third chapter. Unfortunately, this seems to be the chapter most overlooked in warfare. He begins by urging the invading army to leave the city intact as much as possible. Germany? Iraq? Egypt? The amount of irreplaceable art that has been destroyed in war is beyond counting. As is the amount of genius spilled in blood on the battlefields. “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” (p.15).
He also advises avoiding a siege. The amount of time needed to prepare and then to find a way to take the walled city, would not be cost effective. Sun Tzu gives an arithmetical formula that will raise the chances for victory in battle. “if your forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army in two. If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way; we can flee from him.”
There are five essential facts to ensure victory:
- Know when to fight and when not to fight.
- Know how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
- Have the same animation of spirit throughout all the ranks.
- Be prepared, and take the enemy when they are unprepared.
- “He will win who has a military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” In the chapter, “Tactical Dispositions”, the information is important for war. A lot of the advice is very zen. A good fighter puts their mind beyond the possibility of defeat and then just waits for the opportunity of defeating the enemy. An enemy provides the occasion of their own defeat. Wait for them to make a mistake, and be ready to take advantage of it. To doubt victory is to admit defeat. “to lift an autumn hare is no sign of great strength; to see sun and the moon are no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.”
Sun Tzu gives another calculation for an army in this chapter, the military method. First, measurement. Second, estimation of quantity. Third, calculation. Fourth, Balance chances. Fifth, victory. “Measurement owes its existence to Earth; estimation of quantity to measurement; calculation to the estimation of quantity; balancing of chances to calculation; and victory to the balancing of chances.” All very zen.
It is just as easy to control a large force of soldiers as it is to control a small force of soldiers. A well-trained squad knows how to follow orders. A well trained military force knows the chain of command. In other words, a soldier knows who to report to and would never dream of going over the head of their direct commander. If he has a question or a problem, that is the person he sees, then his commander will take it on up the ranks if necessary. By those same rights, the orders come down from the top and will be followed to the letter.
Throughout history, every army has devised signals and signs to give battle instructions. The Scots had their bagpipes, the British had their drums. The infantry had their trumpets, the forces in the World Wars had their radios. “In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers.” This method of confusion will keep the enemy from guessing your next move. A good commander does not want to be predictable. He wants to be quick and decisive, leaving no room for anticipation from the enemy.
A quick trip to victory is to discover your enemy’s weakness and his strong points. Whichever army is the first to arrive has a better chance at winning. They are rested, the arriving army will not be. The first can prepare, the second will need time to prepare. A clever commander never lets the enemy call the shots. He is in control of the battle. Keep the enemy agitated. If he is resting, harass him, if he has plenty of food, take it, starve him out. If he is in a good camp, force him to move. A common tactic in battle is to use spontaneous firing of weapons. The enemy never knows when to expect an attack and therefore can’t find rest. This is the kind of tactic that took the Alamo in 1836.
If you want to draw an enemy from his garrison, attack a place he will be forced to defend. After choosing a place for meeting the enemy, don’t let it be known. The enemy must not be given the time to prepare. If you are preparing to be attacked, you have put yourself in a place of weakness. A good commander chooses the time and place. Find out the enemy’s plans and the likelihood of their success. Military tactics are like water, it shapes its own course. Follows the path of least resistance. Water keeps no constant shape and therefore adapts itself to changes. As in warfare, there are no constant conditions. A good commander will go with the flow. He must modify his tactics.
A good commander takes care of his soldiers. Makes sure they are fed well, have a warm place to sleep, and keeps their spirits up. They have to feel their cause is just. Everyone wants to be the hero, not the villain. The time of day a battle is called is also important when planning strategies. “a soldier’s spirit is keenest in the morning; by noonday it has begun to flag; and in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp.” Do not advance uphill towards and enemy nor go against him when he is headed downhill. Both moves would put you at a disadvantage. Do not make an enemy desperate. Leave an opening so some of them can leave. Do not interfere with an army returning home. Sun Tzu has more advice on war:
- When in a difficult country don’t make camp.
- In a country where high roads intersect, join hands with your ally.
- Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions.
- if you are hemmed-in, use strategy.
- If in a desperate situation, fight.
He also lists the five most dangerous faults of a general:
- Recklessness, which leads to destruction,
- cowardice, which leads to capture.
- a hasty temper, which can provoke insults.
- a delicacy of honor, which is sensitive to shame.
- over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.
More important tidbits of advice:
- Camp in high places, facing the sun.
- After crossing a river, get far away from it.
- In order to keep your forces healthy, choose dry ground.
- the rising of birds in their flight is a sign of an ambush, as is sudden movements of animals, especially small ones. Watch nature for signs of the enemy.
- when some men advance and some retreat, it is a lure.
- When you see soldiers leaning on their weapons, they are starving.
- when a group sent to fetch water drinks first, the troops are suffering from thirst.
- “When an army feeds its horses with grain and kills its cattle for food, and when the men do not hang their cooking-pots the camp-fires, showing they will not return to their tents, you may know that they are determined to fight to the death.”
The use of spies is an important part of the victory in war. There are five kinds of spies:
- Local spies, inhabitants of the district,
- Inward spies, officials of the enemy
- converted spies, turning a spy of the enemy.
- Doomed spies, giving false information to a spy of yours that has been turned to the enemy and
- Surviving spies, those who bring information back from the enemy’s camp, after escaping.
Spies are an important element of war. An army’s ability to act is often based on their information.
Sun Tzu Biography
Sun Tzu lived in China during he years of 500 BC. He was born in 544 BC. At birth, his name was Sun Wu. Sun being his family name, and Wu, his actual name. Tzu was an honorific bestowed on him later, meaning general. Sun Tzu came from a long line of military advisers. His education was extensive, but, instead of following the dictates laid out for him by past generations. He was a follower of Tao and used the art of zen to color his strategy in the art of war. Not only was Tzu a general, but also a philosopher and he studied military history. Throughout China and Asia, Tzu is a legend. His tactics of warfare have been told and retold for untold generations of man. He was a very serious man, who dressed in the simple gray robes of a monk.
The Sun’s were a family of military advisers for generations. He would have used the lessons handed down to him from his ancestors and added his own observations. He was an adviser to King Helu of Wu in the late sixth century BC, beginning around 512 BC. His victories inspired him to write a book of lists on the lessons he had learned to achieve victory in war. His book was one of the most widely read books in China during the years of 481 BC and 403 BC, the Warring States Period. A time of constant war among seven nations of Eastern China.
In his book, The Art of War, he gives advice and outlines the best ways to achieve victory and success. Sun Tzu taught that the best strategy for war is to avoid fighting. First, try to find a peaceful solution to a conflict. But, if a fight is inevitable, attack first from a place of superiority. A general must achieve discipline of his troops immediately and keep it.
Although Sun Tzu advises against any show of anger by a commander, he was apparently well-known for his often stern temperament. There is a story of his job interview. Before the King of Wu would hire Sun Tzu, he decided to give him a test. The king instructed Sun Tzu to train his harem of 180 women as soldiers. He lined them all up into the formation, taught them the steps necessary to follow simple commands of a military exercise, then he placed the two of the king’s favorite concubines as the company commanders. When he ordered the two women to face right, they giggled. This was not acceptable. As a general, Sun Tzu told the king, he must make his orders clear and concise. Once again, he gave the order, and once again, the women giggled. He then ordered their executions. When the king protested, Sun Tzu simply said that if soldiers understood the commands and didn’t obey, it was their fault and they must be punished. Once a general was appointed, his duty is to follow orders and carry out his mission, no matter who protests, even if it is his sovereign.
The two women were executed, two more women were promoted into their positions, and Sun Tzu’s orders were obeyed.As a military mind, Sun Tzu was exemplary. His book is still being used as a military mind, Sun Tzu was exemplary. His book is still being used for advice on strategy to this day. The lessons hold up to modern warfare. Whenever an army followed his advice, they were victorious, but, whenever they didn’t they ultimately lost, not only the war, but, credibility.
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