The Art of War by Sun Tzu: Book Analysis
The Art of War’ was written by Sun Tzu and translated by Samuel B. Griffith. The authorship and date of this book has been closely scrutinized since the eleventh century in prolonged and protracted debates among scholars. It is accepted that the work originated in China and was well known in the fourth century BC. While the very existence of Sun Tzu has been questioned, the chapter on The Biography of Sun Tzu’ indicates that Sun Tzu was an author who later made a general when his successful writings gained him an audience with a king.
The author’s style is clearly informative, very much like an instructional book. He opens chapter one, Estimates’, of his work by declaring, “War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.” The Art of War’ is devoted to the discussion of strategies which the author claims leads to victory if carefully followed. His is the first known attempt to formulate a rational basis for the planning and conduct of military operations. Sun Tzu was not primarily interested in the elaboration of specific maneuvers or in superficial or transitory techniques. This is both a weakness and strength of the book. It provides sound advice and discussion yet stops short on providing excessive details on specific maneuvers. It is this very omission that makes the book timeless.
His purpose was to develop a systematic guide for rulers and generals on an intelligent approach to warfare. He believed that the skillful strategist should be able to “subdue the enemy’s army without engaging it, to take his cities without laying siege to them, and to overthrow his State without bloodying swords.” The author approached his subject methodically with each chapter addressing a specific concern. Sun Tzu felt that all aspects of war could be quantified into five factors outlined in chapter one, titled Estimates’, to bring about a desired conclusion: 1) moral influence, 2) weather, 3) terrain, 4) command and 5) doctrine. He explains each of his factors as follows; Moral influence deals with the ability of the leaders to motivate their people to follow them even to death. This is achieved when leaders act with benevolence, justice and righteousness. Weather is described as the natural forces like climatic conditions and Terrain as the geography of the land and ground. Command is the leader’s qualities of wisdom, sincerity, humanity and strictness. Doctrine is described as the organization, control, and assignment of appropriate ranks to officers, regulation of the supplies and the provision of necessities.
In chapter two, Waging War’, Sun Tzu develops his philosophy on the need for war. He subscribes to the belief the physical harm should be viewed as a last resort and inflicted only when necessary. He addresses the economic considerations of war namely the cost of waging war. He understands the necessary criteria for true success is the economic viability of the strategy. Extended war operations are counterproductive as they inflict hardship is the form of depressed morale, physical exhaustion and diminished supplies. “An attack may lack ingenuity but it must be delivered with super natural speed.” He is famously known for stating that there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited. Sun Tzu also believes in treating the captives well thus securing potential allies and stresses that it is imperative that a General of an army understands these points in the art of war.
The concept of destroying or harming only when necessary is further elaborated in chapter three, Offensive Strategy’. Sun Tzu emphases the importance of “taking all under heaven intact.” This is to augment his strategy of attacking the enemy’s plans rather than the infrastructure. This policy is touted not only from a moral point of view but from a practical point of view as Sun Tzu believes that this will result in troops that are not “worn out” and are therefore better able to protect their gains.
Dispositions’ as outline in chapter four incorporates taking advantage of the terrain as well as the weather. Sun Tzu aptly conveys the concept that one must understand what is in ones control and what is not. A concept that is often taught today in personal improvement books and by motivational speakers, targeting a much wider audience than Sun Tzu. He states that those skilled in war can make themselves invincible but cannot cause an enemy to be certainly vulnerable. He declares that a skilled warrior practices humanity and justice and maintains his laws and institutions. Sun Tzu talks about the invincibility of an army that is acquired from skilled measurements of space, estimations of the quantities involved, calculations, and comparisons and the chances of victory. The skilled commander will be victorious if he makes a precise appraisal of these elements in their entirety and acts upon them with the effects synonymous with “pent-up waters which, suddenly release, plunge.”
In Chapter five, Energy’, the author explores the use of creativity and timing to build the army’s competitive momentum. This is the force, acquired by organization that the army uses to overcome the enemy. The general shoulders the responsibility according to Sun Tzu in knowing his troops and their individual capabilities. The successful general relies on the situation, which he has created, possibly by deception. His deception may involve the movement of the enemy’s troops to a disadvantageous point. The core of this strategy is to use as little effort as possible to produce massive threats.
Weaknesses and Strengths’ in chapter six explains how opportunities come from the openings in the environment caused by the weakness of the enemy. Deception and stealth are the key factors in this aspect of war. The enemy must perceive my strength as my weakness and his weakness as his strength. This involves decoy attacks, and forcing the enemy to battle in a place of your choice. The successful commander would have determined this place well in advance. Needless to say the commander should be determined to attack all the weak points of his enemy and avoid his strengths. There are no constants in war therefore adaptability is an important quality to possess in order to maintain the element of surprise.
Sun Tzu’s treatment of Maneuvers’ in chapter seven indicates that it is the most difficult aspect in the art of war. He explains the dangers of direct confrontation and how to win those confrontations when they are forced upon you. The terrain and length of travel play a crucial role here. The commander must be able to traverse his troops safely across rivers and valleys. In addition, this must be achieved without troop causality or undue depletion food and resources. The commander must organize his troops to arrive at the battleground rested, high in moral, well fed and prepared to fight. In the method of troop employment certain guidelines need to be followed. Sun Tzu also gives the following guidelines in confronting the enemy: “do not attack the enemy on higher ground, do not press an enemy at bay, and when surrounded allow him an exit if not he will fight to the death.”
In chapter eight Sun Tzu presents nine variables that a general must take into consideration when commanding his troops and when determining whether to launch an attack. He also discusses the character traits that are dangerous in a general. Sun Tzu, throughout his book, addresses the General of the Army hence, it is appropriate that he outlines character qualification. Emphasis is placed on the importance of the general by the author’s assertion that character flaws in a general are fatal both to the general and to his troops.
In chapters nine, Marches’ Sun Tzu emphasizes strategy in using the terrain. He also touches on the impact that the troops have on the general and how their actions reflect on him. Conversely he touches also on appropriate conduct for a general. It is interesting that traits such as consistency which Sun Tzu claims is essential are well recognized today in the parenting arena as crucial to gaining obedience.
Chapters ten and eleven, Terrain’ and The Nine Varieties of Ground’ deals with Sun Tzu’s much-revisited topic of advantageous use and understanding of the terrain. Tzu also deals with the dynamics of the chain of command and how the attitudes of various ranks can either demoralize or rejuvenate the army. He also puts forth his belief that a general is not required to blindly obey the sovereign power during war.
Attach by Fire’ is chapter twelve. For many years fire was a key weapon in the war arsenal. It is important to note that fire is still an important strategic weapon whether it is for destruction of enemy weaponry or to demoralize and economically or politically cripple the enemy. This chapter is not irrelevant, as it may initially seem. Having given advise on how to optimize the use of fire in waging war, Sun Tzu, in his customary style, also advises caution. He writes that a State that has perished cannot be restored nor can the dead by brought back to life.
Chapter thirteen closes the book with a particularly topical aspect of war, The Employment of Secret Agents’. In this chapter Tzu cleverly points out that waging war undoubtedly requires economic resources and to fail to invest in espionage is not saving money but rather wasting money because it decreases the likelihood of victory. Failing to gather foreknowledge of the enemy is not only shot sighted but is also inhumane because it commits troops to battle without giving them every benefit. Sun Tzu outlines the various means of infiltrating enemy lines and obtaining intelligence.
While the origin of The Art of War’ remains shrouded in uncertainty the work has stood the test of time and distinguishes itself as a definitive text on the philosophy of war. The author conveys sophistication in both the purpose and method of war that is still relevant today. The acceptance of the necessity of war is tempered with a desire to inflict the least destruction to achieve the set goals. The author is able to pragmatically justify strategy over brut force, intelligent planning over sheer numbers. This book warrants enthusiastic recommendation particularly in this increasingly technological age. When an ever increasing number of countries have the capacity to annihilate the world as we know it, the may become as important as the end. Sun Tzu presents a concise introduction to an interesting and thought-provoking concept of war. Its title, by the use of the word art, acknowledges that skill, ability and understanding are key in ingredients in war. Developing countries are often at a disadvantage when it comes to numerical strength and technological readiness but through the power of knowledge and understanding disadvantages may be compensated for or neutralized. This book is one tool in becoming empowered. The authors grasp of both the economic and social consequences of war is invaluable. The discussion of secret operations and subversion are likewise invaluable not only in implementing these strategies but also in becoming less susceptible to these strategies and developing countries are particularly susceptible to espionage and subterfuge by foreign entities. This book also has broad ranging implications. It promotes respect for our humanity, the benefits of proactiveness and making choices rather than merely responding the situations. These qualities are applicable in all aspects of life and to all people but particularly to military personnel who are at the forefront of the most difficult of tasks…that of defending our nation.
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