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Sun Tzu – The Art of War

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A mysterious Chinese warrior philosopher compiled this book over 2,000 years ago. It was translated into English by an author named, Thomas Cleary, who holds a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. He is the translator of various works in Buddhist, Taoist, and I Ching studies.

It is still the most prestigious and influential book today for study by politicians and military strategists everywhere. The main theme of this book is to “To Win Without Fighting Is Best.” It gets a large part of its background from the Taoist philosophy. Sun-Tzu concentrates on the political side with a set of guidelines on the operational level for the general to follow. Where the operational level is concerned, Sun-Tzu puts forth many principles on the operational and political level.

The Art of War spans about 13 chapters, taking up less than a hundred pages in its English translation. Sun-Tzu is a book of principles and maxims. When comparing the relative strengths of the offense and defensive positions, Sun-Tzu maintains that the defensive is the stronger position: “It is easier to hold ground than take it. It follows that the defense is easier than the attack, assuming both sides have equal means.” Sun-Tzu also maintains this in his principles of what to attack: “worst of all is to besiege their city fortifications” and “For undefeatability, defend.” It’s understood that the defender has a greater incentive to fight then an army far from its own borders. It also states that the actual war itself must be left in the hands of the military leaders rather then the political leaders. As Sun-Tzu comments: “So a lord may harm the armies in three ways… By not knowing the armies’ affairs yet interfering with the armies policies; the armies’ warriors will be leery.” Policy, of course, will not extend its influence to operational details. Political considerations do not determine the posting of guards or the employment of patrols. But they are more influential in the planning of war, of the campaign, and often of the battle.

Superiority of numbers admittedly is the most important factor in the outcome of an engagement… It thus follows that as many troops as possible should be brought into the engagement at the decisive point. Sun-Tzu as well cautions the general: “ten to one, beset them; five to one, attack them; double, divide them; equal, be able to battle against them; fewer, be able to evade them; weaker, be able to avoid them.” So we see that war in its basest form, the battle, changes very little from one age to the next (although to remove much of the human element from it, as in the present, raises another question).

The main idea that pervades the work of Sun-Tzu on the political realm is the concept of deception and the dislike of actual war. This is clearly influenced by one of China’s greatest philosophers, and a contemporary of Sun-Tzu’s, Confucius. “Then achieving victory in every battle is not absolute perfection: neutralizing an adversary’s forces without battle is absolute perfection.” This is Sun-Tzu’s basic concept of war. In the backdrop of the Warring States period of the Zhou period, this made sense. He maintained the maxim of knowing yourself and your enemy. He used a variety of tricks to keep the enemy off balance. These included everything from the diplomatic to the psychological. However, the greatest weapon in Sun-Tzu’s arsenal was that of deception. Throughout his work, it seems that everything revolved around deception. He even goes on to devote an entire chapter to the use of spies. To Sun-Tzu, intelligence was the most important element that a political leader could posses if he could implement it wisely.

In ancient China, the long drawn out wars that were fought in the modern day could not have happened. A given state could not risk a protracted war for fear of attack from another state. Each state was usually wholly independent of itself and had numerous enemies waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. A state rarely, if ever, made an alliance with another state until after Sun-Tzu’s time. Thus, to achieve victory with the least amount of bloodshed insured the integrity of your state. The political situation of that era also allowed for deception. A king, who held court, governed each state. Spies were easily inducted into court as servants, courtiers or even nobles. As there was little difference in race and language (i.e. everyone was Chinese) any person could infiltrate a court and act as a spy. The people of the state were vassals that were expected to provide tribute irrespective of whether or not they wanted to. The army was drawn from the peasants with a mix of professional soldiers. The King employed a number of generals and acted as supreme commander himself.

In such a background, political intrigue and diplomatic relations made sense. This is one of the key bases for Sun-Tzu’s book. Another aspect that influenced him was that of history. One of the two earliest dynasties, the Shang and the Chou employed political intrigue to destroy all of their foes. As Sun-Tzu alludes to in his chapter entitled espionage: “long ago, the rise of the Shang sovereign was due to Yizhi in the Xia court; the rise of the Chou sovereign was due to Luya in the Shang court.” The explanation of this passage is thus: “The Shang sovereign was victorious over the Xia lord because Yizhi once served in the Xia and relayed their secrets to the Shang. In the same way Luya gained victory for the Chou.” It is because of this that Sun-Tzu places the greatest emphasis on deception and intelligence. What Sun-Tzu banks on is a capable Lord or general who is able to glean good intelligence from bad intelligence.

Deception and intelligence played no major role in those days, as most of it was unreliable and very difficult to obtain. A spy could not easily be introduced into the enemy’s camps, especially with the differentiation of race and language. With this in mind, he totally disregards intelligence and calls deception a “sham action… requiring a considerable expenditure of time and effort.” Allies were readily formed, more so for protection than for war intentions. Parleying with the enemy did less to enhance a country’s reputation, and most attacking generals preferred quick decisive battles. With this in mind, he formulated his ideal war. Upon reflection of the French Revolution he states that: “in 1793 a force appeared that beggared all imagination. Suddenly war became the business of the people- a people of thirty millions, all of who considered themselves to be citizens… The resources and efforts now available for use surpassed all conventional limits.”

Clearly Sun-Tzu demonstrates the influential nature of its age in their respective writings. Sun-Tzu recorded what seemed to work in his day. Sun-Tzu contends that politics were a necessary part of any campaign. When beginning a war political intrigue along with diplomacy was the first step. The last resort was armed contention. Here we see differences in the timeframe. One age called for an active political structure capable of winning a war without bloodshed, while the second seemingly used the military as an extension for political domination of the enemy.

One other major subject Sun Tzu touches on is the use of military tactics in battle once the enemy has been engaged. Sun-Tzu advocates attacking anywhere an enemy force has “gaps”, which means a weakness in food supplies, training of men, etc…Another tactic in battle is the use of fire weapons, a useful tool in warfare and very easy to make. The uses of fire break down into 5 categories: Burning people, burning supplies, burning equipment, burning storehouses, and burning weapons. One example of fire use is the adapt one of the 5 uses in battle, Sun Tzu states it like this “Armies must know there are adaptations of the 5 kinds of fire attack, and adhere to them scientifically”. Armies generally used fire back in the day to cause confusion or to destroy structures and would launch an additional attack in the moments immediately following the fire attack. If this was executed correctly, devastating results could be achieved.

The type of ground battles were fought on was also a factor. Sun Tzu talks about 9 types of grounds that fire attacks and battles could be fought on: Ground of dissolution, light ground, ground of contention, trafficked ground, intersecting ground, heavy ground, bad ground, surrounded ground, and dying ground. Sun Tzu sums up these types of ground by speaking of the types of battles to be fought and the risks on each type of ground. Sun Tzu says “So let there be no battle on a ground of dissolution, let there be no stopping on light ground, let there be no attack on a ground of contention, let there be no cutting off of trafficked ground. On intersecting ground form communications, on heavy ground plunder, on bad ground keep going, on surrounded ground make plans, on dying ground fight.” This advice is not to be taken literally, but is used as a guide for a common sense approach to taking note of where you are and the physical conditions that your men fight

Sun Tzu concludes his book with the use of 5 types of spies: The local spy, the inside spy, the reverse spy, the dead spy, and the living spy. Local spies are hired from among the local people; inside spies are hired from among enemy officials. Reverse spies are hired from enemy spies (double-agents). Dead spies are there to transmit fake information to the enemy, and living spies return to the ruler to report on the enemy. These types of spies are used to gather intelligence and this can be used to an advantage to avoid mounting a major military operation, which would be a severe drain on the nation. “It will not do for the army to act without knowing the opponent’s condition, and to know the opponent’s condition is impossible without espionage.

Sun-Tzu’s book can be applied to many different situations; the most modern application that is being advocated is use of this strategy in business. There are many self-help books based upon his Sun Tzu’s principles. I would recommend this book as good reading for strategy tactics.

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