Sun Tzu was a Chinese general, strategist, and writer, born in 544 BC. Smart and quick-witted, Tzu established a remarkable philosophy of military strategy that he compiled together in The Art of War. Often focusing on tactics beyond the bloodshed of physical battle, The Art of War is a strategic masterwork that’s been used by countless military strategists since its first publication.

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What Is The Art of War About?

After being made a general, Tzu demonstrated the effectiveness of his philosophy by leading an army and winning an impressive battle in the Ch’u state. He then put his philosophy to paper and wrote The Art of War for the King of Wu. The book has 13 chapters, each assigned to a particular aspect of war and strategy. Although he writes in short, succinct sentences, the brevity of his words always contain a depth of meaning. Consequently, The Art of War has had a significant impact on both Eastern and Western military thinking, which continues to this day.

The Art of War Summary

Laying Plans

 War is essential to the governance of the state. Tzu argues that warfare is governed by five constant factors:

  1. Moral law: That which inspires the population to be in complete agreement with their leader, willing to follow them under any circumstances.
  2. Heaven: The changeability of the environment, e.g., the seasons, times of day, and the weather.
  3. Earth: This comprises great distances and the variability of terrain.
  4. The commander: The importance of the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.
  5. Method and discipline: The clear hierarchy and structure of an army, with clear divisions, subdivisions, and ranks.

When creating your military strategy, you must refer to these five factors. This requires asking questions such as: Which of your leaders inspire moral law? Who stands to gain the most from how the heavens and earth lie? On which side are the officers and soldiers better trained? Tzu argues that, by asking such questions, you can predict who the winning side will be.

Further, as war is based on deception, when your army is fit to attack, they must appear unfit. When you are busy deploying your soldiers, you must seem inactive. By deceiving your opponent, you attack them where they are unprepared and you can defeat them. This tactic is also championed in  

Waging War

War is costly. The longer you wage a battle, the greater the expenditures of supplies, armor, and weapons. If you lay siege to an area for a protracted length of time, your soldiers will become weak, their weapons will become dulled, and you will run out of money. Consequently, to engage in warfare intelligently, you should attack quickly and avoid any delays.

If, however, a battle goes on for longer than desired, a wise general orders their troops to pillage from the enemy. This will sustain your army for longer than when relying exclusively on your own resources. It also incentivizes your troops to defeat the enemy, as they’ll reap the rewards of their loot.

Attack by Stratagem

In war, it’s best to conquer your opponent’s territory entirely and intact. Thus, raising it to the ground is pointless. Likewise, it’s better to recapture an army than to kill them. The best strategy in war is to defeat your enemy without ever fighting them. Consequently, Tzu states that there are five approaches to war that vary in effectiveness. From most to least effective, they are:

  1. Defeat your enemy via stratagem alone, without coming into battle.
  2. Anticipate your enemy’s plans, and prepare a pre-emptive counterattack.
  3. Isolate your opponent from their allies.
  4. Attack your enemy in the field.
  5. Besiege a walled city.

Tzu builds on these approaches to war by suggesting that there are five essential features of victory:

  1. The victorious know when and when not to fight.
  2. They know how to manage both superior and inferior forces (e.g., it’s possible to defeat a greater force with careful strategic planning).
  3. Victory is dependent on an army that shares the same focussed spirit throughout its ranks.
  4. The victorious know to attack their enemy when they are unprepared.
  5. Victory comes only to those whose strategic plans aren’t interfered with by a sovereign power.

Tactical Dispositions

First, secure yourself against defeat. Then, wait for your enemy to provide you with an opportunity to conquer them. This may mean knowing how to overthrow your enemy for a while but not actually doing so. It’s a matter of biding your time and waiting for the opportune moment. A clever general is, thus, one who wins their battles with ease and makes no mistakes. They first create plans to ensure victory before engaging in warfare. Such military planning is comprised of five methods:

  1. To understand and measure the battle terrain.
  2. To estimate the enemy’s numbers.
  3. To estimate the enemy’s strength.
  4. To estimate the enemy’s chances against you.
  5. To estimate your chances of victory.

Energy

Whether you’re fighting with a large or small army makes no difference. What counts is the way your soldiers are organized. While direct methods of battle are often necessary, it’s the indirect methods that will secure your victory. Indirect tactics could include relentlessly attacking your enemy’s flanks or falling on their rear. When properly applied, indirect tactics are inexhaustible.

The direct and indirect modes of attack follow on to each other like a moving circle. Considering the power of your army as a whole before identifying individuals with certain talents, you are best able to use the “energy” of your forces. By keeping your enemy on the move, they will walk straight into a unit of your best-picked soldiers, lying in wait for them. 

Furthermore, the victorious are adept at self-restraint and know when to attack at the right moment. By making your army look as if it is chaotically organized, when in reality it is sharply structured, you gain the upper hand. Always mask your strength with weakness. 

Weak Points and Strong

The smart combatant makes the first move and, therefore, never engages in warfare from the backfoot. You should fight either on your own terms or not at all. Strike at vulnerable points, and don’t attack your enemy where they are well defended. Likewise, you should learn to defend your weak spots from a surprise attack.

By remaining obscure to your opponent, you can uncover their weaknesses while remaining invisible. This allows you to concentrate your forces while your enemy’s are divided. Try to discover your opponent’s plans, and with this information, calculate the likelihood of their success. Understand the strengths of your opposing army so you can better spot its weaknesses and strike where it is weak.

Maneuvering

Harmony must be achieved between the ranks of your army before you can march into battle. Once your soldiers operate as a unified body, you can turn your attention to defeating your enemy. However, you mustn’t allow your soldiers to march for long periods of time. This will only weaken your army, and only a tenth of your soldiers will reach their destination. 

Further, you cannot march your army across territory that is unfamiliar. You must use the knowledge of local guides to use the natural advantages of the land. Before you make a move, you must first ponder and deliberate. This is the art of maneuvering. With your army operating as a single body, there is no space for the brave to advance alone or for the cowardly to retreat alone.

Variation in Tactics

A general who understands the advantages that coincide with numerous tactical approaches knows how to manage their troops. Those unversed in a variety of tactics will be doomed to defeat. There are five possible faults a general may fall prey to that will affect their chances of being victorious:

  1. Recklessness, which leads to destruction.
  2. Cowardice, which leads to capture.
  3. A quick temper, easily provoked by insults.
  4. A thin skin, sensitive to shame.
  5. Over-solicitude for their army, which leads to excessive worry.

The Army on the March

When on the march, always stick close to sources of sustenance, and camp in high places that are facing the sun. When on dry, even land, identify an accessible position with rising ground on both the right and the rear. This means that you can see danger approaching while escaping safely behind where you’re stationed.

Once you’ve positioned your army, you must search any nearby ponds, hollow basins filled with reeds, or woods as your enemy may have spies positioned here. Look at the birds when they suddenly rise upwards, as it often means soldiers are in ambush beneath them. However, if birds gather on any singular spot, it means it’s unoccupied.

If envoys from the enemy are sent across to you in a friendly manner, it means they’re seeking a truce. If your enemy’s troops line up before you but don’t advance, you must be cautious. It could mean that they are planning a surprise flank attack. If your and your opponent’s armies are of a similar size, then no direct attack can be made. Here, all you can do is cultivate your existing strength, observe your enemy, and obtain reinforcements.

Terrain

Tzu states that there are six types of terrain:

  1. Accessible ground: Ground that both you and your opponent can easily traverse. To be victorious, you must occupy this ground before your enemy.
  2. Entangling ground: Ground that is difficult to re-occupy once you abandon it. Thus, if you’re battling an enemy on such terrain and you lose, it will be difficult for you to return to attempt victory once more.
  3. Temporizing ground: Ground on which neither side has an advantage. Even if your enemy tempts you to engage in battle on such terrain, refrain.
  4. Narrow passes: Only enter such passes if you’re the first to occupy them and then strongly garrison them in wait of your opponent. If your opponent has gotten there before you, don’t enter.
  5. Precipitous heights: Try to occupy the highest sunny spots and wait for your enemy to march upwards to meet you. If your enemy has occupied such a spot before you, retreat, and entice them away.
  6. Positions at a great distance from your opponent: If both armies are of equal size and situated far from each other, a battle will not be easily provoked. Thus, it’s essential to avoid drawing out a long, weary march to meet your enemy, as your troops will be weary, and you will be at a disadvantage.

The Nine Situations

Tzu builds on his distinction of the six types of terrain by arguing that there are nine varieties of ground:

  1. Dispersive ground: This is when you are fighting on your own territory. It’s called dispersive, as if your troops are located near their loved ones. In the face of an upcoming battle, they are likely to disperse into their homes.
  2. Facile ground: When you’ve marched into hostile territory but haven’t gotten far, this ground variety makes it easy for your troops to retreat.
  3. Contentious ground: Such ground offers both sides an equal advantage and, thus, must be contended for.
  4. Open ground: It allows for both sides to have an equal liberty of movement.
  5. Ground of intersecting highways: This land intersects between your territory, your enemy’s territory, and the ground of a third territory that adjoins both.
  6. Serious ground: This is when your army has penetrated deep into hostile country, upping the stakes of your approach.
  7. Difficult ground: This refers to all terrain that is difficult to traverse, such as forests, marshes, and cliffs.
  8. Hemmed-in ground: This includes all ground that can only be reached through narrow passes, making you vulnerable to enemy attack.
  9. Desperate ground: This is any ground on which you can only be saved from defeat by engaging in battle immediately.

For each of the types of ground, Tzu offers a tactical approach: 

  1. On dispersive ground, don’t fight.
  2. On facile ground, don’t stop.
  3. On contentious ground, don’t attack.
  4. On open ground, don’t block the enemy’s path.
  5. On the ground of intersecting highways, join up with your allies.
  6. On serious ground, gather and plunder.
  7. On difficult ground, keep steady in your march.
  8. On hemmed-in ground, resort to using strategy.
  9. On desperate ground, fight.

The Attack by Fire

Tzu suggests five ways to defeating your enemy with fire, and they are:

  1. Burning their camp.
  2. Burning their stores.
  3. Burning their baggage trains.
  4. Burning their arsenals and magazines.
  5. To aim burning arrows across enemy lines.

To use fire effectively, however, it must be used at the opportune moment, in the right season, when the weather is dry.

The Use of Spies

If a war drags out for many years, you will deplete your treasury, and there will be much unrest in your homeland. To prevent a long war, you must learn to use spies effectively to know when to strike the enemy. You can only trust spies if you pay them sufficiently for their services. However, the cost of paying a few good spies compared to the costs of a drawn-out war are miniscule. 

Tzu states that there are five types of spy, and the trick is to use all five so that your opponent will never uncover the depths of your espionage network. They are:

  1. Local spies: Inhabitants of your opponent’s country.
  2. Inward spies: Officials of your enemy, which could also include concubines or those in your enemy’s ranks who feel frustrated at being in subordinate positions.
  3. Converted spies: These are the spies of your enemy that you’ve bribed into working for you. Therefore, they will carry back false information to your opponent.
  4. Doomed spies: Your own spies that you reveal false pieces of strategic information to so that when they’re caught behind enemy lines, they’ll give your opponent false facts.
  5. Surviving spies: All spies who survive and bring back news from your enemy’s camp.

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