Sun Tzu's: Art of War

Since its writing over 2,500 years ago, The Art of War has influenced history, unlike any other book. It has been the source of guidance for world leaders, generals, and politicians alike. And because of this, it's built up a sort of 'mysticism' around it.

Contributing to its mysticism; an abundance of pop. culture references to the book have brought it to public fame. For example, Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street (1987) is seen quoting Sun Tzu several times in the movie to his protégé, Bud Fox.

The principles taught by Sun Tzu in his book apply to a range of highly diverse fields and disciplines. Renowned 5 Star General Douglas MacArthur, was known to keep a copy on his desk. And NFL coach, Bill Belichick, record holder of the most Superbowl wins, has commended the book on several occasions. 

In this summary, you’ll be served the greatest takeaways from my read of a world-influencing book. 

Book Summary

Deception and manipulation

Almost an underlying mantra repeated throughout the book: “All warfare is based on deception.”

The fundamental basis of all of Sun Tzu’s tactics is on manipulating your adversary's thoughts and assumptions. So, proclaims Sun Tzu: “when you’re competent; fake incompetency … [and] when near, make it appear that you are far away.”

Playing with your enemy’s psychology is a tool of enormous destruction. Sun Tzu makes the benefits of this clear and suggests to confuse, enrage and intimidate your enemy where possible. But most importantly, to divide, conquer and drive a wedge between alliances, forcing former friends to plot against one another.

Waging war; things to consider

Though Churchill's quotes may have impacted parliament, Sun Tzu is likely to have wholeheartedly disagreed with Churchill's belief in 'victory at all costs'. 

Indeed, Sun Tzu did believe 'victory is the main object in war'. However, as is made clear, bloodshed is expensive, and where alternative solutions exist, those should be taken. The most frequently cited Art of War quotes would confirm: "The supreme art of war is to conquer the enemy without fighting."

Offensive strategy

A master of the battlefield, one piece of Napoleon's philosophy on war can be summed up in his quote: “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.” Ironically, at his Waterloo defeat, Napoleon lost to Wellington, who had been studying Napoleon's strategies.

This echo of Sun Tzu's wisdom offers a lesson - to be unpredictable. It's vital to mix your techniques, keep them unknown, and to assume formlessness. Else, you risk being second-guessed and losing any advantages of surprise. 

Sun Tzu suggests the two most effective methods of defeating an enemy are:

  1. to attack their strategy
  2. to disrupt their alliances

Note the focus on conserving your resources. On the other hand, the two sub-optimal solutions include attacking a general's main force and pillaging their cities.

Circumstances predicting victory

Interestingly, it is believed a pre-ancient abacus may have been used to predict battles' outcomes. Certain factors would be measured, and a battle outcome calculated.

What those factors were, and how the abacus worked, is unknown. However, in his chapter on Offensive Strategy, Sun Tzu claims there are five conditions to attain victory:

  1. Those with the wisdom to know when they can and cannot fight
  2. Those who understand how to use both small and large forces
  3. When your army is united in purpose
  4. Those who are patient and wait for the enemy to show their weak spots
  5. When commanders are not interfered with by their sovereign (king/queen)

Where, when and how to attack

Sun Tzu declares being invincible lies in your defence and any chance of victory in the attack. My interpretation of this is there is no use in being a purely defensive or offensive fighting unit. The only long-term way to succeed is to balance your offence and defence. As Sun Tzu advises "defend when your strength is inadequate and attack when your strength is abundant."

It's an adage in Chess to wait for your opponent to make a perfect mistake before striking. Similarly, this is true while waiting to attack on the battlefield. To quote the Art of War: "When an advancing enemy crosses water do not meet them at the water's edge. It is advantageous to allow half his force to cross then strike." 

Weaknesses and strengths

Never be rushed

"Generally, he who comes to the field of battle first and waits for his enemy is at ease; he who comes later to the battlefield and rushes into the fight is weary."

Baiting your foe

A strategy when performed correctly can control the direction of your enemy. To attract an enemy you must offer some advantage. And equally, to direct him away from certain areas, offer some disadvantage. Using this logic, it becomes possible to influence the flow of your enemy, such that you dupe him into a trap.

Hold your cards close

When your plans are unknown, your enemy is forced to prepare everywhere, causing resource dispersal. As stated in the book: "The enemy must not know where I intend to give battle. Forcing him to prepare in a great many places. Making him weak not left, right or centre, but weak everywhere."

Unknown territory

Highly relevant to making decisions in times of uncertainty. For ease of summary, I've broken the main points of this chapter down into bite-sized chunks: 

  • Use local guides to obtain advantages of the ground. Without knowledge of the land's layout, you'll most likely find yourself taking inefficient, potentially perilous routes.
  • Ensure a steady supply of resources. As illustrated by Napoleon's crushing defeat in Russia, foraging for resources in the enemy's lands is not a smart idea. When entering unknown territory; ensure a steady supply of resources.
  • Move when advantageous and create confusion in the situation via dispersal and concentration of forces. 
  • Be wary of bait, and above all, watch your greed. Examine how you're thinking when making decisions and be aware of your emotions at play.
  • Always leave your enemy room to escape. With no other options, they'll be forced to fight to the death. Which can result in mass depletion of your resources.​

Terrain

Sun Tzu states there are three types of terrain: accessible, entrapping, and indecisive. Each type has their unique characteristics that shape your strategy.

  1. Accessible terrain is defined as ground both yourself and the enemy can travel through. Typically, the general who arrives first holds the advantage and can set up their troops at the optimal points.
  2. Entrapping terrain is defined as territory easy to leave, but difficult to return to. With this type of ground, you may leave to attack the enemy. However, if you need to retreat, it's not possible to do so. This is unprofitable.
  3. Finally, 'indecisive ground' is equally disadvantageous to you and your enemy. This generates uncertainty and leaves both opposing generals indecisive.

Conclusion

From the outset Sun Tzu makes it clear that conflict should be a measure of last resort; "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." The chief responsibility of all strategists is to resolve differences with minimum losses of resources and life. 

This relates well to business, as Phil Knight, founder of Nike, wrote in his book, Shoe Dog, "business has some war like parallels." This reflects the book's success in the modern world and the dynamism of its principles, and how they can be applied to various industries.

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