The first thing you need to recognize when you are reading an English translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is that you are dealing with what former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “known unknowns”. Scholars are not certain about when the book was written (estimates range between 770 BCE and 221 BCE), whether it was written by one or several authors, and what motivated the author(s) to write the book.
Another thing to recognize is that the book is about war and warfare—not business, sports, relationships, leadership or the many other subjects to which it has been applied in our own time. Sun Tzu wrote about kinetic war in a very sophisticated and common sense manner. The Art of War, like Machiavelli’s The Prince, is a book of advice based presumably on experience—in Sun Tzu’s case, the experience of commanding troops in battle.
The third thing you need to recognize or understand is that the book is a product of its time—it is about warfare in Ancient China, possibly written during the “Warring States” period between 403 BCE and 221 BCE. That was a time when the Zhao Dynasty fractured into separate kingdoms that struggled for power and influence and ended with the Qin Dynasty’s conquest of the other states in 221 BCE. In the book’s Introduction, however, translator James Trapp notes that many other scholars believe Sun Tzu wrote it sometime during during the Spring and Autumn Annals period between 770 BCE and 476 BCE.
The Art of War Illustrated consists of thirteen chapters written in both Chinese and English, each of which is followed by a scholarly case study attempting to show how various battles or military campaigns throughout history reveal the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s advice. The book’s six contributors are Ralph Ashby, a US historian who served in the Gulf War; Miles Doleac, a filmmaker and professor at the University of Mississippi; Kevin Dougherty, a retired US Army colonel and a professor at The Citadel; Stephen Hart, a senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy; Frederick Schneid, a history professor at High Point University in North Carolina; and Stephen Turnbull, a visiting Professor at Japan’s Akita International University.
Sun Tzu identified war’s “five decisive factors”: moral compass (which joins the people to their ruler); heaven (climate and physical environment); earth (topography and terrain); the commander (the qualities of a military leader); and regulation (supplies and logistics). He counseled: “[Y]ou must study them when laying your plans and thoroughly understand their relevance.” A successful general, Sun Tzu explained, “plans for many eventualities” before the battle begins, and seizes opportunities by adapting to changing circumstances, unlike, as one contributor points out, the Allied armies who during the Mediterranean campaign in World War II failed to exploit their victory in Sicily, which allowed Axis troops to escape to the Italian mainland.
Strategy, Sun Tzu wrote, can bring victory at lower cost. He explained that, “the highest form of warfare is to out-think the enemy.” This can be achieved by breaking the enemy’s alliances, knowing when to fight and when not to fight, carefully preparing for battle while catching the enemy unprepared, and using superior numbers to attack a smaller force. [I]f you know yourself and know your enemy,” he wrote, “you will gain victory”, as Alexander the Great did in defeating the Persians at Granicus in 334 BCE where he repeatedly out-thought the enemy by leading a “highly coordinated martial collective whose equal the world had not yet seen.”
A great and victorious warrior, Sun Tzu wrote, “places himself in an invincible position, and then ensures he does not miss the crucial opportunity to defeat the enemy.” Skillful preparation, attention to logistics, and correctly calculating advantages “means you are fighting an enemy who is already beaten.” The United States and its allies in the First Gulf War in 1990-91, placed themselves in an “invincible position” by deploying air, naval, and ground forces in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf then launched a swift and decisive campaign that defeated an “already beaten” Iraqi enemy.
Sun Tzu wrote that an army should use the complementary tactics of direct attack and what he calls “the oblique” (what BH Liddell Hart called the “indirect approach”). “[B]etween them,” he explained, “they offer an inexhaustible range of tactics.” An army should have “momentum”, which is like a “surge of rolling flood-water”, and timing, which he compares to “the swoop of a falcon [that] strikes and kills its prey”, as the Soviet Army accomplished in January 1945 during the Vistula-Odor offensive against the Germans.
Sun Tzu counseled to attack inferior forces with superior numbers, using subtlety and deception to bring the enemy to battle when the enemy is least prepared. He advised varying tactics and strategies, while attacking the enemy’s weaknesses and avoiding the enemy’s strengths. “There are no constants in warfare”, he explained, “any more than water maintains a constant shape.” At the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993, Somali forces avoided US forces’ strengths and attacked their weaknesses, resulting in a US withdrawal.
Skillful generals, Sun Tzu wrote, achieve mastery of morale, emotion, deception, and circumstance, like the Mongols did in defeating the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohi in 1241. They must understand the advantages and disadvantages—the so-called “nine variables”—of battle, like the Han Dynasty’s forces did in preemptively attacking the Xiongnu homelands at Mobei in 119 BCE, and as Napoleon did in defeating the Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806.
A commander must understand the terrain, including the importance of occupying high ground, like Union General Gouverneur Warren did at Little Round Top during the second day at Gettysburg. He must also understand the importance of holding “desperate ground” as Red Army forces did at Stalingrad.
Battlefield victories to be worthwhile, Sun Tzu wrote, must be consolidated, and a “good general builds on his victories.” The American army failed to do this in Vietnam after the Battle of Ia Drang in 1965.
A successful general, Sun Tzu explained, will use spies to “gain accurate knowledge of the enemy’s situation” and to spread disinformation to confuse the enemy, as Japan’s Tokugawa forces did to defeat insurgents at Shimabara in 1638.
Finally, Sun Tzu warned against prolonging a war. “[A] protracted campaign”, he wrote, “depletes the state’s resources” and drains the will of the people. The Roman victory over Carthage at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE demonstrated the wisdom of Roman General Scipio Africanus who followed Sun Tzu’s advice by finally ending the protracted Second Punic War by using sea power to boldly invade and decisively defeat Hannibal’s army in northern Africa.
While Western military officers have been studying Sun Tzu since the early 20th century (the first English translation was completed and published in 1910), the Chinese have been studying it for 2500 years. For that reason alone, it behooves Western (and other Asian) military leaders and strategists to continue reading and reflecting on Sun Tzu’s enduring classic.
This review would not be complete without noting the aesthetic quality of this new edition of The Art of War. It was produced by using traditional Chinese bookbinding techniques dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), where single sheets of paper printed on one side are folded in half and the book block is sandwiched between two boards then sewn together. It includes maps, photographs and illustrations related to the case studies in each chapter. It is a work both visually pleasing and informative.