Sun Tzu

The Art of War

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The Art of War Summary

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The Art of War, an ancient Chinese text dating from the Spring and Autumn period of the fifth century BC., is a military treatise attributed to the military strategist, Sun Tzu, also called Sunzi. Each of the thirteen chapters discusses a different aspect of warfare and how it applies to military strategy and tactics. For nearly 1,500 years, it was the lead text in an anthology, which in 1080 became known as Seven Military Classics by the Emperor Shenzong of Song.

Considered the most influential strategy text in all of East Asia, The Art of War has had a great impact on both Eastern and Western military tactics, business tactics, legal strategy, and much more. It was first published in French in 1772 and partially translated into English in 1905. The first complete English translation was completed by Lionel Gilesin in 1910. Many historical military and political leaders have drawn inspiration from the text, including Mao Mao Zedong, Võ Nguyên Giáp, and Norman Schwarzkopf.

The first chapter, “Detail Assessment and Planning,” explores the five fundamental factors of war—the Way, seasons, terrain, leadership, and management. It also discusses the seven elements that determine the outcomes of military events. Sunzi claims that by considering all of these things and comparing them to one another, a commander can calculate the statistical chances of his victory. Repetitive failure to calculate these factors will result in loss. War is a very grave matter for the state, and must not be started without deep consideration.

“Waging War” describes the economy of warfare. It says that success means being able to win decisive engagements quickly and effectively. It then gives advice to the reader: a successful campaign means limiting the costs of competition and conflict.

Strength, the chapter “Strategic Attack” explains, is not determined by size, but by unity. There are five factors that are required to succeed in any war. These are attack, strategy, alliances, army, and cities.

It is very important to defend existing positions until the commander can advance from the position safely. The lesson in “Disposition of the Army” is about the importance of being able to recognize strategic opportunities and to not create opportunities for the enemy.

“Forces” explains the use of creativity and timing, to build an army’s momentum.

“Weaknesses and Strengths” shows how an army’s opportunities come from changes in the environment, which are caused by the relative weakness of the enemy, and how one should respond to these changes in a fluid battlefield over any given area.

“Military Maneuvers” explains how dangerous direct conflict is and how to win when the commander is forced into direct conflict.

The chapter “Variations and Adaptability” illustrates the importance of flexibility in an army’s responses, showing that a commander must learn how to respond to shifting circumstances.

There are many different situations that an army will find itself in through enemy territories, and it is important to know how to respond to these situations. “Movement and Development of Troops” focuses on evaluating the intentions of the enemy.

In “Terrain,” there are three general areas of resistance: distance, dangers, and barriers. There are also six different types of ground positions that can arise from the areas of resistance. Each of the six positions has a variety of pros and cons.

There are nine common situations, or stages, in a campaign. “The Nine Battlegrounds” describes the specific focus that a commander has to obtain in order to navigate them.

“Attacking with Fire” is a discussion of weapons and the use of the environment as a weapon. There are five targets for attack, five types of environmental attacks, and appropriate responses to each of these.

It is important to develop good information sources. “Intelligence and Espionage” discusses the five types of intelligence sources, and how to manage them.

There is some controversy surrounding the authorship of The Art of War. Around the twelfth century, scholars began to question whether Sun Tzu actually existed based on the fact that he is not mentioned in The Commentary of Zuo, an historical classic text, which discusses all of the notable figures from the Spring and Autumn period when Sun Tzu supposedly wrote The Art of War. The name Sun Tzu also does not appear in any texts before the Records of the Grand Historian. The name, in fact, is suspected of being a made-up descriptive name, which translates to “the fugitive warrior.” Sun is derived from the word fugitive, and Wu is the ancient Chinese virtue of martial, or valiant, Wu being Sun Tzu’s hero’s doppelgänger in the story of Wu Zixu. Sun Bin, however, seems to have been a real person who had a genuine authority on all things military. It is supposed that he may have been the inspiration behind the “Sunzi.”