Book Summary: The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Book Summary: The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Quick Summary: Thousands of years old, The Art of War is considered by many to be the ultimate work on military tactics and strategy. Military tactics, business strategies, and legal strategies in both the East and West have been greatly affected by it.  It has inspired leaders such as Douglas MacArthur and Mao Zedong.

The Art of War 13 Principles

The Art of War is divided into 13 chapters:

1. Laying Plans

Sun Tzu examines five fundamental factors (the Way, seasons, terrain, leadership, and management) and seven elements in this chapter that determine the outcome of a military engagement. 

By thinking, assessing, and comparing these factors, a commander can calculate his chances of victory. Deviations from these calculations will result in failure. The text emphasizes the graveness of war for the state and emphasizes it cannot be begun without due consideration.

2. Waging War

This chapter explains how to understand the economy of warfare and how winning decisive engagements fast is key to success. The section stresses the importance of limiting the costs of competition and conflict in military campaigns.

3. Attack by Stratagem

In this chapter, Sun Tzu discuss the five factors required to succeed in any war and why unity is more powerful than size. In order of importance, the following factors are critical: Attack, Strategy, Alliances, Army, and Cities.

4. Tactical Dispositions

In this chapter, you will discover why it is important for commanders to defend existing positions until they are able to advance from them safely. Commanders learn how to recognize strategic opportunities and not create opportunities for their enemies.

5. Use of Energy

Sun Tzu discusses how to build an army’s momentum through creativity and timing in this chapter.

6. Weak Points and Strong

This chapter explains how an army’s opportunities arise from the relative weakness of its enemies, as well as how to handle changes on a fluid battlefield.

7. Maneuvering an Army

In this chapter, Sun Tzu discusses the dangers of direct conflict and how a commander can triumph in conflict when it is forced upon him.

8. Variation of Tactics

Sun Tzu discusses the need to be flexible in an army’s responses in this chapter. He explains how to adapt to changing circumstances.

9. The Army on the March

As an army moves into new enemy territory, it is faced with a variety of situations and has to decide how to respond. The purpose of this chapter is to evaluate the intentions of others.

10. Classification of Terrain

There are three types of resistance (distance, dangers, and barriers) and six types of ground positions that result from them. Each position has advantages and disadvantages.

11.The Nine Situations

In this chapter, Sun Tzu describes the nine phases (or stages) of a campaign, from scattering to deadly, and the specific focus a commander will need to successfully navigate them.

12. Attacking with Fire

Sun Tzu discusses the general use of weapons as well as the specific use of the environment as a weapon in this chapter. He examines the five targets for attacks, five types of environmental attacks, and the appropriate responses.

13. Use of Spies

In this chapter, Sun Tzu discusses the importance of having good intelligence sources as well as the five sources and the management of them.

The Art of War Book Summary

Insight #1: Plan, calculate, and compare your army’s strength to win

When a state goes to war, it is fighting for its very existence. Thus, it is important to understand the art of war and be able to use that knowledge to make plans in case of war.

Generals who draw detailed plans before battle will defeat those who do not. Therefore, planning and deliberation are essential before fighting. You can predict victory or defeat by comparing the opposing armies on seven factors:

  • In which of the two states at war commands the complete, unwavering adherence and devotion of his people, so that they will follow him even to death?
  • Who is the more capable of the two generals?
  • What side has an advantage with respect to circumstances like the weather, distances to cover, and the terrain?
  • Which side enforces discipline more strictly on its men?
  • How strong is the army of each side?
  • Which side has the best trained officers and men?
  • In terms of rewarding and punishing discipline, which side is more consistent?

Comparing the army of your enemy with your own will help you determine where he is weak and where he is strong. You should then plan according to the situation. You will always be victorious if you understand your enemy and yourself.

Insight #2: Prepare yourself for defeat, and wait for opportunities to win

A successful strategist will only engage in battles he has a good chance of winning, while an unsuccessful one will enter the fray and think of winning only later on.

Skilled fighters avoid battles they may lose to ensure they never lose. 

Nevertheless, even the most brilliant general cannot predict exactly when victory will come, for he has to wait for the enemy to make a mistake and afford him the opportunity.

Successful generals know that there are five rules that must be followed to win:

  • There are times when you should fight, and times when you shouldn’t.
  • As a leader, you need to know how to deal with both inferior and superior forces.
  • In order to be successful, your army must be disciplined and have a strong fighting spirit.
  • To win, you must be prepared, so that the enemy is unprepared.
  • Your troops must be able to be commanded without interference from a sovereign.
  • Take precautions. Don’t attack unless you have the advantage. Attack your enemy where he is weak, and avoid where he is strong.

Avoid the enemy’s army when its spirits are high, its columns and banners are well ordered, or when it is in a more advantageous position.

It is never a good idea to go into battle out of anger; there must always be something to be gained. You’ll eventually lose your anger, but once a kingdom is destroyed, it’s impossible to restore it.

Do not fall into the traps set by your enemy. Make sure your army does not go to places where your supplies cannot reach you or where you are not familiar with the terrain or your allies.

Insight #3: War is successful only when a sovereign or a general does not cause their own defeat

War is fought by armies commanded by generals, but generals are commanded by sovereigns. Sovereigns can impede their armies through their commands. 

It is most disastrous for him to command his troops to advance or retreat when such actions are impossible, by governing the army as laxly as he does his state, and by placing officers in inappropriate roles.

Errors like these can shake the confidence of soldiers and lead to defeat.

Generals can, however, also exhibit dangerous faults. 

During warfare, a commander can be reckless and lose his army, or a coward and be captured; he can be jealous and insult the enemy, or he can be too worried about the comfort of his own men and let that prevent him from executing military tactics.

Any of these six calamities can also befall an army under the command of the general:

  • If he hurls his army at a force ten times bigger than it, causing his soldiers to flee.
  • When his soldiers are too powerful compared to his officers, causing them to rebel.
  • Soldiers may collapse if they are too weak, as they are worn down by officers.
  • The higher officers might be angry and undisciplined, causing them to attack on their own and ruin the army.
  • An indecisive and weak general will lead to a weak and disorganized army.
  • If a general fails to estimate an enemy’s strength and throws a lesser force against a stronger one, overwhelming defeat results.

Insight #4: Conserve resources by foraging, espionaging, and strategizing

The cost of maintaining an army is high: a host of 100,000 men can cost 1,000 ounces of silver a day for provisions, such as food, chariots, spears, arrows, armor, and oxen.

Any state that experiences prolonged warfare will become weak and vulnerable as its resources are exhausted. Instead of prolonged campaigns, aim for quick and decisive victories.

It is best not to besiege walled cities, as this usually takes months to prepare, and many impatient generals are prone to wasting their men in pointless attacks.

Rather than destroy an enemy city, country, or army through costly warfare, the best way to reduce war’s costs is to capture them whole and intact. In order to achieve this, your force must be much larger than that of your enemy.

The ultimate victory of a skilled general is subduing his enemies without fighting. It is called a stratagem attack. A fighter who excels at winning does so with ease.

You can also conserve resources by taking them from your enemy by foraging locally and enhancing your own strength with the weapons, armor, and men of the enemy. Thus, your peasants are spared from maintaining your army and you save on the costs of supplying your army from home.

You should engage spies as single battles can end wars, since they provide information about the enemy’s disposition as well as false information back to him.

Reward your spies well and maintain intimate relations with them. You will save a great deal of blood and treasure if you do.

If you want to build a stratagem around a secret that a spy told you, kill him as well as anyone else he told the secret to, so the strategy has no chance of losing its power.

Insight #5: Trick your enemy and force him to do what you want

War is an art of deception. It is necessary to disguise strength with weakness, courage with timidity, and order with disorder. Let your enemy become confused and careless.

Make your troops seem disorderly when in fact they are highly disciplined. Make it seem as though you are far away from your enemy when you are drawing close to them. Make it seem like you are unable to attack even if you are able to.

Like a cat playing with a mouse, play with your enemy. Irritate him if he has a temper. Then harass him, starve him if he’s well supplied, and force him to move if he’s quietly encamped. Embarrass your enemies with bait if you want them to advance; and damage them if you want them to retreat.

Clever combatants seize the initiative and impose their will on the enemy.

Attack the enemy at weakly defended points where he must rush to defend himself. You can then discover his weaknesses by forcing him to reveal himself.

You can cause your enemy to splinter and spread out his forces by keeping him guessing where you will attack. Numerical weakness stems not just from sheer numbers, but also from having to prepare for multiple fronts.

Insight #6: Keep an eye on the terrain and your opponent, and adapt accordingly

Generals know that there are always positions they cannot hold, roads that cannot be followed, and orders from the sovereign that must be disobeyed.

You must adapt to the situation, the terrain and the enemy’s disposition just as water shapes its course according to the ground it flows over.

Take advantage of the terrain’s natural advantages while avoiding its disadvantages. You should not climb heights, climb upstream or travel far away from water or shelter in order to fight.

You should avoid places with steep cliffs, confined spaces, or quagmires where a small force can destroy an entire army. Look for startled animals or birds; they indicate an ambush is imminent.

Observe your enemies, too. Starved soldiers lean on their spears when standing. They are thirsty when the soldiers he sends to gather water begin to drink the water themselves.

You will know that they are willing to fight to the death when they start eating their own cattle, do not hang their cooking pots above their campfires, and act as though they will not return to their tents.

Take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves and adjust your tactics accordingly.

Insight #7: To make war successful, keep your troops in uncertainty, and make them fight to the death

Controlling a large army is similar to controlling a small one: you must simply divide your men into smaller numbers and then use gongs, drums, banners, and signal fires to control your men.

There will be no retreating cowards and the brave will not be left alone to charge. Skilled generals lead their armies as though they were their own men.

Your soldiers will stand by you to the very end if you treat them like beloved sons. In contrast, if they cannot be commanded with authority, they are as useless as spoilt children.

The road to victory is paved with iron discipline among your soldiers. This discipline can only be effective if your soldiers become attached to you. It is therefore important to treat them humanely while maintaining control with discipline and punishment.

Generals must be secretive. Keep your soldiers in the dark and keep your enemies guessing by changing your plans frequently.

Make a change of camps and take a long circuitous route instead of the direct route. Show your hand only once you are deep in hostile territory.

You should tell your soldiers when the situation is good; when it is bad, you should keep that knowledge to yourself.

You will feel more solidarity with your soldiers the deeper you penetrate into hostile territory.

If you put them in a dire situation where they cannot escape, they will lose all sense of fear and will fight to the death.

You must manage your troops sternly, keep them uncertain, and make them fight to the death to win the war.

Final Words

Considering that war is a matter of life and death for the state, meticulous planning and estimating are necessary. 

A skilled general will only engage in combat when victory is assured; thus, he is never defeated. Such a general is observant, resourceful, and adaptable. 

In order to drive an enemy to commit a fatal error, he deceives and irritates him.

The Art of War Review

The Art of War has been regarded as a timeless classic because it analyzes every aspect of the war from the standpoint of human nature, and makes a strong case that any endeavour that does not consider human nature will fail. 

The subject of warfare, including its causes, is addressed in this book, and the analysis is solid. This book focuses not only on the first-order result of how to handle a war situation (how to handle it effectively) but also on the pragmatics of applied psychology and the humbling limits of human existence. 

People who are bored by this book (and this one is excellent) are not yet ready to learn about human existence. Those with humility will benefit from this book. We should all read it more than once.

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