The Art of War
by Sun Tzu

I recently read (or heard, actually, as an audiobook) The Art of War by Sun Tzu (c. 544–496 BC, trad.) I knew it was a classic and decided to finally "read" it.

My translation was embellished, as I expect most are, with layers of commentary by the translator, and earlier translators and commentators through the ages. It was interesting, but too much detail for me to recount. Likewise, the main text had much interesting detail that was very significant to warfare in ancient China, but which I can't really recount. Instead, here are the high points that I did absorb:

"The art of war depends on deception."

That is Sun Tzu's thesis, and he comes back to it over and over. We might say it is "the art of generalship" that depends on deception, but that is a quibble.

Given that thesis, a general's main job is to penetrate the enemy's deceptions and get as much accurate information about him as possible, while maintaining his own veil of secrecy and misdirection.

Therefore, scouts and spies are vital to warcraft.

Since war runs on information above all, a general must be flexible. You can't make use of information if you aren't willing to respond to it. (Therefore, it occurs to me, a general must never be the sort of fool who discourages underlings from bringing him bad news.)

Flexibility also means you realize there aren't rules for everything.

The best war is one consisting mainly of good research and planning, won with a single stroke, or even none, if possible. Long wars are always bad.

Given that you're waging war, it's surprising how much beneficence Sun Tzu recommends — Treat your own forces well. Support them well and make sure discipline is both clear and fair. One might have expected that, but also treat enemy captives well.

This latter is part of a general strategy of taking the enemy's resources, not just destroying them. Each time you do that, you both strengthen yourself and weaken him, much superior to just weakening him or just strengthening yourself.

And among the things you want to take are allegiances — of his subject populations, his captured fighters, his double-agents, his allies.

Do not neglect, of course, to take his supplies and his territories.

No total war for Sun Tzu.

No Machiavelli for Sun Tzu, either. Machiavelli famously said that, while it is best to be both feared and loved, it is more important to be feared. Sun Tzu insists that a general must be both loved and respected. And enigmatic and full of surprises. Because the art of war depends on deception.

Make your troops eager to fight. Enrage them at the enemy, with trickery if necessary. Promise them loot. Or set them up in a situation where their only alternatives are victory or death! (This last is rather at variance with the general policy of beneficence...)

Contrariwise, don't box your enemy in. Make sure he always has the chance to surrender or retreat, to avoid just the desperate fighting you get out of your own men by boxing them in. Usually, the enemy would rather give up or run away than die gloriously, and you'd rather he did too, because he'll take you with him.

Use regular troops to engage the enemy, but use special forces to deliver the conquering blow.

The sovereign should not interfere with his general, micro-managing the campaign and second-guessing him. Once war has begun, it is the general's business, not the sovereign's, and the general need not even obey direct orders from the sovereign, as long as he is acting in the interests of the state. (There is an interesting idea. Reminds me of Clausewitz's famous remark that "war is politics continued by other means." Also reminds me of Caesar crossing the Rubicon and General MacArthur locking horns with Truman.)

It is best to attack the enemy's plans.
Next best to attack his alliances.
Next best to attack his army.
Least best to attack his cities (as in sieges).

The repeated theme is to make sure you have as much true information as possible about both your side and the enemy, and that the enemy has as little as possible. Victory goes to the side that knows the most truth. War depends on deception.

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011