The Art of War. That Great Classic You’ve Never Read.

Mention “The Art of War” and you would probably get the misquote that if you “Know your enemy, know yourself; a hundred battles, a hundred victories” or some similar-sounding contortion. Conventional wisdom has it that even the waitresses in China would quote from the work. Still others might tell you that it has to be read in conjunction with the “36 Stratagems” and “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, et cetera. Yes, everyone knows “The Art of War” inside and out, and are past masters at its many applications to statecraft, business and life in general. Perhaps.

I am not writing this to argue for or against that. I simply present to you what “The Art of War” is to me personally. I trust you’ll find it useful, and that you’ll derive your own insights from it. Also, if you know that you haven’t really read the work, maybe it’s a good time to do so. If you are so inclined,I would strongly recommend the translation by General Samuel B Griffith, which I have found to be the most useful so far, due to the high standard of research and the many helpful expositions and insights from the commentators included therein.

What IS “The Art of War”?

It’s a book about how to wage war effectively, right? Well, yes. It emphasizes that “All warfare is based on deception”, right? Of course. If you get those kinds of answers, you can safely assume that those who answered have either not read the book or have skimmed through it quickly with little or no assimilation and integration. This is because “The Art of War” is about wise kings, able generals and virtuous leaders who are benevolent and seek the welfare of their people above their own. It is about leaders who have compassion because they understand deeply the wretchedness of the human condition and the vagaries of human nature when it is left to its own ends. It emphasizes service to the state, meaning the people, without regard for one’s own rewards or the fear of punishment if one has to make unpopular decisions such as withdrawing the Army if one’s campaign has not turned out as planned. In short, “The Art of War” is about ruling with benevolence and doing what one must do in order to ensure the security of one’s own citizens.

The Foreword by B.H. Liddell Hart, in which Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are compared,with a favourable review tilted towards Sun Tzu, is telling indeed. Liddell Hart ends his Foreword with a letter he received from Sir John Duncan in 1927,and I would like to reproduce the last paragraph here:

Some fifteen years later, in the middle of the Second World War, I had several visits from the Chinese Military Attaché, a pupil of Chiang Kai-shek. He told me that my books and General Fuller’s were principal textbooks in the Chinese military academies – whereuponI asked: ‘What about Sun Tzu?’ He replied that while Sun Tzu’s book was venerated as a classic, it was considered out of date by most of the younger officers, and thus hardly worth study in the era of mechanized weapons. At this, I remarked that it was time they went back to Sun Tzu, since in that one short book was embodied almost as much about the fundamentals of strategy and tactics as I had covered in more than twenty books. In brief, Sun Tzu was the best short introduction to the study of warfare, and no less valuable for constant reference in extending study of the subject.

I trust you will make the time to read the rest of it for yourself. For now, let’s explore a few topics on “The Art of War”.

Benevolence of Rulers and Qualities of Generals

It is almost de rigeur that the first chapter of any good book informs us as to the purpose of the book and outlines the framework in which the book is written. “The Art of War” does this very well indeed. Chapter One on “Estimates”, or what many militaries would term as “Appreciation of the Situation” succinctly lays it out for us in twenty-eight verses. The opening verse sounds portentously:

“War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”

I like how General Griffith has the comment of Li Ch’űan inserted below verse 1:

Li Ch’űan: ‘Weapons are tools of ill omen.’ War is a grave matter; one is apprehensive lest men embark upon it without due reflection.

This is obviously referring to the whims and fancies of despotic rulers which were abounding at the time, not only in China, but all over the world, the likes of whom we are yet to be rid. The injunction to careful study is still needed today.

The natural question which follows is “So what?”, or “What are the implications?” since the question of “What?” has been answered. The chapter outlines five fundamental factors of moral influence, weather, terrain, command and doctrine and proceeds to state what they are in detailed brevity, or quintessentially, if you so prefer. Of the five, weather and terrain have always lain outside our practical control, and we have ever shaped our actions to best flow with them. Those who did so fared better then those who did not. Command and doctrine flow from the degree of moral influence the Ruler has upon his people, and by logical extension the General, the officers and troops of the Army. The comment by Chang Yű under verse 4 describes it very well:

Chang Yű: When one treats people with benevolence, justice and righteousness, and reposes confidence in them,the Army will be united in mind and all will be happy to serve their leaders.The Book of Changes says: ‘In happiness at overcoming difficulties, people forget the danger of death.’

How does one demonstrate benevolence, justice and righteousness and repose confidence in people? Well, study and apply! Has it not already been said in the opening verse? This primary concept is also sprinkled throughout the rest of the text. For example, in verse 15 of Chapter IV, we find that:

15. Those skilled in war cultivate the Tao and preserve the laws and are therefore able to formulate victorious policies.

Tu Mu: The Tao is the way of humanity and justice; ‘laws’ are regulations and institutions. Those who excel in war first cultivate their own humanity and justice and maintain their laws and institutions. By these means they make their governments invincible.

As to the qualities of Generals, verse 7 of Chapter I sums them up as having wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage and strictness. Notice that “courage” is not the first to be listed, but “wisdom” is. In the quality of “wisdom”, then, we will find the quality of “strategic insight”. As for those who become queasy at the mention of “strictness”, may I suggest that you insert “tough love” in its place! I think it worthwhile to reproduce verse 7 here, with its comments:

7. By command I mean the general’s qualities of wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage and strictness.

Li Ch’űan: These five are the virtues of the General. Hence the Army refers to him as ‘The Respected One’.

Tu Mu: . . . If wise, a commander is able to recognize changing circumstances and to act expediently. If sincere,his men will have no doubt of the certainty of rewards and punishments. If humane, he loves mankind, sympathizes with others, and appreciates their industry and toil. If courageous, he gains victory by seizing opportunity without hesitation. If strict, his troops are disciplined because they are in awe of him and are afraid of punishment.

Shen Pao-hsu … said: ‘If a general is not courageous he will be unable to conquer doubts or to create great plans.’

Know of any Generals at your workplace?

What about Deception?

I have heard many raise objections that benevolent rulers do not engage in deception, nor, indeed, employ spies, whatever category of spy they might be. Most of them have heard of verse 17 of Chapter I which says:

17. All warfare is based on deception.

It should be noted that from verse 18 to verse 26, all references to deception are with respect to the enemy. In other words, we cause the enemy to be uncertain of what we are doing and/ or intend to do and thus keep him weak and dispirited, to our own advantage. To those who still object to this, I would like to refer you to an excellent training film produced by the Services Sound & Vision Corporation for the British Armed Forces, which, in the late 1990s, could be found in the British Defence Film Library and entitled “The Law of Armed Conflict”. This was a training video intended to introduce members of the Armed Forces to the basic tenets of The Law of Armed Conflict, which of course are applications of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. In it, the distinction is made between what constitutes a “ruse of war” and what constitutes “treachery”. When engaged in combat operations, one’s whole purpose is to either capture the enemy intact, i.e., he surrenders unconditionally, or to kill or maim him in such numbers as to render him ineffective in carrying out his own mission. None of verses 18 to 26 appear to me to include any form of treachery. Rather, they all fall under what we would term as “ruses of war”. When discussing “deception” it would be useful for us to keep this in mind. Remember also that “deception” can be described as “99% truth”. If one engages in deceiving one’s own people, then one cannot be said to be a leader possessing Benevolence.

What about spies?

Of all the thirteen chapters, perhaps none arouses as much interest as the last chapter on “Employment of Secret Agents”. Everyone seems to want to know how to get the “secret sauces” that will bring in everlasting income through customers who have been made stark raving fans of one’s business. Yet in the first two verses Sun Tzu does not talk about spies at all. Instead, he discusses about the welfare of the people and there is implicit reference to his earlier injunction in verse 7 of Chapter II:

7· For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.

I will leave it to you to read for yourself, but I would like to suggest that spies today are not as valuable as they have been in times past. The real spies of today are a thorough knowledge and appreciation of geopolitics and the judicious employment and deployment of technology.


If this has caused you to realize how much you have missed by not reading “The Art of War” with a desire to understand what it is saying, what it means to you and how to apply it, I would have accomplished half of the goal. The other half will be accomplished when you read it for yourself.

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