Discussion of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ – 06/07/2020

Publisher: Pax Librorum Publishing House Cover design: Sebestyen, employing the image ‘Chinese Dragon’ by Lihui from Dreamstime.com

‘Let your plans be as dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.’

‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt, if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.’

‘The good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision.’

‘Hence the enlightened ruler be heedful, and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.’

Sun Tzu is believed to have lived between 544 and 496 BCE (dying at the age of 47 or 48). He was a military general and tactician, as well as a writer and philosopher during the Eastern Zhou period of Ancient China. His name literally means, ‘master sun’. Little is known about his life, and details are so patchy that some contemporary scholars have suggested he may not have existed at all. If he did though, the scant evidence which is available suggests he drew inspiration for The Art of War from successful campaigns fighting for King Helü of Wu (537 – 493 BCE), starting during 512 BCE (Wu was a state located on China’s eastern seaboard, at the mouth of the Yangtze river, which existed between the 12th and mid-fourth century BCE).

The influence of The Art of War as a work of military strategy is difficult to overstate. Quite apart from becoming among the most widely read military treatise to circulate during the ‘Warring States’ period (475-221 BCE) of Chinese history, the book continues to be a touchstone for military and political strategists today, though perhaps it is now read more for its legend, than for its usefulness.

For a 2,500 year old treatise on Chinese military strategy, the book has become remarkably ubiquitous in popular culture; even a clichéd byword for strategic genius. Film and TV productions to have referenced it include Wall Street (1987), Die Another Day (2002), The Sopranos and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even in Michael Bay’s 1996 action film The Rock, the status of Sean Connery’s imprisoned British spy as a masterful tactician is (not so) subtly communicated via the inclusion of The Art of War on the bookshelf of his cell.

But popular culture aside, what is it about the work which has made it so persistent in the minds of so many contemporary leaders (which include Mao Zedong, Võ Nguyên Giáp, Douglas McArthur, Colin Powell and Dominic Cummings)? And how useful is it really? After all, being able to quote a pithy line from the Art of War might succeed in mildly impressing an easily thrilled acquaintance, but the internalisation and application of Sun Tzu’s often vague and dated teachings is far harder.

Well, the first comprehensive English translation was provided by British sinologist Lionel Giles in 1910, and the book was divided into 13 chapters:

1)Laying plans, 2)Waging War, 3)Attack by Stratagem, 4)Tactical Dispositions, 5)Energy, 6)Weak Points and Strong, 7) Manoeuvring, 8)Variation in Tactics, 9)The Army on the March, 10)Terrain, 11)The Nine Situations, 12)The Attack by Fire, 13) The Use of Spies.

In each section, Sun Tzu lays out what he considers to be the most crucial factors determining the successful conduct of war. For example, in the opening chapter he identifies ‘five constant factors’, which are 1) The Moral Law (the support a ruler enjoys from his people), 2) Heaven (which refers to environmental factors such as temperature and the seasons), 3) Earth (physical factors like distance and terrain), 4) The Commander (whom Sun Tzu decrees must stand for the virtues of ‘wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness’) and 5) Method and discipline (relatively self-explanatory: the proper administration of an army and its supporting apparatus).

All of that seems like common sense. Commanders should be brave and decisive, the army must be disciplined and obedient. Environmental and physical factors can obviously be fundamental to the course of a battle/war. And ultimate success in conflict depends in large part upon the moral justification and hence support for it. Much of The Art of War is pretty common sense stuff, it’s not hard to understand: ‘He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents will be captured by them’. ‘You should occupy the raised and sunny spots and wait for [the enemy] to come up’, ‘Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh to the fight’.

Clearly, a large part of the book’s longevity is merely the fact that it was one of the first works to collate fundamental truisms of war in a single document – its popularity today is then a product of age creating a vague and fuzzy aura of ancient-mystic-wisdom.

That being said, as war is now drastically different to that known by Sun Tzu (for example, where decisive pitched battles between foes at a particular ‘field’ no longer take place), what practical advice have his modern disciples gleaned from his writings?

The answer: Sun Tzu’s golden gobbets on unconventional and guerrilla warfare: ‘He overawes his opponents, and their allies are prevented from joining against him’. ‘At first, exhibit the coyness of a maiden, until the enemy gives you an opening, afterwards emulate the rapidity of a running hare’. ‘Carry false tidings to the enemy’. ‘The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy’. ‘Though the enemy may be stronger in numbers, we may prevent him from fighting’. ‘Let your plans be as dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.’ ‘Force him to reveal himself, so as to find his vulnerable spots’. And perhaps most famously: ‘Winning without fighting is the highest form of warfare’.

These lines hold within them the central tenets of unconventional warfare as adopted by guerrilla leaders like Mao and Giáp. These are essentially: secrecy, deception, agility and piecemeal engagement/harassment, rather than pitched battle. It is these teachings which have allowed Sun Tzu to remain relevant even while conventional modes of warfare morphed and mutated alongside countless civilisations. Sun Tzu’s teachings are no less applicable to politics (in fact particularly so, as they often concern obtaining victory with minimal violence). Dominic Cumming’s has made no secret of the fact that he is a fan of The Art of War, and his deployment of the now infamous £350 million statistic as part of Vote Leave’s political insurgency is a superb example of the use of deceptive tactics to unbalance an opponent (Following the unveiling of the bus, the Remain campaign spent considerable energy debunking the stat, which only provided it with increased airtime and underlined the UK’s status as a net contributor to the EU in even bolder pen).

Given the often shadowy and underhand nature of the tactics Sun Tzu subscribes to, his continued popularity in political circles should do nothing to reassure those concerned about the healthy functioning of our democracies. But this only serves to make The Art of War more fascinating, and at only 55 pages it can be read in well under a couple of hours. Very few books have influenced the policies of states and leaders for so long, and while its clear articulation of the plain truths of warfare would be significant by itself, its championing of unconventional tactics is what has allowed it to transcend the military traditions of the period in which it was written.

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