The Art of War

Category: Military
Author: Sun Tzu
Genre: History
Publisher: Shambhala
Published: 1/11/2005
Twenty-Five Hundred years ago, Sun Tzu wrote this classic book of military strategy based on Chinese warfare and military thought. Since that time, all levels of military have used the teaching on Sun Tzu to warfare and civilization have adapted these teachings for use in politics, business and everyday life. The Art of War is a book which should be used to gain advantage of opponents in the boardroom and battlefield alike.

Book Summary - The Art of War by Sun Tzu

What You’ll Learn

  • The Five Fundamental Factors of any conflict
  • Examples of strategy and tactics
  • How to conserve resources in the battle
  • The implementation of perception and deception
  • The role of spies
  • How to manage an army

Who This is For

  • Military commanders or students of military tactics
  • Business management executives and entrepreneurs
  • Anyone interested in reading the most influential book there has ever been on war strategy

Key Insights

Although The Art of War was written by a Chinese general, Sun Tzu, who lived more than 2,500 years ago, it has survived the centuries and is widely used today as a classic text for military generals and business leaders alike. Its teachings apply to war, politics, economy, and business. War determines life or death; therefore its importance can’t be underestimated and the study of the best tactics to achieve victory is essential.

Key Points

The Importance of War

The very existence of a country is at stake when it goes to war. It is critical that the most effective strategies be studied, known, and effectively implemented. The first question to be addressed is if the country is strong enough. Strength is appraised through financial metrics as well as the spirit of the people and fighters. If either or both of these are weak, a country should not enter into battle. Remember, war is “a matter of life or death, a road to either survival or ruin.”

The Five Fundamental Factors of Any Conflict

There are five concepts that must be considered to gauge the potential success of any conflict. They are:


  • Politics- Are your neighbors with you or will they unify against you should you pursue military action? Is there unity or division on the homefront regarding the potential war? Strife at home will weaken your strength on the battlefield and no war should be waged if the people oppose it. No country should enter more than one war at a time.
  • Weather- The conditions in which your armies will have to fight can have a direct impact on the outcome of a battle. Be sure your army is prepared to fight in any weather extremes. Knowing they will be supplied and supported no matter what conditions arise will increase the fighting spirits of the soldiers.
  • Terrain- The land on which you will fight has a fundamental effect on the outcome. Is the area open or will your army be fighting from a geographical disadvantage? If both armies are on open ground, gain the advantage by striking first. Don’t be caught in terrain where movement is inhibited and you are at the mercy of the enemy. Manipulate the battleground to your advantage, such as taking the high ground and forcing the enemy to go uphill or position so that the enemy is squinting in the sun.
  • Command- The leader must retain attributes that gain trust and loyalty. The commander must stay calm and be fair. Not maintaining emotions can put the entire army at risk. Counsel and change plan quickly, so as to be unpredictable. The commander must continuously study the battlefield. Ordering the army to advance without having full knowledge of the situation can be disastrous.
  • Doctrine- The way the army is organized is of great importance. Ensure the relationship between ranks is clear and defined. Develop detailed plans for supplying troops, and in so doing, win their loyalty. Be consistently trust-worthy to produce exact obedience.


The Role of Strategy and Tactics

The goal of war is not just victory, but rapid conquest. There is a balance between striking fast, with the risk of it being too hasty and unprepared vs. prolonged campaigns that drain resources and supplies as well as breaking the spirits of the warriors. The method of controlling these conditions positively is through intelligent strategy and tactics. Here are a few tactics cited in the book:

  • Get into position first and manipulate the enemy
  • Stay mobile when your opponent can’t be
  • Secrete your plans for as long as possible
  • The element of surprise is power
  • Know the enemy as well as you know yourself
  • If your forces substantially outnumber the enemy, surround it. If you have a slight numerical advantage, attack it, and divide it; if you are outnumbered, plan an escape route.
  • Only attack when there is an advantage and avoid the enemy where he is strong.
  • If the enemy’s spirits are high, when he is in good order or has the higher ground, do not engage in battle
  • Never enter battle out of anger, be sure there is more to be won than pride.
  • Avoid any traps your enemy may attempt to lure you into.

Resources Should be Conserved

Armies are expensive to maintain, from food to supplies and equipment, and prolonged warfare will weaken the fighting force. Quick and decisive victories are critical as well as intelligent plans for conserving resources. Here are some key points for avoiding the depletion of resources:

  • Avoid besieging walled cities. They can take too long to prepare for an attack while impatience will squander resources in futile attacks.
  • Strive to capture the enemy whole and intact rather than destroying them in a costly battle. This is achieved by having a larger force.
  • Attack by a stratagem which is to subdue enemies without fighting.
  • Take resources from the enemy through foraging from their lands, obtaining their weapons, amour, and men.
  • Maintain and reward spies. The cost is small compared to the prolonged war.

The Role of Perception and Deception

The manipulation of perception is one of the most central strategies which should always be considered or controlled. Here are some examples:

  • Pay attention to the surroundings, if birds are flying into the air, your rival is on the move.
  • If your enemy is close, but there is no attack, they are relying on their entrenched position.
  • If the enemy is far away when it challenges you, they are luring you to advance.
  • When the enemy’s representatives speak peacefully, but the army is preparing for battle, trust the preparation, not the words.
  • If negotiators ask for a truce when the army is in a good position, be prepared for betrayal.

Knowing your own forces gives you the advantage of deception which is important because “all warfare is based on deception.” Know where and how you are superior, then conceal that strength. If you don’t take the time to know what your advantages are, you may reveal them and lose the advantage of deception. You want your enemy to be guessing where your attacks will be coming from while encouraging the enemy to defend against attacks that won’t be coming. Always be studying the enemy and then provoke them into motion, so they reveal their strategies to you.

Mask your strength with weakness, courage with feigned timidity, and order with the appearance of disorder. If you confuse the enemy, he will grow careless. When you are near, make the enemy believe you are far away. Learn to master the game of cat and mouse. When you deceive the enemy, you impose your will on him.

The Importance of Spies

Useful intelligence is difficult to gain from a distance. While other information gathering techniques can be used, the most important is the use of spies. There is risk in using them, to them if they are caught and to you, if they are actually acting as a double agent, so they need to be employed carefully.

Spies can collect information about the commander and his closest associates. They can also serve to feed false information to your enemies, known as “double spies.” Another type of spy is the “native spies” who are members of the enemy’s state. They can observe and then provide you first-hand information and strategy of your enemy.

The Use of Observation and Adaptation

It is critical to observe every angle of war and be ready to adapt. Just as water flows over the ground, you must adapt to situations, terrain, and the enemy’s position.

Observe the terrain with the intent of taking advantage of its natural benefits while avoiding its pitfalls. Do not climb heights, go upstream, or travel away from water and shelter.

Also, observe the enemy carefully. If you see soldiers leaning on their spears, they are showing signs of weariness. If a soldier who was sent to gather water drinks first, they are suffering thirst. When they eat their cattle and behave as if they won’t return to their tents, these are signs they are ready to fight to the death. You must observe such cues to maximize opportunities.

Manage Your Army

Whether small or large, armies are managed the same. Divide your men into smaller forces and then use audible or visual signals to communicate with them such as gongs, drums, banners, and smoke. A skilled general leads the army as if he is working with each soldier one on one. If they are treated as beloved sons, they will stand up and face death. If you are unable to command their loyalty and respect, they will be as useless as spoiled children.

Be secretive, keeping your soldiers as well as your enemy guessing as to your plans. Change camps using long, cautious routes instead of direct ones. If the situation is bright, tell the soldiers. If not, keep it to yourself.

Desperate situations with no escape will cause them to fight with bravery, as they are fighting to the death so there is no alternative than to be fierce.

The Main Takeaway

War is immensely important, as its success or failure determines the existence of a country. Business is often compared to war, and therefore the tactics taught in The Art of War are also frequently studied for the sake of profit and growth above the competitors.

About the Author

Born Sun Wu in China in 544 BC, Tzu was a general and military strategist controversially touted as being the author of The Art of War. For Tzu, victory and defeat are psychological states, and his strategies focused on dismantling enemies through psychological warfare with Taoist principles. His teachings gained notoriety in the Western world in the 20th century as accurate translations became available.


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