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The Art of War – A Layman’s Interpretation

Updated on February 23, 2017
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Robin Olsen holds a B.Sc.in Computer Information Systems and an active and vigorous sense of curiosity and imagination.

Sun Tzu: ”The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

An actual copy of 'The Art of War' as it was originally written on bamboo strips then bound together.
An actual copy of 'The Art of War' as it was originally written on bamboo strips then bound together. | Source
A bust of Sun Tzu
A bust of Sun Tzu

Who was Sun Tzu?

'The Art of War’ is a book written roughly around 300 B.C by Sun Tzu (also known as Sun Zi). Sun Tzu was born Sun Wu and he was a Chinese military leader, strategist and philosopher who lived roughly between 500 and 320 B.C. It is unknown if he wrote other works but this particular book is extremely influential to this very day and taught to all officers of western militaries. Many Corporate leaders have adapted Sun Tzu’s work to also apply to what they do. ‘The Art of War’ is still regarded as one of the most important books on the subject of warfare today.

NOTE: There are some circles of historians who are of the opinion that Sun Tzu did not actually exist as a person and that ‘The Art of War’ is a compilation of many works from many military leaders and strategists.

China as it appeared during the time of Sun Tzu
China as it appeared during the time of Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu: “Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.”

All 5 constants need to be respected in order to assure victory or success.
All 5 constants need to be respected in order to assure victory or success.

The Plan

Sun Tzu believed in planning before action. He believed that action before planning leads only to defeat.

We can understand that in Sun Tzu’s mind, the plan was more important even than it’s own execution, because without a plan you have only confusion and aimlessness. This is definitely a recipe for defeat on the battlefield and in the corporate boardrooms and even in our own personal lives. How often have we started something on a whim and had it succeed? Even when it does succeed, was that nothing more than blind luck? We have to plan for success or we plan for failure by default. Sun Tzu understood this implicitly.

So planning is very important and we should remember this level of importance he places on it because without a plan you are proceeding blind. This applies to everything we do in life, regardless on if we are military or not.

There are 5 common factors that Sun Tzu always took into account when he was in the planning stage. They are:

1. The Moral Law

This is a demonstration of complete accord between ruler and people. The people will follow the ruler even unto their own deaths because they feel that what he is doing is right and the correct course of action. Without this you are going to war without the support of your own people and there are many examples of where this leads to in modern history. One can look at Italy during the second world war for an example of how people react when the government goes to war without the proper moral consent of the people. The Italians were fine, as long as the campaign was going swimmingly, but they surrendered at the very first opportunity not because they were ‘cowards’ but because they never wanted to go to war to begin with. They did not believe their leader had a proper moral right to go to war and they never supported fully the alliance with Hitler either. I think a good American example of this is Vietnam – Americans never fully supported the war effort to begin with and when the TV news started broadcasting those pictures back home the situation deteriorated rapidly from there. America went to war without the moral consent of the American people and that led to disaster

2. Heaven

Does not refer to heaven in the religious sense. In fact, I do not like the choice of words here because this allows for confusion in the meaning of these words. Heaven refers to temperature, hot \cold for example, time of day, seasons, daytime vs. nighttime, etc. Here we look at what advantages are gained based on conditions. Will an attack at night be better than a daylight attack? Should the attack wait for a change of seasons, what time of day should the attack take place. If heaven is not cooperating then maybe an attack is not viable. A good example of a ruler who did not properly take Heaven into consideration would be when Hitler invaded Russia ignorant to the overall effect of the Russian winter would have on the campaign.

3. Earth

This refers to distances, security, type of ground and the chances of life and death. You can sum this up by saying Earth represents the terrain. Failure to properly understand this point will lead to disaster. But ‘terrain’ does not simply refer to the conditions of the land in front of you. People are also a kind of ‘terrain’. Humans are different from location to location, culture to culture and individuals within that culture. An in-depth knowledge of the differentiations between people, their thinking patterns and processes, their actions and reactions to actions and their deeper human nature can be of great advantage to the strategists. A strategist that understands the full nature of Earth will find advantages where others will not.

Bad leadership will equate to defeat
Bad leadership will equate to defeat

4. The Commander

Sun Tzu:“The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.”

Each one of these words has a deep meaning to Sun Tzu. At no point did he think much of anyone who tried to impress upon others , through words, how wise or brave they were. Deeds were the universal language that demonstrated an understanding of the words. This is how we should live today but most pay less attention to deeds and more attention to words, this is evidenced in who we pick for political leaders. Most of them perform horribly yet promise the moon, we forget how bad they performed in favor or words we want to hear. To be wise is to speak with words that are necessary not useless communications. A wise individual is usually a quiet individual without much to say.

You don’t have to reveal all your secrets to be sincere but you must be truthful in what you do say. A sincere person is believed when they speak as they do not often lie. A sincere person can withhold information as long as they don’t try to cover that with a lie. Lies shatter the trust in the commander, it is better to tell your people they are not required to know specific information than to cover that with a lie.

Benevolence is not ‘soft’; to demonstrate benevolence is to act in the best interests of your people in the long run rather than in the short term. To be brave is not to be reckless but rather to discard useless fear and hesitation and to always be ready to take advantage of the critical moment. Strict does not equal cruel. The purpose for strictness is to instill discipline and to ensure the commanders orders are obeyed and so that the commanders words are treated with respect not contempt. This is needed for the organization to function as it should.

If the commander is deficient in these areas then implementing plans and strategies will be more difficult as there will be much doubt and dissent within his organization. Only through a mutual relationship of trust and effective communication with a leader who has a well-founded reputation that inspires respect will an organization achieve it’s maximum potential.

Above all a leader needs to be able to separate war from peace and never confuse the two. His enemies should know how he treats his friends and his friends should know how he treats his enemies. This way his friends will not want to become his enemies and his enemies will want to become his friends.

5. Method and Discipline

Sun Tzu: “In which army is there greater constancy, both in reward and punishment?”

As the title of this section implies, there are two separate things to this constant that Sun Tzu thought critical for success. ‘Method’ refers to the process by which the organization is managed. This would include things like logistics – getting resources from where they are stored to where they are needed the most – and the process for communicating instructions and receiving feedback. The second refers to ‘Discipline’ – this is how the people are managed.

When an organization not only lets good behavior go unrewarded, but in effect, rewards bad behavior by its employees and managers, the effect is cancerous, crippling operations by removing the incentive for the rank and file to report problems up the chain of command or to act on their own initiative to mitigate or eliminate problems before they become critical. This type of management also creates long-term resentment against the commander or executive’s leadership. Such organizations perform poorly in the military sense and are usually horrible places to earn a living in the civilian sense. Good work should be rewarded, bad work should always be punished, but, both rewards and punishments must be seen as consistent, or they will be considered unfair. Leaders who are strict, but fair, will be respected where those who are indulgent or biased will not be. Don’t think being liberal with rewards is enough, a lack of consistency in enforcing rules and punishing violations will lead to contempt, and the organization can then be compared to a group of spoiled children, unfit for any practical purpose. A leader who treats his subordinates with respect, rewarding the behavior they wish to encourage with benevolence, sincerity, wisdom, and above all, consistency, they will not only be respected, but trusted and admired. This is the path to victory and success.

To Sun Tzu, these 5 constants must all be satisfied correctly or your chances of victory are greatly reduced.

Execution and Implementation

Sun Tzu: “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

One of my favorite Sun Tzu quotes and there are a couple of nation states in existence today that won’t be for long if they do not demonstrate that they grasp this point. Sun Tzu believed above all else that wars and campaigns needed to be quick. Fighting cost resources and money so it should only be done when absolutely required and victory can be assured. Allowing your enemy to dictate the pace will lead to your defeat and dragging out the campaign will only lead to ruin both at home and on the battlefield. The longer the campaign lasts the greater the cost and this translates into a great burden on the people. Consider the USA, after a couple of decades of almost continuous wars with one nation or the other, spends colossal amounts of American tax payer money just to support overseas bases and troops on the ground in foreign countries as well as a very large and modern military. This is starting to hurt America in many ways, infrastructure failures such as the water system in Flint and highways all over the nation, unhappy people staging protests and sit-ins, an increase to those on food stamps, wounded veterans needing to be treated and reintegrated into American society are some of the ways in which the American people are paying for wars and campaigns that were either not required to begin with or are taking far too long to complete. We used to build weapons because we were at war…now we make wars because we built weapons. The people will never profit from this.

Sun Tzu: “When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.”

A good example of his meaning can be found in the German conquest of France during world war 2. France had the third largest army in the world at the time, larger than the German force that faced them. Germany defeated them in 6 weeks. How? A lot of that victory can be chalked up to mobility and the German desire to actually avoid attacking fortified positions and strong points directly and instead surround them and leave them behind. Once those positions were cut off from the logistical support they fell quickly and without much fuss. Sun Tzu would have appreciated this tactic.

Sun Tzu:” Hence a wise general makes a point of foraging on the enemy. One cartload of the enemy’s provisions is equivalent to twenty of one’s own, and likewise a single picul of his provender is equivalent to twenty from one’s own store.”

Live off the enemy. Make use of his supplies as much as you can and you will keep your own for longer. Again, Germany provides us with an example of this in action. German tanks, for example, were capable of running on regular gasoline instead of diesel fuels. This allowed the German tanks to refuel at service stations all along their route of advance through France. The French themselves provided the German invaders with the fuel needed to keep their armor rolling. Food, shelter, fuel, all can be provided by the enemy once the campaign has started. The desire to prevent this is what motivates ‘scorched earth’ defense tactics that take away the enemy’s ability to forage on defender lands for their own supplies.

Sun Tzu: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

Sun Tzu never believed in not taking prisoners. Sun Tzu saw the value in converting these enemy soldiers to his own side. He treated enemy spies the same way, preferring instead to convert them rather than imprison them or execute them. This is also an aspect of ‘foraging on the enemy’ as you can use your enemy soldiers to augment your own strength.

Sun Tzu never believed in wanton destruction of property either. To him it made no sense to burn a town just to rebuild it. It was always better to take an army or location whole than to shatter it. Sun Tzu’s primary belief was that one general that defeats his enemies without fighting is worth 100 generals wining 1000 battles each. Back to my earlier point: fighting costs resources and money and it should be avoided if at all possible. I think this is why most generals, once they have the enemy force surrounded and heavily disadvantaged, will offer terms to his enemy before he launches his assault. It is not really an act of mercy, although this is how it is often described, but rather it is an understanding that it is better to get them to surrender than to fight it out, even if you are heavily advantaged in that fight.

Spies, as said, were a big deal to Sun Tzu. He valued spies above all else because without them a General is blind to the movements of his enemy.

Sun Tzu: “Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.”

Again, back to Vietnam. In South Vietnam, the guy who ran the taxi stand outside of the American embassy was the North’s head of intelligence for South Vietnam. Most of the prostitutes were also spies for the North. Taxi drivers were spies, pretty much spies for the north were everywhere in South Vietnam. As a consequence the North actually controlled much of the pace of action during that war. Americans would go into the jungle to search for the enemy but without proper intelligence they basically just stumbled around in the jungle. If the enemy wanted to engage they would, else they would just let the Americans stumble around the jungle. Yes, the north lost virtually every engagement they got into with US forces, but in the end won the war anyways. They won because they dictated the pace of the war almost the entire time the war was going on. Americans turned captured spies over to South Vietnam and they would torture those spies and then execute them. Not the Sun Tzu way for sure. He believed that enemy spies should be converted into double agents. It is obvious from Sun Tzu’s writings that he never embraced the idea of ‘terror tactics’ in any of his deliberations, just as he never embraced the idea of killing prisoners or spies or of civilian repercussions as a form of occupation strategy. In short ‘The Brutality of War’ was something Sun Tzu simply never supported. To him war was short and conclusive or it was not worth fighting at all.

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Conclusion

Sun Tzu had much more to say on the topic of warfare than I have covered here but most of it has to do with maneuvers, tactics, terrain, weak points vs. strong points, etc. This material is very interesting and enlightening but to cover it all on one hub page would be difficult. You could write a book on Sun Tzu and still not cover everything in proper detail.

What I have tried to put in layman’s terms here is what I feel the average everyday person should take away from reading Sun Tzu. We can tell the basics from this, we know that brutality in war is actually not required just as brutality in our own lives is never required. We learn that planning is everything and without it there can be no real or lasting success. Is this not also true in our everyday lives? We learned that foreknowledge leads to success and victory on the battlefield just as foreknowledge will lead to success in our careers and personal lives as well. We learned that consistency in rewards and punishments encourages respect from others. So then do we know that being consistent with our own children will lead them to respect us as parents. We can see that a dishonorable commander will lead dishonorable troops and that those soldiers will become dishonorable simply because of the actions of their leader, but that a honored commander will lead disciplined and effective soldiers who will not bring shame to his uniform or his nation. So too we know that if we use lies and deception to raise our children then we will most likely wind up with children with a poor sense of honor and this could lead to problems interacting as they go forward in life.

So there are everyday lessons to be taken from the writings of Sun Tzu even though his writings speak directly to the planning and execution of a military campaign and not to how life should be lived. Understanding his enlightenment will lead to our own.

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© 2016 Robin Olsen

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    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 15 months ago

      Your hub was filled with interesting information from this man's philosophy on warfare. His thoughts on planning should be part of modern day concepts of war. Thanks for the education.

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      Robin Olsen 22 months ago from Rural Canada

      thank you very much I am glad you enjoyed it

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 22 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Wow you did a great job with the elements. It was a pleasure to read. Thank you. Truly the lessons are applicable to everything in life. Confrontation is just a fact of life.