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This summary of The Art of War is going to be a simplified overview, outlining the 13 chapters and some basic principles that we can learn from them, applying them to a variety of modern fields.
What is The Art of War About?
The ancient Chinese general that we’re discussing today is often called Sun Tzu but that’s not really an accurate pronunciation. As the book has been translated from its Mandarin roots, the title has been changed and distorted, so we’re going with the more authentic pronunciation Sun “Zuh”.
Born Sun Wu around 540 BC. I say around because a lot of Sun’s history is disagreed on. Where he was born is even unclear. There are conflicting and unreliable stories here, some even questioning if Sun Wu was one person or an amalgamation of other notable men.
You can understand after 2,500 years if things get lost in translation. He eventually rose up to become a general, earning the title of Sun Tzu, meaning Master Sun, and writing the military guide that we’re discussing here today.
Regardless of what’s true and real about the man known as Sun Tzu, the book that we’re talking about is a concrete thing, a real thing. It’s been translated many times and we’ll use the chapter headings from the 1910 translation from Lionel Giles, a curator at the British Museum.
He took aim at previous English translations, saying that omissions were frequent and passages were skipped because they were difficult to translate.
Chapter by Chapter Summary of The Art of War
Chapter 1: Laying Plans
War is not a pleasant thing, argues Sun Tzu. It’s serious. It’s about survival. You should think carefully before engaging. If a general thinks closely about which side is stronger, has more discipline, which is better trained and organized, than they can work out who will and who will lose.
If you look at the two sides and your enemy has many advantages and many strengths, the wise move is to avoid conflict.
You can predict your loss and therefore avoid the loss. One major factor in this determination is something called the Way, which is about the moral stance of aside. If the general is righteous and virtuous, he will likely have more command over his men.
Sun Tzu also flips his idea of strategizing that you should learn all you can about your opponent, while making your opponent blind to your true state. If they can’t gauge your strengths and weaknesses, it’s harder for them to succeed in battle. This whole chapter is planning and preparation.
Chapter 2: Waging War
This gets into some incredible detail that seems specific but has massive repercussions. He outlines how many horses you should bring, how many troops should follow a general. But what he’s saying is that money and human lives are not be used recklessly, they are both finite resources.
If you wage a huge war, it can be taxing on an army. They become exhausted, their supplies dwindle.
The key takeaway from this chapter is to strike quickly. Your army should never need reinforcements or new provisions. Strike quickly, so that the impact on your treasury will be slight. Many losses at war are due to the attrition of people and supplies.
This chapter also talks about using the resources of your enemy. Do not destroy supplies you can use, do not burn food that you can eat, and don’t kill soldiers that can either give you information or join your own ranks.
This chapter is all about resources and using them wisely, not recklessly. We move onto
Chapter 3: Attack by Strategy
This begins by reinforcing the idea of not destroying everything in war. A city razed to the ground is of little use to, where it’s more beneficial to strategically destroy them politically and leave the city and people intact. He then gives some very direct strategies for how to attack based on your army versus another’s.
If your forces outnumber the enemy largely, surround them completely. If it’s five to one, attack them. At two to one, divide the enemy and fight them that way. If it’s even, fights them head-on, one on one. If they outnumber you, hide. If they outnumber you greatly, escape. Foolishly fighting a losing battle will end horribly.
Sun Tzu then outlines five essentials to consider in your strategy here. You must know when to fight and when not to, referencing the strategies I just talked about. You must know how to deploy an army and where. You must have united officers and men serving. You must be prepared for any surprise.
And lastly, you need a general who can make his own decisions without political leaders interfering without expertise. None of them essentials talk about more men or more technology. It’s about strategy and preparation.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Chapter 4: Tactical Dispositions
This chapter is all about when to advance and force a battle. To attack, you become vulnerable, but to defend is to become invulnerable. The idea of ying and yang is played into here, with an ebb and flow based on your choice to advance or not.
Sun Tzu even evokes imagery of moving under the Earth when defending and striking from the heavens when attacking. There’s also the focus on a quick and decisive attack, that some fights may never take place on a battlefield, if fought correctly. A skillful general seeks victory, not battle. A terrible general seeks battle first.
Chapter 5: Use of Energy
Managing a massive army is just as managing a small one, but Sun Tzu focuses on dividing them up and knowing each of their purposes.
You must push and pull these units to effectively attack. If you see a weak point, pushing a unit into that point may collapse the army. If you pull your forces back and bait the enemy, you can engulf them as they arrive.
Sun Tzu compares this to rivers and streams, ebbing and flowing. Every directive to your army is either direct action or an indirect, there’s really nothing else, he affirms.
Chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong
In your preparation, you want all the circumstances to favor you and your army. If you arrive at battle first, your men rest and wait, defending their ground. If you arrive at battle second, your troops are already tired from marching and now must fight.
Force your opponent into weakness. A strong army must eat, so how can you starve them? An army that is steadfast and unmoveable, how can you force their hand to make them adjust? The defender must defend all lines, making every part weaker, so the general of an army must make a point to attack only a few points with all their might.
All of this relies on the plan being secret, otherwise, the defender would defend only those points. Secrecy is key.
Chapter 7: Maneuvering
This is the strategy of making commands and orders of a physical army. If you force your army to march for 30 miles, you’ll lose men for all sorts of reasons. There’s a balance between pushing them to gain an advantage and then pushing them too far.
If your entire army arrives at all. He says commanding a force that listens and obeys is one thing, whereas trying to command a force that’s disobedient can bring you to ruin.
There’s a story about Sun Tzu where he’s challenged to train an army out of concubines, seemingly impossible. He gives an order, they laugh and carry on. He then executed two of the King’s favorite concubines. Now, everyone listened and maneuvered exactly as directed.
In this chapter, he’s saying that a force must listen to the general because it’s chaos if they don’t. He also talks about how to give these orders here. If it’s night time, use torches. If you manage many, use drums when your voice can’t carry. This speaks to communicating differently in different circumstances.
Sun Tzu even brings up which troops you should focus on. The men who are sharpest need very little help, but the slow and homesick, the General can greatly affect and improve morale.
Find weaknesses in your own men, in your structure, in your processes, and try to avoid them or strengthen them before you arrive to battle.
Chapter 8: Variation of Tactics
Circumstances sometimes call for different tactics and different choices. There are cities you should not attack, there are roads you should not take.
In your preparation, you see that some choices will be catastrophic. These tactics all come from the general and there are five major ways that a general can fail when deciding tactics.
- Being reckless and impatient leads to destruction.
- Cowardice and fear lead to eventual capture.
- A hasty temper means one can be baited and provoked.
- A high standard of honor means one might be susceptible and sensitive to shame.
- Excessive compassion for the troops might make a general second guess his decisions and worry about them, as opposed to focusing on victory alone.
Sun Tzu claims that whenever an army is defeated or a leader is slain, one of these five faults is to blame.
Chapter 9: The Army on the March
He gives some very specific instructions here, including to camp in high places facing the sun, to always have the high ground when facing your opponent but don’t expend your energy marching uphill needlessly.
When fighting near a stream or river, let the enemy try to advance all the way through and expend their energy, as opposed to rushing to meet them. How your opponent rushes to face you tells you of their situation. If they wait for you to approach, they have strong defenses and might see some obstacles for you to overcome. If they’re approaching, look for signs, such as trees moving and animals running scared.
High dust in the distance might mean horses, while low dust might mean walking troops. Also be aware that you’re giving off these signals as well, as your army travels.
Chapter 10: Classification of Terrain
Literally lays out for the general how to read the terrain and the benefits of fighting in each. Accessible terrain is terrain that anyone can traverse easily.
The advantage goes to the general who can secure a high ground before the opponent arrives and has sufficient supplies to last throughout.
Entangling ground means it’s easy to move forward, to secure new land, but it’s difficult to backtrack or retreat. Make sure your enemy is vulnerable before moving forward.
In deadlock terrain, or temporizing as the direct translation, there is no advantage for either side. If you can back out and make the enemy advance into this terrain, you should be able to strike with advantage. Enclosed terrain is usually a narrow passage with very little options. If you get to this location first, you can block it or ambush.
If the enemy garrisons this space, only advance if you’re confident that it’s weakly protected. If you come upon terrain that is rocky and has high peaks and low valleys, you should secure the high peaks first. If your enemy has the high ground, retreat and forces them to leave these advantages if they wish to pursue.
In this same chapter, Sun Tzu outlines some non-natural factors that a General must look out for, which can cause harm to the army.
If the enemy outnumbers you ten to one, your army will fly in fear or retreat. When the army troops are strong-willed and determined, yet the officers incompetent, the result will be the troops not listening to the officers.
If it’s reversed, with strong competent officers and weak soldiers, the result is decay and defection. If the officers act without command from the General, the army will collapse. Disorganization occurs when the General can’t articulate his plans so the army doesn’t move like one. When the General chooses to pit a weak army or a weak detachment against a much stronger one, the only option is retreat or defeat.
The best Generals know the terrain, know their army, and know which difficulties they will face.
Here are the keys to success as outlined by Sun Tzu: If a ruler says not to fight, but a competent General sees that victory is clear, they should fight. The same is true if a ruler says to fight but defeat is certain, then do not fight.
A good general makes decisions without seeking fame or fearing blame. A general cannot be confident if any factor of the battle is unsure. If the terrain is unclear, victory is not certain. If he does not know his soldiers, victory is not certain. He is confident with his movements, as any doubt can sow doubt in the troops.
Chapter 11: The Nine Situations
These are situations that an army might find themselves in, not entirely reliant on the physical ground they’re on.
The dispersive ground is when a General fights in his own homeland, on familiar ground. You may have the advantage, but the damage may be done to your own supplies and property, so be wary.
The facile ground is when you’ve broken into enemy territory, so you should not slow down. You don’t have the advantage but you haven’t gained much, so you must fight on.
The contentious ground is when either side can gain a great advantage by taking a particular place, so move forward but don’t engage too aggressively until you have a clear advantage, otherwise you might lose a key victory.
Open ground means that both armies have complete freedom, therefore it’s wise to not try to stop the enemy’s movement, you have no terrain to support you.
There’s intersecting ground, where multiple states or constituents have an interest, this is your chance to make allies and not enemies.
When you’re on heavy ground, it means you’ve made much progress and there are entire cities behind you, this is your chance to plunder and restock with so many resources available to you.
You may run into the intractable ground, or difficult ground, which means it is full of marshes and forests and hard to get through the terrain, in this instance, you must keep moving to get out of that disadvantage.
You must also look out for enclosed or hemmed in-ground, which is twisty and narrow and leaves you vulnerable. In these instances, continuously keep an eye open and remain vigilant.
Lastly, we have desperate ground, or some call it death ground, where you are merely trying to survive and you must fight with every ounce of your being. If your opponent is striking so powerfully, it also means they are vulnerable there is still a chance for success here.
Chapter 12: The Attack by Fire
Focuses on weapons of war, though weapons at the time were very different. He brings up five ways to use fire:
1.Burning enemy soldiers
3.Destroying their supplies that are still in transit
4. Destroy their weapons and ammo
5. Destroying lines of communication and causing chaos.
You should always have your weapons ready and available for use at a brief notice, as long as the weather is hot and dry, ideal for the fire to spread.
Sun Tzu then talks about when the fire breaks out, there are ways to adapt to it. If you attack with fire, follow immediately with a physical attack to capitalize.
If you attack and there’s no response from the opposing army, it may mean that something isn’t as it seems. They may be baiting you, they may have been prepared, so wait and watch as the fire continues to spread. When the fire reaches is the greatest peak is when you should attack, do not wait for it to go out.
If you can start a fire from inside the camp, that’s beneficial as opposed to trying to attack from outside. Always be upwind when starting fires and remember that nighttime fires likely die quicker than daytime fires.
If the fire seems too risky or destructive, using water as a weapon, if the terrain allows, can also be a clever move. Though here he’s saying fire, I think these ideas can be transferred to other modern machines of war as well.
Chapter 13: The Use of Spies
Early on in these tips Sun Tzu brought up the idea of preparation and knowing your enemy. That’s not always easy, so in this chapter, he emphasizes using men who know the enemy and sorts them into five types.
Local spies live in the opposing nation or group, internal spies are actually within the enemy structure or government, and double agents are spies sent to find you that you have turned to your cause instead.
There is a thing called doomed spies (or dead spies in some translations) that exist to pass on false information to your enemy. So they might make your enemy think you are starving or taking a route that you’re not actually taking.
And lastly, we have live spies, who infiltrate and then return to your ranks with information though aren’t from that camp.
Sun Tzu says that these intelligence gatherers should be the best paid and best treated, as this wisdom is key to winning a victory, especially a bloodless one. Every move that a General makes is based on this intelligence.
What Sun Tzu had to say about the art of war? There are many ways that these tactics can be used today, especially in business circles. How you run a business and compete with other businesses is an obvious parallel. Intelligence is key, preparation can defeat seemingly insurmountable odds, and knowing which battles to fight.
Down in the comments, share some ways that you’ve seen some of these tactics play out in your life, either in work, in your personal life, or somewhere else.
What did you learn from the book summary of The Art of War? What was your favorite takeaway? Is there an important insight that we missed? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.
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