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Sun Tzu, The Art of War

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Art of War by Sun Tzu


Context: The origins of the text are shrouded in the complexities and uncertainties of fifth-third century B.C. Chinese history. Scholarly viewpoints vary concerning the existence of Sun Tzu and his text. From the context of the "Spring and Autumn" (722-481 B.C.) and "Warring States" (403-221 B.C.) periods of Chinese history, it is certain the conduct of war was an important issue for rulers. Those who could offer effective strategic advice were valuable to the kingdom.


Thesis: “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.”


Arguments: - Perspective on Waging War: Broad, with a variety of non-military means (e.g., diplomatic, economic, psychological). - The Role of Force: Force should be used sparingly and as a last resort. “No country has ever profited from protracted warfare.” - The Ideal Victory: The greatest achievement is to win without fighting, to convince the enemy’s forces to yield or switch sides rather than be annihilated. - Preferred Method of Winning: Deception, psychological war, intelligence, spies and other non-violent methods. “Thus it is said that one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.”

- Centers of Gravity in Order of Priority: To attack the enemy’s strategy or plans before the outbreak of war or use of force; disrupt his alliances before the outbreak of war; attack the enemy’s army; attack the enemy’s cities as a last resort.


Implications for Strategy:

- An idealized paradigm encouraging the strategist to achieve the least costly victory. This approach ignores the inevitable presence of violence in war. The theory remains relevant as a general strategy, particularly in a time when it is better to exhaust the DI&E before engaging in armed conflict.

- War requires intellectual exercise, but intelligence can become a panacea. Making rational decisions by knowing the enemy’s strengths and weakness as well as one’s own could possibly lead to winning without bloodshed or the use of force.

- Sun Tzu underestimates friction and overvalues plans, but emphasizes that once war breaks out it should be brought to an end as quickly as possible.

- Sun Tzu barely acknowledges morality, ethics, or ideals. Perhaps he considered them but chose to set as the highest goal state survival by all means necessary, moral or immoral.

- Importance of civil/mil involvement; politics continually change; ruler & general must interact

- Deception is still important and HUMINT is key

- His idea of Shi deals with creation and preservation of potential energy over the long term

- Eastern / Western dichotomy - Eastern: Try to be unfathomable; perfect knowledge is possible; demonstration is important. Western: make intent clear; perfect knowledge is impossible; secrecy is important.


Sugar's Tips on Sun Tzu

Commonly translated as “Art of War” , more accurate translation is “Methods of War”, authors of the book make a clear distinction between combat (use of violence) and war (use of military– about full range of military operations


Chinese word for Method in the title literally means “the Way that water flows”


Style of literature: written as a series of essays on related topics, often arranged long after the acknowledged master’s death. Described as a “razor blade in the hands of a child”, Art of War contains “Pearls of wisdom” format leads easily to criticism “fortune cookie putdown” or easy quotation that doesn’t take the big picture into context. It’s easy to comprehend and practical, but difficult to execute in practice.


A new approach for the time it was written – formalized war was transitioning from formal, ritualized warfare between multiple smaller states to a much more violent period as states expand and become much richer, not unlike the change that Greece was going through at about the same time. The development of horsemanship (Sun Tzu never discusses cavalry) and crossbows increase the distances, duration, and deadliness of combat. Feudal aristocratic order was giving way to hierarchical autocratic starts ruled by kings, but run by professionals. The science of government and bureaucracy was rapidly gaining as the states competed to seize the “Mandate of Heaven” to rule China. Armies develop as well, no longer conscript armies fighting seasonally, but professional armies working year round. War becomes central in Sun Tzu’s age (the “Warring States period”).


Art of War might have been as much a “sales pitch” for the author’s services as it was a theory of war. It is written in the context of leading large, expensive armies.


Michael Handel argument Sun Tzu , along with Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Jomini – members of a “universal kinship” of strategic theory – all agree on certain fundamentals of planning prosecution, and termination of war that transcend culture and time


Central text in Asian and strategic culture – we’ll see this evidenced further in Julien’s “Treatise of Efficacy”


Art of War is deceptively simple, you can blow through it quickly, but its better to slow down and absorb the overall context. Sun Tzu fans advocates argue that it is coherent with two main points that give it coherence


- The sole purpose for the existence and employment of the military is to enhance the wealth and power of the state


- The general who wields this instrument should wield it with the same level of control and autonomy as would a master swordsman with his own weapon.




Clausewitz and Sun Tzu seem to agree that war is much more a subjective, artistic phenomenon that it is one subject to scientific truisms (opposite of Jomini’s thesis).




Wars must be fought as inexpensively as possible, leading one to seek ways to defeat the enemy’s strategy first – this is the heart and soul of deterrence. This can also take place simultaneously with combat (i.e. Pericles attacked Spartan strategy by choosing not to fight in open land combat)




Sun Tzu believes that there is an inherent interactive activity of war is a mental duel – render the mind of the adversary passive and yielding. While there is an undeniable Sun Tzu believes a commander with “information superiority” understanding of the OE, reason, and decisiveness, the clever combatant can impose his will on the enemy and prevent the enemy from doing the same to him. This is the ideal to strive for.




Sun Tzu comes from an intellectual tradition that believes that the human intellect could be cultivated to the point of near perfection – the clever combatant could absorb and process all of the complexities of war intellectually (not intuitively like Clausewitz’s genius) and correctly respond. “Epistemological Optimism”. What seems like chaos to the untrained eye makes sense to the master.




For Sun Tzu, strategy encompasses the entire international environment, not just the two combatants – that’s why attacking alliances is emphasized next - assumes an understanding of what the relationships between your opponent, you, and the other players in the international community in order to play all of the sides right




Attacking armies is necessary when the others work but Sun Tzu puts attacking cities last


- Don’t destroy people and territory you wish to acquire – take it intact if possible


- Don’t increase ill will among the populace


- Don’t fix your forces in siege and lose mobility or enter expensive, protracted war, which becomes a moral danger to both sides


- Don’t back the enemy into a corner, allowing irrational and nonrational forces to come into play




Sun Tzu’s concept of the evils of protracted war is about preserving the states; he is not addressing the side of revolutionaries, for whom protraction often works in their favor (i.e. American Revolution, Mao Tse Tung, North Vietnam)




While Sun Tzu says that the “acme of skill is winning without fighting”, this is axiomatic the majority of the book is about attacking the enemy’s army




Sun Tzu on understanding the nature of war - appraise it with the five fundamental factors and compare it to the seven elements, plumb its essence (similar to Clausewitz’s Trinity). Where Clausewitz distills it to three (passion, chance, subordination to reason) ; Sun Tzu distills it to five


- Moral influence – state must be morally and spiritually strong to endure the trials of war, and to maintain will to fight until success


- Weather- in original, translation was “heaven”, as in all of the phenomenon that happen in the air around us and above us, including effects of natural forces, day/night, seasons, etc.


- Terrain – flow of rivers, roll of hills, etc…understanding of this allows you to analyze even unfamiliar terrain


- Command – talent of the commander who must master all of these elements, and achieve objectives without interference from the sovereign


- Doctrine – the “force provider” stuff, including controlling logistics, movement, training, equipping, command and control, etc. This allows the general to “wield the army” like it was a sword, guaranteeing that they will follow orders without question


Boiling down to these five factors (or three for Clausewitz) is not an academic exercise, it’s the very basis of your “JIPOE” and picking the right objectives, allowing you to anticipate and choose the correct strategies a in constantly changing environment


How can the commander make the most efficient use of resource and still “impose his will on the enemy”? According to Sun Tzu, there are three ways:


- Achieve info superiority on all of the above factors, yourself, and the enemy, and deny the same to your adversary


- Achieve operational initiative – respond to the enemy, but dictate yourself the time and place of the decisive operation


      - Keep the enemy off balance with deception, maneuver, distraction, even sincerity at times 


      - Bring the enemy to the field of battle you choose


- Time the decisive blow to make the maximum impact


- Must be done with lighting swiftness, speed and timing are vital allows maximum surprise and strategic paralysis  to release the “potential energy” that  superior strategy has made possible




Weaknesses of Sun Tzu:




- Doesn’t deal with revolutionary protracted wars


- Doesn’t discuss what happens with your opponent might be incrementally more clever , what if you can’t deny the enemy key info about you or your strategy?


- Overestimates the effectiveness of intelligence at tactical and operational levels – you can’t have perfect knowledge, and even if your intel is right, you seldom have time to process it


- Overly rational and optimistic, doesn’t account for extreme passions, friction, chance, religious motivations, irrational and nonrational forces that influence human behavior


- There is a danger in trying to “win on the cheap” if it’s obvious what kind of war you desire to fight – putting too little effort in can embolden your adversary or open you up to counterstrategies if its obvious to your opponent how you want to fight (i.e. “no ground war” in Kosovo)


- Cultural “use and abuse” of Sun Tzu in PRC, which uses Sun Tzu to argue for central place of China in the world. Sun Tzu is applied from everything from reuniting Taiwan , to business, to running primary schools. But beware of those who would skew the author’s message in the service of political and cultural agendas.




Sun Tzu, Sun Wu, Sunzi, Sun Wu Tzu – all the same dude, who may not have actually been one dude, but several over several years. Written sometime between 550-350 (Griffith has it later), which means that this was being written in China about the same time that Thucydides was writing. Interesting how both went through a similar shift from ritualized warfare to an entirely new level of year round violence at about the same time. Come to think of it, that’s what happened in the time of Jomini and Clausewitz , too - not to say that warfare was as ritualized, but there was definitely a shift from limited towards unlimited aims that was similar, creating a sense of urgency for something that helped people to understand warfare for some very practical reasons.


Different translations yield different interpretations of Sun Tzu in English – Griffith is pretty much the Gold Standard English translation in military circles (like Howard and Paret are for Clausewitz), but other interpretations can yield other insights - or cause confusion and debate. For example, here are the names of Chapter 3 from six different translations: Offensive Strategy (our translation), Planning a Siege, Planning Offensives, Attack by Strategems, The Sheathed Sword, Planning an Offense, and Offensive Strategy. You get the gist…Does it matter? Not usually, but if one is going to state definitively that Sun Tzu said anything, better dig deeper than one translation.


Perhaps one of the most relevant aspects of Sun Tzu to future SAASS grads is the emphasis he puts on the commander – not only how commanders should motivate their troops (except for the “kill the favorite concubine” example – that wouldn’t fly today on a number of levels), and how the commander must maintain their own psychological balance while attempting to disrupt his opponents. As SAASS grads, we’re expected to take our knowledge and help the boss keep it all straight, be a sounding board, a devil’s advocate, and if the boss is really devious, use us as the “symbolic concubine” to light a fire under the staff (ask me about this one in person – great story about my old strat div chief). It’s our job to feed the commander good info so they can stay oriented, or to train our staffs to help us if we’re in charge. Really important with the "commander centric" C2 structure that we inherited from the French...


My opinion – Sun Tzu works pretty well at the macro “whole of government” national strategy (grand strategy), especially when you get into economy of force, deterrence, indirect approach, deception, and opsec. Even though tactical surprise seems to get tougher and tougher with each camera phone that hits the streets, I think opportunities for strategic surprise and deception still abound (and may be increasing the more connected we all get – anybody see the news story this weekend about the hackers who were able to use “trusted websites” to get into just about anywhere they wanted?). Biggest weakness - if you share Sun Tzu’s optimism in our own ability to someday achieve “information dominance” , you’re going to be bitterly disappointed when your high tech tools still can’t tell you which cave/ safehouse/ video production studio your enemy is hiding in. And even if you get the intel right, you still can’t make the enemy fight the fight you want him to fight most of the time…


Interesting how his comment in Chapter 3 that 1/3 of your troops will be killed swarming a defended city and still not succeed matches up with the US Army’s current doctrinal force ratios for the attack (rule of thumb to have a 3:1 advantage for generic attack, with higher ratios against defended positions).


Huge tie in to revolutionary warfare – many believe Sun Tzu was the first to formulate the strategic principles for it by advocating attacking weakness, avoiding strength, and being patient (see Makers of Modern Strategy, p 823). Sun Tzu and Clausewitz both influenced Mao, who is credited for writing the basic text on revolutionary war theory (Makers of Modern Strategy 842)


Great tie in here to Boyd’s concepts of strategic paralysis – no accident, of course.

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