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Sun Tzu, The Art of War (XXI)

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Matt Domsalla

SAASS 600/4

Art of War Precis

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes that war is a grave concern of the state and that it must be thoroughly studied. He believed that moral strength and intellectual faculty were decisive in war and that if properly applied then war could be waged with certain success. Sun Tzu argued that the enemy’s army be conquered without battle by frustrating plans, fracturing alliances, and creating cleavages within the government. If victory had to be sought in battle, then it should be done in the shortest possible time, at the least possible cost in lives, and by inflicted the fewest possible casualties on the enemy. Sun Tzu argues there are five fundamental factors – moral influence, weather, terrain, command, and doctrine – that must be considered for battle.

Data: Sun Tzu, The Illustrated Art of War, The Definitive English Translation by Samuel B. Griffith (New York: Oxford University, 2005)

Author: Sun Tzu, translated by Samuel B. Griffith. Griffith asserts, “We do not know if the Sun Wu existed; we do not know if the work ascribed to him was written by him, and we are therefore forces, with the eminent Ch’ing scholar, to place the Sun Tzu in the category of ‘Authorship Unsettled’. But the originality, the consistent style, and the thematic development suggest that ‘The Thirteen Chapters’ is not a compilation, but was written by a singularly imaginative individual who had considered practical experience in war.” (30)

Context: Griffith argues the work was written in the period c. 400 – 320 BC. Based on the work, Griffith concludes the author lived at a time when large armies were effectively organized, well trained, and commanded by professional generals. (24) The author makes mention of the crossbow, which was introduced into China around 400 BC but does not mention cavalry, which did not become an integral branch of the Chinese military until 320 BC when King Wu Ling of Chao State introduced it.

The work was most likely written after the age of the Warring States, which began in 453 BS when the leaders of the Wei, Han, and Chao Clans attacked the ruler of Chin. Many small states disappeared during this time, and it was one of the most chaotic periods of China’s history. The trend toward the growth of large states at the expense of their smaller and weaker neighbors was a constant feature of Chinese historical development. Development of iron technology was important during this time period. The Warring States rulers were actuated by the imperatives of power rather than by the adjurations of moralists. Prior to 500 BC, war in China was in a sense ritualistic. Philosophers and kings distinguished between righteous and unrighteous war. Around 500 BC, the feudal structure was disintegrating and being replaced by a society that provided more opportunity for a talented individual. War became more ferocious.

Scope: Sun Tzu provides a theory of war and strategy and a tactical doctrine governing intelligence, planning, command, operational, and administrative procedures.

Evidence: The work is built upon the author’s experiences, though those experiences are not directly cited as evidence.

Central Proposition: War is a grave concern of the state that must be thoroughly studied.

Other Major Propositions: Moral strength and intellectual faculty were decisive. War should be preceded by measures designed to make it easy to win. If victory had to be sought in battle, then it should be done in the shortest possible time, at the least possible cost in lives, and by inflicted the fewest possible casualties on the enemy. The five fundamental factors that must be considered for battle are moral influence, weather, terrain, command, and doctrine. The expert approaches his objective indirectly.


· Internal Consistency and Comprehensiveness – defined, categorized, explain, connect, complete?

· External Validity – historical analysis, contemporary reality, future developments

Comparison and Synthesis:

Importance: The Art of War provides the first coherent strategic and tactical theory also with a practical doctrine. Sun Tzu attempted to establish a realistic basis for a rational appraisal of relative power.

Personal Significance:


· “War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.” (91)

· “The first of these [five fundamental] factors is moral influence; the second, weather; the third, terrain; the fourth, command; and the fifth, doctrine.” (91)

· “All warfare is based on deception.” (96)

Waging War

· “For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.” (107)

Offensive Strategy

· “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” (115)

· “What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.” (115)

· “Therefore I say: ‘Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.’” (125)


· “Invincibility lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack.” (128)

· “Now the elements of the art of war are first, measurement of space; second, estimation of quantities; third, calculations; fourth, comparisons; and fifth, chances of victory.” (132)


· “A skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it of his subordinates.” (140)

Weaknesses and Strengths

· “Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.” (145)

· “When I have won a victory I do not repeat my tactics but respond to circumstances in an infinite variety of ways.” (152)

· “Of the five elements, none is always predominant.” (153)


· “Nothing is more difficult than the art of maneuver.” (155)

· “Now both advantage and danger are inherent in maneuver.” (156)

· “He who knows the art of the direct and the indirect approach will be victorious.” (161)

The Nine Variables

· “There are occasions when the commands of the sovereign need not be obeyed.” (172)

· “There are five qualities which are dangerous in the character of a general [reckless, cowardly, quick-tempered, too delicate a sense of honor, and compassionate nature].” (176)


· “In war, numbers alone confer no advantage. Do no advance relying on sheer military power.” (192)


· “Ground may be classified according to its nature as accessible, entrapping, indecisive, constricted, precipitous, and distant.” (195)

· “To estimate the enemy situation and to calculate distances and the degree of difficulty of the terrain so as to control victory are virtues of the superior general. He who fights with full knowledge of these factors is certain to win; he who does not will surely be defeated.” (201)

· “Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather; your victory will then be total.” (205)

The Nine Varieties of Ground

· “Ground may be classified as dispersive, frontier, key, communicating, focal, serious, difficult, encircles, and death.” (207)

Attack by Fire

· “There are five methods of attacking with fire. The first is to burn personnel; the second, to burn stores; the third, to burn equipment; the fourth, to burn arsenals; and the fifth, to use incendiary missiles.” (225)

· “And therefore it is said that enlightened rulers deliberate upon the plans, and good generals execute them.” (229)

Employment of Secret Agents

· “Now there are five sorts of secret agents to be employed. These are native, inside, doubled, expendable, and living.” (232)

· “The sovereign must have full knowledge of the activities of the five sorts of agents.” (239)

· “Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move.” (239)

The MOZI – Writings from Mo Di

· The greatest men know of no defeat. The next greatest turn failure into success, and this, by the employment of the people.

· There are seven causes of worry to a state and they are: (1) When the outer and the inner city walls are not defensible; (2) When an enemy state is approaching and yet one's neighbors do not come to the rescue; (3) When the resources of the people have all been spent on useless enterprises and gifts all squandered upon incapable men, when people's resources are exhausted without producing any profit and the treasury is emptied by entertaining idle company; (4) When the officials value only their salaries, and the sophists only friendship, and when the subordinates dare not remonstrate against the laws the ruler has made for persecution; (5) When the lord is over-confident of his own wisdom and holds no consultation, when he feels he is secure and makes no preparations against attack; and when he does not know that he must be watchful while neighbors are planning against him; (6) When those trusted are not loyal and the loyal are not trusted; and (7) When the crops are not sufficient for food and the ministers cannot be charged with responsibilities, and when awards fail to make people happy and punishment to make them afraid.

· Now, the five grains are the people's mainstay and the source of the ruler's revenue. When the people lose their support the ruler cannot have any revenue either. And without food the people will not observe order. Therefore, food should be secured, land cultivated and expenditures cut down.

· Preparation is what a country should emphasize. Supply is the treasure of a country, armament its claws, and the city walls are the stronghold of its self-defense.

· But when it comes to the great unrighteousness of attacking states, they do not know that they should condemn it. On the contrary, they applaud it, calling it righteous. And they are really ignorant of its being unrighteous.

· But when we consider the victory as such, there is nothing useful about it. When we consider the possessions obtained through it, it does not even make up for the loss.


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