The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Book Review)

In an old context of warfare and stratagem on China’s journey towards its unification, Philosophers and Generals came up with analysis and study of how to win decisive battles that may cause little to none of their resources and troops. The art of war explains the readiness of an army to engage their foes in consideration of different factors that may or may not affect the outcome of a hundred battles. The Art of War by Sun Tzu is focused more on Human Conflict since this book was published during the height of battle for supremacy and China’s dream for a Unified Empire. The author reveres that the highest form of Warfare is to subdue the enemy while obtaining less to no casualties. Sun Tzu averred that the attainment of victory without the knowledge of one’s self and the enemy will predict the outcome of a hundred encounters. It means that even without blood flowing, we can still win the war if we know how to use our intelligence to calculate our own abilities and the opponent’s capacity.

So to speak, the Moral law comes into play when we are to face different adversaries. Morality in a sense of how to handle your troops within the limits of your authority and to keep them together when they are in disarray. As far as Moral law is concern, the welfare and the aptitude of the troops are monitored and cared upon by a good general, without which, the army may be in confusion or might lead to rebellion. Apart from the morality of the General who plans to wage war; he should consider the environment and the terrain in which he may conquer or traverse, Heaven in the book speaks of the climate and the weather in which an army ought to fight or travel, if the Heaven is in his favor, then he may take advantage of it against his adversary. However, the author also included the Earth along with Heaven to define the capacity of troops, the quantities of both armies, the loads and carriages during their travel and the equipment that each troop are carrying.

 The General as another factor to consider may contemplate deliberately before engaging.  It will all matter from the decision of the General if he should utilize his picked elements and to accomplished the task as a single force and excels in winning with ease or succumb in failing to attain his victory by swallowing the negativities that delve within him.  However, as a General, one needs to determine his enemy’s strength and prior engaging, it is the use of the Earth as stated by Sun Tzu, and failure to assess an enemy’s strength maybe victory but with devastating loss.

Aside from calculation, the author also mentioned about Laying Plans, that all warfare is based on deception and manipulation. One may appear to be weak in front of a strong army that his foe will become arrogant and one may persevere and patient which will lead to his enemy to become hasty and may decide without thinking. According to the Author, no one benefited from lengthy wars. As stated previously on Earth elements, The strength of an army is limited and worst-case scenario, laying siege, preparing the walls and attacking a city may lose one third of an army but the wall is still upright and unclenched. When the resources are depleted and the state can no longer support its troops, the morale will decrease and opportunity for greedy opponents for the throne is inevitable. As observed, if the troops who are asked to fetch the water drinks from it, the army is thirsty. If the troops are leaned towards their spear, they long for food and if the troops cooking pots are not hanged on their camp fire, expect that the army are ready to die and not wanting to return back.

It was also explained with the use methods, that troops shall observe with utmost discipline. He who are disciplined in battle are prone to victory, Morality takes place when conquering a city. The surrendering troops should be treated with utmost care and may be used as an added strength, Killing will only sprout vengeance and desperation from an enemy knowing they are in a different position, Therefore, when an enemy is returning, provide an access. Pillaging will only render a city useless and difficult to reside, the use of superior force is not the way to win wars according to Sun Tzu.

            The author cited different ways on how leaders may bring trouble to his army. Commanding the army to advance or to retreat may exhaust the ranks and may utter confusion during the battle, if half of the enemy is retreating while the other is holding the line, watch out for any surprise attacks or planned direct attack, it’s a trap. Attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom are both different considerations. In a Kingdom, people have freedom and numerous flexibilities, in an army their lives are design to be regimented. Ignorance of Military Principles and Discipline may lead an army devoured by defeat, a strong leadership and a weak army may lead to an abuse of superiority and a weak leadership but a strong army may lead into collapse.

               Sun Tzu also mentioned about methods of fighting which are direct and indirect, but like the primary colors, which are only five [red, white, blue, black and white] but can create different hues when combined, similarly these hues may be that of a method and strategy that if combined and mixed together can produce varieties of tactics and maneuvers. It means that, the approaches are not limited to what are available; sometimes the mixture of it can provide techniques that were never told before.  Repetition of tactics and methods may deem predictable to succeeding battles, the enemy General have strategist and methods that may counter-react to one’s strategy and a single victory alone may not manifest succeeding victories.

Sun Tzu said that if you treat your troops with utmost respect and take good care of their welfare even though they are in the lowest of ranks, they will follow you. And if they see that you are willing to die for them, even if you are not within the presence of your men, they will remain faithful without being told. Being fierce if faced in a desperate position and they too can decide even without instructions from their General. However, if you are sympathetic but unable to enforce authority and direct your troops, then your soldiers are like spoiled children and they are just useless in the battlefield.

Subsequently, when all factors are considered, immovable and non-fungible matters need not be set aside. These are the terrains as explained by the Author, traversing a non-hostile territory, a neighboring country and a hostile one may provide different types of terrains that one should study and determine. The land, the salt-marshes, the pits and all that may be used and considered. Further, Terrains that are both easy to access and traversed by both armies are accessible but consider being haste when faced with a difficult one. Observe the surrounding that may be a vantage point for ambuscades and surprise attacks. There are also lands that may be abandoned due to its insufficiency to cover the entire army but is hard to re-occupy because of the peculiarity of its design and nature. When the position is such that neither side will gain by making the first move, when the enemy is on an advantage point and on top do not engage and try to persuade him to follow or engage your army.

Be that as it may, even with previous decisive battles, Narrow Passes are common and are also prone to surprise attacks from the enemies. If you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy. But if you are on the adverse side of the narrative, if the enemy is Strongly garrisoned on that narrow pass, let them be and wait until he commits a mistake. But if you see the enemy have a weak garrison then attack with caution. Also, when faced with narrow passes, Heights are also a matter to consider, see to it to occupy the peak with the steep at your rear and facing the sunny side, observe the demise of your enemy.

Obtaining this information from the enemy is a difficult task and being aware of the circumstances that may befall can be obtained from a third person not integrated within the army. Even ancient warfare suggests that spies are very cheap to sustain but very delicate for the accomplishment of the mission. In this book, even the great Sun Tzu allowed the manipulation and use of Spies for advantage. And to name a few, inhabitants of the city and employing them for information are local spies per se, deception and bribery are common notion to employ localities as an advantage although we have our own spies that are surviving spies who returned alive after accomplishing a task and shall be given compensation and a very promising reward after completing each task.

            Nevertheless, the army may capture enemy spies that could be bribed and used as a spy on our side to gather information from the enemy, through this converted spy per se, we could gather spies from the enemies who are officials and can be called inward spies which is the most difficult to obtain but rewarding given the fact that they provide vital information of troops, equipment, position and other plans.

Corollary to this, Human Conflict is not about who have the latest equipment nor the biggest army before the battle begin. It is about to know and determine one’s self and the enemy, sizing up their strength and weakness to be used for their demise or to one’s army’s utter defeat. Imploring the Elements of warfare, the conditions of the terrain, the Morality of the Commander and the General as well as imploring the manipulation of information are among the few mentioned in the book by the Author to give room for victory in your favor, it may not be a hundred-fold success but to minimize casualties and lessen the possibility of a Commander from utter annihilation.

Just remember the 13 Core Functions about the Book and you’ll be fine, Therefore, to reiterate, the Core Functions are the following:

1) Laying Plans – According to some Philosophers and wise leaders, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail”.

2) Waging War – If all odds fail and the last option is to wage war, see to it you adhere with the guidelines set forth by the International Law of Armed Conflict and adherence to the International Humanitarian Law.

3) Attack by Stratagem – As simple as Waging War with Plans laid out prior to engagement

4) Tactical Divisions –

5) Use of Energy – It is best when laying siege or facing a formidable foe, see to it that you will not exert efforts more than you suppose to give. Wise leaders save energy for a greater battle.

6) Maneuvering and Movement – Taking a vantage point that is relative to the enemy’s position.

7) Variation in Tactics – If you are predictable then you are easy to defend or attacked.

8) Weak Point and Strong Points – All elements have their strong and weak points. This is self-explanatory.

9) The Army on the March –

10) Classification of Terrain – A good and wise leader studies his perimeter and environment before delving his self with the natives and the community. “Do not leave every stone unturned” it means that every detail of the area should be noted and analyzed for any possible ambuscades.

11) The Nine Situations –

12) Attack by Fire –

13) The Use of Spies –

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