A classic text on the conduct of warfare, and one of the oldest and most successful of all military treatises.

Is war profoundly varied and changeable, or are its basic principles eternal? The answer, as any reading of Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War makes clear, is both.

No general today need concern himself with the correct deployment of chariots or the attitude of feudal princes. Yet what general of any period can afford to be indifferent to the quality of his intelligence, the challenges of complex terrain, or the standards of organisation, discipline, and command-and-control in his and his opponent’s armies?

It is because war – which we can define as organised mass violence – conjures the same set of general principles whenever it arises, principles which must be successfully applied if victory is to be secured, that a Chinese military treatise almost 2,300 years old continues to be much studied.

Indeed, since the 1980s, it has enjoyed a minor renaissance, becoming fashionable as a manual of business management techniques. In this, though, one suspects a passing yuppie fad. What is far more impressive is that The Art of War continues to be studied in military academies across the world, and that it has been regarded by some modern practitioners as little short of seminal, especially in the East.

Sun-Tzu was a Chinese general, military theorist, and philosopher of war. It is uncertain whether he lived in the 6th or the 4th century BC. Either way, he predates the formation of the Chinese Empire (221-206 BC), belonging either to the period of the Chou Dynasty (c.1000-403 BC), when the central state was weak and local feudal magnates dominant, or that of the Warring States (403-221 BC), when the country was divided into seven separate polities, frequently at war.

“Just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.”

On balance, the 4th century BC seems more likely. The violence of the Warring States period provides a suitable context for a major work of military theory, much as the works of Clausewitz and Jomini were inspired by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. There are references to crossbows in The Art of War, and these are thought to have been invented in China around 400 BC. On the other hand, there are no references to cavalry, only chariots, and we believe that cavalry was introduced into Chinese warfare around 320 BC.

Thirteen easy lessons
Written in a poetic idiom, The Art of War is a masterpiece of compression. It comprises a series of concise staccato statements, delivered machine-gun pace, brooking no argument or deliberation, and devoid of detailed elaboration or actual example. It is partly for this reason, no doubt, that the treatise has been so popular: it is very short, and seems to offer a highly accessible distillation of wisdom based on long experience and careful reflection.

Teach yourself how to win a war (or build a business) in 13 easy, ten-minute lessons, is the implicit spin. The Art of War’s reception in the modern West is probably helped by its oriental mystique. The old myth that the East is the repository of secret knowledge – around at least since Roman times – is still very much with us.

“Ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting.”

Also strange, at least when compared with later classics of military theory, which tend to be highly structured, is the rather rambling course of each chapter. We might begin with a focus on, say, terrain, but we soon wander off into general reflections on, for instance, the nature of generalship. The text, in other words, is not a polished literary synthesis; rather, it appears to be the record of a series of somewhat informal verbal expositions. It is as if a student has taken notes of both a lecture and the answers to questions afterwards, and it is this precious record of what ‘Master Sun said’ that constitutes what we now know as The Art of War.

Is the result a hotchpotch, or are we offered a coherent view? Definitely the latter: Sun-Tzu is the original representative of what has been called ‘the eastern way of war’. Instead of seeking out the enemy’s main forces in order to destroy them in pitched battle, ‘ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting’. Accordingly, the ingredients of successful warfare include systematic intelligence-gathering, deliberate deception, use of the ‘indirect approach’, skilful manoeuvre, and avoidance of the enemy when he is strong. Thus, explains the Master, ‘just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness’.

Ancient master and modern guerrillas
The words of Sun-Tzu are echoed in the theory and practice of Mao Tse-tung and Vo Nguyen Giap. The debt is clear in much of Mao’s writing on guerrilla warfare, and in one place he quotes what is perhaps the most famous of all Sun-Tzu’s sayings: ‘Know your enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a thousand battles without disaster’. Giap’s 30-year career of victories over Japanese, French, and American invaders of Vietnam is also testimony to the contemporary relevance of the ancient master. Giap’s greatest victory – over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 – can be interpreted as a systematic application of Sun-Tzu’s principles, and later, during the American occupation, captured Vietcong officers could sometimes quote entire passages from memory.

Ideas of such power have deep well-springs. Sun-Tzu’s brilliance is rooted in his grasp of dialectics – the unity and contradiction of opposites that is the essence of human conflict, and indeed of all social reality. Thus, he is an advocate not only of the indirect approach, but also of the direct, for ‘they give rise to each other in a never-ending, inexhaustible circle’. The whole ‘dynamics of war’, in fact, can be reduced to these two elements, the direct and the indirect, yet ‘their permutations are inexhaustible’.

Such was his richness of experience and intellect that Sun-Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher of war, retains his power to help shape history through the continuing influence of The Art of War.

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