This ancient book of 13 chapters is held by public opinion as the definitive book on warfare. Since its publication about six centuries before our Lord Jesus Christ, this book is not merely consulted by most ranks of militaries worldwide, but the principles contained therein have been utilized in law, politics, education, the business world and sports world as well. Any poker player or Kenny Rogers fan knows when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, when to walk away and when to run, as instructed in Chapter 3, “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”
History records the use of these warfare principles in Japan during the 1500’s and was committed to memory by Vietcong officers during the Vietnam War. This book is presently recommended reading in the Professional Reading program of the United States Marine Corps and is required reading for all US Military Intelligence Officers and the CIA. Don’t be surprised to find video games that carry the title, or a movie by the same name (released in 2002).
The book is about war, and each chapter is devoted to expounding each consecutive aspect of warfare, from start to finish. The message or burden of the book is the security of The State, determined by the relationship between rulers and people (Moral Law) and which sovereign is greater in terms of ability, advantage, discipline, strength, training and consistency in reward and punishment. Literally, the title refers to the studied action of war (as opposed to the expression of war) and may be translated as “Sun Tzu’s Military Principles,” or “Annotation of Sun Tzu's Strategies.” Chapters 1 through 11 are:
1. Laying Plans
2. Waging War
3. Attack by Stratagem
4. Tactical Dispositions
6. Weak Points and Strong
8. Variations of Tactics/Nine Variations
9. The Army on the March
11. The Nine Situations
Some scholars hold that the final two chapters (“Attack by Fire” and “The Use of Spies”) were either written by someone other than Sun Tzu, or they have been added posthumously. Regardless, they are accepted as part of the whole work. This small book (as little as 30 pages, depending on text form) was translated from Chinese into French in the mid-1700’s and into finally into English in 1905.
The contents of each chapter are proverbial, almost poetic (even in English) and are so precise that many “verses” have found their way into daily life as idioms, or catch-phrases, which is a credit to easy retention:
- “In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.” (1:19)
- “If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.” (3:18)
- “What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease” (4:11)
- “Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.” (6:1)
- “Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy; do not interfere with an army that is returning home.” (7:35)
- “The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources.” (12:16)
One major observation made of this book is the assumption that war is inevitable. Perhaps all attempts at peace have been exhausted. There are instructions on planning, starting, waging and suspending war (one finds difficulty to find clear instruction on ending war), but peace never seems an option per se. “Peace proposals unaccompanied by a sworn covenant indicate a plot” (9:26). The closest approximation to peace encourages “skillful warfare” (for lack of a better term) that subdues without fighting, captures without siege and overthrows without lengthy operation (3:6). Perhaps instruction such as this helps maintain peace: “The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success.” (4:16)
War affects those at home, and the book does consider the high cost paid by those who remain at home, but why not consider the first tactic of avoidance altogether? A related question arises that remains unanswered is “what starts war?” Sun Tzu seems to hold that there is no profit in peace, or that peace is less practical. War is a way to do business. This book gives us the mechanics, or the “how” of getting started; but, this does not answer the philosophical question of why do people fight, that starts war. Might one suggest a few reasons for waging war, as described in the New Testament book of James (Chapter 4):
A person desires, but does not have;
A person wants, but cannot get;
A person did not ask to get what one now has;
A person asks does not receive;
A person asks wrongly in method and/or motive, so does not receive.
The warfare proposed by Sun Tzu is specialized and differs greatly from other kinds of warfare, such as Just War, “harem” warfare (as described in the Bible, a holy response to wickedness, where nothing was left undestroyed, that it be used again) and the various kinds of Jihad, to name a few.
This short book is a mark of brilliance in content, style, and presentation; but, the principles found herein are not applicable to every situation or culture, despite its influence.