A review of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War
Conflict is an inevitable part of life, according to this ancient Chinese classic of strategy, but everything necessary to deal with conflict wisely, honourably, victoriously, is already present within us. Compiled more than two thousand years ago by a mysterious warrior-philosopher, The Art of War is still perhaps the most prestigious and influential book of strategy in the world, as eagerly studied in Asia by modern politicians and executives as it has been by military leaders since ancient times. As a study of the anatomy of organisations in conflict, The Art of War applies to competition and conflict in general, on every level from the interpersonal to the international. Its aim is invincibility, victory without battle, and unassailable strength through understanding the physics, politics, and psychology of conflict.
(Original publication date was circa 500 BCE.)
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I want to preface this by saying this is a super accessible book and absolutely no prior knowledge of war or history or strategy is needed to read, understand and get something out of this book. That said, I actually find this little book very difficult to review in any depth partly because it is so sort and it is so plain in its voice. Though it includes the (very) occasional historical anecdote to visualise its point, there’s not a lot of digging the reader has to do to work anything out when taking everything in its original intention: a guide to war.
However, when we try to apply the book to contemporary living, things get a little bit more interesting as we begin to create layers of metaphor that can perhaps help us in our daily lives…possibly. Now, much of it just common sense (especially when taken literally), but understandably all stuff one can imagine being forgotten in the heat of battle. But I thought I’d highlight a few points here and there to show the plain “how to” nature of the book and how I might interpret a modern day reading of the advice.
When speaking of generals/leaders, Sun Tzu (who, by the way, is a bit of a Homer in that we do not know who he was or if “he” was many people or if “he” was no one at all) says:
“Your plans will fail if you are inflexible and don’t know how to use your resources:
5 Dangerous Faults:
- Recklessness which leads to destruction
- Cowardice which leads to capture
- A hasty temper which can be provoked by insults
- A delicacy of honour which is sensitive to shame
- Over-concern for his men which exposes him to worry or trouble“
How can we apply this to a leadership role today?
- Everyone drops the ball sometimes, but consistent recklessness/carelessness probably isn’t great general practice…especially not if you’re making more mistakes than the office intern.
- However, cowardice, or not owning up to your mistakes, will get found out eventually and how embarrassed will you be when everyone finds out you’ve been skipping doing vital jobs because you’re not sure how to do them and now there’s a massive backlog of work for everyone to do just to clean up after you!?
- A hasty temper isn’t great for a few reasons. You may think you’re giving tough love or keeping slackers in line, but your whole team thinks you’re just a bit of an asshole who can’t take a joke when they start nicknaming you The Dictator and they definitely don’t respect you.
- “A delicacy of honour” is a nice way of saying that you’re way too prideful. You never say sorry when you’re in the wrong and you’re way too hard on yourself thinking you’ve botched up your whole life just because you forgot to refill the communal coffee machine and now you’re paranoid everyone thinks you’re a jerk when really you spend way more time sweating the small stuff than looking at the bigger picture.
- Micro-managing is probably what Sun Tzu was getting at when he talked about “over-concern” for your team. But it’s more than that too, while you’re stressing out over your very capable team of grown-ass adults, you’re probably not focussing on your own jobs and a distracted leader is a compromised team.
Those are all very basic, “first thing in my head” daily office life expansions on Sun Tzu’s 5 dangerous faults for generals, but you get the picture. There are a lot of other ways this could be expanded and applied to other situations too.
Other advice like studying moods, retaining self-possession, conserving strength and studying circumstances are applicable to so many different things: office life, social situations, relationships, hiking, whatever!
Here are a few “battle” tactics:
- Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy
- Do not interfere with an army returning home. “A man whose heart is set on home will fight to the death against any attempt to bar his way.”
- When you surround an enemy, leave an outlet free and do not press an enemy too hard. “The object is to make him believe there is a road to safety and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair. After that, you may crush him.”
Perfect for any modern day argument if you ask me. The first point is basically “Don’t feed the trolls”!
There is a point in the book where two dudes are battling and the one who lost is like “But I read the art of war! I did *cites precept*” and the second one is like “Well I guess you didn’t study it well enough, because if you had, surely you wouldn’t not have forgotten *cites precept*” #sass! But I found this a bit of a sticking point since the first guy did follow the book… Like, he did what he was supposed to do. I’m not sure what he could have done differently in his situation just short of being psychic or a god, so I found little contradictory bits like that a little cheeky… But maybe I haven’t studied it well enough either yet😛 haha
The last part of the book is about spies and I found this part particularly interesting. And, although I think the use of spies is a little more underhanded-feeling than I’d like to apply to my life, I’m sure some things could be used less crookedly. Maybe the take-home of the spies section is just to keep your eyes and ears open, and know that not everyone has your best interests in mind…
“An army without spies is like a man without ears and eyes. They are the way to know the enemy.”
Spies come in lots of different types: gossips, backstabbers, quiet observers, ambitious Machiavellian plotters and more. But Sun Tzu splits them into 5 basic categories.
- LOCAL: People of the district (that you have entered/invaded)
- INWARD: Officials of the enemy. These are “worthy men who have been degraded of office, criminals who have undergone punishment, favoured concubines greedy for gold, men aggrieved at being in subordinate position or passed over for a post and fickle officials”.
- CONVERTED: Converted enemy spies via heavy bribes and liberal promises
- DOOMED: Your own spies who know and report to the enemy the things that you have purposefully done openly for them to see without them realising this.
- SURVIVING: Those who bring back word from the enemy camp. This is “a man of keen intelligence, but outwardly a fool of shabby exterior with iron will, physical strength and courage.” They are able to put up with shame and ignominy.
*Your enemy’s converted spies should be your doomed spies.
It is important to note that Sun Tzu says the best case situations in all conflict is not to have to go to war at all. If there is any way to avoid it, that is preferable to fighting. In fact, not fighting, winning and taking the enemy’s resources is ideal (and this can be done often through reconnaissance/intelligence, deals and/or intimidation I suppose). But in case you do get into a tight spot where there are no non-conflict options, Sun Tzu has some advice that you can apply to your situation.
Like I said before, much of it is stuff we’ve heard before (like don’t attack the higher ground or a fortress if at all possible because that is literally an uphill battle) or things that just make sense (like, if you see an enemy crossing a river, don’t meet him in the river to do battle, wait until his army is halfway out of the river and ambush them then so you’ll have the upper hand). And I’ve tried to explain how some of it could still be applied even today with some creativity.
I have actually listened to this audiobook twice now because it’s so short (only about 2 hours long I think). The second time I made some notes so I could write up some of the points in this review here, so I hope it gives you a peek at what this tiny war manual is like. (Sun Tzu is very fond of lists.) I can see how it could be nice to re-read as a way of giving a person some reassurance and stability. There are some people (I’m not one of them) who tend to see life as a bit of a battle and that’s really encouraging and empowering for them to think that if they gather up their strength and push through hardship or demotivation, they can get to the other side of the day/week/month/year and be victorious over that annoying situation! Almost like a sort of meditation for people who need to be pumped up to tackle life rather than calmed down. And I think this can do that…but in a very measured and calming way. It’s like the middle ground I guess? haha
It was a fun little read and I’d recommend it if you’re interested because it’s so short, but by no means a “must-read” for everyone in my opinion just because so many of the precepts are already floating around in the global cultural subconscious. I guess it’s interesting to see where these ideas came from though. And I’m definitely glad I read it.
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genre: non-fiction, philosophy, leadership, management
publisher: Tantor Media (audiobook)
date read: 31 May 2016
recommend for: philosophy fans, leadership self help
pros: accessible, short and direct
cons: unspecific, sometimes seemingly contradictory