Over 2,500 years ago, a Chinese commander, Master Sun – or Sun-tzu – collected together his precepts on generalship to form the kernel of one of the most famous military treatises of all time. Our understanding of strategic warfare that comes out of his writings has yet to be surpassed. Eschewing conventional courage and military might as primary deciding factors, The Art of War is characterised by a profoundly enlightened emphasis on moderation, imagination, good morale and scrupulous forward planning.
Leaders as diverse as Mao Zedong and General Douglas MacArthur claimed to have drawn inspiration from the work, and its influence infiltrated popular culture as modern thinkers recognised that its fundamental philosophies apply as much to gaining a competitive edge in day-to-day life as they do to the battlefield.
This edition – the most comprehensive and authoritative to have been published in English – contains five extra chapters only discovered in 1972. Roger T. Ames’s translation was the first to take advantage of this new material and his fluid, yet crisp style has won him accolades. His introduction to the context and history of The Art of War is a model of exposition written for the lay reader. Exquisite, specially commissioned Chinese lettering adorns every chapter heading, while full-colour photographs of ancient artefacts illustrate the age of incessant conflict which gave birth to The Art of War.
Robert Fox examines the subtle understanding of psychology and leadership that makes Sun-tzu's ancient instructions on The Art of War uncannily relevant to the quandaries of modern conflict and diplomacy.
DECEPTION LIES at the heart of Sun-tzu's analysis in The Art of War, and this is perhaps what makes his teaching so beguiling for modern readers. His simple means of expressing himself, the metaphors from nature and the plain turns of phrase, hide the originality of his perception. As a British general explained in an email from Basra this summer, Sun-tzu's ‘blinding glimpses of the obvious are more than is often understood. He is like Isaiah Berlin on philosophy - he makes it seem so simple, it can't possibly be clever.' With his insight into the psychology of command, the power of appearances, the trade-off between one’s own and one’s enemy's weaknesses and strengths, and the critical role played by time in conflict and combat, he seems very much our contemporary.
But the identity of Sun-tzu is now amystery. Hemay have been an individual, or a collective like the supposed several Homers of the Iliad and Odyssey. Some suggest that Sun-tzu may have been a woman, since there were female generals in China at that time, though there is little hard evidence that Sun-tzu was one of them. We know with more certainty that the thirteen core chapters of instruction in The Art ofWar come from the China of ‘the warring states’ in the fourth century. From the evidence of the text, Sun-tzu is likely to have been an active field commander, serving theWu monarch and operating as an itinerant military adviser.
Manuals of military strategy existed at the time but Sun-tzu – just before the era of Alexander the Great and Hannibal in the West – distilled a set of military precepts and principles which are still used today. In influencingWestern thinking on war and peace, intelligence and diplomacy, The Art of War has only one serious competitor, On War by the Prussian academic Carl von Clausewitz.While Clausewitz declares war to be the continuation of politics and diplomacy by other means, Sun-tzu states that 'to win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all’. Clausewitz introduces the concepts of ‘friction’ and ‘the fog of war’: Sun-tzu explains that ‘warfare is the art of deceit . . . If the enemy seeks some advantage, entice him with it. If he is in disorder, attack him and take him'.
But what took Clausewitz a dozen volumes to expound, Sun-tzu manages in thirteen economical chapters. A closer comparison might be with The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, whose series of reflections on power and destiny are pithily expressed, such as in the famous dictum for a prince that it is ‘better to be feared than loved'. Sun-tzu and Machiavelli strip the game of war, power and politics to its bare essentials and share an important concept: what Machiavelli calls fortuna. Often translated as 'fortune' or 'fate', the word is closer to 'chance' in the sense of opportunity. Battles and wars are won by exploiting the opportunity of victory by direct force, declares Sun-tzu, or by guile, deception and surprise. Success requires playing on an infinite variety of combinations between force and surprise, feint and attack.
Based on this understanding of the dynamics of warfare, The Art ofWar divides its teaching into four practical areas: terrain and conditions – including weather and what modern tacticians call ‘the battle space’; organisation – the efficiency, preparation and logistics of the army; command – the role of the commander, his relationship to his troops, his political masters and the enemy; and, finally, information and psychological operations – including the use of espionage. Perhaps two of the finest passages in The Art of War are on the uses of intelligence and deception through spies; from the essential agent who brings back real intelligence from the enemy command, to the dispensable spy who is fed dud information in the hope that he will be captured.
Sun-tzu’s teachings are drawn together by a ribbon of observations on the culture of the army and the state – what is now called ‘doctrine’. Other of Sun-tzu’s preoccupations seem antique – as with the need to signal to formations in the din of battle with gongs, rolling drums and pennants - but through such examples Sun-tzu outlines the 'command and control' fundamental to all military operations.And he comes up with a remarkably modern approach tomitigating a breakdown in the chain of command: provided that subordinates know the overall plan, they should be empowered to carry it out according to the circumstances in their part of the battle. This is the essence of what the modern British military calls 'mission command'.
Sun-tzu’s advice acknowledges the difficulty of leadership and the unpredictability of armed conflict. Consequently, the attributes and skills required of a commander are demanding. A commander must not only know his own mind, and the minds and abilities of his own forces, but must get to know the mind of the enemy, the nature and capability of his forces, and his intentions. He must also understand risk: ‘On the day he leads his troops into battle, it is like climbing up high and throwing away the ladder.’ Sun-tzu issues other warnings worth heeding: ‘I have yet to see a case of cleverly dragging on the hostilities. There has never been a state that has benefited from an extended war . . . Hence, in war prize the quick victory, not the protracted engagement. Thus, the commander who understands war is the final arbiter of people’s lives, and lord over the security of the state.' For good or ill, Suntzu remains relevant over two thousand years after The Art of War emerged from the crucible of conflict in ancient China.
The Folio Society edition of The Art of War, introduced by General Sir Rupert Smith, is translated by Professor Roger Ames from a text a thousand years older than that used for previous translations, and includes additional texts recently attributed to Sun-tzu.
Review by joutsen on 5th Feb 2013
"Overall this edition is similar to that of Folio's Tao Te Ching - same paper, same size, same large margins. The binding, however, is much more sturdy (which is good). Also, each chapter is prefaced w..." [read more]
Review by Rusty401 on 16th Oct 2012
"This is a wonderful volume that I reference in many courses I teach (Computer security, business related studies). Timeless wisdom for any kind of human 'conflict', including the kind of conflict that..." [read more]