Book Summary of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: The art of warfare is the art of winning a war before it begins.
By Sun Tzu, 5th century BC. AD, 75 pages.
Note: This review is a guest post written by Nicolas Bazard from the blog “Se Former sur Internet” (‘Teach Yourself through the Internet’).
Review and Summary of “The Art of War”
The book The Art of War was written by Chinese General Sun Tzu around the 5th century BC and is considered the world’s first strategy book. History gives us few clues about Sun Tzu: Is it a single author or several? (We note that the text sometimes includes: “Sun Tzu says”, and sometimes: “I say”).
The Art of War is organized around 13 distant articles. These are not really different themes that are discussed each time; it seems rather like 13 reflections, or even 13 different books gathered in one. Some passages may be more or less repetitive, and seem very theoretical, but The Art of War, which is several thousand years old, remains relevant.
Replace the word “enemy” with “competitor”, the word “camp” with the word “market”, the word “soldier” with “employee” and this military strategy book will turn into a business strategy book. In fact, I believe that all entrepreneurs, business creators, should have read this book.
It is actually a book that is part of the required reading of many university programs, and many entrepreneurs use the principles laid out in the book when it comes to negotiating a large contract or making important sales.
It is quite small: 75 pages, but rather dense. In this review, I have tried to take up the important ideas raised in the book The Art of War. Although it is very old, all the ideas remain relevant and that is why I wanted to share it with you on this blog.
“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Article 1: Initial Estimations
Through this classic of Asian literature, Sun Tzu teaches us that to be successful and glorious in all battles, one must always have in mind five elements: moral law, heaven, earth, the commander, method and discipline.
- Moral Law: You have to have a “unity of thought” and stick to it.
- Heaven: You have to know when to act.
- Earth: You have to choose the terrain.
- The Commander: You must show respect, love and empathy towards the men who accompany you.
- Method and Discipline: Mastering the strategy, knowing who does what, knowing all the choices available.
By following your moral law, neighboring peoples will come to stand beside you. By taking heaven and earth into account, you will know precisely the best time to launch your offensive. Through command, those under your authority will serve you as much out of duty as they will for pleasure. With method and discipline, you will know if an endeavor is in vain, if your enemies are stronger than you, then you will not be wasting time in battle.
If you decide to go for it, hide your superiority, feign confusion, let the enemy believe that they have the advantage. Then, attack where they are not ready by emerging when they least expect you!
Do not stake everything on the same fight; do not have your fate depend on a single battle.
History buffs will certainly appreciate my article 10 Exceptional Historical Novels for Traveling Back in Time in which I discuss, among others, Azteca, War and Peace and Quo Vadis?
Article 2: Waging War
If you have the weapons and the men to fight, then do not delay. When you want to win a battle, start it right away and mobilize all your troops. If you wait too long, your enemy will attack first when your weapons are rusted, and your men disengaged. All the previous glory accumulated will be lost in this battle.
Those who really master the art of war do not mobilize their soldiers for several years without making them fight. Nothing depletes an army more than inaction.
So, shorten your campaigns!
You must always be ready to fight. Do not miss any opportunity to hamper your enemy, to get them to fall into your trap; reduce their forces by taking their resources.
Treat your prisoners as if they were your own men. Make them feel better in your camp than with your opponents. Act with them, as if they have freely enlisted in your army.
“What is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations.”
-Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Article 3: Planning Offensives
Sun Tzu advises you to stay in your territories and declare war as a last resort. You must also conserve the territories acquired from your enemies, maintain them and not destroy them.
The best warfare policy is to take an intact state.
The best battle is the one not to be fought. Discover the artifices of your enemy, sow discord among his supporters, prevent outside help.
It is not necessary to attack the enemy but their strategy. Attack the plan of the adversary when their plans emerge; break their alliances. It is only then that you will have to fight.
The goal is to seize enemy territories while they are intact. Your troops will not be exhausted, and your gains will be extensive.
The five keys to victory are:
- Knowing how to choose the right time to fight and the right time not to fight.
- Knowing how to conserve or deploy all your forces depending on the situation.
- Being safe from the prince’s bad choices that he would make for his glory.
- Knowing how to choose your men.
- Knowing how to prepare to face your enemy before they become one.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. And if you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
“The one without goals is unlikely to achieve anything.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Article 4: Military Disposition
The best warriors do not find difficulty in combat; they only engage in battle after creating the appropriate conditions. They have planned everything, know the enemy’s situation and their own strengths and weaknesses. The best warriors know if they can win or if they will lose. When they choose to engage, victory is a natural consequence of their awareness.
The skillful commander never takes the risk of being defeated; he never misses a chance to gain an advantage over his enemy.
“Know how to wait for the right moment before going on the attack.”
Article 5: Strategic Military Power
Sun Tzu teaches us that it is important to know the names of each of the soldiers in your army, as well as their qualities and talents. Know how to use them when they are to their advantage.
Combine the use of direct and indirect force:
- Direct: Take the battle head-on.
- Indirect: Attack where you are least expected.
Your direct strength will always be limited while your indirect force is unlimited. A skillful commander seeks victory in the situation and does not demand it from his army.
You must master an art greater than that of war: the art of influencing your enemies. Push your enemies like pushing a boulder from the top of a mountain; it takes little effort, but the boulder will fall all the way down the mountain.
Article 6: Vacuity and Substance
One of the essential things in the art of war is to choose the right camp. If you get your enemy to come to you then you will have the advantage of the terrain.
If you see that your enemy does not leave their camp, provoke them, force them to leave.
Go to fields where the enemy will not expect you, attack them when they least expect it, where they are least protected.
The objective is to ensure that the enemy never knows the place where they will have to fight. They must not know what your means are or how you are going to attack them. If they prepare for the front, attack their rear. If they prepare for the rear, attack their front.
“When capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity. And when near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are to lure him.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Article 7: Military Combat
Have the precise knowledge of the battle environment. Keep the enemy away from the location where you have chosen to camp out and keep them near the locations you can take advantage of.
Only attack the enemy when they think you are very far from them and victory will be assured. A surprised enemy is a half defeated enemy.
To communicate with your army, use drums. The sound of a large number of drums will serve to give courage to your soldiers, but also to terrify your enemies. These noises will draw the enemy’s attention to whatever you want.
“If you see that your soldiers are ardent, now is the time to jump into battle. If, on the contrary, it is your enemies who are ardent, then you must wait for a better time.”
– Sun Tzu the author of the book The Art of War
Article 8: Nine Changes
Sun Tzu considers nine changes that must directly affect your position: Are you attacking? Are you backing down? Are you resting?
- Avoid areas where reinforcements cannot help you: marshy terrain, thick forests.
- Avoid setting up your camp in isolated areas.
- If you find yourself in an area where there is a risk of wasting away from air, disease, hurry to fight the enemy or you will lose a lot of soldiers.
- Avoid areas far from water and food sources.
- In areas where you may be ambushed, or where it will be difficult for you to flee, do not attack the enemy. But if they attack you, fight them to the death.
- Avoid sieging cities that are heavily fortified or packed with food, or you may have to give up quickly.
- Do not neglect any advantage, if you can obtain it without incurring any loss.
- Before gaining an upper hand, think about what it will cost you: energy, loss of life, etc.
- If you have a chance, do not wait for the prince’s orders, and take action.
“A good general should never say to himself: whatever happens, I will do such and such a thing, I will go there, I will attack the enemy, I will besiege such and such a place. Only the circumstance should determine it.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Article 9: Maneuvering the Army
Before choosing your camp, know exactly where your enemies are, master the environment around you, and choose the location that is most beneficial:
- If you are camping in a valley, place sentries at the top of the mountain to observe your enemies.
- If you are camping near a river, master its fords.
- And If you are forced to camp in swamps, stay at the edge as much as possible.
- If you are camping in the plains, maintain the high ground so that you can observe enemies; the best camps are the heights.
If you come across a forest, stay on your guard; such areas are conducive to ambushes. The enemy can come out at any moment and ambush you.
Whatever your location, always have sentries to spot the surroundings and detect the presence of your enemy.
From this precise observation, you will be able to draw conclusions about your enemies:
- If they walk quickly, it is because they are sure of their victory.
- If they have multiple camps, it is because they do not master the terrain.
- And if they are continually having fun, it is because the generals have no authority.
Watch your enemies, but also your troops. Prevent bad behavior, watch over your troops, keep an eye on everything.
- If your soldiers are whispering, it is because fear has settled in your ranks.
- If your soldiers ask to take leave, it is because they no longer want to fight.
- And if your bravest soldiers are getting fearful, something is going on in the mind of your soldiers; perhaps they are starting to doubt.
The number of soldiers alone is not enough to make a great army. An army led by one general could lose all its battles, while, led by another, it could be invincible.
“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Article 10: Configurations of Terrain
The perfect area to fight is an area where there are mountains high enough never to be surprised, where food would be in abundance. Your enemies will be attracted to this type of area just like you, so you will have to get there before them.
Beware of areas that may seem easy to access but from where it is difficult to get out of. In general, these areas are left on purpose by your enemies to set a trap for you.
Beware of enemies you have already fought against and failed against. If you can, retreat. If your rival has camped at the most advantageous location, do not try to dislodge them.
To win the battle, if your army and the one you are fighting are evenly matched, you must master at least nine of the ten advantages that terrain offers if you are to win.
With an excellent knowledge of the terrain, you will be able to get out of any situation, even the most critical.
A good general regards his troops as his children. You have to guide them and lead them yourself. When it comes to taking risk, face it with them. When it comes to dying, die with them.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Article 11: Nine Terrains
There are 9 kinds of terrains that can be to the advantage or disadvantage of one of the two armies:
- Dispersive terrain: These are the areas at the border of your territory. If your men stay in these areas, it is because they do not want to fight. At the first opportunity, they will return to their territory.
- Light terrain: These are the areas which are near the borders of your territory, but which allow to reach the enemy territory by a breach. Rolling back may seem tempting for your troops if your enemy attacks.
- Contentious terrain: You will not find yourself to your advantage in these areas or your opponent for that matter.
- Open terrain: These are areas where one inevitably finds oneself face to face with the enemy, where one has to go one day or another.
- Heavy terrain: These are very large spaces in which the two armies can fight, but which are located on enemy territory. Do not fight in these areas unless you are forced to.
- Terrain of intersecting highways: Areas located in the middle of several territories, which can see reinforcements arriving from all sides.
- Serious terrain: Placed in enemy territory, are located in the middle of everything: the city, the mountain, the sea.
- Difficult terrain: Cramped areas where one part of your army cannot see the other, where you can only move by platoons.
- Fatal terrain: These are small areas where the danger is permanent: the risk of dying if you fight or the risk of starving if you do not fight.
“The whole art of war is based on deception.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
In a dispersive terrain, never lead a battle, even if it seems to you won in advance; you risk ending up with deserters in your army.
Never set up camp in a light terrain.
Take over a contentious terrain at all costs. If the enemy is already there, try to dislodge them.
Regarding open terrain, be the first to arrive on the premises, try to control all ways out.
In a heavy terrain, expand your camp, secure it, and wait for the moment to launch the offensive.
Know all the paths of a terrain of intersecting highways, strive to take control.
For serious terrain, take control of your surroundings, grab whatever can be taken.
Once you arrive in a difficult terrain, stop and turn back as quickly as possible.
Finally, if you are in fatal terrain, go into battle, attack the enemy quickly, the sooner the better.
“Now do you understand what a fatal terrain is?”
Article 12: Incendiary Attacks
There are only 5 ways to fight with fire: the first is to burn people; the second, to burn provisions; the third, to burn supply trains; the fourth, to burn armories; and the fifth, to use incendiary projectiles.
If once you set the enemy camp on fire and nothing happens, remain calm. If you see it rising, send men to stoke it.
Never forget to reward your men.
Article 13: Employing Spies
Learn everything you can know about your enemy: their connections, their interests, their past. Do not hesitate to send spies; be aware of everything, do not overlook any information.
The secret to winning all wars is the art of division:
- Divide the people who are under the rule of your enemy in towns and villages so that they can be used against your enemy.
- Create division from the outside, that is, recruit enemy soldiers into your army.
- Create division between inferiors and superiors, that is to say, take advantage of the discord between officers of various ranks of the enemy army.
- The division of death is one that spreads false rumors about the bad position you allegedly find yourself in.
- The division of life is the one through which money is poured out towards all the former enemy soldiers who have joined you.
“An army without spies is like a man without eyes and ears.”
Conclusion on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War by Nicolas Bazard
The book The Art of War shows how reflection can lead to victory, how the analysis of the enemy’s weaknesses can be the basis of a tactic, if we know how to exploit them, and even compound them; he emphasizes the psychological dimension of combat, the role of deception and flight.
Beyond a simple manual on the art of warfare, I consider the book The Art of War as a genuine book of philosophy. These strategic principles can be applied to the military, but can also be applied to business, politics, or society.
This book, which has survived the ages, is astonishingly modern! And it’s joined by more recent works, like Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, as essential reading for success. It helps the entrepreneur to develop and refine his strategies, which is very useful in the face of adversity.
“The success of an operation lies in its preparation.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
As a chartered accountant, I meet entrepreneurs on a daily basis who believe, wrongly, that in order to succeed in their business, you have to sell a better product than your competitors! An error that Sun Tzu explains very well in his book: “The art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
So, you have to sell a different product, at least in the eyes of your competitors.
If you attack your competition directly, then they will defend themselves and you will go to war. If they don’t feel attacked, then you’ve already won the war.
Besides my profession as a chartered accountant, I am also the author of a blog. I apply the principles that I discovered now a few years ago in Sun Tzu’s book. I regularly reread this book, which changed my life. And I realize, day after day, that any war (whether commercial or not) is not won by force, but by cunning and deception. Get to know yourself, know your enemy, choose when to attack, where to attack and never again will you lose a battle.
“The best way to win the war for sure.”
Strong points of Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War:
- A book that is several thousand years old and that has survived the ages: It is not for nothing.
- Sun Tzu offers a true philosophy of life based on surprise and the search for information.
- The content of the book can be applied to all fields, and in particular, business!
- A great source of inspiration.
- It is a military classic, of which the strategies are sometimes even taught in the ‘Grandes Ecoles’.
- It is a treatise on strategy which helps in all areas.
Weak points of Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War:
- It’s theoretical, without any real concrete examples.
- Its “philosophical” approach may put off some.
- The original theme of the book: War.
- It’s quite dense.
Have you read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War? How do you rate it?
I also invite you to watch my video titled “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – The 6 Principles”:
What are the 9 life lessons to learn from Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War?
- Choose your battles
- Timing is crucial
- Know your strengths and weaknesses and those of your opponents
- Have a unique plan
- Hide your plans
- The best way to win is not to fight
- Change is always an opportunity
- Success leads to success
- A protracted conflict benefits no one
Have you read “The Art of War“? How do you rate it?
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