The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Book Review) | Christopher Winter

Often the subject of serious discussion and internet memes alike, it is fair to say that the Art of War is an extremely well-known book. Many people know the more famous quotes and have some understanding of the life of the author, Sun Tzu, but few people have actually taken the time to read the book. This is troubling to me because it is such a short book. I must admit, I find it more and more difficult to find the time to sit down and just read nowadays; however, even I had the patience to sit down and read through the entire piece at a gentle pace in only an hour. The art of war is, after all, only about 50 pages long and can be read in full in less forty minutes.

So, why should you read The Art of War? At first glance, it seems completely unrelated to modern life. It is essentially just a guide to ground based warfare in 5th Century BC China after all. However, I hope that in this short book review I can convince you otherwise. I hope that afterwards you fork out the very modest £3 to purchase this book and give it a read. Because the lessons Sun Tzu taught on ground warfare in ancient China may be more relevant to today than you think.

Firstly, who was Sun Tzu and why did he write this book? This answer was covered expertly in the Podcast series ‘Decoding the Art of War’ by China Plus. (A free podcast on Spotify which I would highly recommend listening along to if you intend to read the book.) To summarise, Sun Tzu was an ancient Chinese general, philosopher, and writer who was appointed as a military strategist and general by the king of Wu. It is hard to tell apart the fact from fiction when it comes to Sun Tzu’s early life and rise to prominence. Legend goes that Sun Tzu demonstrated his tactical abilities by training the king of Wu’s concubines in the ways of soldiering. So impressed was the King that he commissioned Sun Tzu as his chief strategist and commissioned him to write down his thoughts and ideas on how to conduct battle properly. These writings became The Art of War that we know today.

The book is split into 13 chapters dealing on a range of topics: Laying Plans, Waging War, Attacking by Stratagem, Tactical Dispositions, Energy, Weak and Strong Points, Manoeuvring, Variations in Tactics, The Army on the March, Terrain, Nine Situations, Attacking with Fire, and The Use of Spies. In this review, I will attempt to briefly cover the main themes in these chapters to give you a better feel for them. 

In the first four chapters, Sun Tzu focuses heavily on the necessity to be well prepared for war and the burdens and costs that it will inflict upon you. If one were to take a quick glance at some quotes of Sun Tzu, you would almost assume he was a pacifist. Sun Tzu makes it very clear repeatedly that waging war is expensive, tiresome, difficult, and that even victory itself does not guarantee the greatness or genius of a general hence the line “To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence… hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage”. Sun Tzu instead emphasizes the importance of unending victory even when a situation is not clearly advantageous and what he refers to as the ‘Moral Law’. He makes the case several times that an army will only follow a general if they view them to be worthy. He also focuses on the necessity of intense planning and stratagem before and during battle this can be seen in the line “He will win who, prepared himself, wants to take the enemy unprepared”. Sun Tzu also concentrates on the importance of speed and precision. He is quoted as saying “Thus though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been associated with long delays.” By this, Sun Tzu means that slowness to act will be viewed just as poorly as rushing off without thinking.

The next seven chapters can be summarised in one word… ‘movement’. When Sun Tzu refers to the energy of an army, he is referring to its kinetic movement, weak and strong points refer to movements already made and movements to be made, manoeuvring is movement, the variations are all dedicated to moving an army in different ways to change tactics, the army on the march is very obviously based on movement, terrain and the Nine Situations are all based on how to move through different types of ground. This could sound very boring but I promise you it is not. Sun Tzu goes in depth into the importance of administering one’s army on the battlefield and the dependency their lives have on a general for placing them in the correct position and moving them around correctly. It points out how trickery, attack and feigning defeat can all lead to victory. He reminds us of the different kinds of terrain and how it can affect logistics more than most generals at the time would take into account. He also stresses the importance of timings and putting soldiers in the way of danger. Sun Tzu does not shy away from the consequences of his men dying and frequently says that placing them in harm’s way can often be beneficial as it will make them fight harder and more vigorously. 

The last two chapters are very much so the black sheep of the book. Attack by fire and the use of spies really feels like a ‘tips and tricks’ section. In attack by fire, Sun Tzu gives some brief advice on how to use fire effectively against an enemy’s camp and in the use of spies, Sun Tzu talks of the different kinds of spies, how to treat spies, how to recruit spies, and how to treat the information they feed you.

So, how does all of this relate to modern life? It is important to remember that Sun Tzu was a philosopher and not just a general. A considerable amount of his writing in the Art of War can be ascribed to real life as well as the battlefields of ancient China. Sun Tzu’s writing on planning can be easily compared to how one administers themselves. His writing on war and battle can be ascribed to your own battles that you fight every day. The idea that you should pick your battles carefully, that you should only attack if you think you could win, the notion that ‘knowing yourself and your enemy’ as he says will help you always achieve victory. I think that every individual reader will interpret the text differently, but they certainly wouldn’t struggle to find parallels between themselves, their own problems, and potential methods of fixing them through the work of Sun Tzu. In conclusion, I appreciate that this is an extremely brief explanation and review of the Art of War, but I really wanted you, the reader, to come to your own conclusions by actually reading the book itself. This review is about 1300 words long which should take the average reader 5 minutes to get through. You could have already gotten through 1/8th of the entirety of the Art of War in the time it took you to read this, and I think you would appreciate it a lot more than whatever I have to say on the book. Go to a book shop or online, pay the £3, buy the book. I promise you; you will learn something from it about yourself and the world around you and you certainly won’t regret it.

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