How to Fight Smart (Sun Tzu)

The Chinese military general and strategist Sun Tzu, who lived around 2,500 years ago, argued that the ability to wage war is of vital importance to the state. According to him, it’s a matter of life and death, and cannot be neglected. In his manual The Art of War, Sun Tzu states that the superior way of winning a war is winning by not fighting.

But when this path, for some reason, is not accessible, then we must confront the situation with the utmost care. We must know what strategies to use in the right conditions, and which battles to enter and which to avoid. Being unskilled in the art of war can have devastating consequences. Going into battle without a plan, letting our emotions get the best of us, not taking the welfare and humanity of the army into account, or attacking a stronger opponent that we simply cannot defeat, are among the mistakes that will lead to our doom.

Hence, according to Sun Tzu we must use our intelligence to fight a war, study our enemy closely, take into account the circumstances before we attack, not overextend and exhaust ourselves, and even throw ‘honor’ out of the window by using tricks and diversions to win if necessary, as the Soviets did (quite brutally) by using suicide dogs against Nazi tanks; not for glory or fame, but for effectiveness and victory.

In a previous video about Sun Tzu, we’ve globally explored his ideas on warfare from a viewpoint of ‘winning without fighting’. This video is the first part of a series that dives deeper into Sun Tzu’s wisdom for fighting smart in war, and how we can use this to approach the battles of everyday life. The third chapter of Sun Tzu’s book focuses on choosing the right strategy, which is a good place to start our journey. Hence, this first part is based on the third chapter. Also, the elaborations in this video are partly based on the author’s interpretations and reasoning.

Using the right strategy

During his career, John Perkins stood before the Shah of Iran, the president of Indonesia, and the royal house of Saudi Arabia, offering them large sums of money if they would agree to the terms that he laid out in front of them. But if they didn’t agree, then retaliation would follow. John Perkins was an economic hitman, who helped to shape a global capitalist system that’s based on the exploitation of resources through bribery, assassination, and even war.

In his book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, he describes the tactics that his organization used to conquer its opponents, which were generally leaders of countries. First, they would make them an offer they can’t refuse. This could be a sum of money in exchange for cheap labor or a deal with a company to pay off the country’s debt in exchange for oil. If they refused, then they would try to overthrow or assassinate them. This, according to Perkins, happened to Jaime Roldós, president of Ecuador, who didn’t want to change his plans to reorganize the hydrocarbon sector, which threatened the interests of the United States. In 1981 Roldós died in a plane crash.

In some cases, these assassination attempts failed. An example of this is Saddam Hussein, who, said Perkins, refused to implement the same oil policy as the Saudis did. In 2003, a combined force of troops invaded Iraq. In the same year, Saddam Hussein was captured. After his trial, he was executed. In no way this video intends to condone the actions described by Perkins. It’s merely a pitch-black example to illustrate how this strategy has been successfully implemented many times: unfortunately for questionable reasons and with terrible consequences. However, the strategy that the economic hitmen use resembles the tiered system that Sun Tzu proposed in the third chapter of his book, which aims to prevent violent conflict if possible.

Sun Tzu distinguished different forms of warfare. The highest form is to attack strategy, the second-highest form is to attack alliances, the next is to attack armies, and attacking cities is the last resort. In the ethical sense, we want to win without causing too many casualties because it’s the most humanitarian thing to do. Winning without fighting causes virtually no casualties, but bombing cities will result in the death of many innocent civilians.

An example of the devastating effects that choosing the last resort can have is the atomic bombings on the Japanese cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the Second World War. This event ended the war quickly, but it wasn’t a victory to be festive about, as these bombings resulted in a death toll of hundreds of thousands of people. With a total death toll of around seventy-five million people as a consequence of the Second World War, we can’t speak of any victory; it was a humanitarian catastrophe with mostly losers. This is something that Sun Tzu wants us to prevent.

In a pragmatic sense, we can also make a case for fighting smart by preventing not only destruction but also unnecessary effort and spending of resources. Sun Tzu states:

The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 3.4  

So, if we can, it’s always better to try fighting with efficient and non-destructive methods. The first one is to attack strategy. Attacking strategy means attacking the enemy’s plans; or, in some way, obstructing them. By doing this we solve the conflict at the root; which is the scheme from which a possible threat arises. The beauty of this method is that it doesn’t generally involve bloodshed.

Imagine, for example, a couple of coworkers are planning to reorganize your department, with the consequence that your position within the company becomes obsolete. You can sue your company as a countermove, but chances are that you’ll lose the case, and you’ll suffer great financial losses in the process. Instead, it’s more efficient to obstruct their plans, for example by convincing the management that their plans are bad, and by presenting counter plans that involve you. Or you can try to sabotage their plans in one way or another.

When this doesn’t cut it, Sun Tzu urges us to attack alliances. For example, if the obstruction of your coworkers’ plans fails, you can then try to weaken the alliances by turning people against each other. This can be done by gossiping, creating alliances yourself, and disclosing information that shows your opponents in a bad light. Admittingly, these methods aren’t the most elegant ways of achieving one’s goal. But, again, they generally don’t involve bloodshed, although they could provoke violence nonetheless.

Knowing when to fight

When none of the previous methods work, it may be a lost cause. Sure, we can try to attack the company as a whole. But we must choose our battles well. The strength of an army is limited, as is the case with ourselves and our resources. Sun Tzu lies the importance of calculations at the base of all of his strategies. Is there a chance of winning? Or is it better to avoid battle?

It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two. If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him. 

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 3.8-9 

If you have a reasonable chance of winning, fighting could be a viable option. But then it’s essential to remember that our resources and energy are finite. To put it pragmatically: what’s the ‘net profit’ as a result of fighting this battle? Will it improve our situation or will it drain us and leave us worse than before we entered it? Sun Tzu argued against fighting long, exhausting battles, as they do not only deplete one’s resources but also destroy the army’s morale. “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare,” he stated.

Sun Tzu justly argues that it’s better to take a country intact and to capture a regiment, detachment, or company without harming or destroying it. With such thinking, we could also approach the battles of everyday life. If we evaluate all proposed steps in detail, will the benefits outweigh the losses or the other way around? If the latter is the case, and we’re still eager to fight, we’re probably being led by emotion rather than reason and logic. According to Sun Tzu, being led by emotion can have disastrous effects when it comes to decision-making. I quote:

The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 3.5 


At the end of the day, life is full of battles, and it’s best to prevent destructive confrontations if that’s possible. Unfortunately, this isn’t always an option. But this doesn’t mean that the degree of destructiveness cannot be mitigated. Sun Tzu teaches us that there are many shades of grey between peace and violence. He shows us the alternatives to the equivalent of what he calls ‘siege warfare’. If we can’t solve the problems by diplomacy, can we win by sabotaging the enemy’s plans? Can we destroy alliances? Can we defeat the armies and spare innocent civilians?

Sun Tzu urges us to choose our battles carefully. This requires calculations as well as sufficient knowledge about ourselves, the enemy, and the circumstances we’re up against. Defeating the enemy quickly and efficiently is preferable. But getting entangled in long, exhausting conflicts must be avoided. And in some cases, when the odds are so clearly stacked against us, there’s no reasonable course of action but to give up and leave.

Thank you for watching.