If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battleSun Tzu, The Art of War
War is part of life. It’s in the nature of most living organisms to engage in battle, defeat opponents, and to dominate. With humans, we see this happen in war, in business, on the soccer field, in video games, in the night club, and even on YouTube. And chances are that when we’re not engaging in a battle with our environment, we’re waging war against ourselves.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu is an ancient Chinese military text composed of thirteen chapters, that are devoted to the strategic and tactical aspects of warfare. The Art of War explains in detail how we must behave in battle, and, more importantly: how to win. What makes a strong army? In what manner should we approach the enemy on ‘enclosed terrain’? And how should we use spies to garner information, or to spread ‘fake news’?
Aside from specific tips on combat, the Art of War has a profound philosophical side to it. Sun Tzu argues that war shouldn’t be taken lightly, that the highest form of warfare is defeating the enemy without fighting, and that being ‘still’ and ‘inscrutable’ is the business of a general. He emphasizes the use of intelligence over brute force and teaches us how to win battles the smart way.
The beauty of the Art of War is that its wisdom can be applied to our modern lives as well; even in times of peace, when we don’t have to deal with bloodshed, but rather with work, sports, and daily conflicts in general.
This video explores the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s work: The Art of War.
Sun Tzu & The Art of War
Sun Tzu, also known as Master Sun, was a military strategist, and philosopher, who lived about 2,500 thousand years ago and is traditionally appointed the author of the Art of War. But some Chinese scholars doubt the existence of Sun Tzu, and believe that The Art of War is a compilation of works by different authors.
Sun Tzu supposed to have lived during the time of the Zhou Dynasty, around the time that Taoist sage Lao Tzu and philosopher Confucius lived. His birthplace is disputed. Some say he was born in the state of Qi, others believe in the state of Wu. But the oldest available sources agree that he was a general and strategist who served the king of Wu.
Throughout the ages, Sun Tzu’s work inspired numerous people within the military as well as outside the military. The Vietnamese general Võ Nguyên Giáp, for example, defeated the French during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, by using tactics described in The Art of War. And Brazilian soccer coach Luiz Felipe Scolari used the ancient strategy guide to win the 2002 World Cup.
The Art of War emphasizes the importance of good preparation. The underlying philosophy is that victory and defeat are already decided before the battle is fought. This means that with sufficient knowledge and calculations, it’s possible to estimate the chances of winning a battle. Which side is stronger? Who’s more likely to win? Good research is essential. And if necessary, we need to employ spies to acquire the necessary information.
We must know what we’re up against and be realistic about our own strengths and weaknesses. To create an obedient army, it’s vital for a leader to know his soldiers; every kind of soldier needs a different treatment. Self-awareness is key; as if we know ourselves, we know which enemies we’re able to defeat, and which enemies we should run from.
Winning the smart way
Oftentimes it’s better to avoid conflict if that avoids great loss. According to Sun Tzu, the highest victory is defeating the enemy without even fighting. Unfortunately, this ideal isn’t always an option. That’s why in life we ought to pick our battles carefully, knowing which are worth fighting and which are a waste of energy and resources. And the battles we choose must be fought as efficient as possible.
The strength of an army is limited; even the biggest army in the world can run out of equipment, fuel, army vehicles, and, of course, the soldiers who operate them. Lengthy wars are disastrous for a country and its resources, and will only exhaust those that participate.
Thus, the best way to win a battle is by striking quickly, with the minimal use of resources. Don’t destroy the enemy’s cities and resources when we can use them for our own, and don’t needlessly kill the enemy’s soldiers when they can join our ranks.
Here we begin to see the Taoist influences in Sun Tzu’s way of thinking, as he doesn’t advocate for mindless destruction, but for waging war intelligently and leaving the enemy as intact as possible, so their force can become our own.
In war, better take a state intact than destroy it. Better take an army, a regiment, a detachment, a company intact, than destroy them. Ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting.
The highest form of warfare is to attack strategy itself. The next, to attack alliances; the next to attack armies. The lowest form of war is to attack cities. Siege warfare is the last resort.Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Strategic Offensive
In war, victory is a product of measurement, estimation, calculation and comparison. If victory is clear: fight. If defeat is certain: do not fight. If we choose to fight, we need to have sufficient knowledge in order to decide the right strategies, and even stratagems, that lead us to victory.
For example, when we outnumber an enemy greatly, the best way to attack is by surrounding them. But when we are outnumbered, it’s better to hide. In such a situation, applying guerilla warfare has been a winning strategy for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Taliban mingled with civilians and used secret hideouts and tunnel networks to remain unseen while using sophisticated propaganda techniques and maintaining both cohesion and flexibility among their ranks. If they would have attacked their enemy head-on, they’d certainly have lost. But by using coordinated hit-and-run techniques, they’ve proved to be a force to be reckoned with.
A way to win smart is the art of deception. I quote:
When able, feign inability;Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Making Plans
When deploying troops, appear not to be.
When near, appear far;
When far, appear near.
You might remember the Iraqi minister of information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf who tried to keep up appearances, telling the audiences that everything is okay and that his forces are winning. He might have been reading The Art of War. Unfortunately for him, his attempts to deceive the enemy weren’t all that convincing.
Adapting to the situation
In war, it’s essential to be adaptive to changing circumstances. Like water, war has no constant form. The enemy changes all the time, as well as natural circumstances like season and terrain.
Sun Tzu encourages us to derive victory from the changing circumstances of the enemy, while staying formless ourselves. This means that we should always observe the enemy carefully, and prevent exposing ourselves to them. This is how we stay aware of our opponent’s everchanging dispositions, so we can use them to our advantage.
For example, Sun Tzu tells us to avoid the keen spirit, and instead attack the dull and homesick, and that we should watch certain patterns to determine the enemy’s strength. As he puts it: “defence implies lack; attack implies abundance.”
He also tells us ensure our own invulnerability, and wait for the enemy’s vulnerability. This is basically the core strategy when playing a game of squash: focus on playing well, wait for your opponent to make a mistake, and exploit it.
The Art of War lays out different situations and how to act in them, like different terrains. For example, we should camp on high grounds and face the open, and always fight downhill. And if the enemy crosses a river towards us, we must not confront him midstream but let half of his troops cross before we strike.
Sun Tzu distinguishes nine kinds of battle grounds, that each require different ways of fighting. For example, when the ground is strategically advantageous, to either side, it’s ;strategic ground’. For a company, this could be a specific location in a city. And for an army, it could be elevated terrain that is useful for combat.
But there’s also ‘death ground’, on which there’s only one way to survive: fight. An example of death ground is the Battle of the Morannon in The Lord of the Rings, which was the final battle against Sauron.
Balance & inner peace
Sun Tzu teaches us the importance of finding balance and inner peace when going to war. We shouldn’t be too reckless, but not cowards either. And it’s dangerous to be easily triggered, because it’s easy to lure people with a temper into battle.
This is an important lesson for a YouTuber, because getting triggered all the time by rude comments and internet trolls will only lead to exhausting, meaningless battles that are unnecessary to fight.
Also, a general should be compassionate to his men and treat them with humanity, but being too concerned with them leads to worry and trouble.
There are five pitfalls for a general: recklessness, leading to destruction; cowardice, leading to capture, a hot temper, prone to provocation; a delicacy of honour, tending to shame; a concern for his men, leading to trouble.Sun Tzu, The Art of War, The Nine Changes
The Art of War teaches us how pick and win our battles. Rather than focusing on brute force, Sun Tzu advises us to measure and calculate, to know our enemies and ourselves, so we can be victorious before even making a move.
He teaches us how to be smarter than our opponents, deceive and manipulate them, and use any situation to our advantage. At the same time, he urges us to defeat without fighting, and to prevent suffering as much as possible.
If we can defeat an enemy without bloodshed, lead with wisdom and compassion while maintaining discipline, and adapt to the changing nature of earth and heaven, then war is truly an art.
Thank you for watching.