Review: Sun-tzu: Art of War, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer

Boulder, CO: Basic Books, 1994. 375 pp. $15.95 (paperback).


War is one of man’s most destructive activities (only dictatorship has ruined more lives), and it is not surprising that thousands of books have been written about it. Yet, paradoxically, books on war itself—books concerned with war as a phenomenon, rather than focused on strategy, tactics, or some particular war—have been relatively few. This is due in part to the focus by modern scholars on the minutiae of human affairs, and their reluctance to deal with broad generalizations; but the failure to come to grips with the abstract principles of war goes back to the dawn of historical writing. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides, a soaring intellect obsessed by the great war between Athens and Sparta, identified “honor, security and interest” as causally important principles that motivate men “for all time.” But even Thucydides did not examine the philosophical foundations of these factors; he took them as given in human nature, which left the study of war mired in the vagaries of human desires and without philosophical grounding.1 As a result, important questions remained unanswered: What are the principles of war; what are their philosophical foundations, and what methods of waging war do they imply?

In ancient China, a thriving culture of thinkers tried to answer such questions. They derived principles of warfare from ideas that were fundamental to their own philosophies and applied those principles to the practical needs of military commanders. The extant remains of these works have been compiled into the so-called seven Chinese military classics, the best preserved of which is Art of War by Sun-tzu, who lived sometime between 450 and 250 BC, about the time of classical Greece.2 This was approximately the “Warring States” period of Chinese history, when China was divided among military warlords, iron was first used in weapons, armies grew to more than one hundred thousand men, and commanders needed expert guidance to help them organize their huge forces. Ralph Sawyer has produced a lively translation, with a historical essay and explanatory notes, of Sun-tzu’s classic work. Sawyer also includes new supplementary material, found in graves and carved on bamboo stalks, that adds to our knowledge of ancient Chinese thought.

Sun-tzu has nothing to teach us about the technological aspects of war or the logistics required to feed a modern army, and his work obviously cannot speak to certain complex political relations between modern nations. But Sun-tzu’s book has much value, for it says a lot about how a commander should approach his enemy, how he should decide to attack or to retreat, how to outsmart an enemy, and what it takes to be victorious. He presents his ideas in a logical, principled way that is consistent with his deeper philosophy of nature.

What is that philosophy of nature? Sun-tzu begins with the Tao, roughly “the Way,” a very broad concept that is founded on his basic understanding of the world. Sun-tzu’s widest conception of Tao—his overarching view of the world—is rooted in observations of naturally balanced forces: day follows night, rain follows the drought, cool follows heat, every positive is balanced by a negative. For example, Sun-tzu’s Heaven—meaning the sky and weather—“encompasses yin and yang, cold and heat, and the constraints of the seasons” (p. 167). To understand the heavens, one must understand the ebb and flow of seasons and the shifting patterns of weather.

Such oppositions inform Sun-tzu’s examinations at every step, and not only in regard to physical phenomena, but also in regard to human affairs. For instance, the government is a balance between the forces of its nobility and its people; the Tao here refers to the legal and administrative policies that a leader must balance and control (p. 303, note 3). But the recognition of such oppositions is most crucial in regard to war: “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed” (p. 167). Art of War is a handbook for those who wish to understand the opposing aspects of war and thus to survive through victory rather than to perish through defeat.

Sun-tzu breaks down the relevant factors of war into opposing parts: Every strength, he says, has a weakness; every excellence of character, he says, implies a vice; every army, he tells us, has power along with vulnerability; and every way of victory, he warns, has a corresponding way of defeat. To understand the “true nature” of war, Sun-tzu tells us, we must “structure it according to five factors”: first, the Tao that “causes the people to be fully in accord with the ruler,” the way of social order rather than chaos; second, Heaven with its opposing forces of weather; third, the Earth and its nine types of terrain, each with correspondingly proper and improper ways of deploying troops; fourth, the General himself, with his wisdom, credibility, benevolence, courage, discipline, and their opposites; and finally the Laws, which “encompass organization and regulation, the Tao [method and organization] of command, and the management of logistics”(p. 167). Those who understand these things, Sun-tzu writes, will be victorious.

The art of war, according to Sun-tzu, is essentially a matter of seeing each situation clearly, understanding what type of situation it is, and grasping the advantages and disadvantages in it. The first and primary lesson for every commander is that victory requires knowledge. At every step, he must learn and continue to learn. He must know himself, his own people, his enemy, the terrain, and the issues at stake: “Thus it is said, if you know them and know yourself, your victory will not be imperiled” (p. 215). He must grasp myriad details; there are, for instance, five types of incendiary attacks, each to be launched according to the phases of the moon, and each requiring the proper wind conditions (pp. 204; 213–14; 219–20; 227).3 The reasons are not mystical or astrological; rather, they pertain to the physical conditions in which an attack is to be launched, which determine the kind of attack that will succeed. Every such factor implies alternatives leading either toward victory or toward defeat.

Knowledge and self-understanding are central to success. A commander who understands himself and his people will neither attack when he should not, nor fail to attack when he should: “One who cannot be victorious assumes a defensive posture; one who can be victorious attacks. In these circumstances, by assuming a defensive posture, strength will be more than adequate, whereas in offensive actions it would be inadequate” (p. 183).

Missing from Sun-tzu’s prescriptions is any equivalent of the Greek and Roman competitions for honor and glory—competitions in which young men, blinded by their emotions, often rushed off to battle when the rational course would have been to avoid battle for the moment and to outwit the enemy. Sun-tzu recognized that such impetuousness was a profound weakness: “If a general cannot overcome his impatience . . . he will kill one-third of his officers and troops” and still not attain victory (p. 177). To decide whether one should attack or pull back requires clearheaded awareness of one’s own position and that of the enemy. For example, Sun-tzu stressed the horrendous losses involved in besieging cities; he saw this as the least effective way for a stronger force to win. A strong force that should attack, however, must not remain immobile; that too would be an error. The general must discern where he should attack in order to disrupt the defensive plans of his enemy, while the defenders must find a way to tax the strength of the attackers in order to deny them victory. Only knowledge of one’s self and one’s enemy can reveal the proper course in such a back and forth flow of action.

This knowledge, Sun-tzu emphasized, is to be found by gathering evidence, not by soothsaying. In his section on the use of spies, Sun-tzu observed:

The means by which enlightened rulers and sagacious generals moved and conquered others . . . was advance knowledge.

Advance knowledge cannot be gained from ghosts and spirits, inferred from phenomena, or projected from the measures of Heaven, but must be gained from men for it is the knowledge of the enemy’s true situation (p. 231).

Advance knowledge means awareness of an enemy’s plans ahead of his actual movements, which requires scrupulous concern for the facts and a proper method of understanding them. Sun-tzu’s emphasis on natural signs, for instance, is not mystical fortune-telling, but awareness of the evidence at hand. Keep your eyes open: “If large numbers of trees move, they [the enemy] are approaching.” Watch the animals: “If the birds take flight, there is an ambush.” Watch for the shape of dust clouds so you can ascertain whether chariots or infantry are approaching, or whether the enemy is gathering firewood or making camp. Observe the enemy himself most closely: “If the army is turbulent, the general lacks severity. If their flags and pennants move about, they are in chaos. If the officers are angry, they are exhausted” (pp. 208–209).

The centrality of knowledge to the Tao of war means that war, properly waged, is a matter of the intellect. Physical destruction of the enemy is always the least effective means to victory, and is never the end of war. It is far better to compel the enemy to surrender without such destruction. Sun-tzu notes that “attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence” (p. 177). Outwitting the enemy is preferable to outkilling him, because the general’s aim is to preserve the lives of his people while achieving victory. The essence of victory is to break the will of the enemy and to force him to follow yours: “[O]ne who excels at warfare compels men and is not compelled by men” (p. 191).4

How can a commander achieve such success? Sun-tzu understands the goals of war in terms of a hierarchy; the commander’s greatest strength is not in his arms, but rather in his intellectual capacity to grasp the totality of a situation and to plan his movements in anticipation of the enemy’s. The most crucial military objective is to disrupt the enemy’s plans, and to throw his movements into chaos: “[T]he highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities.” Because knowledge is the key to planning, knowledge is therefore the key to victory, and the way to defeat an enemy is to subvert his ability to grasp the situation. Sun-tzu sums up this latter point succinctly: “Warfare is the Way (Tao) of deception” (pp. 168, 177).

One aspect of the way to victory is to outwit an enemy by creating an image of one’s forces that is the opposite of their real condition. If you are able to act, Sun-tzu advises, “display incapability to them.” If you are committed to deploying your forces, “feign inactivity.” If your objective is close, “make it appear as if distant; when far away, create the illusion of being nearby” (p. 168). If you want an enemy to attack, show him something of value; if you want his attention, take something of value from him. Keep him off guard; learn to turn “the circuitous into the straight” (pp. 197–98). If you face an arrogant enemy, do not resist his central front when he advances; your appearance of weakness will embolden him to push ahead, and you can surround and destroy him with your hidden forces.

These stratagems are set in ancient battlefield conditions, devoid of modern communications and technology, and we can see many limits to Sun-tzu’s aphorisms. But he does have something to teach modern military minds. Unlike many today, for instance, he recognized the debilitating effects of protracted war on the morale of a fighting force. When taking an army of one hundred thousand soldiers into battle, “a victory that is long in coming will blunt their weapons and dampen their ardor. . . . I have heard of awkward speed but have never seen any skill in lengthy campaigns. No country has ever profited from protracted warfare” (p. 173). Sun-tzu knew that the speedy achievement of objectives maintains the fighting spirit of an army and that unnecessary delay breeds dejection. Unwarranted delay by a strong force is a weakness that a savvy enemy will exploit—as many of our enemies today have done. Placing one’s troops into hostile territory without simultaneously unleashing their wrath on the enemy was not Sun-tzu’s idea of a good strategy. A successful commander “destroys other people’s states without prolonged fighting” (p. 177). Sun-tzu also realized that battle itself can imply a failure to prevail by better means: “Preserving [the enemy’s] army is best, destroying their army second best” (p. 177). This, too, applies to our own day. When the British gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938, Hitler took control of the entire country, along with the undamaged fortresses, arms, supplies, and equipment of a million-man army, all without firing a shot. There is no evidence that British leaders discussed such consequences. Those leaders fell prey to Hitler because they failed to know themselves, their enemy, and his plans. They should have heeded Sun-tzu.

Sun-tzu said little about the overall purpose of war beyond the defeat of one warlord by another. War in his day—the so-called Warring States period—consisted of struggles for dominance between such rivals, each trying to unify China under a single emperor. Sun-tzu had no understanding of how to evaluate war in terms of individual rights and the protection of freedom. His thought was conditioned by a distinctly eastern view of nature and was in many ways primitive. But he can teach us a thing or two about how small, militarily weak countries can turn their physical incapacities into advantages through deception. He would advise us to pay attention to the way in which an enemy leader calls his people to arms, to the reasons why an entire population follows him into battle, and to the hidden motives behind his rhetoric.

Most importantly, Sun-tzu counsels us not to be sidetracked by details from a central truth about war: war is fought with wits as well as with weapons, and the way to victory is to use one’s mind to defeat one’s enemy. We can all profit by heeding Sun-tzu’s principle that “the army values being victorious; it does not value prolonged warfare” (p. 174). To achieve victory, a commander must know himself, his purposes, and his enemy. He must think.


1 Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (New York: Penguin, 1972), section 1.76, p. 80.

2 The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, translated by Ralph D. and Mei-Chün Sawyer (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993).

3 The categories of terrain were probably not settled; Sun-tzu offers different interpretations at different passages.

4 Nearly echoing the Prussian theorist Clausewitz: “Force . . . is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object.” Carl von Clausewitz, On War, translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), section 1.2, p. 75.

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