Nicole Villani blogs on Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’

Sun Tzu ‘The Art of War’

‘The art of war is vital to the state, erode either to safety or to ruin’ taken from one of the greatest works on strategy, especially military strategy written 2,500 years ago in China.

Sun Tzu was a General near the start of the 300 years’ war. He was known for his precise military leadership. His work was embellished for another 1000 years, and studied not so much for the riches it gave but for the mind it encouraged. It has influenced leaders from the American Civil War to the latest war in Iraq. The work produced the famous line ‘all warfare is based on deception’.

So who was Sun Tzu?

When Sun Tzu first worked for the King of Wu, the King asked what he could do. The King told him that he had a large number of concubines and asked him to demonstrate his skill by putting them through some manoeuvres. Sun told the King that the General must have absolute powers of command, the King agreed to this.

Sun Tzu split the concubines into two halves of 79 with one in charge of each. He then asked if they knew the basic commands, to which they replied ‘yes’, he explains on what commands they should make the relevant moves, the signal from a drum, tells the two concubines in charge to tell their troops to order them. The drum sounds and they all fall out laughing, he then says he thinks it’s the generals fault so he repeats the commands and they fall out laughing again.

He had stationed a couple of guys with axes on the side-lines of the parade, and he hands the two concubines over for execution. The king is watching this and immediately sends a letter down telling him to stop, Sun sends a letter back replying when the general is in charge the general is in charge. He then has those two executed, the two deputies step up and everything goes well.

We learn from this military discipline that anyone can be a soldier if they are well organised, which is implicit. One constant theme in his writing is that yes we don’t want heroes to be in an age of aristocracy showing up in chariots and displaying valour, what he wants is every soldier to be at the highest level of heroism they can achieve and be coordinated in that.

Sun Tzu was different in that he thought he had a role to play in the war, he thought differently about the role and the culture of war. They saw war as a way to keep the state alive, one you decide to go to war you must win as fast as you can by any means. Morality was far less a concern for him.

Sun didn’t care about heroes or fair fights, he only thought about winning, he says that the way to win is by keeping your enemy disconcerted, deception is important but also wrong footing him in every way possible.

One of his key strategic concepts is the direct and indirect, that you head towards the enemy then you hit him from another direction and conduct a surprise attack. This became one of his guiding principles. His whole approach to warfare was to keep the enemy guessing, out think him by whatever means possible and never letting the enemy know how many men are approaching him.

McArthur’s attack on Inchon, for example, is a classic Sun Tzu move where the United Nations troops had been bottled up in the South and then McArthur invaded the North with an amphibious landing (the largest in recorded history) coming in from the side and then catching the North Korean armies by surprise.

By the time of WW2 some western military thinkers were certainly paying attention to Sun Tzu. Certainly you cant escape his influence in western tactical thinking.

The General has some inculpability, seen through the concubine story, in Sun tzu he doesn’t have a direct subordinate under the ruler, he becomes the top person. He doesn’t see the people under him as human, but assets, the soldiers of the country. He is concerned about his people but not ones of the other state. He likes the soldiers, but he likes them as a tool to command. His position is extremely important.

Sun talks about the state of mind as a strategy. The key feature of the General, somebody who has an open mind but also someone who is attentive to factors that could have an impact over the war.