My review of The Art of War

Since its discovery by Western scholars The Art of War by Sun Tzu has influenced and shaped military education, strategy, and tactics. Its impact has reached beyond military applications to affect business and social life as well. Of course the book has been in almost constant use by Eastern philosophers for centuries, well before the west managed to stumble on to it. It seems strange that a text that seems so straightforward and ubiquitous could be – or even needs to be – reimagined and expounded upon. Even my attempt to do any sort of review or critique of the work feels sort of pointless to me.

My primary critic of this particular version of The Art of War has nothing to do with the teachings of Sun Tzu. It doesn’t have to do with the ongoing debate as to the actual existence of the author. (I personally feel that this argument is much too academic for the general public and should be reserved for the hallowed halls of academia.) For the average person the importance lies not in who wrote the words but the words themselves. Fortunately, there is little time paid to this particular topic in this version of the text. The primary issue I have with this translation of the book is actually in the formating itself.

It may seem like a nitpicky issue to bring up. In actuality how much does it really matter the size of or type of font. Especially considering the fact that I read this version electronically. It’s not so much the small issues such as font I have with the format but in how the author, or translator, or perhaps the technician that did the “Gutenberg” transition of this work to electronic form, broke up the text.

This version of the book appears to follow the standard practice of discussing the author, the structure, and the various commentators before getting down to the actual thirteen chapters. It is here that I start to take issue with the unknown technician. As we go through the actual text of Sun Tzu, it is constantly interrupted, sometimes mid sentence, with a discussion of comments or a history or an anecdote that will elaborate on the particular topic being discussed. This completely breaks the flow of the original text. It makes following the original lesson being taught extremely difficult to follow at times. I even found myself having to have to go back on occasion to reread just the original text skipping over the commentary to get the jist of the chapter. The commentary, placed as it was, just confused the situation rather than enlightening and elucidating.

Unfortunate, but not lethal to the understanding of the text. The basic tenets of the work and the sharp and specific understanding of warfare as Sun Tzu saw it are still there. As we have seen, these lessons still resonate today and we see Sun Tzu’s understanding of conflict to be replicated throughout history. These lessons are still taught around the world and the wisdom is still there to be gleaned.

However, it seems that some of the basic tenets of the book and the lessons it teaches need are seldom accurately remembered and need to be constantly relearned by western leadership. The necessity to know both the enemy as well as yourself to ensure victory seems to only be ever half learned. A quarter know themselves, another quarter know the enemy and the rest think they know something when they don’t. And the concept of trying to subdue your enemy without fighting seems to go right over our leaderships head. Remembering that conflict – whether military or geopolitical – is not a zero sum game does not even enter in to their calculations. In fact, with all the use of The Art of War for everything from business, to education, to dating there is one fundamental aspect of the work that is seldom – if ever- mentioned or emphasized.

Sun Tzu did not like warfare.

Incredible as it may seem but the individual most associated with warfare is an opponent of warfare and conflict. However, the evidence is in just about each of the thirteen chapters. The primary tenet of the teachings of Sun Tzu is not “Know your enemy and know yourself and in a thousand battles your will never know defeat” or “All warfare is deception” or even my personal favorite “Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.” The primary tenet of the teachings of Sun Tzu is “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

You may consider this just an admonishment to the warrior that they need to be skillful in their art; or possibly that this skill needs to be undemanding. Perhaps it must appear the warrior expended no effort in dispatching his enemy. It is, however, much more fundamental than that. Even 2000 years ago the venerable Sun Tzu realized that war and the consequence of war were a horrible thing regardless of the outcome. The cost both in treasure and blood, however slight, should be minimized as much as possible. His quote “Who wishes to fight must first count the cost” is something that all leaders, especially today need to keep in mind.

Leadership today, especially in the self-serving, inwardly focused mindset of nationalistic or populist leaders, often forgets that it is the people they are beholden to that suffer the cost of their hubris. Eventually the cost must be paid. That cost will come in the treasure of our economies; the blood of our children; and even eventually – though they know it not – in the condemnation of historians and the disdain of history for the officials, generals, and those elected who brought the cost upon us. It would serve them well to remember these words of Sun Tzu “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”


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