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Literature: The Art of War
Not big, but still The Big Book of War.

"War is a matter of vital importance to the state; a matter of life and death, the road either to survival or ruin. Hence, it is imperative that it be studied thoroughly."
Sun Tzu

The archetypal Big Book of War, The Art of War (孫子兵法, Sūn Zǐ Bīng Fǎ) is a short Chinese text on warfare, written by Sun Tzu, believed to have been a general in the Wu army during the Spring and Autumn Period (722481 BC). In it, Sun described how best to command troops, and how to go about attaining victory in any condition.

Much of the text is surprisingly general, and even seems like mere common sense at times. Sun maintains the importance of knowing one's enemy and oneself, striking at the enemy's weaknesses with overwhelming force, concealing one's own weaknesses, and the importance of deception. Also covered are how to fight on different types of terrain, the use of fire, and the importance of spies. Perhaps surprisingly, the opening essay stresses the undesirability of going to war at all, and how wars should be brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible.

The Art of War is easily the most well-known military book ever written, and is still one of the most influential. Numerous translations are available, most of which include at least a few commentaries and annotations. (In fact, without the annotations, introductions and footnotes, The Art of War is surprisingly short.) It is required reading in many militaries even today, and some Korean and Japanese corporations require their employees to read it and apply its lessons to the world of commerce. Napoleon is believed to have used a French copy as a guide to conquering Europe, and Douglas MacArthur was also influenced by its teachings. It is also required reading in many executive business courses; make of that what you will. There's even a story in the Comic Book, The Question, where the eponymous hero and Green Arrow fight some bad guys while quoting the book throughout.

Due to this connection to the spheres of power, wealth and glory, it has an unfortunate tendency to be treated in modern media as some sort of magic or occult science close to magic. It is not and never was. (Rather funnily, the other book regarded as a cure-it-all had been throughout centuries the Kama Sutra.) In practice, many people had reached the same conclusion as Sun himself via analysis and common sense, never having read the book. The strategic successes gained in practice in the conditions outlined by Sun 2,500 years before modern age only prove that not using your common sense in combat usually earn you a quick end at a much unripe age. And, which is worse, earn the same end for your army and country due to recklessness.

It is available online in several places; here is a copy with accompanying discussions. This is the 1910 translation (with commentaries) in plaintext, and here it is in a pretty PDF.

It provides examples of:

  • Aggressive Negotiations: A tactic advocated, using false peace talks to lure an enemy into a trap.
  • Attack Its Weak Point
    VI, 30: "So, in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak."
  • Battle of Wits: The Handbook
  • Big Book of War: Though it only becomes big when you add the commentaries to it. The original Classical Chinese edition fits on half a pamphlet.
  • Captain Obvious: "If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight." Despite the text you just read likely inciting you to think "THEN WHY WOULDN'T YOU!?", the context of the line continues and refers to how a monarch may want you to not fight for what ever reason. The rest of the line also states that if you will clearly not win, don't fight even if if the sovereign commands you to.
  • Combat Pragmatist: You definitely should be if you take this book as example.
  • The Chessmaster/The Strategist: The book is basically a manual of how to be one.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Sun Tzu encourages the reader to allow prisoners of war to change side. Once they do, they should be treated as fellow soldiers alongside with the other soldiers.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: If the enemy has a strong hold over a defensive position, pretend that you're retreating from him. If he's stupid enough to follow you, you'll then either lead him into a trap or turn around and attack him again. If he doesn't follow you, then it'll save you more soldiers who will live to fight another day.
  • Desperation Attack: "Throw the troops into a position from which there is no escape, and even when faced with death they will not flee." In actuality, Sun Tzu was warning against this because desperation attacks can still be pretty effective even if the enemy dies while doing it; that is, if someone dies but takes out a decent chunk of your infantry while doing so, they've still won since you need time and man power to replenish and must potentially stop your forward progress. His answer was to always leave an escape route for the enemy, thus allowing them to rout, making them easy targets... and allowing them to run into the ambush you set up on the escape route so you could take them out there.
  • Dirty Coward: Cowardice is one of the five weaknesses of the general that can lead into defeat.
  • Disturbed Doves: IX, 22: "The rising of birds in their flight is the sign of an ambuscade. Startled beasts indicate that a sudden attack is coming."
  • Executive Meddling: Not literally, but Sun Tzu acknowledges the dangers that might come if a head of state without military experience or training thinks he's hot shot and decides to meddle with the generals' plans and make the strategic decisions himself. It's why it's important for the general to stand up to the head of state if he immediately sees the flaws in his plans.
  • A Father to His Men: Emotional connections between commanders and soldiers is encouraged since it'll improve the soldiers' fighting spirit.
    • However, being too much a Father to the men is one of the "Five Dangerous Faults of a General". If the commander sacrifices important advantages for the sake of his troops' comfort, then defeat or prolonged conflict follows. The long-term result would be detrimental to everyone.
  • Feed the Mole: A suggested tactic.
  • The Game of the Book: The Ancient Art Of War, which is designed around Sun's observations and features him as your savviest opponent.
  • Geo Effects: Sun Tzu points out how to take advantage of the terrain repeatedly.
  • Glory Hound: Not the best commander you can have.
  • Guile Hero: A truly worthy general will have the traits of this. A quote from the work reads "All warfare is based on deception."
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: It's important for the general not have a short temper and to know how to keep his head cool, or he might make costly mistakes. If your enemy has this, then you should take advantage of it to make him do the said mistakes by his own hands.
  • Honor Before Reason: Another one of the five weaknesses in generals that can lead to defeat.
  • Hostage For MacGuffin: Present in a prototypical form. Sun Tzu advises that if you capture something which the enemy holds dear, they will readily acquiesce to your wishes.
  • I Shall Taunt You: "If your enemy is choleric, seek to anger him."
  • Kansas City Shuffle: The most famous line in the book is:
    "All warfare is based on deception".
  • Kill It with Fire: There's an entire chapter devoted to the use of fire, although the last part of this chapter is about "don't fight because of anger".
  • Know When To Fold Them: If the enemy is too strong to face, sometimes it's wiser to bug off and call it a day.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: A more stupidier battle plan doesn't exist (wording is deliberate to illustrate a point). It just gives your enemies a quick victory, and you'll lose plenty of manpower as well as much of your reputation as a tactician.
    • Sun Tzu listed it among five dangerous traits of a general.
      He who is reckless can be killed.
      8th chapter: Nine Changes
    • However, Sun Tzu also warns against the opposite of this:
      Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.
      2nd chapter: Waging War
  • Mundane Utility: Not only does it find use in war; the themes and ideas in this book have several other applications in everyday life such as business and sports.
  • Never Split the Party: It's safer to remain as a whole rather than splitting up the army in hopes for quicker recon gathering.
    • Unless you out number them two to one, then it out right tells you to split up, though it's only because you're going to use flanking tactic.
  • Not Afraidto Die: 'Too much' courage is one of the Five Weaknesses of a leader as well. A leader who is not afraid of dying is liable to be killed easily by his enemies.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: This, along with any other way of getting your enemy to underestimate you and your forces, is smiled upon by Sun Tzu.
    "The perfect plan approaches the Formless (or indecipherable.) If it is formless, the deepest spy cannot discern it, nor the wisest plan against it."
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Sun Tzu discusses dealing with these. He favors ignoring them, sending them home and - if they become too obstructive - decapitation.
  • Older Than They Think: The Art of War is frequently thought of as a fairly modern book. It is not — general Sun lived in the VI century BC and was a contemporary of Darius I and Confucius.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Sun Tzu cautions that issuing orders without absolute clarity will invite disaster.
    "If instructions are not clear and commands not explicit, it is the commander's fault."
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Encouraged, though with more emphasis on "pillage" than "burn" and nothing about the "rape".
    • It says an army on the move should pillage resources captured from the people they're invading to ease logistical problems, and to destroy what they can't take if it appears their opponent would use it. Although there really isn't anything specifically said against the first part, it can be assumed that it is not recommended as a standard practice.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: It has been historically proven that much of what the book recommends is essential for success in the long term.
  • Robbing the Dead: Recommended, to cut down supply lines.
  • Schmuck Bait: If you have something the enemy wants, lay it down somewhere and get your troops ready to ambush him if he takes it. Also, learn how you can avoid taking those baits the enemy lays down for you.
  • Smug Snake: Warned against, as underestimating your opponents can make you susceptible to any trickery they throw your way.
  • The Spartan Way: The best way to create a fine army.
  • The Spymaster: Spies are important, so a general should be this trope as well
    • The introduction to the chapter on spies is a masterpiece of coercion. Sun Tzu calculates how much protracted war costs a state, then brings up the price of spies before finally accusing generals who don't use spies to speed up combat of crimes against humanity.
  • The Strategist: This book teaches its reader how to be one.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: It advises invoking this trope on POWs as a matter of standard policy, because it works often enough to be worth the effort. Countries that comply with the Geneva convention usually take this advice to heart, and treat them well.
  • Storming the Castle: Strongly discouraged.
    "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. 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."
  • Swamps Are Evil: You should avoid swamps as much as possible and if you do end up in one, go through it as quickly as you can. Have your back turned on the trees so that no enemy can attack you from behind.
  • Take a Third Option: A lot of passages strongly advocate against getting caught in situations where you are presented with only a few obvious courses of action.
  • The Thirty-Six Stratagems: Several are mentioned, and it's probably the origin for quite a lot of them. They are not, however, in any kind of list.
  • To Win Without Fighting: Trope Namer.
    "For 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."
  • Trope Namer: Sun Tzu for Mary Tzu. Also for To Win Without Fighting.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Arguably the concept of the Doomed Spy, whose sole purpose is for your real spy to reveal him to the enemy, thus allowing your real spy to gain the enemy's trust and allowing the Doomed Spy to give the enemy false information. This is averted if the Doomed Spy knows whats going to happen to him beforehand.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Learning to create a win-win situation would be invaluable for any general so naturally there's a few words how on to do it.
    • See also False Retreat; never really a bad idea because you stand to gain no matter what happens.
    • The note on Desperation Attack; if the soldiers run (preferably) they're routed with fewer losses. If they don't run, they're still routed.
    • Another one, when the enemy is bearing down on you, attack his weakest ally. Either he'll pull out to aid him, or he'll continue on after you, in which case no one will want to ally with someone who abandons them to death. Either you save yourself or you weaken whatever alliances the enemy has going for them.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Don't expect that just one tactic or strategy will help you defeat your foes in the long run. As you fight you'll have to learn that "according as circumstances are favourable, one should modify one's plans."
  • Zerg Rush: Discouraged in hard and long tasks like siege warfare, but encouraged on open battlefields, specially when it's clear that you outnumber the enemy.


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alternative title(s): Sun Tzu; The Art Of War
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