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Literature / The Art of War (Sun Tzu)

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18th century copy of The Art of War on traditional bamboo slits.

"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 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 (birth name Sun Wu, Tzu/Zi is an honorific meaning "Master"), believed to have been a general of the nation of Wu during the Spring and Autumn Period (722481 BCE). In it, Sun gives a basic overview of both strategy and tactics that has given countless generations of military leaders and thinkers a basic grounding in military theory.

The text's surprisingly general and generous overlaps with military-minded common sense go a long way to explain its popularity and universality. Sun maintains the importance of knowing one's enemies and oneself, striking at the enemy's weaknesses with overwhelming force, concealing one's own weaknesses, and the general importance of deception to military operations. 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 and brutally as possible. Unlike most military books then and since, it is not written to be specific to the time and place of its writing. It contains only one passage that is specific as to the cost of maintaining troops, for example. Instead, the book is deliberately very broad, intended to apply almost any time, any place, for any kind of army. Hence its continuing applicability today.

The Art of War is easily the best-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)note . 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 said to have had a well-used copy in French, and the WWII US general Douglas MacArthur is known to have taken its teachings to heart. 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 fights some bad guys while quoting the book throughout. Also, Sabaton recorded a Concept Album of the same title based on the book in 2010. It's also commonly applied to the Genius Book Club trope, establishing a character who quotes from it as a Four-Star Badass, The Strategist or The Chessmaster.

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 (ironically, Sun Tzu insults superstition and magic within his own book, and says to rely on information gathering and calculations instead). Many people have reached the same conclusions as Sun himself, never having read the book. The strategic successes gained from following the advice outlined by Sun 2,500 years before the modern age ultimately prove that there is one core lesson to take from the work: failing to think beyond immediate goals and consequences usually earns you a quick end, and the same for anyone who follows or depends on you.

Sometimes mistaken for The Thirty-Six Stratagems, another piece of ancient Chinese instruction on warfare, which Sun Tzu most likely did not write himself (although some of the strategems are attributed to him, or espoused in Art of War), but can be considered as a companion piece.

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.

Sun Tzu's The Art of War provides examples of:

  • Aggressive Negotiations: A tactic advocated in the book, using false peace talks to lure an enemy into a trap. (In modern warfare, however, this is a war crime)
  • 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. One of the key points Sun Tzu emphasizes is the importance of knowing both your own and your enemy's capabilities.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: One reason why Sun Zi's theories were so radical was his advocation of not relying on spirits and soothsaying to predict victories in battles. He firmly believes in rational analysis to secure victories.
  • 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 that you just read likely inciting you to question why Sun Tzu would say something so obvious, the context of the line continues and refers to how a monarch may want you to not fight for whatever reason. The rest of the line also states that if you will clearly lose, don't fight even if your sovereign commands you to.
  • The Chessmaster: The book is basically a manual of how to be one.
  • Combat Pragmatist: You definitely should be if you take this book as example.
  • Confusion Fu: The text advocates for a plan flexible enough to be unpredictable and adapt to changing circumstances as opportunities present themselves.
    "The perfect plan approaches the Formlessness (or indecipherability) If it is formless then best-informed spy cannot uncover it, nor the wisest plan against it."
  • Deadpan Snarker: Whilst it is generally down to the translation rather than Sun himself, there are some rather witty quips.
    Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.
  • 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. This seems odd to Western readers, as Europe has a long tradition of parole, ransom and prisoner exchange (at least for the people that "matter"), but Leave No Survivors was actually just business as usual in premodern China.
  • 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."
  • Don't Make Me Destroy You: Sun Tzu said that "supreme excellence" in wartime wasn't winning every battle, but breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting. One of the advised tactics to this end is to intimidate an enemy into surrender by saying that, though you don't want to escalate things, you'll be merciless if you're forced to fight.
  • Easy Logistics: Seriously averted. Sun Zi points out that logistics is the factor which make or break states during wars.
  • Executive Meddling: An In-Universe example. Sun Tzu acknowledges the dangers that might come if a head of state without military experience or training thinks he's hot shit 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: Played With; on a general level, 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 needlessly prolonged conflict follows. In other words, being too good to one's men will get more of them killed in the long-run.
  • Feed the Mole: A suggested tactic. In general, Sun Zi approves of using any means to end wars decisively.
  • Flaw Exploitation: A very strongly suggested tactic. Sun Zi considered knowing your enemy's weaknesses and exploiting them to achieve swift victory to be a hallmark of a good general.
  • Foreboding Fleeing Flock: Sun Tzu counsels being alert for this as it may indicate enemy movement.
  • 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 - though surprisingly not so much in the "Terrain" chapter, only about a third of which actually discusses terrain.
  • Glory Hound: Not the best commander you can have, as such commanders may not have a strategy in mind which minimizes casualties and expenses.
  • 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 provoke him to get him to mess up.
  • Honor Before Reason: Another one of the five weaknesses in generals that can lead to defeat.
  • Hope Spot: Encouraged. Leaving an escape route provides numerous chances to dispatch fleeing foes. As well as avoiding loses caused by enemies fighting to the death.
  • 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 without being annihilated, sometimes it's wiser to bug off and call it a day.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Heavily discouraged. It'll just gives your enemies a chance for a quick victory, while 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.
      8th chapter: Nine Changes: He who is reckless can be killed.
    • However, Sun Tzu also warns against the opposite of this:
      2nd chapter: Waging War: Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.
  • Martial Pacifist: Perhaps unbelievably considering his reputation, Sun Tzu considered that the greatest victory of all was one where the fight never happened. He explains it himself, an enemy will only fight if he believes he either has a chance to win, or you've backed him into a corner and he's fighting for his life. A completely crushing victory provides an enemy with neither. Also, convincing an enemy to surrender without a fight gives you an opportunity to use his resources for the next fight. In the man's own words:
    Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.
  • 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 outnumber them two to one, then it outright tells you to split up, though it's only because you're going to use a flanking tactic.
  • Not Afraid to 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 being (easily) killed 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 Formlessness (or indecipherability) If it is formless then best-informed spy cannot uncover 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.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Sun Tzu cautions that issuing orders that aren't absolutely clear invites disaster.
    "If instructions are not clear and commands not explicit, it is the commander's fault."
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Encouraged with restrictions, emphasis on "pillage" and "burn".
    • An army on the move should pillage resources captured from the people they're invading to ease logistical problems, and destroy what they can't take if their opponent could use it. He makes the equation that one bushel of enemy grain is worth ten of one's own, with the nine others being consumed to deliver one to the army on an offensive campaign.
    • Although there really isn't anything specifically said against the first part, the advice to maintain strict troop discipline (particularly when you're winning), and to convince your enemy's people that they are better off with you implies that this should be frowned upon.
  • 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.
    • Exploiting this as a way to test an enemy is also advised- if a fresh enemy doesn't immediately go for the bait, you're dealing with a clever opponent. If a stupid foe doesn't go for the bait, then there's a good chance that they're exhausted and an easy target for an ambush.
  • Smug Snake: Warned against, as underestimating your opponents can make you susceptible to any trickery they throw your way.
  • Soldier vs. Warrior: The Art of War is often taught together with Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings. Sun Tzu's work is focused on generalship, from grand strategy and logistics to managing one's soldiers. The Book of Five Rings focuses almost exclusively on personal combat, emphasizing the warrior. Notably, Sun Tzu was a general, while Musashi started as a common foot soldier and topped out as a junior officer.
  • The Spartan Way: The best way to create a fine army. However, Sun Zi also advocates treating soldiers fairly. The harsh part should only come in for punishment due to defying orders, as to Sun Zi, an army without discipline is no army at all.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • The Strategist: The book is basically a manual of how to be one.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • Upper-Class Twit: A lot of Sun Tzu's advice is surprisingly basic to people who finally take a look after hearing so much about how deep and intellectual it is, but historians have noted that his main audience was probably the nobility, who often weren't experienced in warfare and actually needed to learn such matters as feeding and equipping people properly.
  • We Have Reserves: Sun Tzu repeatedly drills it into the reader that this is how you lose wars. Baiting the enemy into doing this, on the other hand, is an excellent way to defeat a more numerous enemy while crippling the nation supporting them.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Learning to create a win-win situation would be invaluable for any general so naturally there's a few words on how 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, especially when it's clear that you outnumber the enemy.

Alternative Title(s): Sun Tzu