Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: Page by Page, Chapter by Chapter Review

Page by Page, Chapter by Chapter and Screen by Screen

This is an ancient text of war dating back to the 5th century, first translated into a Western language in French in 1772 with an English language version not coming until 1905.  With English versions being only 214 years old – it is also the first book where my page-by-page review was actually done screen-by-screen on a Kindle.

This book exists in a ‘Goldratt-Perfect‘ universe.  There is a clear goal – the winning of a war.  The future generals to whom Sun Tzu writes have clarity of their goal, and his guidance is about how to create victory.  Sun Tzu’s guidance falls in to several main categories:

  1. Focus on victory.
  2. Know your capabilities and the capabilities of your opposition.
  3. If allies are important – know their capabilities and motives too.
  4. Invest energy and time in coordination – this broadens your capabilities.
  5. Avoid losing – and when needed do what it takes to win.

The single best quote comes from Chapter 3, Attack by Stratagem:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 191/840 Chapter 3

Know what you are capable of – and what you are not capable of.  Know the same of those around you.  Strategy is the result of this knowledge.  Tactics are your ability to act in coordination to make use of this knowledge.

But who is the person that you are trying to know?  Sun Tzu also prescribes morality and ethics as fundamental to the success of any leader, as well as process and persistence:

“16. The consummate leader cultivates the Moral Law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success.” Chapter 2

Chapter 01: Laying Plans

“Thereupon Sun Tzu said: “The King is only fond of words, and cannot translate them into deeds.”” Location 55

Those in power are not necessarily those who understand how to act with power.

“25. Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.” Location 105

Preparation can lead to victory, a lack of preparation will certainly lead to defeat.

Chapter 02: Waging War

The point of war is to win the war.

 “6. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” Loc 122

Violence is rarely the right answer, and even when it is – it should be used aggressively to bring itself to a halt.  If you’re in a fight – win the fight.  Don’t build a country – or a life – that depends on being in a state of prolonged warfare and battle.

“18. In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.” Loc 142

In Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, the book is oriented around the metaphor of an invasion fleet.  If you’re in a battle – win the battle.  If you stretch out the battle, let that be for the purpose of winning.

Chapter 03: Attack by Stratagem

Strategy flows naturally from knowing the capabilities of your army and that of your opponent.

“19. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 191/840

Strategy is the logical outcome of self-study, self-mastery and observation of your opponent.

Chapter 04: Tactical Dispositions

Tactics flow logically when strength is accumulated.  Do not put yourself in position to be defeated.

“14. Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.” Screen 202

“15. Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” Screen 202

Chapter 05: Energy

Put your energy towards creating strength.  Strength comes from coordination and action.

“2. Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.” Location 225

“21. The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. Hence his ability to pick out the right men and to utilise combined energy.” Location 256

Chapter 06: Weak Points and Strong

Find the weak points and exploit them.

“2. Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.” Location 268

“30. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.” Location 323

Chapter 07: Maneuvering

Moves cannot be retracted – and they require energy.  Move to weak points where your strength is superior.  Communicate clearly and coordinate your actions.

“5. Manœuvring with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous.” Screen 332

“21 Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.” Screen 332

“23 On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough:” Screen 332

“36 When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” Screen 336

Chapter 08: Variation in Tactics

Only 14 points are made in this chapter and it is made up of few pages, screens and swipes.  Sun Tzu builds on his biggest points from earlier chapters – Strategy is the logical outcome of knowing your strengths and your opponents weaknesses.  Your goal is to win, but to do so you must not lose.

“2. … Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions.”

Chapter 09: The Army on the March

These quotes – two of the last ones in the chapter – touch on leadership through hard tasks.

“43 Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.”

“45 If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual.”

Chapter 10: Terrain

Chapter 10 has a great example of enumeration of options – something Sun Tzu does several times.

“When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.”

Chapter 11: The Nine Situations

“18. Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.”

Nevermind the nine varieties of ground – use it as an input, but the goal is to create the actions you want to create victory.  Hold what you can that the enemy values.

“22. …Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength. “

Creation comes from focus.

“32 The principle on which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.”

Standards make life easier.  Standards make groups function better.  Clearly written standards and expectations are at the core of open societies.  Writing and implementing the right standards is critical skill of leadership.

Chapter 12: The Attack by Fire

Sun Tzu has survived because of its brevity and universal appeal.  If I can only pick one quote – when only four were selected from this chapter, then my top choice is below.  If you want to move – then do so.  If it isn’t to your advantage, then sit still.

“19 If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.”

If you’re going to make use of natural forces – then there are good times and bad to do so.  Know if the times are primed for other forces outside your control to come to your assistance.

“3 There is a proper season for making attacks with fire, and special days for starting a conflagration.”

Chapter 13: The Use of Spies

In the final chapter Sun Tzu tells how spies – those that provide data and insight about the capabilities of the opposition – are to be used to win battles.  Spies can be used to avoid battles that do not need to be fought, or as called out in Attack by Stratagem:

“3. Thus the highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.”

Final Quotes

“6 Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”

There is no artificial method of knowing the disposition of an enemy.  Reports do not cut it.  Impressions do not cut it.  Analysis does not cut it – dispositions can only be known by on the ground analysis.

“27 Hence it is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results.”

If the goal of war is to win battles that must be fought – then use of data and intelligence to prevent battles from being fought is a noble purpose.

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Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: Chapter 13 The Use of Spies

In the final chapter Sun Tzu tells how spies – those that provide data and insight about the capabilities of the opposition – are to be used to win battles.  Spies can be used to avoid battles that do not need to be fought, or as called out in Attack by Stratagem:

“3. Thus the highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.”

Best Quote(s)

“6 Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”

There is no artificial method of knowing the disposition of an enemy.  Reports do not cut it.  Impressions do not cut it.  Analysis does not cut it – dispositions can only be known by on the ground analysis.

“27 Hence it is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results.”

If the goal of war is to win battles that must be fought – then use of data and intelligence to prevent battles from being fought is a noble purpose.

Page by Page, Screen by Screen

50

“6 Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”

“7 Hence the use of spies, of whom there are five classes: (1) Local spies; (2) inward spies; (3) converted spies; (4) doomed spies; (5) surviving spies.”

51

“15 Spies cannot be usefully employed without a certain intuitive sagacity.”

52

“21 The enemy’s spies who have come to spy on us must be sought out, tempted with bribes, led away and comfortably housed. Thus they will become converted spies and available for our service.”

53

“27 Hence it is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results.”

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Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: Chapter 12 The Attack by Fire

Tzu 12: The Attack by Fire

Best Quote(s)

Sun Tzu has survived because of its brevity and universal appeal.  If I can only pick one quote – when only four were selected from this chapter, then my top choice is below.  If you want to move – then do so.  If it isn’t to your advantage, then sit still.

“19 If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.”

 

Page by Page, Screen by Screen, Swipe by Swipe

47

“3 There is a proper season for making attacks with fire, and special days for starting a conflagration.”

If you’re going to make use of natural forces – then there are good times and bad to do so.  Know if the times are primed for other forces outside your control to come to your assistance.

48

“17 Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.”

Your resources – which from Attack by Stratagem – you know and you are an expert on your capabilities, are precious.  Guard them.  Use them to achieve your goal.

“19 If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.”

“21 But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.”

Emergent behavior happens when many simple rules create new behavior when executed by large groups.  A town and its culture are a group of simple rules executed by a large population of people.  Once destroyed that town will not be the same, even if it is re-populated.  Sun Tzu counsels to be thoughtful about resources – yours and the enemy’s.

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Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: Chapter 11 The Nine Situations

There are a finite number of situations we can come to battle.  With some of those situations there are clear rules.  As always the goal is to win, and winning comes by knowing your strengths and creating scenarios of certain victory.

Best Quote(s)

“18. Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.”

Nevermind the nine varieties of ground – use it as an input, but the goal is to create the actions you want to create victory.  Hold what you can that the enemy values.

“22. …Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength. “

Creation comes from focus.

“32 The principle on which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.”

Standards make life easier.  Standards make groups function better.  Clearly written standards and expectations are at the core of open societies.  Writing and implementing the right standards is critical skill of leadership.

Page by Page, Screen by Screen, Swipe by Swipe

“Sun Tzu said: The art of war recognises nine varieties of ground:

(1) Dispersive ground;
(2) facile ground;
(3) contentious ground;
(4) open ground;
(5) ground of intersecting highways;
(6) serious ground;
(7) difficult ground;
(8) hemmed-in ground;
(9) desperate ground.”

40

“14 On hemmed-in ground, resort to stratagem. On desperate ground, fight.”

At each kind of ground, Sun Tzu tells the reader the appropriate response.

“15 Those who were called skillful leaders of old knew how to drive a wedge between the enemy’s front and rear; to prevent co-operation between his large and small divisions; to hinder the good troops from rescuing the bad, the officers from rallying their men.”

“18 If asked how to cope with a great host of the enemy in orderly array and on the point of marching to the attack, I should say: “Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.”

41

“22 Carefully study the well-being of your men, and do not overtax them. Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength. Keep your army continually on the move, and devise unfathomable plans.”

42

“32 The principle on which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.”

As with earlier points – this reads as if Sun Tzu were talking about manufacturing quality.  Standards define how groups expect fellow members to behave.

43

“38 At the critical moment, the leader of an army acts like one who has climbed up a height and then kicks away the ladder behind him. He carries his men deep into hostile territory before he shows his hand.”

“42 When invading hostile territory, the general principle is, that penetrating deeply brings cohesion; penetrating but a short way means dispersion.”

Sun Tzu’s influence penetrate’s Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, where he took the metaphor of invasion and applied it to modern technology marketing.

45

“56 Bestow rewards without regard to rule, issue orders without regard to previous arrangements; and you will be able to handle a whole army as though you had to do with but a single man.”

“58 Place your army in deadly peril, and it will survive; plunge it into desperate straits, and it will come off in safety.”

46

“64 Be stern in the council-chamber, so that you may control the situation.”

“65 If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.”

“66 Forestall your opponent by seizing what he holds dear, and subtly contrive to time his arrival on the ground.”

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Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: Chapter 10 Terrain

Terrain begins with a great enumerated list of the types of terrain and then goes in to the application of past chapters in creating victory.

Best Quote(s)

“When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.”

Page by Page

34

“1 Sun Tzu said: We may distinguish six kinds of terrain, to wit: (1) Accessible ground; (2) entangling ground; (3) temporising ground; (4) narrow passes; (5) precipitous heights; (6) positions at a great distance from the enemy.”

Anytime we can enumerate the variables and list all the options about what can happen, we are in a better position than if we have a completely unbounded decision.

“2 Ground which can be freely traversed by both sides is called accessible.”

If we’re thinking of ‘ground’ as decision space, or common ways of thinking – then accessible ground is wherever we can find mutual agreement with the other party.

“4 Ground which can be abandoned but is hard to re-occupy is called entangling.”

Entangling ground is a great concept.  In financial theory behavior economics talks about loss aversion – people behave differently trying to avoid losing something than they do when they are trying to win.  Entangling ground in Sun Tzu’s definition has this asymmetric characteristic.

“6 When the position is such that neither side will gain by making the first move, it is called temporising ground.”

Temporising ground punishes both sides.  How many countries are locked in long term conflict because of the ground, rather than their adversary?

35

“16 When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination. When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse.”

There must be balance between the common soldier and their officers.  There must be a matched culture.

36

“When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.”

Coordination – just as was discussed in Energy – is crucial to the success of the army.

37

“24 The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”

Generals that act in the best interest of the army are valuable.  As is said in the 2nd chapter Waging War – the goal of the war is to win the war.  Nothing more, nothing less.

“27 If we know that our own men are in a condition to attack, but are unaware that the enemy is not open to attack, we have gone only halfway towards victory.”

As in Attack by Strategy – the first step is to know the capability of your own forces, then to know the capability of the opposite.  Only then can you guarantee victory.

“30 Hence the experienced soldier, once in motion, is never bewildered; once he has broken camp, he is never at a loss.”

“31 Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”

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Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: Chapter 09 The Army on the March

Tzu 09: The Army on the March

Sun Tzu tells us how to lead an army on the march and how to read the opposition’s army.  There is a lot of overlap with the concepts in maneuvering.  This book had to have gone through many post production edits over time – understanding the history of the wisdom would be interesting.

Best Quote(s)

These quotes – two of the last ones in the chapter – touch on leadership through hard tasks.

“43 Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.”

“45 If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual.”

Page by Page

29

“2 Camp in high places, facing the sun.”

30

“18 When the enemy is close at hand and remains quiet, he is relying on the natural strength of his position.”

31

“24 Humble words and increased preparations are signs that the enemy is about to advance.”

32

“31 If the enemy sees an advantage to be gained and makes no effort to secure it, the soldiers are exhausted.”

“37 To begin by bluster, but afterwards to take fright at the enemy’s numbers, shows a supreme lack of intelligence.”

33

“43 Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.”

“45 If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual.”

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Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: Chapter 08 Variation in Tactics

Only 14 points are made in this chapter and it is made up of few pages, screens and swipes.  Sun Tzu builds on his biggest points from earlier chapters – Strategy is the logical outcome of knowing your strengths and your opponents weaknesses.  Your goal is to win, but to do so you must not lose.

Best Quote(s)

2. … Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions.

Page by Page, Screen by Screen, Swipe by Swipe

27

“2 When in difficult country, do not encamp. In country where high roads intersect, join hands with your allies. Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions. In hemmed-in situations, you must resort to stratagem. In a desperate position, you must fight.”

28

“12 There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general:
(1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction;
(2) cowardice, which leads to capture;
(3) a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults;
(4) a delicacy of honour which is sensitive to shame;
(5) over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.”

gw_trumbull

Washington was not subject to any of Sun Tzu’s five weaknesses. More impressive even – is that he lived at a time where the English translation of this work was still +100 years away.

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