Dr. Alan Gropman
CONF 695: Grand Strategy in Peace and War
20 October 2015
Book Review: The Art of War
The Art of War by Sun Tzu is one of the oldest, most widely used, and foundational works on war strategy. The universality of The Art of War is derived from its focus on principles, or fundamental, unchanging laws from which applications are derived. Most of these principles still have bearing on competitive operations today. This book spends little time on discussing specific applications, which lends to the long life it has enjoyed as a seminal work of strategy.
Of the four tools of grand strategy, diplomatic, economic, military, and intelligence, Sun Tzu’s book addresses how to use the military instrument and other instruments as they relate to the military. This book is primarily written for the portions of grand strategy that deal with national security. Diplomacy is not taken into consideration and economic and intelligence tools are considered only insofar as they support the military. The strategy explained in this book is a decidedly military strategy in a war setting. It does not bring all the tools of grand strategy to bear and does not consider a context other than warfare (declared or undeclared).
The Art of War has many strengths that contribute to its timeless value. It speaks largely in terms of principles organized and presented inside a logical framework. These principles come in the form of brief maxims with no explanatory paragraphs and few illustrative examples. These maxims give the strategist the responsibility to think how it applies to individual situations. These maxims include, “all warfare is based on deception (8),” “conceal your dispositions (26),” and, “the leader of armies is the arbiter of the people’s fate, the man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or in peril (12).” Some appear cryptic and require thoughtful study, such as, “success in warfare is gained by carefully accommodating ourselves to the enemy’s purpose (54),” accompanied by, “accommodate yourself to the enemy until you can fight a decisive battle (55).” Understanding how and where these apply in individual situations demands tested knowledge, experience, and sound judgment on the part of the strategist. All strategy requires forethought in how principles apply to a specific situation, however, The Art of War, in its semi-archaic expression and culturally Eastern orientation, requires more insight, thought, and experience from the strategist.
The principles in The Art of War are written for conventional warfare but many are applicable to other endeavors, including asymmetric warfare. Such concepts as attack where the enemy is weak, do the unexpected, avoid prolonged engagements, emphasize secrecy and subtlety, and modify tactics in relation to an opponent’s actions find application in almost any competitive endeavor. In fact, the principles of The Art of War have been used in many competitive endeavors, from business to sports.
A significant section of the book deals with principles as they apply to a specific sphere, that of land warfare and the use of fire as a weapon. The principles of land warfare are still applicable today. Chapter XII, “The Attack By Fire,” is a specific application with less relevance for us today. However, the principles governing attacking by fire can be extrapolated and employed in strategies of attack today.
The weaknesses of The Art of War are found in its strength. The principles that make it universal can make the book seem inaccessible without further study and explanation. Also, it does not give historical examples, case studies, or in other ways substantiate its maxims, except for a few passing references. The principles in The Art of War have been practiced throughout millennia, however, the book would not stand on its own and survive academic rigor today because of its lack of in-text citations. (This is more an inconvenience than a weakness, as a book written 2,500 years ago and still consulted today cannot be expected to have been written by 21st century standards). Finally, the principle-, maxim-based teaching in this book places responsibility on the reader to ponder and apply these principles. Again, this is necessary in all strategy books, however, the extreme lack of clarity or examples, the cultural recalibration for Western readers, and the antiquity of the text creates a lot more work for the strategist to clearly understand and makes the book useful.
Another weakness of this book is that it does not include diplomacy as a tool of strategy and relies heavily on the military instrument, focusing on other instruments, economic and intelligence, only as they relate to the military. The Art of War is about how to win a contest using coercive and deceptive means; persuasive and straightforward means are not considered. The book thereby leaves out many tools of grand strategy in its pursuit of using a single tool well (the military).
Overall, The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a timeless, pithy but complex book of principles of warfare organized into a logical framework that can guide any competitive endeavor in the application of coercive force. It includes how resources and intelligence play into the use of military force and does not consider diplomacy. It is suited for military land campaigns, but also speaks to military campaigns involving deception. It is a foundational work for any strategist to consider and its pure principles will continue to speak to us for generations to come.