Sun Tsu and the Art of War

Here’s a brief summary of my understanding of the classic book by Sun Tsu: The Art of War.

Avoid war whenever possible, the toll is huge: the angry can be made happy again, but the dead can’t be brought back to life.
The main points of the book relate to: Deception, Wisdom, and Strength…
Key principles:
  1. know your enemy and know yourself (counterintelligence, understand how the enemy behaves)
  2. to win it’s not the height of skill, but subduing the enemy without fighting (intellect and preparation over force: never rush)
  3. avoid what’s strong, attack what’s weak (guerrilla fight, sturmtruppen)
  • Game of GO vs. game of chess: in GO you acquire territory with fewest resources instead of eliminating the enemy troops (chess)
  • It’s more important to outthink your enemy than to outfight him
  • Don’t advance relying on military power, numbers alone confer no advantage
  • You don’t win a war by winning battles. Wars are means (breaking the will of the enemy) to an end (strategic goals, often political): the political context is always more important than the military one
  • No nation has ever benefitted from prolonged war
  • Let your plans be as dark as night (deception, secrecy, spies), then strike as a thunderbolt
  • All warfare is deception: dividi et impera (divide the enemy big army into pieces I can win against)
  • It’s essential to seek out enemy agents who have come to spy against you and bribe them to serve you (double agents)
  • The way to achieve greatness is thru foreknowledge (knowing beforehand: “reading the mind of the enemy”)
  • Outmaneuver: use a direct attack to engage, and an indirect attack to win (attack something to draw the enemy attention there while conquering your real objective)
  • To move your enemy, entice him with something he’s certain to take (give him a bait): control the enemy movements by your own maneuvers
  • Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle, they’re not brought by him
  • Make your enemy prepare on his left and he’ll be weak on his right
  • Move only when you see an advantage and there’s something to gain, only fight if a position is critical
  • Put your army in the face of death (death ground) where there’s no escape and they won’t flee or be afraid: there’s nothing they cannot achieve (and on the other hand always leave your enemy a way to escape)
  • The keys to an attack are (good) timing and (maintaining) momentum
  • It’s essential for victory that generals are unconstrained by their leaders (clear chain-of-command, no interference from the leader)
  • The winning army realizes the conditions for victory first, then fights; the losing army fights first, then seeks victory (don’t rush into battle without knowing what lies ahead)
  • Use an attack to exploit a victory, never use an attack to rescue a defeat
  • There are some armies that shouldn’t be fought, some ground that shouldn’t be contested
  • If orders are unclear and commands not explicit, it’s the general’s fault; if they’re clear, it’s the fault of his subordinate officers
  • When troops flee, are insubordinate, collapse or are routed in battle, it’s the fault of the general
5 factors for success in war:
  1. weather
  2. terrain: when the enemy occupies high ground, don’t confront him; if he attacks downhill don’t oppose him
  3. leadership
  4. military doctrine
  5. moral influence (most important): have the people willing to fight behind their leader


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