The Art of War

          Time for some ancient Chinese culture!  We discuss a famous Chinese book, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, which was composed during the fourth century B.C.  Why are we interested in a book on the conduct of warfare, especially when we have wars raging all around the planet which we want to put an end to?  The reason is that we indeed have much to learn from this book, which emphasizes how to win without actually fighting.  My favorite passage is the following:

  8. To foresee a victory which the ordinary man can foresee is not the acme of skill;

  9. To triumph in battle and be universally acclaimed “Expert” is not the acme of skill, for to lift an autumn down requires no great strength; to distinguish between the sun and moon is no test of vision; to hear the thunderclap is no indication of acute hearing.

Commentary by Chang Yü:  By “autumn down” Sun Tzu means rabbits’ down, which on the coming of autumn is extremely light.

Footnote: To win a hard-fought battle or to win one by luck is no mark of skill.

10. Anciently those called skilled in war conquered an enemy easily conquered.

Footnote: The enemy was conquered easily because the experts previously had created appropriate conditions.

11. And therefore the victories won by a master of war gain him neither reputa­tion for wisdom nor merit for valor.

Commentary by Tu Mu:  A victory gained before the situation has crystallized is one the common man does not comprehend.  Thus its author gains no reputation for sagacity.  Before he has bloodied his blade the enemy state has already submitted.

Commentary by Ho Yen-hsi:  … When you subdue your enemy without fighting who will pronounce you valorous?

12. For he wins his victories without erring.  “Without erring” means that what­ever he does ensures his victory; he conquers an enemy already defeated.

Commentary by Chen Hao:  In planning, never a useless move; in strategy, no step taken in vain.

13. Therefore the skillful commander takes up a position in which he cannot be defeated and misses no opportunity to master his enemy.

14. Thus a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning.

This is from Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter IV: “Dispositions”, pp. 86-87; emphasis added.  (Translated by Samuel B. Griffith, Oxford University Press, London, 1963.)

          Given that it is necessary at times to “fight” (usually not physically) to achieve necessary aims, is it not better to “win without fighting” as suggested by Sun Tzu?  Is it not best to emulate the Master of War:  “He conquers an enemy already defeated”?

          There are other insights into waging struggle provided by Sun Tzu.  One is that victory is won not by overwhelming the enemy through frontal attack, for a solid defensive line can thwart a numerically superior attack.  Rather, the key to victory can be an unexpected flank attack made in conjunction with direct engagement of the two armies.

          Of particular interest is Sun Tzu’s strategy of always leaving an opening for the enemy’s retreat, in order to promote his retreating in disarray rather than being forced to fight to the death.  He cites the example of a Chinese general whose army was badly outnumbered and on the verge of total defeat; the general thereupon positioned his troops in an area where there was no possibility of retreat, and indeed his army did fight to the death when the attack came and they saved themselves!  The lesson that I draw from this outlook is that, in unavoidable conflict, one should not attempt to crush the “enemy”, but rather endeavor to reach an accommodation with her/him which respects her/his legitimate interests.

          The Art of War provides most interesting, and occasionally quite relevant, reading.  There are actually quite a few translations of Sun Tzu’s work, and I’ve read at least five of them.  I’ve quoted from Griffith’s early translation, which is highly readable, but subsequent translations incorporating newly found copies (on individual sticks because paper was not then available) of the composition are more accurate.