Book Summary: The Art of War by Sun Tzu

The Art of War Quick Summary: The main message of the book is that war is a matter of life and death for the state. Therefore, it must be fought with careful preparation and estimation. An able general fights only when he knows that he will win. And therefore he is never defeated. He is clever, resourceful, and flexible. He imposes his will on the enemy, misleads him, and exasperates him until he makes a fatal mistake.

The book answers the following questions: How can you protect yourself from losses and guarantee victory? What strategies can you use to gain an advantage over your opponent? How can you best lead your troops?

The Art of War is considered by many to be the ultimate work on military tactics and strategy. Military tactics, business strategies, and legal strategies in both East and West have been greatly influenced by this work. It has inspired leaders such as Douglas MacArthur and Mao Zedong.

You don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t have time. This summary will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

In this The Art of War summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

The Art of War 13 Principles

The Art of War is divided into 13 chapters:

  1. Laying Plans
  2. Waging War
  3. Attack by Stratagem
  4. Tactical Dispositions
  5. Use of Energy
  6. Weak Points and Strong
  7. Maneuvering an Army
  8. Variation of Tactics
  9. The Army on the March
  10. Classification of Terrain
  11. The Nine Situations
  12. Attacking with Fire
  13. Use of Spies

The Art of War Summary

Lesson 1: What do you need to win?

Wars are times when a country struggles to survive. Therefore, every effort must be made to understand the art of war. And this knowledge must be used to make preparations in case of conflict. The general who prepares in detail for war will surely beat the general who does not.

Therefore, you must always prepare and think before engaging in battle. You can predict victory or defeat by comparing the opposing armies based on seven criteria. Which of the two rulers of the warring nations has the full cooperation and loyalty of the people, so that they will follow him to the death?

Who is the more capable of the two generals? Which side has the advantage of heaven and earth in terms of conditions such as weather, distances to be covered, and terrain? Which side is stricter with the discipline of its men? Which side has a stronger army?

Who has the better-trained police and soldiers on their side? What about consistency in enforcing discipline through incentives and punishments? Compare your opponent’s army with your own to determine where it is strong and where it is weak.

Then develop a strategy tailored to the situation. You will always be successful if you know your opponent and yourself. In short, you must plan, calculate and compare to win.

Lesson 2: Protect yourself from loss and wait for a chance to win

Wise warriors go to those battles only where they know they will win a victory. But others go to war first and only afterward consider whether their success is even possible. A skillful warrior avoids battles in which he might lose, thus ensuring that he never loses.

But even the most brilliant general cannot predict when triumph will occur, because he must wait for his opponent to make a mistake that will allow him to win. A victorious general knows that there are five principles that must be followed to achieve victory.

First, you must be able to recognize when to fight and when to avoid fighting.

Second, you must be able to deal with forces that are both superior and inferior to your own.

Third, the fighting spirit and discipline of your army must be robust and consistent throughout its ranks.

Fourth, you must fight in such a way that you are prepared and your opponent is not.

Finally, you must have the military skills and independence to lead your soldiers without interference from a ruler.

So take precautions. Attack only when you have the upper hand. Avoid your opponent’s strong areas and hit him where he is weak. If the enemy army’s morale is strong, its columns and flags are in perfect order, or if it has a better location, such as higher ground, avoid it. Never fight just because you are angry.

There must always be something you can win. Your anger will dissipate with time, but a kingdom that has been destroyed will never rise again.

Avoid the traps your opponent tries to lure you into. Do not lead your army into areas where your supplies are inaccessible or where you do not know the terrain or your allies. Protect yourself from losses and wait for a chance to win.

Lesson 3: Do not be the one who’s responsible for the failure

A general is a commander in every battle. But he is also commanded by a ruler. Consequently, a ruler can hinder his troops with his orders. He can do this disastrously by ordering them to advance or retreat, even though this is impossible. Or by trying to rule the army as laxly as he rules his kingdom.

Or by placing commanders in unsuitable positions. The soldiers’ confidence is shaken by these mistakes, which can lead to casualties. A general, on the other hand, can have fatal flaws.

He can be reckless and lead his army to disaster, or he can be cowardly and be made a hostage. He can be so choleric or arrogant that insults and slander from the enemy upset him. Or he may be too concerned about the welfare of his men and allow such concerns to interfere with military operations.

When an army is afflicted by one of the following six disasters, the commander is also responsible. If he sends his army into battle against a force ten times its size, his men will flee. If his troops are too strong compared to the commanders, disobedience will occur. If the troops are too weak, the commanders will wear them down and they will collapse.

If the commanders-in-chief are angry and unruly, they will attack their own and bring the army to its knees. If the general is indecisive and weak, the army will also be weak and disorganized.

If a general cannot assess the enemy’s strength and uses a weaker army against a stronger one, the result will be an overwhelming defeat. So, as a general or ruler, do not be the one responsible for failure.

Lesson 4: Learn to save your resources

It’s not cheap to keep an army going. You need everything. Food, chariots, spears, arrows, armor, and oxen can cost 1,000 ounces of silver every day for a force of 100,000 soldiers. Long-term conflicts can drain a nation’s resources and leave it weak and defenseless.

Therefore, focus on quick and decisive victories rather than protracted campaigns. Avoid besieging fortified cities, as this usually requires months of planning and many impatient generals will waste their troops on ineffective attacks.

Instead of destroying your opponent’s nation, city, or army through a costly battle, the best way to reduce the cost of warfare is to capture it whole and undamaged.

To do this, you need a much larger army than your opponent. A skillful general will subdue his opponents without a fight and thus achieve the final victory. This is called attack by stratagems.

Great fighters excel not only in winning but also in winning comfortably.

Another method of conserving the state’s resources is to steal them from your opponent by looting on the spot and replenishing your forces with the opponent’s weapons, armor and troops.

This way you can save money for supplies and free your peasants from the burden of maintaining your army. Since individual battles can end wars, you should use spies. They will provide you with important information about the enemy’s location, as well as misleading information.

Maintain close relations with your spies and reward them generously. The cost is small compared to the protracted conflicts they can prevent. If you construct a strategy around a secret that a spy has told you, kill him and anyone else he has told the secret to so that your strategy does not lose its effectiveness. Remember to use all of this to conserve your resources.

Lesson 5: Conceal your true intentions and make your enemies do what you want

In a battle, sometimes you have to lie. You must disguise your strength as a weakness, your bravery as timidity, and your order as chaos. Let your opponent become confused and reckless.

Make your soldiers appear disorderly when in fact they are strong and balanced. When you approach your opponent, make it look as if you are far away. When you have the opportunity to attack, make it look like you are not. Play with your opponent like a cat with a mouse.

Irritate him when he is irascible. If he is relaxed, harass him. If he is well-fed, starve him. And if he’s peacefully camped out, urging him to move. Hold out bait to the enemy if you want him to approach. On the other hand, if you want him to retreat, inflict damage.

A cunning fighter takes the initiative and forces the opponent to bend to his wishes. Attack the opponent in weakly guarded areas where he must hurry to protect himself. Forcing someone to expose themselves will allow you to find their weak spots.

Keep your opponent guessing about where you are going to attack so he splits up and distributes his forces. Numerical inferiority comes from the fact that you must prepare not only for attacks on many fronts but also for absolute numbers. Conceal your true intentions and make your enemies do what you want.

Lesson 6: Adjust your strategy according to the environment and situation

There are many things that a victorious general should remember. Some positions cannot be held, routes are better avoided, and orders are better ignored. As a general, you must adapt to the circumstances, the terrain, and the enemy’s attitude, just as water changes its path according to the land over which it flows.

Observe the landscape to take advantage of its inherent advantages and avoid its disadvantages. Do not climb to great heights, move upstream, or move away from water and shelter to fight. Avoid areas with cliffs, narrow spaces, or swamps where a small force can easily defeat an entire army.

Watch for frightened birds or animals as a sign that you will soon be ambushed. Also keep an eye on your adversary. His troops may faint from hunger as they lean on their spears while standing. They will be thirsty if the troops he sends for water drink it themselves.

They know they are ready to fight to the death when they start eating their own livestock, not hanging their cooking-pots over the campfires, and acting as if they will not return to their tents. Adapt your strategies as needed to these conditions and seize opportunities as they arise. Adapt them to the environment and situation.

Lesson 7: To win a war, you must be tough and persistent, not sharing everything with your army and making sure they fight to the end

Whether an army is large or small, it is always difficult to manage it. But you can divide your troops into smaller groups and use signals like gongs, drums, flags, and signal fires to keep your troops under control. They will march as a unit, and neither the fearful nor the brave will be allowed to attack alone.

A capable general commands an army as if he were leading a single soldier by the hand. Treat your troops as if they were your beloved sons. Then they will fight for you to the end. However, if you cannot command them with authority, they will be as worthless as spoiled children.

The road to success is paved with iron discipline among your troops. For this discipline to work, your troops must surrender to you. Therefore, you must treat children with compassion while disciplining and punishing them. As a general, you must maintain a high level of secrecy.

To keep both your troops and the enemy guessing, keep them in the dark and change your plans frequently. Change camps instead of taking direct routes, and cover a long, winding journey. Once you are deep in a hostile country, show your hand. If the situation seems favorable, inform your troops.

However, if the situation seems unfavorable, keep that information to yourself. The further you advance into a dangerous country, the more your troops will develop a sense of camaraderie. If you put them in a hopeless situation, they will lose all fear and fight with all their might, even to death.

To win a war you’ll have to be tough and persevering, not sharing everything with your army and making them fight to the end.

Conclusion

Considering that war is a matter of life and death for the state, meticulous planning and estimating are necessary. 

A skilled general will only engage in combat when victory is assured; thus, he is never defeated. Such a general is observant, resourceful, and adaptable. 

In order to drive an enemy to commit a fatal error, he deceives and irritates him.

Other recommended reading: Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. The Prince is a handbook on how to rule a nation authoritatively. It explains why kings constantly rationalize even the most heinous methods to achieve their goals of glory and power. The term “Machiavellian” evolved because of this work to describe the use of deception and cunning to one’s own advantage.

The Art of War Quotes

“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.”

 

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

 

“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”

 

“There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.”

 

“Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.”

View our larger collection of the best The Art of War quotes.

The Art of War Review

The Art of War has been regarded as a timeless classic because it analyzes every aspect of the war from the standpoint of human nature, and makes a strong case that any endeavor that does not consider human nature will fail. 

The subject of warfare, including its causes, is addressed in this book, and the analysis is solid. This book focuses not only on the first-order result of how to handle a war situation (how to handle it effectively) but also on the pragmatics of applied psychology and the humbling limits of human existence. 

People who are bored by this book (and this one is excellent) are not yet ready to learn about human existence. Those with humility will benefit from this book. We should all read it more than once. Learn more about how you can make use of The Art of War in financial investment and marketing.

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