This is a book summary of The Art of War: A New Translation by Michael Nylan (Amazon):
- All content in quotation marks is from the author unless otherwise stated.
- I’ve added emphasis in bold for readability/skimmability.
Book Summary Contents: Click a link here to jump to a section below
- 1. First Calculations
- 2. Initiating Battle
- 3. Planning an Attack
- 4. Forms to Perceive
- 5. The Disposition of Power
- 6. Weak and Strong
- 7. Contending Armies
- 8. Nine Contingencies
- 9. Fielding the Army
- 10. Conformations of the Land
- 11. Nine Kinds of Ground
- 12. Attacks with Fire
- 13. Using Spies
A Military Classic for Modern Life: The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Book Summary of Michael Nylan Translation)
Introduction to The Art of War
“The Art of War has become a classic precisely because it is not merely a technical manual registering a sharp distinction between military and civil life, a dichotomy too obvious for the most sophisticated masters in antiquity to dwell upon.”
About Sun Tzu:
- “Sunzi (Sun Wu , or Sun Tzu), who served the king of Wu in the late sixth century BCE.”
- “Compiled in the last century or so of the Zhanguo period (475–221 BCE), the work doubtless represents insights garnered over long centuries by different hands, possibly even by experts operating in different locations.”
Pro-war or anti-war:
- “Like the general public, military men and textual scholars have long debated whether the ultimate message of The Art of War text is pro-war or anti-war.”
- “Far from delivering a rousing call to arms for casual warmongering, The Art of War continually asks, explicitly and implicitly, whether other means, ranging from diplomacy to deceit, cannot be better deployed in service to the nation. Admittedly, this is a message that many readers down through the ages have preferred to ignore.”
- “The Art of War ends with a quiet coda whose firm assertion is too often overlooked: that even the most impressive empires fall as soon as their rulers, by their careless conduct, lose or cast aside the best men in their employ. So while duplicity and deception have their places in war, the one constant central to both victory in wars and stable order in peacetime is the good will and mutual trust that binds ruler, commander, and their men together.”
Three Chinese concepts:
- “Reading The Art of War schools us in the significance of three Chinese concepts that barely figure in the comparable Western discussions, but are nonetheless crucial when we contemplate any arena of rule-free action: quan (‘contingency’; ‘balance of forces’; the careful weighing of options); shi (‘disposition’ or ‘strategic position’), and shi (‘timing’ and ‘timely opportunity’).”
- “What is not up for debate, then, is the emphasis that The Art of War places on strategic thinking.”
- “The Art of War, no less than the Analects ascribed to Confucius or Laozi’s Tao Te Ching, trains the thinking person in the subtle art of knowing when to stick to the rules and when to toss them aside.”
Know yourself (and others):
- “Perhaps the most profound message derived from The Art of War (one of immense relevance today) is that any victory depends upon knowing oneself at least as well as the other party cast as the obstruction.”
A single takeaway:
- “If pressed to extract a single overriding ‘message’ from the text, it would be this: ‘Perform your calculations for everything liable to calculation, but also think very deeply about what people are capable of.'”
1. First Calculations
“Warfare is the art of deception. So when you can, feign incapacity, and when deploying troops, appear to have no such plans. When close, seem to them to be far away, and when far away, seem near.”
- “So, to ‘gauge the two sides and investigate the true conditions,’ I say, I know who will win or lose, depending on which ruler has the Way, which commander is the abler, whose side earth and heaven favor, whose rules and orders are obeyed, whose troops are the stronger, whose soldiers, better trained, whose rewards and sanctions are more clearly ordained.”
- “If you’ve calculated the advantages, and so have come to see the wisdom of heeding my advice, then create a favorable strategic disposition, which will, in turn, assist you with matters beyond it. ‘Strategic disposition’ means wresting advantages from the conditions at hand and controlling contingencies.”
The five considerations that must always be kept before you when gauging the strength of the two sides and investigating the true conditions, so as to arrive at a good grasp of the situation:
- (1) “The ‘Way,’ by definition, refers to whatever allows the people and their superior to be of one will, and therefore willing to live or die with him, undeterred by danger.
- (2) The heavens refers to night and day, heat and frost, in the seasonal rounds.
- (3) The earth refers to the relative distances, the gradient and openness of the terrain, insofar as this makes for life or death.
- (4) Field commanders are defined by wisdom, reliability, humaneness, courage, and strictness.
- (5) Regulations refers to organization and management, the delegation of authority, and the deployment of resources. Every field commander has heard of these Five Constants, but only those who truly understand them grasp victory.”
2. Initiating Battle
“In arms, those who value victory eschew lengthy engagements. The commander who understands his troops is a virtual god mandating the fates of his subordinates. Likewise, he is the chief agent who either makes the ruling house safe or imperils it.”
- “Once you’ve committed to a campaign, you should know that, if the victory is long in coming, both your soldiers and their weapons will lose their edge.”
- “We have all heard of victories that result from a quick strike by a mediocre opponent, but we have yet to hear of a single victory gained by clever schemers who let the hostilities drag on. In short, there has never been a single instance where the court has profited from lengthy engagements.”
- “The wise commander strives to feed his army with the enemy’s provisions. For every cartload of grain seized from the enemy he saves twenty on his own side, and for every bushel of fodder from the enemy, twenty are saved from his own stores. Therefore, although killing the enemy is all a question of rage, wresting advantage from the enemy is something else, a question only of wealth.”
- “Treat the captured infantry well. This we call ‘victory over the enemy, even as you increase troop strength.'”
3. Planning an Attack
“And so I say, ‘Know the enemy; know yourself, and you will meet with no danger in a hundred battles. If you do not know the enemy, but you know yourself, then you will win and lose by turns. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will lose every battle, certainly.'”
- “In general, the way to deploy troops is this: to take the enemy state whole is ideal. Less than ideal is breaking the state up.”
- “Winning a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the best possible outcome. Best is to subdue the enemy’s troops without ever engaging them on the battlefield.”
- “Best in war is to target their strategies, then their alliances (or allies); and then their troops. The least desirable option is to attack a fortified city.”
- “The expert in deploying troops will humble the enemy without ever engaging them in battle. He will take their cities without ever attacking, and topple the ruling house without protracted engagements. For always, when contending in the realm, success means keeping yourself whole. That way, the troops do not grow dull and the army’s edge remains keen. This is the way to plan an attack.”
To realize victory, go by five paths:
- (1) by figuring out whether it is possible to fight or not;
- (2) by recognizing how many troops are needed for the task;
- (3) by unifying the aims and ambitions of the high- and low-ranking;
- (4) by being prepared for the unexpected; and
- (5) by the ruler’s refusal to meddle with his able commanders. These five—they are the Way to taste victory.
4. Forms to Perceive
“In antiquity, those who were deemed good generals achieved victory over the easily defeated. Therefore, he who excels in battle doesn’t have a name for cleverness, nor does he garner accolades for his courage. He never errs in winning battles, because he places his men where they are bound to win, and he conquers those who are already lost.”
- “It is you who determine your own invincibility, but whether the enemy can be conquered or not rests with him. Therefore, whoever excels in battle can make himself invincible, but he cannot always make the enemy vulnerable. Hence I say, ‘The conditions for victory can be known, but they cannot be forced.'”
- “Go on the defensive when your enemy cannot be overcome. Go on the offensive against a vulnerable enemy. Defend when your troop strength is lacking. Attack when you have surplus strength.”
- “To excel at defense means hiding oneself away in the deepest recesses of the earth. To excel at offense means striking from the highest reaches of the heavens. Therefore, the commander who is good at both offense and defense can preserve himself and achieve total victory.”
The art of war consists of: (1) measurements; (2) estimates; (3) calculations; (4) weighing; (5) victory.
- The terrain leads to measurements;
- The measurements lead to estimates;
- The estimates lead to calculations;
- The calculations lead to weighing the options;
- The weighing leads to victory.
5. The Disposition of Power
“There are but two battle strategies, the conventional and the surprise, but, used in combination, they produce an infinite number of variations.“
- “In general, conventional methods engage the enemy, while surprise secures victory. Thus, by definition, to be good at unleashing surprises is: to be as various as the cosmos itself, to flow as inexhaustibly as the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers, to begin afresh as constantly as the sun and moon, to turn like the seasons, bringing new life, even from death.”
- “Even amidst the tumult and clamor of battle, he remains unperturbed. Despite the churn and blur, with an enemy bearing down on him with a force like that of primeval qi, he may appear to be encircled and nonetheless be unbeatable. Disorder is born from order; cowardice, from courage; weakness, from strength. Wresting order from disorder depends upon a proper division of the army units; wresting courage from cowardice depends upon assuming a strategic position; wresting strength from weakness depends upon making a certain show. Thus the commander who is expert at drawing out the enemy will first show his opponent something that he is sure to follow, dangling a piece of bait that he cannot resist. Using such ploys the commander gets the enemy to make his move, at which point the commander ambushes him.”
6. Weak and Strong
“A position is weak when one force makes preparations against another, and stronger when one forces others to prepare for it.”
- “Those who excel in battle compel the enemy and they do not let others compel them.”
- “Facing an expert in offense, the enemy does not know where to defend, and facing an expert in defense, the enemy does not know where to strike.”
- “So veiled and subtle is he, his moves nearly invisible. So marvelous, miraculous, virtually soundless, he strikes. Like a god deciding the enemy’s fate.”
- “So if our country wants to fight, we see to it that the enemy has no choice but to do battle with us, even when he is behind high walls and deep moats. We force him to engage with us in battle by attacking what he must save. But if our country has no desire to fight, we make it impossible for the enemy to engage us, even if we have no better protection than a line drawn in the sand. In either case, we have thrown him off course.”
- “So long as we determine the enemy’s forms while concealing ours, we can concentrate our forces while he divides his. If our army is united and the enemy’s divided, that is using a force of ten to attack one; we are many to his few.”
- “The place we have chosen to give battle must be kept secret. If the enemy cannot anticipate us, he will have to prepare to defend many positions, and then the enemy units doing battle with us will be fewer. Thus, if the enemy prepares to reinforce his front, his rear is weakened, and if he prepares to reinforce the rear, his front is weakened. And so it goes with the left and the right. To be prepared everywhere is to be strong nowhere.”
- “Therefore, calculate the probabilities, to better understand the likely gains and losses. Provoke him (so that he makes his move), to better understand his characteristic patterns of motion and stillness. Make the enemy assume visible form, to better understand the ground for life and death. Prod and jab him, to see which positions have surplus strength or too little.”
- “The ultimate skill in determining formations lies in assuming no set formation.”
- “The formation of the troops is like water. Just as water’s flow avoids the high ground and rushes to the low, so, too, the victor avoids the enemy’s strong points and strikes where he is weak. As water’s flow follows the forms of the land, so, too, the winning army varies its tactics, adjusting to the enemy’s formations.”
7. Contending Armies
“Whoever knows both the devious and direct tactics in advance will surely triumph. This is the rule for the contests between armies.”
- “Make the enemy follow a circuitous route and lure him on with offers of benefits, and you will arrive before him, even if you set out later.”
- “Troops rely on deception to gain ground, moving only after the advantages have been calculated; their formations suddenly divide and rejoin units. By such means do the troops become swift like the wind, yet calm like trees in a forest.”
- “Once the men are of one heart and mind, the brave will not be able to advance on their own initiatives nor the cowardly retreat. This is the best way to manage the masses of men.”
- “The commander who is expert at deploying troops avoids the enemy when he is high-spirited, but he strikes when their energies are flagging. To command hearts and minds, he meets the enemy’s disorder with good order, and his panic with utter calm.”
Rules for deploying troops:
- Do not attack an enemy who has the high ground.
- Do not go against an enemy that has his back to a hill.
- Do not follow an enemy that feigns retreat.
- Do not attack the enemy’s crack troops.
- Do not take the enemy’s bait.
- Do not stop an army on its way home.
- When surrounding the enemy, leave him a way out.
- Do not press an enemy who feels cornered.
8. Nine Contingencies
“The wise commander never misconstrues or fails to ruminate on the advantages and disadvantages. As he takes advantages into account, his hard work pays off in reliable ways. Taking disadvantages into account, he finds a way to extricate himself from trouble.”
A commander’s five fatal flaws:
- One determined to fight to the death can be killed;
- One determined to survive at all costs can be captured;
- One with a quick temper can be provoked by insults;
- One obsessed can be sullied and disgraced;
- One who would spare the people grief can be overburdened.
Rules for deploying troops:
- Once the commander receives his charge from the ruler, he assembles his armies, and gathers his multitudes.
- He refuses to make camp in difficult terrain.
- He meets with others at the major thoroughfares.
- He takes care not to tarry in terrain where he can be cut off.
- He makes plans if the terrain is liable to encirclement.
- He battles to the death, if the terrain offers no way out.
- There are roads he will not travel, armies he will not strike, walled cities he will not attack, terrain he will not contest.
- Nor will he accept and obey each and every one of the ruler’s commands.
- Do not count on the enemy not coming.
- Depend instead on your side being prepared to confront him.
- Do not count on the enemy not attacking.
- Depend instead on your side having an unassailable position.
9. Fielding the Army
“In war, it is not numbers that give the advantage. It suffices if you do not advance recklessly, are able to consolidate your own strength, get a clear picture of the enemy’s situation, and secure the full support of your men. It is only the one who makes no careful plans and takes his enemy lightly who is certain to be captured by him.”
- “In general, an army prefers high ground and dislikes the low ground. It values sun and safety, not the dark and danger. It aims to increase its chances of survival by taking up a position on solid ground with ample resources.”
- “The commander who erupts violently at his subordinates, only then to fear them, is totally inept.”
- “If you punish troops who are not yet attached to you, they will not obey, and if they disobey, they will prove hard to manage. But once you have gained their devotion, if discipline is not enforced, you cannot use them either. Therefore, command them with civility and keep them in line with strict military discipline. This will ensure their allegiance.”
10. Conformations of the Land
“Know the enemy and your own, and victory is in sight. Know the terrain and timing, and victories will be total.”
- “The conformations of the land include: open, hanging, split, defiles, ravines, distances.”
- “These six constitute the arts of the terrain. Given that they are the commander’s ultimate responsibility, he must investigate them thoroughly.”
- “The conformation of the land can aid the troops in battle. The best commander assesses the enemy’s position and creates the conditions for victory. He analyzes hazards and calculates distances. Applying his understanding of such factors to the battle at hand, he is certain to win, but should he disregard them, he is certain to lose.”
- “Thus if the way he goes into battle guarantees victory, the commander-in-charge must insist on fighting, even if the ruler forbids the engagement. And if the way he is directed to go into battle will not allow a victory, he must refuse to fight, even if the ruler insists that he do so.“
- “We call the ‘ruler’s treasure’ the commander who advances without any thought of winning personal fame for himself, and who withdraws despite the prospect of punishment, as his sole concern is to protect his men and promote his ruler’s interests. Because he looks after his foot soldiers tenderly, as if they were beloved sons, they follow him into the deepest ravines, and even die willingly by his side.”
What will halve your chances of victory is this:
- To know your troops can attack but not understand the enemy is not open to attack.
- To know the enemy is vulnerable, but not understand your own troops cannot attack.
- To know the enemy is vulnerable and your troops can attack, but still fail to understand whether the terrain favors battle.
The six routes to certain defeat (“these six are hardly due to natural catastrophes; they are the commander’s fault”):
- (1) Desertion follows one army attacking another ten times its size, when the strategic advantages are equal on both sides.
- (2) Insubordination follows when the infantry is eager to fight, but the officers are weak.
- (3) Peril follows when officers are eager to fight, but the foot soldiers are weak.
- (4) Collapse comes when unbridled rage consumes a senior officer, so much so that he moves without authorization to engage the enemy and fails to understand his capacities.
- (5) Chaos comes when a weak commander fails to enforce the regulations and delivers instructions that are far from clear, so that his officers and men cannot be trusted and his military formations are in disarray.
- (6) Rout comes when a commander proves incapable of assessing the enemy, so he sends a small force out to engage a large, a weak force to attack the strong, or he operates without crack troops as backup.
11. Nine Kinds of Ground
“The measures needed to cope with the nine types of ground, the advantages to be gained by flexible maneuvering of the army, and the basic patterns of human character—these must all be thoroughly investigated.”
- “Suppose someone posed the question, ‘How should we prepare for an enemy fortified with great numbers and with strict discipline, who is about to advance on us?,’ I would reply, ‘If you seize whatever he values most, before he can prevent you from doing so, you will have his ear.'”
- “A most important consideration in war is speed. With speed, you can exploit whatever is beyond the enemy’s reach; you can take the routes he least expects, and you can attack him before he’s prepared.”
- “The only way to manage the troops consists of making them equally resolute, so that they act as one.”
- “In performing his duties, the field commander remains calm but unfathomable, disciplined and self-governed. He puts blinders on his officers and men, so they never know what he’s thinking. He alters his plans and strategies, so that no one is cognizant of them. He changes his camp, and takes roundabout routes, so that others cannot divine his movements. Sallying forth to the designated spot, with his men in train, he acts like a man who kicks away the ladder once he has climbed to a great height.”
- “A true leader neither jockeys for alliances with other states, nor cultivates his influence throughout the realm. Rather, by trusting in his own plans, and bringing awe-inspiring might to bear down on his enemy, he easily plucks the walled cities of the enemy and topples its ruling house.”
- “If you give out extravagant rewards and issue unexpected orders, you can compel the entire army as easily as one man. Compel them to do their duties, but never reveal your plans. Drive them with rewards, but never reveal the hardships. Only if you throw them into life-and-death situations will you survive. Only if you plunge them into places with no way out will you and your men stay alive. Now, as we all know, only when the rank and file are endangered will you wrest victory from defeat.”
- “Therefore, the business of waging war lies in careful study of the enemy’s designs. ‘Focus your strength in a single direction / And you can kill the other commander a thousand leagues away.’ This we call ‘realizing your objective by wits and skill.’ So, on the day war is declared, close off the passes, tear up any agreements, forbid any further contact with enemy emissaries. Rehearse your plans thoroughly in the palace and the ancestral temple, so that you may execute your plans. When the enemy gives you an opening, rush in. Tempt him with whatever he lusts for, and then by subtle means determine the date for battle. Never let him know the timing of your attack. The only steadfast rule is to adapt to the enemy’s moves, in order to determine the course and outcome of the battle.”
In the art of deploying troops, the key contingencies on the ground are:
- Deserters’ ground,
- Land taken lightly,
- Land worth fighting for,
- Meeting ground,
- Ground serving as a crossroad,
- Land never taken lightly,
- Land difficult to cross,
- Land made for an ambush,
The commanders of old acclaimed for their expertise in deploying troops were able to force the outcomes, whereby:
- The enemy’s vanguard and rear guard could not reach each other;
- The enemy’s main unit and its auxiliaries could not support each other;
- The enemy’s officers and men could not save one another;
- The enemy’s superiors and subordinates could not maintain communication lines;
- The enemy’s foot soldier’s, once separated, could not regroup;
- The enemy troops, once assembled, could not form ranks.
12. Attacks with Fire
“With fire’s help, attack—and guide its course. With water’s help, attack—and wield its force. Water can cut the foe off, true. But will not seize his goods for you.”
- “Disaster, be definition, is failing to capitalize on your achievements despite victory in battle and seizure of the spoils. As the phrase goes, ‘He who hesitates is lost.'”
- “When nought’s to gain, move not. Over things of little worth, fight not. Save in direst need, war not.”
- “A kingdom, once destroyed, cannot be restored, nor can the dead be brought back to life. Thus the brilliant ruler approaches battle with due prudence, and good commanders are ever on their guard.”
The five kinds of incendiary attacks are:
- (1) Setting fire to personnel;
- (2) Setting fire to stockpiles of supplies;
- (3) Setting fire to the baggage trains and supply wagons;
- (4) Setting fire to the granaries and armories; and
- (5) Setting fire to everything along the routes between encampments having possible reinforcements.
13. Using Spies
“No one can possibly succeed without using spies.”
- “Only the most perceptive ruler understands how to employ spies, and only the most humane and just commander knows how to put them in the field.”
- “Only the most perceptive and wise generals—those who can get the most intelligent men to be their spies—can fulfill their destinies and accomplish great things. In war, intelligence is of the essence, for it is what the armies depend upon in their every move.”
- “It is their foresight that allows the perceptive ruler and the wise general to mobilize and conquer others, achieving merit far beyond the vulgar crowd. Such foresight does not come from the spirit world. One cannot discern the inherent pattern based solely on past events, or prove it by measuring the stars. It must come from other people—those with the requisite knowledge of the enemy’s situation. Accordingly, five kinds of spies are to be employed: locals, insiders, double agents, ‘dead’ spies, and live agents. When all five kinds are set in motion, and no one knows their operations, they form a ‘net devised by the gods’ of immense value to the ruler.”
Five kinds of spies:
- (1) Locals are the enemy’s compatriots in our employ.
- (2) Insiders are enemy officials in our employ.
- (3) Double agents are enemy spies who report to our side as well.
- (4) ‘Dead’ spies are pawns in our employ whom we intentionally deceive, so that they relay false information to the enemy.
- (5) Live agents, by contrast, report back to us.
It is equally necessary to discover whom the enemy has sent to spy on us:
- They can then be employed as double agents, so long as we offer them bribes and win them over before giving them their instructions and releasing them.
- Availing ourselves of these double agents, we can recruit and employ locals and insiders.
- By the same token, we can learn what false information to feed the ‘dead’ spies, so that they inform the enemy of it.
- Relying on their familiarity with the situation, our live spies can complete their assignments on schedule.
- To recapitulate: the ruler must have full knowledge of the covert operations undertaken by these five kinds of spies. And since the double agent is the key to all intelligence-gathering, the ruler must be made to see that he is the operative to be treated with particular generosity.
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