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"The Art of War" by Sun Tzu

by Ron Kurtus (revised 16 October 2016)

War is the ultimate competition. One country or group will try to take control of another through the use of force, often killing opposing troops and even much of the populace in the process. Some wars are competition between rivals, while others are unprovoked efforts of a stronger country to control a weaker one.

Sun Tzu wrote "The Art of War" for the king of the Chinese state of Wu around 300 B.C. He then employed his tactics as a general in the victorious army of the king. The book is the oldest documentation of the concepts and principles of conventional warfare and military strategy. It was translated into English by Lionel Giles in 1910. Its principles are still applicable today, not only for the military but also in business competition.

This lesson is an overview of the 13 chapters of The Art of War. There are links to the individual chapters.

1. Laying Plans

The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry, which can on no account be neglected.

All warfare is based on deception.

(See Laying Plans)

2. Waging War

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men's weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.

Now in order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger; that there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their rewards.

Thus it may be known that 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.

(See Waging War)

3. Attack by Stratagem

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.

(See Attack by Stratagem)

4. Tactical Dispositions

The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

The general who is skilled in defense hides in the most secret recesses of the earth; he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven. Thus on the one hand we have ability to protect ourselves; on the other, a victory that is complete.

(See Tactical Dispositions)

5. Energy

The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.

In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.

(See Energy)

6. Weak Points and Strong

Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.

Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him.

(See Weak Points and Strong)

7. Maneuvering

In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign.

Having collected an army and concentrated his forces, he must blend and harmonize the different elements thereof before pitching his camp.

After that, comes tactical maneuvering, than which there is nothing more difficult. The difficulty of tactical maneuvering consists in turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain.

(See Maneuvering)

8. Variation in Tactics

The general who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his troops.

The general who does not understand these, may be well acquainted with the configuration of the country, yet he will not be able to turn his knowledge to practical account.

So, the student of war who is un-versed in the art of war of varying his plans, even though he be acquainted with the Five Advantages, will fail to make the best use of his men.

9. The Army on the March

We come now to the question of encamping the army, and observing signs of the enemy. Pass quickly over mountains, and keep in the neighborhood of valleys.

When an invading force crosses a river in its onward march, do not advance to meet it in mid-stream. It will be best to let half the army get across, and then deliver your attack.

10. Terrain

Ground which can be freely traversed by both sides is called accessible. With regard to ground of this nature, be before the enemy in occupying the raised and sunny spots, and carefully guard your line of supplies. Then you will be able to fight with advantage.

From a position of this sort, if the enemy is unprepared, you may sally forth and defeat him. But if the enemy is prepared for your coming, and you fail to defeat him, then, return being impossible, disaster will ensue.

11. The Nine Situations

The art of war recognizes nine varieties of ground:

  1. Dispersive ground
  2. Facile ground
  3. Contentious ground
  4. Open ground
  5. Ground of intersecting highways
  6. Serious ground
  7. Difficult ground
  8. Hemmed-in ground
  9. Desperate ground.

Those who were called skillful leaders of old knew how to drive a wedge between the enemy's front and rear; to prevent co-operation between his large and small divisions; to hinder the good troops from rescuing the bad, the officers from rallying their men.

If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.

12. The Attack by Fire (practical advice)

There are five ways of attacking with fire. The first is to burn soldiers in their camp; the second is to burn stores; the third is to burn baggage trains; the fourth is to burn arsenals and magazines; the fifth is to hurl dropping fire amongst the enemy.

In order to carry out an attack, we must have means available. The material for raising fire should always be kept in readiness.

13. The Use of Spies

What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge. Knowledge of the enemy's dispositions can only be obtained from other men.

Whether the object be to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual, it is always necessary to begin by finding out the names of the attendants, the aides-de-camp, and door-keepers and sentries of the general in command. Our spies must be commissioned to ascertain these.


War is a competition between countries or groups of people. Sun Tzu wrote "The Art of War" and employed his tactics as a general in a victorious army. The concepts and principles of warfare and military strategy apply in this form of competition.

War is the ultimate competition

Resources and references

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(Notice: The School for Champions may earn commissions from book purchases)

The Art of War by Sun Tzu; Running Press Book Publishers (2003) $4.95

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, Daniel Donno; Bantam Classics (1984) $4.50 - Classic on political and military strategies and competitions

Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union by Peter Schweizer; Atlantic Monthly Press (1996) $13.00 - President Ronald Reagan and his advisers mapped out a systematic strategy to hasten the demise of the Soviet Union by attacking its fundamental economic and political weaknesses

Top-rated books on Warfare Strategies

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