Sun Tzu’s Art of War,” as an ancient military classic, carries profound insights into the principles of military strategy and organizational management. In this treatise, Sun Tzu’s understanding of war extends beyond the specifics of battlefield operations, emphasizing a holistic perspective and strategic thinking that has granted it a unique position in the realm of military theory.
Sun Tzu’s emphasis on the two overarching principles of “全” (quán) and “破” (pò) underscores his pursuit of flexible strategic application. In the pursuit of “全胜” (quán shèng), he advocates resolving conflicts through political means, promoting the idea of winning without engaging in direct conflict. This not only reduces human and resource casualties but also reflects a wise and intelligent leadership style. Conversely, in the pursuit of “破胜” (pò shèng), Sun Tzu emphasizes the skillful use of tactics to defeat the enemy. This foresight can be seen as a precursor to guerrilla warfare, avoiding direct confrontation and favoring more cunning approaches to gain an advantage.
At the core of Sun Tzu’s art of warfare lies the concept of achieving significant victories with minimal cost. He argues that true mastery in warfare is not found in bloody battles with heavy casualties but rather in defeating enemies who are easy to overcome or already in a weakened state. This philosophy underscores the importance of intelligence and strategic thinking in warfare, transcending reliance solely on military strength. Sun Tzu’s thoughts resonate with the idea of using wit and strategy to secure triumphs, avoiding protracted and costly conflicts.
Another notable famous quote by Sun Tzu is, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” This encapsulates the essence of his emphasis on achieving victories through political and strategic means rather than through direct conflict. It reinforces the idea that the most skilled commanders can secure triumphs without resorting to unnecessary bloodshed.
From the perspective of operational command, Sun Tzu introduces the three pillars of “形势” (xíng shì), “虚实” (xū shí), and “奇正” (qí zhèng). These elements provide a robust theoretical foundation for military command. Sun Tzu advocates leveraging water-like movements rather than explosive force, striving to achieve victories with minimal costs. His thoughts reveal a profound understanding of tactical flexibility and the laws of motion. Sun Tzu’s “胜可为也” (shèng kě wéi yě) philosophy emphasizes the importance of understanding the material forces at play and the human factors influencing the outcome of warfare.
In terms of military governance, Sun Tzu presents the idea of “令文齐武” (lìng wén qí wǔ), combining political and military strategies through methods such as clear instructions, rewards and punishments, and fostering a sense of care for soldiers and fairness towards captives. His requirements for commanders encompass political integrity, a balance of wisdom and courage, and a genuine affection for the troops. This laid the groundwork for subsequent studies in military leadership.
The soul of “The Art of War” lies in Sun Tzu’s simple yet profound dialectical thinking in military matters. He emphasizes analyzing the contradictions and movements of both enemy and self, achieving a deep understanding of both parties. Sun Tzu believes that everything in war is in constant motion, and by grasping and utilizing these motion laws, one can formulate correct strategies and methods of operation. His understanding of the “胜负规律” (shèng fù guīlǜ) or laws of victory and defeat provides a scientific basis for subsequent military decision-making.
I. Power: The Structure and Command
Sun Tzu said: In managing many, handle them like the few. It’s about organizing structures, the battalion composition. When engaging with many or few, it’s about signaling systems encompassing visual (smoke signals, signal flags) and auditory (bugle calls, the sounding of drums).
II. Adhering to Strategic Consistency Amidst Variability
For the multitude of soldiers to endure the enemy without defeat, the extraordinary is essential. In warfare, striking with regularity and irregularity brings success. Those adept at deploying the extraordinary are limitless like the heavens and inexhaustible like rivers. Everything follows a cyclical nature, much like the passing days and months. The sounds are limited to five, yet the variations in these five tones are immeasurable. Similarly, with colors and tastes, they are fixed in number but infinite in variations. The essence of battle lies in the extraordinary and the regular, an unceasing transformation without limit.
Cao Cao remarked, “Engage with normal formations first, then surprise.” To illustrate, ball control represents regular tactics, while strategic positioning embodies the element of surprise. Regular and surprise tactics complement each other and should be interchangeable, waiting for the opportune moment to dismantle the adversary’s battlefield layout, all the while avoiding hasty attempts at cleverness.
III. Thorough Preparation, Efficient Execution
The swift flow of water carrying boulders signifies its force; the rapid dive of a bird of prey that shatters indicates its precision. Hence, a skilled warrior operates within dangerous forces, remaining agile. Being forceful yet concise means having thorough preparation early on, followed by swift and efficient execution, a fundamental principle in all work. It’s like drawing a bowstring to full length or aiming at the prey’s critical spot before releasing the arrow. Avoid superfluousness in both accuracy and numbers.
IV. External Chaos, Internal Order
Amidst an abundance of variety and chaos, maintain order within. Disorder arises from order, timidity arises from courage, and weakness arises from strength. Disorder and order are numerical, courage and timidity are about momentum, and strength and weakness revolve around form. Hence, skillfully manipulate the adversary by presenting apparent disorder while maintaining internal order. “Feign disorder, and crush them!” outwardly appears chaotic but inwardly adheres to a strategic formation, drawing from the Eight Arrays of Feng Hou (details to be elaborated later). Leading the opponent to commit errors is secondary.
V. Employ the Situation, Choose the Person
A skilled warrior seeks advantages within the situation, not from individuals. Such a person manages troops like moving stones and wood. Their nature: calm in stability, active in danger, stopping at the right moment, and moving when the situation demands. The skilled warrior’s control over troops is like rolling a round stone down a towering mountain—an exercise in mastering the situation.
Referencing high school physics, envision a round stone rolling down a mountain. Its potential energy equals mass x gravitational acceleration x height, converting into kinetic energy, which is half the mass x velocity squared. The higher the mountain, the faster the speed, and the smaller the stone’s impact. Here, the mountain represents a situation, while the stone represents people.
As a manager, prioritizing situational analysis over personnel selection is vital. First, assess the situation; once strength is established, confidence follows, leading to the power of the situation. Second, consider the terrain; the key lies in identifying crucial positions and controlling them. Third, adapt to the situation; manipulate the opponent’s strategy, then strike opportunistically. For instance, in an encircling battle, creating an apparent escape route for the enemy allows them to flee, but as they do, their vulnerability becomes exposed, providing an opportunity to eliminate them and conserve resources.
This rendition may vary slightly from the original text for a more comprehensive interpretation in English.
In conclusion, “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, with its unique philosophical system and profound theoretical insights, offers rich experiences and guidance for both military theory and practice. Its in-depth analysis of strategic and tactical principles and its theoretical constructs for leadership and management make it not only a classic in military studies but also a valuable guide for leaders and strategic decision-makers.