War in the West has gone from romanticization, to necessary evil, to wildly unfashionable—while all the while increasingly divorced from any human element and relegated more and more to the realm of Science. To speak of The Art of War, therefore, is both politically incorrect and probably not a good topic for dinner party conversation (especially if you're seated next to an NPR employee).
Sun Tzu (or Sunzi, as some render it) was not bound by the social protocols of the West, nor of the modern period. He was a general and theorist for King Ho-Lu of Wu who ruled the Qi region in China during the 6th century BC, and his guide to warfare remains one of the most read and most respected handbooks on the subject. It even appears on the U. S. Marine Corps professional reading list.
So what is The Art of War? Essentially, it's a guide to winning. Sun Tzu's position is that war is not worth fighting unless you win, doubtless a position shared by military leaders throughout history. What might not be as common a view is his idea that the art of war is essentially the art of lying, and that a successful general will do whatever it takes to win, even (perhaps especially) to misdirect, mislead, and lie to his enemy.
In some sense, the thirteen chapters each offers a taxonomy of a particular aspect of tactics or strategy—Sun Tzu addresses the nine types of ground armies will encounter and how to use them most effectively; momentum; marching; the substantial and the insubstantial; deployment; the use of spies; attacking with fire; and more. He presents his information and advice simply and clearly, wasting no time or words.
Sun Tzu is so eloquent, in fact, that his small book often seems more like poetry than a military manual, except for the utterly practical nature of his strategies that leave the reader feeling a little cold. For instance, at one point he says that if birds suddenly rise in their flight above the ground, it means there's an ambush lying in wait at that spot; it's a lovely image, but it's also a bit unsettling.
Almost none of the illustrations in The Art of War relate to actual people or events, and even when Sun Tzu mentions names it's usually in relation to some ancient Chinese legend. That doesn't mean Sun Tzu's language lacks concreteness, however: while the Taoist and Confucian assumptions behind his military theory might seem a bit ethereal, they work out in very down-to-earth ways.
This is ultimately the reason the book is still read today by military personnel and civilians alike. Sun Tzu writes explicitly about warfare, but it doesn't take long to realize we're actually reading the practical result of Eastern philosophy. While reading Confucius or Laozi can be an exercise in intellectual futility for many Westerners, Sun Tzu presents the same abstract concepts in concrete, understandable form.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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