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The Art of War - History

The Art of War is a Chinese military treatise written during the 6th century BC by Sun Tzu. Composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare, it has long been praised as the definitive work on military strategies and tactics of its time.

The Art of War is one of the oldest books on military strategy in the world. Like a work of mathematics or science, much of the work is dedicated to defining its concepts in what has been described as a series of formulas. It is the first and one of the most successful works on strategy and has had a huge influence on Eastern and Western military thinking, business tactics, and beyond. Sun Tzu was the first to recognize the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He taught that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through a to-do list, instead it requires quickly responding appropriately to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a competitive environment, competing plans collide creating situations that no one plans.

The book was first translated into a European language in 1782 by French Jesuit Jean Joseph Marie Amiot, and had possibly influenced Napoleon, and even the planning of Operation Desert Storm. Leaders as diverse as Mao Zedong, General Pervez Musharraf, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Generals Douglas MacArthur and Norman Schwarzkopf have claimed to have drawn inspiration from the work. The Art of War has also been applied, with much success, to business and managerial strategies.

Chapter titles from Lionel Giles' 1910 translation

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

The first chapter, "Planning," explores the five key elements that define competitive position (mission, climate, ground, leadership, and methods) and how to evaluate your competitive strengths against your competition.

"Waging War" explains the economic nature of competition and how success requires making winning pay, which in turn, requires limiting the cost of competition and conflict.

"Attack by Stratagem" defines the source of strength as unity, not size, and the five ingredients that you need to succeed in any competitive situation.

"Tactical Dispositions" explains the importance of defending existing positions until you can advance them and how you must recognize opportunities, not try to create them.

"Energy" explores the use of creativity and timing to build your competitive momentum.

"Weak Points and Strong" explains how your opportunities come from the openings in the environment caused by the relative weakness of your competitors in a given area.

"Maneuvering " explains the dangers of direct conflict and how to win those confrontations when they are forced upon you.

"Variation in Tactics" focuses on the need for flexibility in your responses. It explains how to respond to shifting circumstances successfully.

"Army on the March" describes the different situations in which you find yourselves as you move into new competitive arenas and how to respond to them. Much of it focuses on evaluating the intentions of others.

"Terrain" looks the three general areas of resistance (distance, dangers, and barriers) and the a six types of ground positions that arise from them. Each of these six field positions offers certain advantages and disadvantages.

"Nine Situations" describes nine common situations (or stages) in a competitive campaign, from scattering to deadly, and the specific focus you need to successfully navigate each of them.

"Attack by Fire" explains the use of weapons generally and the use of the environment as a weapon specifically. It examines the five targets for attack, the five types of environmental attack, and the appropriate responses to such attack.

"Use of Spies" focuses on the importance of developing good information sources, specifically the five types of sources and how to manage them.

Military applications

In many East Asian countries, The Art of War was part of the syllabus for potential candidates of military service examinations. Various translations are available.

During the Sengoku era in Japan, a daimyo named Takeda Shingen (1521-1573) is said to have become almost invincible in all battles without relying on guns, because he studied The Art of War. The book even gave him the inspiration for his famous battle standard "Furinkazan" (Wind, Forest, Fire and Mountain), meaning fast as the wind, silent as a forest, ferocious as fire and immovable as a mountain.

The translator Samuel B. Griffith offers a chapter on "Sun Tzu and Mao Tse-Tung" where The Art of War is cited as influencing Mao's On Guerilla Warfare, On the Protracted War, and Strategic Problems of China's Revolutionary War and includes Mao's quote: "We must not belittle the saying in the book of Sun Wu Tzu, the great military expert of ancient China, 'Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a thousand battles without disaster.'"

During the Vietnam War, some Vietcong officers studied The Art of War, and reportedly could recite entire passages from memory. The Department of the Army in the United States, through its Command and General Staff College, has directed all units to maintain libraries within their respective headquarters for the continuing education of personnel in the art of war. The Art of War is specifically mentioned by name as an example of works to be maintained at each individual unit, and staff duty officers are obliged to prepare short papers for presentation to other officers on their readings.

Applicability outside the military

Since at least the 1980s, The Art of War has been applied to fields well outside the military. Much of the text is about how to fight wars without actually having to do battle: it gives tips on how to outsmart one's opponent so that physical battle is not necessary. As such, it has found application as a training guide for many competitive endeavors that do not involve actual combat.

The book has gained popularity in corporate culture; there have been a variety of business books written applying its lessons to "office politics" and corporate strategy. Many Japanese companies make the book required reading for their key executives. The book is also popular among Western business management, who have turned to it for inspiration and advice on how to succeed in competitive business situations. David Young, leader of the 2007 Writers Guild of America Strike, has studied text with "deep attention" in order to apply its tactics and strategies to union struggles.

The Art of War has also been the subject of various law books and legal articles on the trial process, including negotiation tactics and trial strategy.

It has also crept its way into sport: Australian cricket coach John Buchanan handed out excerpts from the book to his players before a match against England in 2001, and the book is allegedly a favorite of University of South Carolina football head coach Steve Spurrier.

Former Brazilian football coach, and current coach of the Portuguese national football team Luiz Felipe Scolari uses the book to plot his football strategy. In the 2002 FIFA World Cup he gave each of his players copies. In the recent 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany he used the book to plan his team's win against England. Most recently (September 2007), it has crept its way onto the small screen - participants in the popular TV Reality show Survivor: China have been given a copy, as a source of strategy and advice for the tribes.

It has found use in political campaigning as well; Republican election strategist Lee Atwater claimed he traveled everywhere with it.

Some have also interpreted The Art of War as providing methods for developing social strategies, such as social relationships, maintaining romantic relationships, and seduction. The book stresses subtlety and always making it appear like one is trying to achieve something other than one's actual intention.

The use of individual quotations from the book as a source of fortune cookie-like proverbs and not seeing the general coherence of the text has been criticized by many scholars of Chinese history.

The book has also gained influence among players of strategy games, including TCGs, collectible miniatures games, and real-time strategy games.