The Art of War: Summary & Review

the art of war book cover

The Art of War is the most famous book on war, strategies and “power moves”.
Sun Tzu is the Chinese ancient Machiavelli, and the book is as much on warfare as it is on mindsets.

the art of war quote

Bullet Summary

  • Only wage wars you can win
  • Make your enemy move like you want him to move
  • Don’t abandon your position until you can safely do so

The Art of War – Summary

About The Author:  Sun Tzu was born in 544 Before Christ, and sources disagree on the details of his life and whereabouts.
We know though that he was Chinese, and like was a general, military strategist, writer and philosopher.
He name is linked to this book, “The Art of War”, which has heavily influenced Eastern and Chinese military strategy and general philosophy.

Introduction

First of all, says Sun Tzu, war is a grave endeavor to undertake and should not be started without detailed consideration.
That’s why you should always start by gathering all the information available.

Detailed Assessment and Planning

The main message here is that not analyzing and not preparing well will lead to failure.
Sun Tzu describes the five fundamental factors, such as:

  • mission
  • climate
  • ground
  • command
  • methods

Failing to plan is planning to fail

Waging War

The chapter”Waging War” focuses on the costs of war.
This is a critical concept of The Art of War as Sun Tzu stresses that conflict is expensive and beating the opponent without conflict is always the best resolution.
If you must wage war, though, do it resolutely and as quickly as possible.

Everyone loses on long drawn out wars

Strategic Attack

Destroying your enemy is not the highest form of war achievement. Capturing and subduing without fighting is.
These are for Sun Tzu the best strategies of war:

  • Upset the enemy’s plans
  • Prevent the enemy from joining forces
  • Attack in the field

And worst of all, is to besiege walled cities.

Positioning

Before even moving you should think of avoiding loss.

An army should defend the existing positions until it’s ready and capable to forge ahead in safety.
Don’t move aimlessly, but learn to spot the opening that your enemy gives you. When you can spot a mistake, you can win with little costs and little strength.

You can conquer without being able to do it

Forces

Creativity is important to win wars, but unbridled creativity can be dangerous. Creativity must be bound to reality and used in conjunction with proven, working methods.
Than it becomes a force.

Weaknesses and Strengths

The idea of this chapter is to attack when and where your enemy is least prepared and able to defend.

Make the enemy hurry to fight you, and he’ll arrived tired. Appear where he doesn’t expect you, and you’ll catch him by surprise.
Hold positions that cannot be attacked and attack positions that undefended or hard to defend.

My Note:
This chapter was very good and in many ways it echoed the work of contemporary Robert Greene in “The 48 Laws of Power“.

Maneuvers

Direct conflict is dangerous and costly, but sometimes it’s necessary.

This chapter focuses on the logistics of war. It’s good, but I don’t think it’s going to be useful to a modern reader. 
One because a modern reader is not very likely to be a general, and second because if he actually is a general, war has changed dramatically since then.

Adapting to the Situation

Every situation is unique, but you can recognize familiar elements in any unique situation.
While we want to stay creative, we also want to adhere to proven methods that work.

Movement and Development

This chapter details the movement of an army. It might be more antiquated given modern warfare of rockets and airplanes, but some elements are still valid for infantry.

Some general rules, such as:

  • Camp on high terrain
  • Don’t climb high ground to fight
  • Move away from the river if you cross it
  • Attack when the army is halfway through crossing a river

Six Field Positions

This chapter looks at the different types of terrain and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
These are the six types of terrain:

  1. Accessible terrain
  2. Entangling terrain
  3. Temporizing terrain
  4. Narrow passes
  5. Precipitous heights
  6. Far away

For example, accessible terrain is easy to leave and to go back.
Entangling terrain that is easy to leave but hard to go back should not be used to launch an attack. Because if the attack fail it’s not easy for you to retreat to where you came from.

Nine Battlegrounds

Sun Tzu lists nine types of battlegrounds:

  1. Dispersive (own territory)
  2. Facile
  3. Contentious
  4. Open
  5. Intersecting highways
  6. Serious
  7. Difficult
  8. Hemmed-in
  9. Desperate

Fire Attack

There are five ways to use fire in war, says Sun Tzu says you can burn:

  1. Soldiers in their camp
  2. Storeages
  3. Baggage trains
  4. Arsenals
  5. Hurling fire among the enemy troops

Intelligence

The Art of War makes the point that there is no such thing is an objective reality, but different interpretations of it.

How close we interpret reality is a major element of winning or losing a war.
In a sense, all wars are wars of information.

My Note:
Sun Tzu was incredibly prescient here.

All wars are wars of information

Real Life Applications

Avoid wars whenever you can
This is not just for real, literal wars, but also verbal wars, legal battles and long standing “frenemies” relationships.

Only fight wars you can win
Don’t willingly enter into war that are difficult for you to win.

CONS

Translations Ruin It
With The Art of War there isn’t just the “simple” complexity of translating a (very) different language. But we’re talking about translating a different language of a different era. Modern Chinese is also nothing like Sun Tzu’s Chinese.

It Aged
Some principles of The Art of War stand the test of time and will keep standing the test of time for a long time to come.
But some other parts aged quite a bit.
For example, political strategies Bruce Bueno de Mesquita makes a compelling case that Sun-Tzu is perfect for despots, but not as good for democratic leaders (see “The Dictator’s Handbook“).

PROS

Deep Principles
Some principles, like don’t fight if you don’t have to and fight quite if you have to, are really good not just for war but for everyday life.
Same can be said for preparation.

The Art of War – Review

The Art of War is the military equivalent of what “The Prince” is for political machination: a landmark text.

“The Art of War” is not just military warfare though and it goes beyond, encompassing philosophy and life strategy.

When it comes to actual strategy, If I had to pick The 33 Strategies of War and The Art of War, I’d probably recommend the former to most readers as it applies better to social interactions.

But Sun Tzu is also a monument to human ingenuity and a piece of history in itself.

Read more summaries or check out the best book reviews.

Processing...
Scroll to Top