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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

The Art of War by Sun Tzu


I finished this book in July 2023. I recommend this book 9/10.

Read this book if you are looking for one of the oldest strategies for war, managing people, and keeping your head cold.

Get your copy here.

My notes and thoughts:

  • P5. Laying plans:

    • The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.

    • These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

    • The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

    • Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.

    • Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

    • The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness.

    • By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.

    • These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail.

    • Therefore, in your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison, in this wise:—

    • (1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral law? (2) Which of the two generals has most ability? (3) With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth? (4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? (5) Which army is stronger? (6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained? (7) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?

    • By means of these seven considerations, I can forecast victory or defeat.

    • All warfare is based on deception.

    • Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

    • Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

    • If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in the superior strength, evade him.

    • If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

    • If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them.

    • Attack him where he is unprepared; appear where you are not expected.

    • These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.

  • P9. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.

  • P11. In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

  • P21. The army march:

    • Camp in high places, facing the sun. Do not climb heights in order to fight. So much for mountain warfare.

    • After crossing a river, you should get far away from it.

    • 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.

    • If you are anxious to fight, you should not go to meet the invader near a river which he has to cross.

    • Moor your craft higher than the enemy and face the sun. Do not move upstream to meet the enemy. So much for river warfare.

    • In crossing salt marshes, your sole concern should be to get over them quickly, without delay.

    • If forced to fight in a salt marsh, you should have water and grass near you and get your back to a clip of trees. So much for operations in salt-marches.

    • In the dry, level country, take up an easily accessible position with rising ground to your right and on your rear, so that the danger may be in front, and safety lie behind. So much for campaigning in flat country.

    • These are the four useful branches of military knowledge which enabled the Yellow Emperor to vanquish four several sovereigns.

    • All armies prefer high ground to low and sunny places to dark.

    • If you are careful of your men, and camp on hard ground, the army will be free from disease of every kind, and this will spell victory.

    • When you come to a hill or a bank, occupy the sunny side, with the slope on your right rear. Thus, you will at once act for the benefit of your soldiers and utilize the natural advantages of the ground.

  • P26. If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual.

  • P27. Energy:

    • Sun Tzu said: 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.

    • Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.

    • To ensure that your whole host may withstand the brunt of the enemy’s attack and remain unshaken—this is effected by maneuvers direct and indirect.

    • That the impact of your army may be like a grindstone dashed against an egg—this is affected by the science of weak points and strong.

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

    • Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they appear away to return once more.

    • There are no more than five musical notes (12 in the Western world today), yet the combinations of the five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.

    • There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.

    • There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.

    • In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack—direct and indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers.

    • The direct and indirect lead onto each other in turn. It is like moving in a circle—you never come to an end. Who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?

    • The onset of troops is like a rush of a torrent which will even roll stones along in its course.

    • The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.

    • Therefore a good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision.

    • Energy may be likened to be bending of a crossbow; decision, to be releasing of a trigger.

    • Amid the turmoil and tumult of battle, there may be seeming disorder and yet no real disorder at all; amid confusion and chaos, your array may be without head or tail, yet it will be proof against defeat.

  • P31. Weak points and strong:

    • Sun Tzu said: 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.

    • By holding out advantages to him, he can cause the enemy to approach of his own accord; or, by inflicting damage, he can make it impossible for the enemy to draw near.

    • If the enemy is taking his ease, he can harass him; if well supplied with food, he can starve him out; if quietly encamped, he can force him to move.

  • P32. If we do not wish to fight, we can prevent the enemy from engaging us even though the lines of our encampment be merely traced out on the ground. All we need to do is to throw something odd and unaccountable in his way.

  • P33. The spot where we intend to fight must no be known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points; and his forces being thus distributed in many directions, the numbers we shall have to face at any given point will be proportionately few.

  • P33. For should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.

  • P33. Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks; numerical strength, from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us.

  • P33. Knowing the place and the time of the coming battle, we may concentrate from the greatest distances in order to fight.

  • P33. But if neither time nor place be known, then the left wing will be impotent to score the right, the right equally impotent to succor the left, the van unable to relieve the rear, or the rear to support the van. How much more so if the furthest portions of the army are anything under a hundred LI apart, and even the nearest are separated by several LI!

  • P37. Maneuvering:

    • Sun Tzu said: 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.

    • Thus, to take a long and circuitous route, after enticing the enemy out of the way, and thought starting after him, to contrive to reach the goal before him, shows knowledge of the artifice of DEVIATION.

    • Maneuvering with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous.

  • P39. Let your rapidly be that of the wind, your compactness that of the forest.

    • In raiding and plundering be like fire, is immovability like a mountain.

    • Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.

    • When you plunder a countryside, let the spoil be divided amongst your men; when you capture new territory, cut it up into allotments for the benefit of the soldiery.

    • Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.

    • He will conquer who has learned the artifice of deviation. Such is the art of maneuvering.

    • The book of Army Management says: On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.

    • Gongs and drums, banners and flags, are means whereby the ears and eyes of the host may be focused on one particular point.

    • The host thus forming a single united body, is it impossible either for the brave to advance alone, or the cowardly to retreat alone. This is the art of handling masses of men.

  • P40. A whole army may be robbed of its spirit; a commander-in-chief may be robbed of his presence of mind.

    • Now a soldier’s spirit is keenest in the morning; by noonday it has begun to flag; and in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp.

    • A clever general therefore, avoids an army when its spirit is keen, but attacks it when it is sluggish and inclined to return. This is the art of studying moods.

    • Disciplined and calm, to await the appearance of disorder and hubbub amongst the enemy:—this is the art of retaining self-possession.

    • To be near the goal while the enemy is still far from it, to wait at ease while the enemy is famished:—this its the art of husbanding one’s strength.

    • To refrain from intercepting an enemy whose banners are in perfect order, to refrain from attacking an army drawn up in calm and confident array:—this is the art of studying circumstance.

    • It is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill.

  • P43. Variation of tactics:

    • There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must be not attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.

    • 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 unversed 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.

    • Hence in the wise leader’s plans, considerations of advantages and of disadvantages will be blended together.

  • P45. Terrain:

    • Ground which can be freely traversed by both sides is called accessible.

    • With the 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.

    • When the position is such that neither side will gain by making the first move, it is called temporizing ground.

    • In a position of this sort, even though the enemy should offer us an attractive bait, it will be advisable not to stir forth, but rather to retreat, thus enticing the enemy in his turn; then, when part of his army has come out, we may deliver our attack with advantage.

  • P48. The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.

    • Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.

  • P55. Thus the skillful general conducts his army just as though he were leading as single man, willy-nilly, by hand.

    • It is business of the general to be quiet and thus ensure secrecy; upright and just, and thus maintain order.

    • He must be able to mystify his officers and men by false reports and appearances, and thus keep them in total ignorance.

    • By altering his arrangements and changing his plans, he keeps the enemy without definite knowledge. By shifting his camp and taking circuitous routes, he prevents the enemy from anticipating his purpose.

    • At the critical moment, the leader of an army acts like one who has climbed up a height and then kicks away the ladder behind him. He carries his men deep into hostile territory before he shows his hand.

    • He burns his boats and breaks his cooking-pots; like a shepherd driving a flock of sheep, he drives his men this way and that, and nothing knows whither he is going.



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