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On The Science of War

The synopsis of “The Science of War: Weapons” states, “The art of war, according to Sun Tzu’s 2,000-year-old text of the same name, is largely a matter of strategy, but the science of war begins squarely with weapons.”

Incidentally, Sun Tzu never said anything of the sort.

Sun Tzu was a strong advocate of innovation as detailed in Ch. XII, “The Attack by Fire,” where he extols the spirit of enterprise. As for “largely a matter of strategy,” he actually emphasized a number of core principles, including but not limited to: deception, concentration of force, flowing like water to the weak point, attacking a weak point with maximum force, cultivating combined energy, building momentum through proper management and leadership, constantly shifting tactics in accordance with the tactical situation, and fierce attention to intelligence gathering.

It’s easy to think Sun Tzu wrote that war is largely about strategy when so much disinformation exists. My book, Sun Tzu for the Modern Strategist, seeks to clear up these misconceptions in the clearest and most direct manner possible.

A New Strategy

I’m going to be taking a new approach. Now that my book is actually written, and should soon be published as an ebook, I’ll be blogging more aggressively about Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and try to clear up a large number of misconceptions about what he wrote and what he did not.  These misconceptions are very widespread, but writing about them will enable me to demonstrate just how much richness exists in his writings, as humbly reflected in my own.

My final post on Chapter I of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” ends at the beginning: Sun Tzu’s introduction to the chapter. As Japanese writing structure places the emphasis on the conclusion, not on the beginning, I feel that this is appropriate for an ancient Chinese work, as line-by-line translation contains many perils when trying to understand the crux, the core essence of the view presented.

Even though Sun Tzu himself was a general, he was also a manager. Even though Sun Tzu was not a sovereign, he was also a leader. Not a single word in “The Art of War” reflects a selfish view of himself; Sun Tzu wrote for the benefit of others, that others might benefit from his wisdom and bring benefit to their own sovereigns. Those worthy of this knowledge would grasp it; those unworthy would find these lessons as meaningless as slapstick comedy. Whatever benefits Sun Tzu gained personally from this knowledge were obtained solely as a result of bringing value to others.

Sun Tzu wrote,

“War is of vital importance to the state; hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

These words were written during the “Spring and Autumn Period” of China, thought of as a long transitional period between eras of dynastic unity and stability. In Sun Tzu’s time, he was of one of seven states vying for supremacy, dancing on the bones of what had once been a unified Chinese Empire. War was not simply a matter of defending the “Han” people against foreign invasion; Chinese fought Chinese in wars over land, wealth, and influence. Indeed, the rise of the great Chinese philosophies was as a result of brilliant men seeking to escape from the shackles of what they viewed as a sort of permanent quasi-anarchy.

In this “period,” lasting for centuries, war became an inevitability rather than an occasional plague. Previously, armies were led by the retainer thought by the sovereign to be the best suited for the job, strictly on a temporary basis. Thus, with war becoming more regular, an incentive was created for a small class of professional commanders – generals – who would lead the mass conscript armies into battle and increase their odds of success.

Even as the men themselves were conscripts, Chinese warfare already featured the chariot – mentioned in Sun Tzu’s writings but soon abandoned in favor of more conventional cavalry – and crossbows, even at a time centuries before the birth of Julius Caesar, even before the army of Alexander the Great brought the Persian Empire low and advanced as far as India before turning back. Armies were highly sensitive to morale; desertion was a constant fear which Sun Tzu spent a significant number of words addressing, seeking to use generalship and circumstances to reduce this ill as much as possible rather than simply crack the whip more.

This is the context in which Sun Tzu wrote the above introduction. To him, war was not the health of the state; war was the potential death of the state, a cataclysm similar to a national heart attack that needed a general to perform CPR and save the nation from defeat and collapse. Even in “victory,” survival usually meant a massive expenditure of men and materiel that impoverished the entire society, making observations better suited to Adam Smith than Napoleon.

Thus, in modern terms, Sun Tzu was wholly motivated by a single objective encompassing his entire strategy: delivering value to his stakeholders. To Sun Tzu, this meant to bring victory in the quickest, least bloody, least expensive, least ruinous manner possible. However, recognizing that ideals of victory that he held, such as winning without fighting, were most difficult to achieve in the real world, Sun Tzu devoted himself to understanding the variables of warfare (in this sense, his “constants” are not things that remain unchanged; they are rather, things that vary enormously, but which must be examined without fail or exception), the strategies that bring about victory, the fallibility of man, the blending of offensive and defensive tactics, adaptability to an infinite variety of circumstances with an infinite variety of tactics, and best practices for managing a large organization of human beings.

Sun Tzu’s stakeholders were:

  • His sovereign;
  • His army;
  • And the public at large of his nation.

This view of stakeholders was then, and is now, remarkable in its breadth.

Many believed then, and a good many believe now, that someone serving a particular leader should absolutely never regard this as “public service”; the individual serves that specific leader as a retainer, serving at his pleasure and leaving at his whim. Judging “the public” to be an amorphous mass with no single will that cannot and must not be valued anywhere nearly as high as the interests of the sovereign, this manner of retainer seeks to please his sovereign alone, only caring for the public to the extent that this is convenient for the sovereign’s interests. By the same token, the army is viewed as a tool; and if a tool is not used, what good is it? Therefore, the army must be used, period. Furthermore, the army must be used for the maximum advantage of the sovereign without any concern for the public at large.

Sun Tzu recognized this view as short-sighted, politically motivated nonsense. The inter-connectivity of all things – as consistent with his Taoist philosophy – makes plain that the sovereign may be the ruler of the people, but he is dependent upon them; the army may be a tool of the sovereign, yet it is dependent on both the sovereign and the people. Even in an autocratic, monarchical system,  to act without the interests of the people in mind is to act with disregard for the self, even when viewed in an entirely selfish manner. Indeed, even the much-maligned Machiavelli wrote about the good of the people, abandoning notions of republicanism to try and shape good behavior by appealing to the base selfish interests of political princes. (Not that he really succeeded in this.)

Thus, by keeping wars short, by eschewing glory-hound behavior in himself and counseling against it in others, and even by seeking to forage on enemy territory and capture chariots and re-purpose them for his own force, Sun Tzu acted in a manner narrowly tailored to helping those he viewed himself as having an obligation to hold dear to him, even though this assuredly meant delivering death, destruction and plunder to neighboring states. Even here, Sun Tzu sought to end wars quickly and with a minimum of fighting so as to minimize the damage to neighboring states, for what is the point of destroying the village to save it? …Particularly if it’s your sovereign who’s going to rule that village. It’s more like, “If you buy it, make sure not to break it.”

When Sun Tzu narrowed “The Art of War” to, well, the art of war, he knew exactly who his stakeholders were; he did not over-extend himself in trying to speak as to philosophy, economics, or other things. He dealt narrowly with what his specialty was, and in that supposedly narrow niche, discovered and propagated knowledge that can only be considered vast, flowing like a vast river rich in natural bounty. In doing so, Sun Tzu was not “simple,” but rather, concise; his writings contained vast knowledge boiled down to the minimum number of strokes on papyrus or cuts into a bamboo strip as required to convey it to those capable of absorbing the knowledge.

In seeking to learn from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” you should ask yourselves the following questions.

  • Who are your stakeholders?
  • Which stakeholders take top priority?
  • How inter-connected are your stakeholders?

This will assist you in assessing what is of vital importance to your stakeholders. After all, if you are managing a corporation, you would clearly regard your shareholders as those you are directly responsible to; yet your shareholders are indirectly dependent upon your relationship with your customers. Hence, to paraphrase Sun Tzu, customer relations are of vital importance to the modern corporation; on no account must they be neglected. When you understand how the idea works, this phrasing not only sounds good – it actually means something to you.

Or, to use my old adage from my time as a Japanese to English translator: Context is King. Really, all strategy is about putting things in proper perspective.

Like all good Asian ideas, it’s short and concise, it sounds simple, and it’s a lot harder than it sounds. It is also, like all good Asian ideas, richly rewarding, a river full of life and bounty, drawn from many tributaries but flowing with the force of a single unifying idea.

This is the essence of all strategy.

The Importance of Planning

Sun Tzu wrote,

“Now, the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.”

Note that in Sun Tzu’s time, temples, being large buildings full of noble purpose, were employed as military headquarters on the eve of marching out to campaign, so this is where plans were formed or at least, finalized.

“The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. “

This principle is easily summarized as: winners plan ahead. Even if winners are prepared to alter their plans according to circumstances, they nonetheless make plans to begin with; and all making of plans begins with a careful assessment of all the circumstances forming the background of a conflict.

To wit:

The Moral Law: The motivating factor behind unified collective action; the strength of overall leadershp.

Heaven: The times and seasons, the weather factors, the broad, over-arching environmental factors.

Earth: The specifics of the terrain as they apply to field operations.

The Commander: Who leads what force? What is his or her nature, or adaptability to circumstances?

Method and Discipline: Which side is more organized and better supplied? How strong is the organization?

These are the “Five Constants” of warfare as judged by Sun Tzu, being factors which must be assessed at the outset of any conflict to shed light on the relative strengths of both sides. After all, only a fool plans against an opponent with strength clearly superior to his own in the exact same manner as an opponent with strength weaker than his own. Also, it’s not just about the aggregate level of strength; it’s who is responsible for these strengths and weaknesses, what they are in detail, where those strengths and weaknesses lie, when those strengths are in effect, and thus, as a result of the preceding, why advantages or disadvantages exist. Only with this knowledge can strengths be evaded and weaknesses exploited in an intelligent, systematic manner.

A higher level of wisdom is to understand that the point of planning is not the formation of the plan. (I realize this will seem highly counter-intuitive.) The point of planning is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of both sides in this level of detail. This being done, the strategist can depart from the plan on the basis of knowledge, not ignorance.

“Knowing yourself” and “knowing your enemy” was not some sort of abstract Taoist mysticism to Sun Tzu; he was a general, not a philosopher. He wanted to know himself, and his enemy, in concrete terms of direct relevance to planning for victory in the most effective and efficient manners possible. Only by rationally assessing reality as it is, not as one wishes for it to be, can a person develop a strategy that has a firm basis. In this way, even if the means are not part of philosophy themselves, the end result feels like an extension of natural law.

After all, Sun Tzu counseled to be like water, following the path of least resistance, yet striking with the force of a raging torrent. This is the result of not so much the plan, as the depth of the knowledge that was obtained in the formation of one.

Some would call the title of this post the “most quoted” quote of Sun Tzu’s entire book. However, I dislike the emphasis many place on learning “The Art of War” through disjointed quotations. Chapter I has a significant section on deception, but readers of this isolated quote might never learn the context associated with it. Allow me to explain.

When Sun Tzu elaborates on deception, he begins:

“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.”

A reader might glance over this and be tempted to remark, “Well, that sounds easy.” It most assuredly is not.

When in a conflict against fellow human beings, the opponent is a fellow man; being a fellow man, he is familiar with the patterns that accompany readiness to attack, signs of inactivity, and indications of proximity or lack thereof. These are signs that armies and other large organizations give off without conscious thought or effort. While not every leader or strategist is well versed with the subtleties that accompany them, they are all familiar with the bold strokes that accompany an armored cavalry thrust from a General Patton, as one example. These are things that are hard to conceal, yet easy to detect.

Thus, something more is required. This is the role of deception.

Unable to simply show the enemy nothing, the strategist instead shows his opponent something that the opponent wishes to see and wishes to believe. Having shown something, but having shown this something in a way that creates a false impression, the enemy is seduced into deceiving himself.

I should point out right now that Sun Tzu, a man who strenuously preached the importance of benevolence and sincerity in a commander’s personal dealings – not only with his peers and his sovereign, but spies and others in uniquely vulnerable positions where trust is a greater commodity than money – in no way supported deception as a way of life in general. He supported the use of deception in war. This is a critical distinction.

Sun Tzu continued,

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

Why feign disorder? Feigning disorder works because of a simple, time-honored principle: if you look like a sucker, someone is going to try and “sucker punch” you. This is also true in martial arts. A skilled martial artist who deliberately puts up a false front, pretending to be “slow” – mentally as well as physically – and to be quiet and passive, can lure an aggressive, careless opponent into making a first move in a careless manner that leads to a thorough beating. Such things have been known to happen. This reaction – seeing weakness, and pouncing on it – is deeply ingrained “alpha male” behavior.

If the opponent attempts to exploit a false opening, it is he who becomes exposed.

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

Against an opponent who is secure in defense, the best strategy may well be to await the opponent’s attack. When the opponent leaves his secure position to do battle, he may then be assaulted. However, if the opponent is superior in strength to you, you are not obligated to do him any favors and fight him on terms favorable to him; indeed, much of Sun Tzu’s strategy is devoted to not fighting on terms favorable to the enemy, but to fight on terms favorable to you. Thus, an enemy superior in strength can be evaded.

As we can see, Sun Tzu constantly sees delivering value to his stakeholders as the objective of his strategy. SunT zu does not seek fame or fortune via courage that brings battlefield defeat. Every thought and every action is devoted to fighting war in the most efficient, effective manner possible, seeking to bring it to an end as quicky as possible.

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

Another deeply ingrained alpha male behavior is to take advantage of the weak. If an opponent is weak, he may be treated lightly and with arrogance. Like a cat playing with a mouse, the man in a position of advantage may seek to not only defeat his opponent, but to thoroughly humiliate his enemy in every respect. This search for a more satisfying victory leads directly to carelessness.

Humans naturally do a sort of triage when dealing with threats. If one opponent seems to be weak, that opponent is left aside while the measures are taken against the stronger opponent. (This is a strategy made famous on the reality television series “Survivor.”) When the only opponent on a field of battle seems weak, the tendency of an already prideful man is to boast, “I have no enemy here! I am peerless! This foe is no match of mine! I can defeat him any time I wish!”

By the same token, a man who is attempting to behave in a rational way, but who is prone to bursts of anger, can be provoked into highly aggressive actions (as befit his core nature) if he is sufficiently provoked. Not everyone with a temper can be lured in quite so easily, but those that can be will frequently make careless mistakes.

“If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.”

In the late stages of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, commanders were making decisions when having remained awake constantly over the course of three days. Fatigue – individual and organizational – is one of the leading causes of critical mistakes. Giving the enemy any unnecessary chance to rest and recover his mental strength is unwise. When able to deny the enemy rest, one should do so, for fatigue only makes his job much harder.

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

Now we get to the crux of the matter.

Someone learning “The Art of War” as a grouping of isolated quotations and passages would be tempted to read this and believe that it stands wholly on its own. It does not.

Your opponent is unprepared because you have deceived him. He does not expect you because you have irritated him, made him arrogant, and denied him the rest required for him to regain his senses and reconsider his vulnerable position.

When engaged in warfare, every large deception you make is built on every smaller deception you have already made. Having seduced the opponent into deceiving himself as to your strength, disposition, intention, activity, and location, you lead him around calmly and effortlessly as if leading a donkey via a dangling carrot. You show your opponent what he wishes to see, and he decides, purely by himself, that it is so; in this way, you deceive without ever having spoken a word to him, without ever having “lied” in the conventional sense. You have assisted him in lying to himself. Thus, believing his own overconfident conclusions, he is completely at your mercy.

Thus can superiority in numbers and other measurements of strength be brought low, purely due to recognizing that an army is led by a falliable human being.


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

I summarize this passage with a simple quote: Do not tip your hand.

Having entered through all this trouble to deceive one’s opponent, to tip one’s hand and announce one’s tactics to the enemy via word, deed, or spy, is not only fatal to deception, but ruinous because this allows the enemy to develop successful countermeasures. One does not have to lie to not tip one’s hand; the leader merely requires discipline to keep his cards close to the vest rather than flaunt them for all to see. Thus is secrecy preserved.

Thus is victory won where defeat would otherwise be certain. By the same measure, thus is a crushing victory won obtained, routing the enemy with less loss to one’s own side, rather than a narrow, hard-fought victory that could have been obtained through brute force alone.

This is how maximum value is delivered to stakeholders via the most efficient use of resources possible.

Sun Tzu wrote,

“According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one’s plans.”

Consider that this phrase emerges in a chapter on the laying of favorable plans for victory. Consider that generals throughout history, in times both modern and ancient, are reluctant to change their plans after having committed to them. Furthermore, changing one’s plans is usually interpreted by others as a sign of weakness, lack of preparation, and even laziness and stupidity. To alter the direction of a large organization is to encourage disorder in the ranks, lack of faith in the leadership at the top, and presents a muddled picture to stakeholders large and small.

Such considerations were not invented in modern times. If a general altered his plans, word of it would surely get back to the advisers of the sovereign; the general’s political enemies would pounce upon the change as a sign of unsteady leadership, hinting – or perhaps lobbying – that a change in command should take place so that someone else can have a turn at either implementing the original plan, or at forming a new plan without the taint of unsteadiness.

Why, then, does Sun Tzu write this?
Sun Tzu’s primary focus and overriding goal was to deliver value to his stakeholders: his sovereign, his soldiers, and the civilian population that sustained both his sovereign and his soldiers through taxation, which is simply a word for appropriating the labor and hard-earned money of the public. He was not in public service as a military professional for glory or the sake of history. He did not put blinders over his eyes. He saw, through the experiences of others as well and his own, a simple, salient fact:

Reality must intrude.

Even if one can be said to have a perfect plan, there can still be imperfect circumstances. To be so devoted to one’s plan as to never change it;  so in love with it, so wedded to it that it must never be altered in any way: this is to flagrantly ignore reality. War, among other activities, takes place in the real world, not on a chessboard. To lose a match at chess is to temporarily lose a few pawns until the next game. To lose in war means for many soldiers to die. To lose may even result in an entire state perishing. As Sun Tzu was well aware of, the dead cannot be brought back to life.

Sun Tzu’s message is to never be so committed to your plan that you are unprepared and unwilling to depart from your plan to take advantage of a genuine opportunity for victory that you did not, or could not, anticipate. Nor should the leader be unwilling to depart from his plan to avoid some great disaster that otherwise awaits him. To do otherwise is to allow stubbornness and recklessness to rule the self and condemn others to misery and loss. That is the opposite of delivering value to one’s stakeholders.

This also applies to “The Art of War” itself: never be so mesmerized by even this wonderful, rich book into thinking that it shall help you form plans that cannot and should not ever be altered according to circumstance. That would be wasting an important message from the original author.

Reality must intrude upon all plans. The wise strategist sees this as an opportunity.

Ebook preparations beginning

My original plans for this blog didn’t exactly proceed smoothly, but that’s because I’ve been exploring options and using a blog to act as a central location for most of my interests, The Modern Strategist. I’m planning to turn the posts here and other extended length sections on the first chapter of The Art of War into an ebook, probably for free distribution since I want people to read more of my work. So stay tuned.

Sun Tzu refers to “method and discipline” as the fifth constant, which refers to two separate things.

First, there is the process by which the organization is managed; this includes logistics, the science of getting resources from where they are gathered to where they are needed most, in addition to the process of communicating instructions and receiving feedback to manage the organization effectively.

Second, there is discipline, which is how the people are managed. For this, I will proceed directly to the passage that follows.

“In which army is there greater constancy, both in reward and punishment?”

Our modern world holds a common saying that reads: “No good deed shall go unpunished.” When an organization not only lets good behavior go unrewarded, but in effect, rewards bad behavior by its employees and managers, the effect is cancerous, crippling operations by removing the incentive for the rank and file to report problems up the chain of command, act on their own initiative to mitigate or eliminate problems before they become critical, and creating long-term resentment against the commander or executive’s leadership. This is a poor way to handle an organization.

As with taxes, punishing good behavior will result in less of it; rewarding good behavior will result in more of it. However, both rewards and punishments must be seen as consistent, or they will not be considered fair. A leader who is strict, but fair, will be respected where one who is indulgent or biased will not be. Even if a leader is loved, because he is liberal with rewards, a lack of consistency in enforcing his rules and punishing violations thereof will lead to contempt, and the organization can then be compared to a group of spoiled children, unfit for any practical purpose.

However, should a leader treat his subordinates with respect, rewarding the behavior he wishes to encourage with benevolence, sincerity, wisdom, and above all, consistency, he will not only be respected, but trusted and admired. This is a certain path to victory.