About five hundred years before some guy named Jesus said maybe we should be nice to each other for a change, another guy over in China set out to codify the methods of not being nice, and doing it really well. Sun Tzŭ had a lot of thoughts about war and its purpose. In his mind, war was a means to ensure the safety and prosperity of the people of a nation, and if that was at the expense of the people of another nation, well, so it goes.
In fact, throughout his writing, he comes up with argument after argument to support one of his primary tenets: fight the war in the other guy’s country.
For all that, Sun Tzŭ was not a big fan of fighting battles at all. In his opinion, the greatest generals would never become famous because they would rarely have to fight, and when they did they would already have manipulated conditions through espionage, subtlety, and misdirection, so that the battle was already decided before it was fought. The greatest general of all would never fight a single battle.
He also pointed out that war was expensive. He was a proponent of swift, decisive action, and advised that laying siege to a walled city was folly, and would only empty the coffers of your nation and cause undue suffering among the people, which in turn would undermine the security of your homeland. Instead, he advised swift and subtle action, finding something of value to the enemy that was less well defended, and attacking that instead, forcing your opponent to come out from behind his walls. If the enemy does not know where you will show up next, he will have to spread his forces thin, trying to protect everything. Sun Tzŭ advises not even trying to defend less valuable assets.
Are there lessons for the modern age here? The four years of carnage that was World War One run counter to everything The Art of War teaches. Today’s war on terrorism is less clear-cut. Certainly we are the larger force spread thin as we try to defend everything, yielding initiative. But even spread out, we are massive and can carry big hurt just about anywhere very quickly.
There are two other things in the book that stick out, however. The first is adaptability. The author (and subsequent commentators) lay out the principles of carrying out a successful military campaign, and getting the most from soldiers. Time and again, however, we are reminded that flexibility and creativity are critical assets. Sun Tzŭ also pointed out that direct confrontation is one of the last resorts for achieving your objective.
The second thing that sticks out is haunting, considering our current situation in Iraq. “In times of peace, plan for war. In times of war, plan for peace.” When the US military exceeded all expectations and swept into Baghdad, only to stand to the side as the city descended into civil disorder, setting the tone for all that has followed, undermining our authority and credibility, demonstrating an apathy toward law that has yet to be repaired, we saw what happens when you fail to plan for peace during a time of war. There was a period of two days when we had a (not guaranteed) shot at forestalling much of what has happened since. We could have been the undisputed good guys. We failed.
Some of the details in the book are not relevant anymore, and quite a few other people have done some thinking on the subject since. This work has the advantage of being brief, simple, and to the point. He did not say war was bad, he said it was expensive, and that it was best waged swiftly, or, better yet, without using armies at all. But once you have your army on, ou must know exactly what you want and where it is, understand the enemy and all his plans, and take the fight to him. If you are not certain, stay home until you are.